HAVING DONE MORE THAN MY FAIR SHARE of shopping in the interior of Mexico, whenever I travel there I expect to come across some beautiful things that I can never take with me. So as I stood in Casa Armida, a shop in San Miguel de Allende, transfixed by a gigantic carved retablo full of painted saints and soaring angels, a familiar voice kept murmuring in the back of my head: “Keep moving. You can’t afford it, and you can’t get it home.”
I had never seen anything like it. Each of its 23 saints and angels had been carved and painted individually, then placed in rows on hand-hewn ledges and columns. This magnificent wall hanging, made in the Mexican state of Michoacán, seemed like it would bring miracles and good fortune to my house and family; surely it would shower its blessings upon us. Best of all, it was eight feet high and four feet wide—just the size of the empty space above my fireplace.
When I strolled into Casa Armida, an amazing store stacked two stories high with hand-painted furniture, massive iron chandeliers, and one very old cannon, I thought I was only browsing. But I couldn’t leave without asking for the price of the retablo. The salesman quoted me a price of $600—less than I expected and no doubt a fraction of its value in the United States. Still, $600 is a lot of money for a piece of folk art. And though my truck was parked outside, I intended to bring back a cedar dining table I had seen on my last trip to the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo. I did not have room for both.
If your shopping in Mexico has been limited to border towns or the stalls near the cruise ship docks, you haven’t begun to explore the wonders—or dilemmas—that await you in the interior of the country. This is particularly true in the historic cities of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Dolores Hidalgo, three of my favorite shopping destinations. The area is easily reached via flights to nearby León, but since it is only seven hundred miles from the border on generally excellent highways, I prefer to drive. Armed with auto insurance and a map-filled road log from Sanborn’s (the best-known auto insurance company in North America for travel in Mexico), I have covered thousands of miles on these roads without incident (only during the day, of course; for safety reasons, you should never drive at night in Mexico). Along the way, I’ve seen some spectacular sights, and I’ve brought home purchases that air travelers can only dream about.
Sanborn’s can also help you get the car permit and tourist visa you need to go into Mexico. The crossing rarely takes more than fifteen minutes at the new Columbia Bridge, north of Laredo, where U.S. customs officials will likely remind you that American citizens are permitted just one $400 duty-free allowance every thirty days. But don’t let that stop you from shopping to your heart’s content. Under the General System of Preferences regulations, noncompetitive items—including almost all crafts, works of fine art, and handmade furniture—are duty free, as long as they are not meant for resale.
San Miguel is always my favorite place to start, and not just because of Casa Armida. One of the oldest and most beautiful cities in North America, San Miguel somehow maintains its provincial identity despite many tourists and foreign-born residents. Its flourishing arts-and-crafts scene features a wide selection of goods from all over Mexico, but the best deals are for local products. The light fixtures made of copper and etched glass or intricately punched tin are such a bargain that I always consider replacing every fixture in my house. Concha belts are also a steal, starting at $25 for leather belts with conchas made of alpaca, an alloy of nickel, copper, and zinc. Belts with sterling silver conchas (look for the official sterling stamp, .925) are two or three times more.
Less than an hour north of San Miguel, the town of Dolores Hidalgo has just as much to offer. Back in the early 1800’s, parish priest Father Miguel Hidalgo introduced the craft of ceramic making to this backwater region as a way for the local Indian population to escape poverty and serfdom. Talavera de Dolores, as their tiles came to be known, were modeled on the famous Talavera de la Reina tiles of Toledo, Spain, which had been imported by the Moors in the eighth century. A sturdy tile with intricate hand-painted patterns, the typical Talavera de Dolores is white and cobalt blue and sometimes has a dash of yellow, green, or red.
You can purchase the tiles at bargain prices directly from many small manufacturers in Dolores. My favorite is Talavera Juan Vásquez, in the middle of town at Puebla 56 and 58. The six hundred tiles and matching hand-painted sink I purchased there for $250 two years ago adorn my guest bathroom at home. (The same pieces—thanks to last year’s peso devaluation—would now cost about half as much.) In addition to what’s inside, you’ll find dozens of local artisans painting intricate designs on unfired vases in a courtyard behind the Vásquez family showroom, as well as a huge pile of rejected tiles for sale at less than a nickel apiece. Like most shops, Talavera Vásquez will ship to the U.S., though if you’re shipping tiles, you should order extras to compensate for possible breakage.
Ceramics was not the only craft Father Hidalgo brought to Dolores Hidalgo, whose name was changed from simply “Dolores” in his honor. A long tradition of wood carving still flourishes here. On the way into town from San Miguel you will find several furnituremakers with carved colonial furnishings, as well as centuries-old doors, ironworks, and some huge horse-drawn wagons. On this trip my favorite store, Muebles y Decoraciónes, had a cedar table even larger and more beautiful than the one I remembered from last time. It had double pedestal bases, weighed perhaps three hundred or four