San Sebastian del Oeste, A Mountain Renaissance
Published May 30, 2008 - (Updated Aug 30, 2013)
For decades, visitors braved hours of perilous travel along rutted dirt roads to reach the largely unspoiled paradise we call San Sebastián del Oeste, a former silver mining town. A landing strip suitable for small aircraft moderately increased exploration possibilities, but it wasn’t until the completion of a paved road connecting Puerto Vallarta with Talpa de Allende and subsequently with Guadalajara two years ago that traveling through the mountains became a feasible day trip or overnight option for Vallartenses. The missing link — a paved stretch from La Estancia to San Sebastián — is virtually finished, reducing travel time to about 90 minutes from Puerto Vallarta, opening the floodgate for thousands of visitors who can now experience a town as close to Old Mexico as it gets. For those living in this secluded paradise 4,900 feet above sea level, the inevitability of progress brings forth a complex challenge: Can San Sebastián find a renewed sense of purpose and regain prosperity akin to that enjoyed during its mining heydays while still holding on to its traditional heritage?
San Sebastián's humble origins go back to the early 1600s, when plentiful silver ores were discovered in the region. With silver quickly becoming the town's most valuable asset, San Sebastián thrived through the years, peaking during the early 1900s with a population of over 20,000 people. And yet, San Sebastián and its citizens remained mostly self sufficient during this period. With the exception of a few items — fabric among them — brought in via a primitive path system that connected the town with larger cities such as Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta, just about everything its citizens needed to live was manufactured, harvested or produced locally. Indeed, its mountainous surroundings practically concealed the town, its urban development virtually unaltered.
With the advent of Mexico’s 1910 revolution and the depletion of its mines, San Sebastián’s prosperity began a steady decline. The town took a substantial blow during the 1950s, when the first vehicular trails began connecting it with more prosperous cities, luring its youth to seek better employment elsewhere. By the beginning of the 21st century, San Sebastián’s population barely reached 1,000.
Today, new initiatives have come forth among San Sebastián’s inhabitants to propel its renaissance, such as cultural and musical festivals, along with constantly increasing dining and lodging options. Chances are that, upon discovering this enchanting town, you will reach out to one of the many friendly locals as if connected by an invisible thread and remark something like “Whatever it is you do here, please protect and preserve as much of this town as you can!” You won’t be alone in your plea. UNESCO is currently considering adding San Sebastián del Oeste to the list of World Heritage sites, an international treaty established in 1972 to preserve natural and cultural heritage worldwide.
UPDATE: In 2012 San Sebastián joined the prestigious group of Pueblos Mágicos, as determined by Mexico's Secretary of Tourism. Pueblos Mágicos are a select group of destinations that exemplify Mexico's traditions through history, gastronomy and culture, among other things.
- Comfortable walking shoes, jeans and a sweater. Remember, you will be over 4,900 feet above sea level and evenings can be chilly.
- A full tank of gas. Although there are several PEMEX stations along the road, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Fortunately (for some of us!), there is little to do in San Sebastián beyond resting and taking in life at a much slower pace than usual. That said, consider the following options:
- Visit the Temple of San Sebastián, built in 1608, right on the main square.
- Sample Café de Altura at the town’s entrance, a coffee plantation run by Rafael Sánchez Alvarado, where you can purchase delicious coffee and mocha blends.
- Drive your all-terrain vehicle to the top of El Cerro de La Bufa, where you will enjoy a crystalclear view of Banderas Bay.
- Visit Hacienda Jalisco, a restored hacienda where longtime expat Bud Acord has greeted a cast of luminaries since the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton years.
- Discover World Heritage sites in Mexico by visiting UNESCO’s website at whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/mx.
Walter and Coco’s legendary Italian cuisine will have you craving seconds and, possibly, thirds. Thin-crusted pizzas, homemade pasta, and much more.
Traditional Mexican food in a comfy, restored home.
Right on the main plaza, a perfect place for an al fresco breakfast and people watching.
Hotel del Puente
Charming, basic and extremely affordable, this is the place to stay if you are on a budget. ~ (322) 297-2834
Hacienda Esperanza de la Galera
Cozy bed and breakfast with a built-in fireplace in each room. ~ (322) 297-2952 • www.haciendaesperanza.com
La Galerita de San Sebastián
High-end eco-retreat featuring a traditional old-style kitchen, and the only place in town at this stage where, if you must, you can hook up to a high-speed wireless Internet network. ~ (322) 297-3040 • www.lagalerita.com.mx