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San Sebastian: A World Away in 15 Minutes

Published May 30, 2008 - (Updated Dec 21, 2012)

Until recently, I hadn’t had the pleasure of knowing this neat, former silver-mining town in the mountains that’s as pretty and peaceful as I’d imagined real traditional Mexico could be. I had long wanted to go there, especially in the summer because it’s about 12 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Puerto Vallarta. But dreading the arduous drive on rough, winding road, it didn’t happen until Vallarta Adventures made it easy and flew me there on their five-hour air expedition, which makes it possible for folks of all ages and stamina levels to have an experience of a lifetime and yet be back in Vallarta for afternoon siesta.

What a treat to get a bird’s-eye view of the lay of the land, dense ribbons of vegetation mirroring Sierra Madre climatic zones – initially sub-tropical with lots of palms, then thorn forest, followed by pines, oaks and walnut trees. I bet the Spanish, who took a hundred years – give or take – to get here from the coast, would have appreciated the 15-minute flight, too!

Landing on the newly paved airstrip, a bouncy bilingual guide takes a maximum of 13 on a leisurely stroll, showing the major points of interest and introducing residents eager to share their hometown’s history. And because it turns 400 next year, there’s a lot of it! Following a visit to a fascinating family museum where the elderly matriarch proudly shares her treasures, the tour culminates with a lunch of Mexico’s most popular dishes.

During its heyday in the 1700s, San Sebastian’s 30,000 population was bigger than even Guadalajara’s. But with the Mexican Revolution came the demise of the European-run mines. And today fewer than a thousand remain, anchored by the area’s agricultural tradition.

One family runs a generations-old coffee plantation, also growing indigenous tangy-sweet arrayan and limas, an orange-lemon hybrid – everything done the old-fashioned way. Resulting souvenir possibilities include the crystallized fruit candy and coffee that you get to sample on the tour.

Clean and tidy, San Sebastian’s adobe buildings are sparkling white, its mountain air alive with birdsong. With lots of roses and benches and a particularly ornate gazebo, its main square is one of the most inviting I’ve seen, its pastel-colored church exceptional, too.

Also noteworthy? The town’s sole “gas station” – a courtyard of fuel-filled jerry cans. But the road being built connecting San Sebastian with both Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara is bound to change that. So you might consider popping into this salt of the earth place before the 21st century has its way with it.

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