San Sebastian del Oeste offers a glimpse into old Mexico

San Sebastian-Puerto Vallarta

View from the midpoint out toward Puerto Vallarta.

As we wound up the narrow mountain road toward San Sebastian del Oeste, ascending higher and higher, the tropical vegetation around Puerto Vallarta gave way to fields of agave, corn and coffee plantations. The terrain became more rugged and pine trees dominated the landscape. From the new bridge suspended over a chasm that afforded a glimpse of the old highway, we gaped at a slim track clinging to the steep hillside over which mules and sturdy vehicles used to travel. Three or four years ago the 90 minute journey used to take up to four hours on the old dirt road, when it was clear of frequent landslides. In the 1950s the first vehicular tracks replaced the mule trails, but the journey was perilous and not for the faint of heart.

San Sebastian del Oeste

Town Square

San Sebastian Town Square

San Sebastian del Oeste is a historic mining town located at 4,500 feet, high above Puerto Vallarta, where the air is clear and cool. Because of the many examples of intact colonial architecture and historical significance the town is under consideration by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Several tour companies in Puerto Vallarta offer day trips to San Sebastian, and on a recent trip we availed ourselves of the opportunity to take a tour with Vallarta Adventures.  We met at their office in Marina Vallarta, boarded a bus and left the hustle bustle of the resort scene. Our spirited guide, Gustavo, spoke excellent English, was knowledgeable about the local history, and best of all, was a comedian, keeping us laughing at this well honed jokes.

Founded in 1605, San Sebastian del Oeste was once a major gold and silver mining center, producing vast riches that were sent to Spain via mule train through Guadalajara, Mexico City and Veracruz. Area mines  also produced lead and zinc. The tiny town of about 600 people clings to its heritage, surrounded by vestiges of a much larger settlement that used to contain 20,000 inhabitants.

The 30 mines that dotted the Sierra Madre played a key role in the growth of Puerto Vallarta, which supplied salt, a necessary component of the smelting process, using mules to climb the craggy topography. After significant operations between 1605 and the 1930’s the majority of the mines ceased operations, but some mining activity still takes place in the area.

Today, San Sebastian is a sleepy town with a few restaurants and shops that attracts tourists looking for a taste of old Mexico. The traditional town square surrounding a bandstand invites a stroll, while the old jail across from the square, unlocked and unattended, can be explored at will. Most visitors are attracted to the centerpiece of the town, the Temple of Saint Sebastian, an 18th century church built with roman and corinthian details, beautifully restored with abundant frescoes inside.  A highlight of the tour was a visit to a silver artist, a gentle soul who produced beautiful jewelry at reasonable prices, accompanied by his young son who was learning the craft at this father’s side.

Hacienda Jalisco

Hacienda Jalisco

Hacienda Jalisco

At the height of mining activity there were 10 gold and silver reduction haciendas in the area surrounding San Sebastian. One of them, Hacienda Jalisco, was discovered by American Bud Acord. He restored the hacienda, which became a favorite place to get away for director John Huston, of Night of the Iguana fame, and his family, including daughter Anjelica Huston. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were also guests of the hacienda, which now functions as a museum as well as a guesthouse.

The hacienda, built 170 years ago by the Spanish to hold gold and silver before being shipped to Spain, has thick walls measuring two feet and wooden shutters. The hacienda houses a vast amount of art, artifacts, historical documents from the mines, ledgers, books and letters. The guest rooms on the second floor were airy and spacious with modernized private baths. A wide verandah ran the length of the building on both the front and back of the building, perfect for catching gentle breezes. Bullet holes in an outbuilding were placed there during the Mexican Revolution in 1910, leading to a sense of wonder about what those walls had seen.

Our short visit wasn’t long enough and I made a mental note to come to Hacienda Jalisco for a longer visit someday.

Visit old Mexico

Hacienda Jalisco

Hacienda Jalisco

The town of San Sebastian is delightful, but my imagination was swept away with the Hacienda Jalisco with its early mining history intertwined with Hollywood royalty, and the artifacts contained in the museum. The peaceful courtyard invites relaxation, but the history of the hacienda is one that represents the hard work of extracting ore from the earth to satisfy the whims of faraway conquerers. Though the road has opened the area to tourists, a piece of authentic Mexico is still present high up in the hills of the Sierra Madre. 

See related articles on Puerto Vallarta:

Getting There
Car:
Rent a car in Puerto Vallarta. Detailed driving directions are available at the San Sebastian website.

Bus:
The Red Line bus to Talpa de Allende drops you at a turn off for San Sebastian, about 15 minutes away. Either take a cab or hitch a ride into town. It’s about 2 hours on the bus.
Price: 60 pesos

Tour:
Vallarta Adventures
1-888-526-2238
Price $80 per person

See the San Sebastian website for more tours.

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