Monthly Archives: March 2008

San Sebastian de Oeste, Jalisco, Mexico


We arrived in San Sebastian de Oeste on a Sunday after a holiday weekend so apart from a few stragglers hanging out in the town square the streets were deserted. So deserted that a couple of the local kids took advantage of the empty streets on this beautiful sunny winter evening and galloped bareback along the cobbled stoned streets on a couple of horses. Getting to San Sebastian was intriguing, it’s off the main highway down a 7km dirt track giving you no indication of what lies at the end of the road. Having gone there by recommendation with no prior research my expectations were not particulary high but at the end of the bumpy ride I was very excited to find myself in a magical old silver mining town.

Town Square

The town is beautifully preserved and sits high in the rugged hills of the Sierra Madre mountains. In the evening the air was crisp and heavy with the scent of the beautiful pine forests surrounding the village. Time seems to have stood still here, most of the buildings are at least 250 years old and everyone of them white-washed with some of the roofs dating back 16th century. Original stone pavements, plastered mud-brick walls, archways, attics, wooden and tile roofs; all constitute the town’s distinctive traits. The newer buildings are all built to blend into this UNESCO world heritage site. The town just screams to be explored and around each order you are greeted with beautiful stonewalled pathways leading to avocado orchards nestled in amongst mining haciendas and casas along the rivers around the edges of the town.

If you are lucky you might even get accompanied by a local guide. He is not very tall and pretty stocky looking with a mouth that goes from ear to ear but he is friendly enough. Just stroll past his doorway and he will accompany you over the old bridge along to the end of the town where you can get on some wonderful hikes. The guide doesn’t say much and lets you set your own pace and upon returning back through the town wags his tail and settles back down on the porch for a snooze.

Tour Guide San Sebastian Veins of silver were discovered by the conquistadors in these mountains in 1605, and by the mid-1700s it was a large colonial town of 20,000 with wealthy hacienda owners running the thirty silver mines. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 brought an end to the hacienda system with the last of the mines closed in 1921 and leaving the town to oblivion. The Hotel El Pabellón, on the plaza, used to be a fortress where silver shipments were stored while awaiting transport with turrets on all corners top guard the precious metals. One surviving turret is now a cozy nook in a popular bar. The banditos were such a problem a tunnel was constructed from a mine to the garrison to transport the silver so it could not be stolen enroute. As mining operations wound down, the structure was used to store grain.

Today the people living in these mountains support their families by running coffee and agave plantations, raising livestock and providing services for the tourists trickling in by bus, car and plane. The La Quinta organic coffee farm is run by Rafael and his wife Rosa who are the fifth generation carrying on with the tradition of planting, sowing, drying and roasting organic coffee. The store is right at the entrance to San Sebastian.

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GETTING THERE

For driving from Puerto Vallarta follow the highway towards Mascota, 15 minutes of which are made up of seven kilometers of dirt track through mountainous terrain. Shortly before arriving at the town there is an airstrip receiving excursionists who prefer to get there by air. Alternatively you can get the bus or tour with Vallarta Adventure .

Approximate distance from San Sebastián to:
Mascota 54 km 34 miles
Talpa de Allende 78 km 49 miles
Puerto Vallarta 64 km 40 miles
Guadalajara 265 km 165 miles

WHERE TO STAY

My top pick is Hotel del Puente, a 400 year old house managed by 19 year old Sergio Trujillo which has been in the family forever. It has a courtyard and 9 rooms of different sizes. Beautiful hotel and one of the cheapest in town for about $100 peso’s/ person with bathroom. To get there, heading east from the plaza, toward the lower bridge you will see the hotel. Other places include the Casita Alicia or some of the other hotels in town.

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Guanajuato City, Mexico


Guanajuato City, Mexico (pop: 80,000)

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I roam the streets taking in the sights and sounds. Most days the sky is a deep blue with the high desert plains providing a perfect temperature year round temperature. The knife sharpening man is here filling the streets with the sounds of a pied piper’s whistle and setting off a bark of a shaggy dog in guarding his rooftop. Within minutes there is a symphony of barks emanating from all the rooftops in the neighborhood. I continue to stroll through the streets trying to get to the El Pipila monument and enter the narrow, twisting alleys. I notice an arm waving at me at the end of an alley. It is pointing forward and then signaling to the left repeatedly until I realize what is happening…I am being given directions. That’s what I like about this place, people want to help out. The woman anticipated my confusion going down dead end alleys trying to reach Pipila and provided a helping hand (well arm). The same thing happened going to the Museo de las Momias by a man on a donkey. The city is has a dream-like quality, it set in a valley with houses draped across the surrounding hills in a startling and divine array of colors, the center is packed with churches, domes, colonial palaces, velvet clad mariachi bands and you can find many different types of live music on most nights. My favorite haunt was Cafe Zilch in the Jardin which has anything from bossa nova to Bach played by one of the bar owners Micheal, of the Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra. Everywhere you go whether it is exploring the carless alleyways looking at the enchanting houses with Escher like staircases leading to nowhere in particular or sitting in one of the many street cafes the feeling is the same – that of enchantment. And this is only above the ground…

Drop down the rabbit hole into the ancient and mysterious tunnels underneath the city and the fairy tale quality that is in the air in Guanajuato increases dramatically. The city was founded in 1557 as a silver mining town and is packed with baroque buildings plus the occasional surprise like the Dolores Mercado built by Gustave Eiffel. From any view the city painted in blues, yellows, pinks just brings a smile into your heart. Stray from the compact city center into the narrow alleys leading up the hills and you will find a wonderland of houses and twisting alleyways so narrow that the mind boggles on the mechanics of furniture removals. Donkeys are used for carrying goods up the alleys and men carry back breaking amounts of bricks on their backs up the steep cobble stoned streets. At all times of the day and night the streets are packed with people including the music students who grace the streets and bars in the evening playing live jazz or just plain old ranchero mariachi music. This is a city that does not even have to try hard to charm. There are no traffic lights in the streets as most of the traffic goes under the city into the ancient subterranean labyrinth constructed to channel the main riverbed. This continues to be expanded by blasting out the rock but this is less dramatic than in the 19th century when entire city floor with it’s streets, churches, houses had to be raised 20 feet. If you go to the Templo de San Diego you can see how this was done. Today some opportunistic locals hang out in the tunnels charging a small fee for the tourists who dare to drive into the city and subsequently spend hours lost in the tunnels.

The city is brimming over with legends and history. During the quest for independence against Spain Pipila a local silver miner crawled into the corn exchange with a paving slab on his back with fire burning to ambush the building for Dolores Hildago and his men to fight. Hildago and the three other leaders of the revolution – Hidalgo, Allende, Jiménez and Aldama were executed in 1811 and their decapitated heads were put on the four corners of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato, intended as a way to intimidate the insurgents. These stayed on display until 1821, when Mexico finally won its independence.

IMG 6857Putting this bloody history behind everywhere you walk you will be reminded of the patron of the city, Miguel De Cervantes and his famous Don Quixote. During October the city hosts one of the biggest Latin American arts festivals, the Cervantino festival a fitting place seeing as this town was also the birthplace of Diego Rivera where his house is now one of the many museums in the city.

I came here to learn Spanish and was lucky enough to select La Escuela Mexicana owned by the adorable Hayde. This school blows the main competitors out of the water with many students leaving the other schools to come to this progressive school which is cheaper and has a quality of teaching second to none. I was there for three weeks and had many different teachers at this beautiful school set in an old, restored house right in the heart of down-town. The school has many students that return year after year and puts on lots of extracurricular activities like Salsa, hiking, trips to other towns like San Miguel or Dolores Hildago home of amazing ceramics.

GETTING THERE The closest airport is the Léon-Guanajuato International Airport (BJX); from there, either take a taxi (15 minutes). Don’t bring a car as you don’t need one – this is a walking city.

WHERE TO STAY There are plenty of places whether cheap hostels or hotels.

OTHER INFO New York Times Article


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