Originally settled in 1605, San Sebastian del Oeste is a secluded 17th century mining town which reached its peak of prosperity in the 1700s, when over 30,000 people inhabited the area. Over the years, the town’s population fluctuated wildly as gold and silver were mined intermittently between the 1600’s and the 1930’s; it now has around 600 permanent residents. Located at the foot of the Western Sierra Madre in West Jalisco, San Sebastian del Oeste, designated one of Mexico’s Magical Towns, is an hour and a half drive into the hills along winding country roads from Puerto Vallarta. The town is located in a pine forest and the air is crisp and clear.
By 1785 there were 10 gold and silver reduction haciendas and almost 30 mines in the area; the town became a city in 1812 and reached its peak in 1830. The mines stopped working during the 1910 revolution and the foreign companies moved elsewhere. The last mine stopped working in 1921. (http://www.puertovallarta.net/what_to_do/san-sebastian-del-oeste-mexico.php)
“The mines were, in part, responsible for the start of Puerto Vallarta. Then know as Las Peñas and consisting of just a few huts at the mouth of the Rio Cuale, it was used to supply the mines with salt which was taken by mules up to San Sebastian and other mines in the High Sierras and used in the smelting process. The silver and gold from the mines was sent, again by mule train, through Guadalajara and Mexico City to Veracruz, where it was sent, once a year, to Spain” (from PV Insider website).
Our driver picked us up from our casa at 10 am for our trip up to San Sebastian, and, after passing many mountain bikers panting slowly up the hills,
we stopped for breakfast at a local family restaurant in tiny Estancia to sample home-made quesadillas cooked on a fire in front of us.
Our next stop, just outside the town, was the Hacienda Jalisco, “built 225 years ago by the Spanish to hold and guard the returns of the myriads of mines of San Sebastian, in preparation for shipments to Spain”, as their website explains.
Now a guesthouse, the hacienda has a small museum of artifacts from its mining days on the first floor, as well as old photos of Elizabeth Taylor and John Huston, the luminaries whose presence here in the 1960s really kicked off Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding area as a tourist haven.
We strolled around the premises, snuck a look at one of the guest bedrooms, a high-ceilinged room with wooden ceilings and a big stone fireplace, and saw the aquaduct system and the remains of smelting chimneys still standing on the edge of the property.
Avocado trees, bougainvillea, and coffee are all grown here. There is no electricity, evenings are lit by oil lamps and candles, and there’s no telephone, life as it was in the Colonial era.
From the hacienda we made our way into the small town, currently in the process of being modernised, much to the chagrin of the older inhabitants, who are not interested in change.
Innovations such as a new entrance gate, newly paved sidewalks, new brick walls, and an entirely renovated town square, are evidence of the money the Mexican government is putting into its Pueblos Magicos program, designed to encourage and capitalise on tourism.
We had a look at the Hotel del Puente, purchased some churros pastry at a local bakery, then drove up to a local raicilla distillery.
Raicilla, home-grown moonshine, sort of a cross between scotch and tequila, is made from the agave plant, which distillers harvest from the surrounding hills and then process in what is essentially a small home alcohol still, consisting of clay ovens, big blue plastic barrels, copper pipes, and hoses.
Nothing was being cooked this day but I could smell the remnants of previous batches in the air. Home distilleries such as these have to be careful to pour off the first litre of distilled alcohol, since it is pure ethanol and will blind the drinker. Provided that the distiller only makes a certain small amount, this home production is legal.
Back in town, we sampled a draught of raicilla at the only cantina in town, located at one corner of the town square and full of local guys quaffing shrimp micheladas who had ridden in on bicycles and motorcycles.
From there we checked out the town church, the Town Hall with its still-functioning jail and graffiti-scratched walls, a jewelry shop with work by local artisans, and then had some delicious fajitas at a Mexican restaurant around the corner.
Full of fajitas, we then drove to the Quinta Mary coffee plantation, another former hacienda restored to a shadow of its former glory,
with two beautiful African blue parrots in a gigantic metal cage snacking on sunflower seeds,
and finally to the local cemetery, where colourful graves and a gigantic bougainvillea bush rest quietly on a hillside to the accompaniment of cattle lowing in the shade.
The experience of being in this town was a strange one. In a way it felt more like Switzerland than Mexico, with the cool temperatures, the mountains and the white of the buildings against the green hills.
For a town of 600 permanent residents, it has an quite a few restaurants and hotels, testaments to the increasing number of tourists who make their way here on day trips and overnighters. Like that strange Greek island I went to off the coast of Turkey, Castellorizo, this place, too, feels like a stage set, on which people are wandering about waiting for something to happen, something that is just around the corner but that actually never seems to arrive.
See more photos here.