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Discovering Nayarit's Interior

The Bear Goes Over the Mountain

There's something about a jaunt into rustic Mexico that restores me. Most times the journey is as important as the destination. That sounds philosophical, but in reality, it's more practical than anything. Once you get to your rather remote destination---or not remote, perhaps, but slumbering along unimpeded by foreign tourism---there's often not much to see. So I try to keep expectations low.

So if there's not much to see or do: why go, you ask? It's more of a bear-goes-over-the-mountain approach: to see what I can see---and feel. I could have many similar experiences if I stayed at home --- if I took the time to stop and smell the roses. It's just easier to do when away from one's usual routine. And of course it's always fun to climb into the car (or on the bus) and explore unknown destinations.

I recently went with my Mexico Guru partner, Pat, on a three-day trip to the foothills of the Sierra Pajarito and the Sierra Madre del Sur, in southeast Nayarit state. I'd wanted to visit Laguna de Santa María del Oro, a volcanic crater lake, for a long time. Pat had heard about the hot springs at Amatlán de Cañas from her friendly neighborhood peanut vendor. So we decided to skip nearby Tepic and do a two-night, three-day jaunt to less-visited parts of Nayarit, including Ixtlán del Río, the nearby pre-Hispanic ruins at Los Toriles, and colonial Jala as well as Amatlán and Santa María del Oro lake. We reserved a nice cabin at Santa María Resort for the second night, but took off without reservations for the out-of-the-way, Mexican tourist destination of Amatlán de Cañas.

The ride into the interior of Nayarit state proved a nice change of climate from our base in tropical San Blas. Green pastures and rolling foothills are interspersed with fields: Nayarit is an agricultural state. A temperate climate and volcanic soils produce excellent conditions for growing corn, beans, and squash as well as sugar cane, peanuts, garbanzos, citrus fruits, and a variety of table crops.

Brief Journey to Ixtlán, and Beyond

We stopped in unassuming Ixtlán (perhaps the village referred to in Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlán) for a lunch of disappointingly tough carne asada. Still, it was a chance to sit in the cool interior of an old adobe, sip a cold drink, and befriend a tiny boy full of questions. After lunch we simply wandered around town, getting slightly lost among the businesses lining Ixtlán's main street and the houses in a cacophony of colors along the side streets. After locating our ride near where we'd eaten lunch, we continued through town to Los Toriles.

The partially restored remains of this West Coast culture aren't spectacular, but certainly worth a visit if you're in the area. Set at about 1,219 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level, it offers a few restored altars and temple platforms and some beautiful and intact ceramic figures rescued from area shaft tombs.

As the sun passed its zenith, Pat and I headed down into the river valley in search of the day's final destination: Amatlán de Cañas (http://www.mexicoguru.com/amatlan.php). This is not the type of place you see written up in guide books. It's out of the way. Accommodations range from dumpy to plain to something slightly more impressive. Most of the tourists are Nayarit state natives.

Homely Hot Springs, and Jala

We checked in at Bungalows Los Pavorreales, about the nicest digs in town and 450 pesos per night (after a brief negotiation). We swam in the hotel's cold pool (no hot springs here) that evening and, early the next day, headed one street over, to the hot spring bathing facilities for which the town is known. All are family-oriented and frankly, rather dilapidated. But the water is hot (with pools of varying temperatures) and, supposedly, healing. After drying off we headed immediately for one of Amatlán's unassuming restaurants, settling for instant coffee along with hot-off-the-griddle tortillas and scrambled eggs.

Back in the car after less than 24 hours in this peaceful town near the Jalisco state border, we headed for Jala, just north of Ixtlán and on the way to the lake. We headed first for the church. The front door was locked, so along with some other disappointed pilgrims, we went around to the side of the complex and interrupted the priest's lunch. He opened the door with an enormous key and obligingly let us in to wander around unsupervised to admire the colorful, single-nave church and its many saints, ensconced in side niches.

Colonial Jala is in the process of sprucing itself up in the hopes of attaining status as a Pueblo Mágico de México. During our brief visit the streets were torn up and there was dust in the air. After admiring the church and some of the restored older homes lining quiet streets, we stopped to chill with some limonadas at a little restaurant in the central plaza's below-ground kiosk. Enormous plates of classic Mexican dishes were being consumed by a foursome of local teens, and when we asked what was good, they assured us that everything was. Pat and I chatted with the kids about the weather and other trivialities before heading for our final---and most luxurious---destination.

Lakeside Lodgings

Laguna Santa María del Oro is a crater lake about 45 kilometers (27 miles) from the Nayarit state capital. Since our lodgings at the Santa María Resort were on the pricey side, Pat and I decided to spend the afternoon enjoying the resort (as opposed to circumnavigating the lake in full-on investigative journalist mode). We swam in the lovely pool, basked in the sun, and played cards and cribbage in the restaurant. There were kayaks to rent, but we were too mellow to explore.

From the property's cozy cabins to the full-fare restaurant to the lodge sitting areas, all of the structures are wood, and country style. Each comfortable room has a deck overlooking the expansive green lawn and semi-tropical plantings. It was a lovely treat to relax and enjoy the quiet mountain climate.

The next morning we managed to extend our stay by several hours in order to max out on pool time and a big breakfast overlooking the lake and the trees. Packing our small travel bags, my partner and I switched from Bear-Over-the-Mountain to Horse-Back-to-the-Stables mode, heading with determined haste to the coast. While we enjoyed our trip to rural Nayarit, there is, after all, no place like home.


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