Not far from the bright lights and sandy playas of Puerto Vallarta a historic Mexican village lies hidden in the bosom of the Sierra Madre mountains. A day-trip to this ancient mining town of San Sebastián is a pleasant contrast to the bustle of Banderas Bay’s main tourist attraction.
From Puerto Vallarta’s Aerotron airport it’s a 25-30 minute flight, “depending on the winds,” says our Vallarta Adventures guide Martín, an energetic young man who later would make me think of a walking encyclopedia of Mexico. The flight offers a bird’s-eye view of the Sierra Madre’s mountainous terrain, plummeting waterfalls, tiny rural communities, and agave plantations.
Or you can travel like I did, in an air-conditioned bus, for a relaxing hour and fifteen minute ride through the countryside of the state of Jalisco, past corn and agave fields. “The mariachi and tequila are the two products from Jalisco,” says Martín. Along the roadside, yellow daisy-like flowers called margueritas are in bloom.
A mile before arriving in the town of San Sebastián we stop to visit the famed Hacienda Jalisco. Martín says, “The word hacienda comes from ‘hacer’, where something is made.” He introduces us to Juan, a hacienda guide, who describes the historic significance of this charming place. While we listen to Juan, we stand in a shady colonnade that extends the length of the front of the main house. At one time there were seven haciendas in this area of silver mining, but most have fallen into disrepair. Hacienda Jalisco, circa 1850, was an important center of mining operations.
The historic Haicenda Jalisco.
Juan points across the yard to a stone wall of outdoor ovens where silver was melted to be formed into bars for transport. These activities ended with the Mexican revolution in 1910. Workers ran away, and during the subsequent eleven years of war, most of the furnishings were looted. The hacienda remained abandoned until California artist Bud Acord purchased it 35 years ago. He restored it to its original state—electricity has never been added—and hosted the likes of Puerto Vallarta film pioneers John Huston, Peter O’Toole, Taylor & Burton. Today it’s rumored that silver is still to be found in the surrounding hills, buried by former mine owners who feared bandidos; the owners never returned to claim it after the revolution.
The ancient silver smelting kilns.
Three-foot-thick adobe walls make the interior of the house a cool refuge. From the tiled floors, walls of chipped and faded fresco paintings rise to tall ceilings. The ground level contains a combination library/dining room (now a museum), servant’s quarters and a kitchen. Upstairs are five pension bedrooms, complete with oil lamps.
Collonades and thick adobe walls
keep the Hacienda cool all day.
Heavy wooden doors and shutters are carved from local pine. In the library/dining room/museum are paintings, several small Persian carpets, reproduction furniture, a built-in bookcase, and a corner fireplace. Archeological artifacts found on the grounds and now on display include ceramics and bottles, masks and bowls. A 19th century ledger from the mining company that originally owned the hacienda, each page at least 20” x 24”, lays open on the table, revealing hand-written entries in a script embellished with graceful loops and swashes. Next to it rests an even larger book, a historic Atlas from 1885. Displayed nearby is the requisite museum sign, “no tocar.”
Juan steps aside so we can peer down into a cava — a tiny room below the house, just 80 square feet—for storing wines. We visit the cocina and are introduced to the bar, a long table set up outside on the terrace. Someone asks about ghosts, and Juan, who has lived at the hacienda for 8 years, admits that white ghostly images of fantasmas have been seen. Voices are heard on the stairs, in other rooms, in the kitchen, when no one is there. Sometimes the smell of cigar smoke when no one is smoking. Once a maid saw fire inside the outdoor silver smelting ovens. There are only three workers, including Juan, so everyone knows each other, knows where the others are most of the time.
The Hacienda's bar may serve ghosts.
“Night and day we have heard crying and all the dogs bark and no one’s there.”
Juan smiles when he tells these stories and assures us that no one is afraid of the fantasmas.
Hacienda Jalisco is only seven acres and includes a small coffee plantation. Near the main house is a smaller house where señor Acord lives year-round. We ask if we can meet him, and are told that he is taking a siesta.
Leaving Hacienda Jalisco, we soon see a sign that reads, “San Sebastián del Oeste.” We stop at a shop that fronts a coffee plantation where a 100% organic coffee, La Quinta “Mary”, is sold. From there we walk through narrow cobbled streets into the center of town. Martín makes a donkey call to gather his wandering tourist troop. In the plaza he tells us the history of San Sebastián.
The town is named for Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier who became the patron saint of athletes and soldiers after he survived being shot with arrows and left for dead and was subsequently beaten to death on the orders of the Roman Emperor Maximian.
Lilies worthy of Frieda Kahlo.
This is a traditional Mexican town of white-washed single, two and three-story buildings, bases painted terra cotta, with ironwork at windows and doorways. For 300 years San Sebastián thrived with income from the surrounding silver mines. The populace enjoyed the best perfumes, satins, and other imported goods. “People were very elegant here,” Martín says. “San Sebastián was called ‘The Paris of America.’” In the 1700s, at the height of prosperity, over 20,000 people lived here.
The church was built in the 1600s.
Today traditional businesses like the undertaker (Martín gestures to an elderly gentleman resting on his porch) serve the remaining population of about 600, homes are working class, and there’s “no more fancy stuff.” You can still see bullet holes from the revolution in the ceilings of the colonnade in front of shops.
Martín gestures to the church on the other side of the plaza. Built in the 1600s, when the church was the only government the people knew, its construction is more like a fortress than a cathedral. But inside are religious frescos in pale blues and golds and high windows at the base of the domed ceiling.
Inside the Casa Museo de Doña Conchita Encarnación, a 300-year-old house, town record books and handmade clothing passed down through her family are on display. A baptism dress of silk from China is 150 years old and has been worn by six generations.
Lunch is served in a comedor, or Mexican dining room, where long tables host family-style dining. The Comedor Lupita is named after the daughter of the owner. “This is a family business,” Martín says, pointing around the room. “There are the aunts, sons and nephews working.” Windows open to bouganvilleas, fluorescent in the sunlight, and fresh breezes. Overhead are skylights, ceiling fans, support beams and the underside of the tiled roof. A large vase of fresh lilies and gladiolas rests by the door to the kitchen.
First to arrive at the table is a huge pitcher of your drink of choice—berry-colored Jamaica or a pineapple and fruit mix. Martín assures everyone that water and ice are purified. We can eat all we want of the handmade corn tortillas, rice with corn and tomato, refried beans and machaca, served in heavy painted terra cotta crockery. “Whatever they are cooking today.” Today’s main dish is chicken with mole, a sauce consisting of twenty different ingredients and a chocolate base.
“When does a tortilla become a taco?” asks Martín with a grin. “When you add something to it.”
After lunch I wander outside to photograph the plaza’s central gazebo. It’s described as the “Porfirian style” since it dates from the turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century reign of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz. San Sebastián is a living testimony to Mexico’s colonial heritage and traditional way of village life. No hurry here.
San Sebastián has been called “the mining town that time forgot.” Secluded in a deep valley of the Sierra Madres, the access road has only been paved for the past few years. Before that, few visitors made the 2-½ hour car trip from P.V, and in the summer rainy season the road often washed out. Something to ponder as we siesta in air-conditioned comfort on the bus back to Puerto Vallarta.
San Sebastián is a museum where we can see how people lived and worked in remote mining areas of Mexico. Think cobblestone streets; carry a light sweater or jacket (elevation is 4,500 feet), sunglasses, and pesos only please (no credit cards here).
Feature and photos by Carolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Adventure Editor.