San Sebastian del Oeste
Text by Jane Onstott
Photos by Lisa Halderman
San Sebastian is one of those pretty little towns that I wish no one knew about but me. But with its wonderful climate---such a relief from the coastal heat and humidity---and the new paved road from Puerto Vallarta, this charming old mountain town is bound to increase in popularity...exponentially.
The first time I visited, in 2005, I jumped in my rental car and set out from Puerto Vallarta without consulting anyone on the state of the roads. Iím afraid of heights, cliff edges in particular, and by the time I got to town I was ready to throw up for sure, and in the worst case scenario, to slit my wrists so I wouldnít have to drive back down. About halfway up the twisty mountain road, Iíd actually become so paralyzed with fear that Iíd flagged down a pickup truck about to squeeze by in the opposite direction and paid one of the passengers to drive me the rest of the way to town. The muddy, narrow, cliff-hugging dirt road was just too terrifying.
After checking into a dignified old hotel right across from the square, I set off to walk the town. I was instantly befriended by a few fellow travelers---two young Mexicans and a French girl just up for the day---who invited me to join them at a tiny, unsigned fonda. Not hungry after the brain-jarring ride to town, I ordered Nescafe with milk to settle my nerves, while my new friends tucked into pozole and beef stew. Today newer, more fashionable restaurants are springing up to serve tourists. But these small dining-room restaurants in simple adobe homes of indeterminate vintage are cheaper and---for the even faintly adventurous traveler---even more fun to visit.
Exploring Saint Sebastian
A visit to the town matriarchís museum-home is definitely in order, although not terribly exciting. Right on the square, itís a hodge-podge of old memorabilia, from babiesí hand-stitched bloomers to vintage coins and paper money, black-and-white photographs and old letters. Entrance is just about 10 pesos, or USD$1.
Thereís not much else in town to visit, but the place itself seems like a museum to pre-modern Mexico. Many of the adobe homes are painted in the traditional white, with brick red trim and mossy red roof tiles. Days are often hot and sunny; in the early morning and just before sunset, lingering mists are burned off by the strong midday sun. At 1,550 meters (5,085 ft) feet above sea level, San Sebastian has a wonderful, robust mountain climate.
Walking outside town is a great idea as there are many beautiful vistas. Fruit trees hang their laden branches over tumbled garden walls of fieldstone. Stands of corn follow the contours of rolling hills; fields of agave in militaristic rows march up brown hills. Burros plod down dirt roads bearing loads that appear several times their weight.
Back in town in the late afternoon, I ran into the people Iíd met earlier in the day, and they kindly asked me to join them. But the setting sun seemed an indication that, in this farm-like setting, it was time for bed. I returned to my comfortably plain room and, after reading for an hour under the dim bulb dangling from the 12-foot ceiling, I fell into a dreamless sleep. After several sleep-deprived months wrestling with sweaty bedsheets down on the coast, a deep sleep under a mountain of blankets was probably the thing I most appreciated about dreamy little San Sebastian.
Back to the Coast
I hired a taxi driver to take me and my car down the scariest part of the road the next day. With him behind the wheel, it seemed almost doable, and I felt a little foolish for not driving myself. Still, it was a great relief to put myself in this fellowís more practiced hands. Dropping him by the side of the road past the most treacherous curves, I drove without incident the rest of the way back to Vallarta.
Several years later, I returned by car to this part of the world, and since my original visit the road has been vastly improved. Widened and well-paved, it now boasts a stout bridge where before Iíd had to ford a shallow but rushing stream (which just beyond the road became a waterfall that seemed to threaten with extinction anyone dumb enough to drive across it).
The improved road is a blessing, however it will surely bring modernity and high home prices to the mountain towns. People like you and me might prefer that time stand still for San Sebastian, but the townspeople are probably already planning their next trip to down to the coast, to Samís Club or a day at the beach.
By bus: From Puerto Vallarta, buses leave from the ATM station (Calle Lucerna 128, Col. Versalles, tel. 322/222-4816) three times or four times a day at around from morning to late afternoon. Itís a distance of around 100 km (60 miles). The bus stops first at La Estancia, where passengers bound for San SebastiŠn (11 km [7 mi] away) disembark, completing the trip by taxi.
SAN SEBASTIAN LOCAL LISTINGS