San Sebastian del Oeste
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  Posted August 22nd, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | 3 comments

Travel Mexico

By: Zdenko Kahlina

Visiting another historical place in rural Mexico
You’ve probably already heard that San Sebastián del Oeste is an enchanting place.  Set deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental of western Mexico, this is the perfect place to experience the culture of a small Mexican pueblo. You will find gentle, friendly people who are proud of their village and happy to share it with you.  Escape the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta and experience the serenity of this charming village with its rustic buildings and untamed surroundings.  Feel the stress melt away as San Sebastián takes you back to a simpler time.  Take the time to discover its secrets and you will find it truly is a special place. 

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The old mine town of San Sebastian del Oeste is located high in the Sierra Madre Mountains about 65 km drive (elevation 4,500 ft.) from Puerto Vallarta.  We‘d also heard stories about how difficult it is to get to by car due to poor dirt roads, full of potholes and hairpin turns that flood during the rainy season. 

We left after our breakfast at 10:00 am, and the drive up the hill was surprisingly smooth. We took the brand-new road that will go directly to Guadalajara via Talpa and Mascota. It is almost completed, with just one stretch of construction still underway. They are building a new bridge (it’s being completed by now). There, we only had to wait for around 10 minutes while the road crew allowed oncoming traffic through the single lane before we were given the right-of-way.  

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I didn’t mind the wait at all, as we were climbing higher into the mountains and the change of scenery was absolutely stunning. The mountains were green and full of splendor with dramatic views of the valleys below.

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Before the bridge was built, we had to cross the river like this…

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Continuing on for the last few kilometers the terrain changed once again, greeting us with tall pine trees as the road from Puerto Vallarta brought us into the west side of this historic mining town. As we drove into town, we noticed that the architecture is much different than Puerto Vallarta.

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Originally settled in the 16th century, this beautiful mountain village retains its colonial heritage with buildings and structures that have been standing for over 250 years. Arriving at the lovely town square, I had a feeling that I was in a different place and time. I could tell you it was bustling, but with a total population of 600, there were only a few people milling around. 

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At an elevation of about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level, San Sebastián del Oeste is located at 20°45’41” North and 104°51’10” West.

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Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the region around what is now San Sebastián del Oeste was populated by Tecos (indigenous people). Francisco Cortes and his band of conquistadors rolled into the area in 1524.  Precious minerals (gold, silver, zinc, and lead) were discovered and mining started in 1542.  The town of San Sebastián del Oeste was founded in 1605.  San Sebastián would eventually grow to become one of the principle mining centers of La Nueva España (the new Spain). 

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The mines around San Sebastián are at least partially responsible for the beginnings of what is now Puerto Vallarta. Then known as Las Peñas and consisting of just a few huts at the mouth of the Rio Cuale, the inhabitants produced salt, which was necessary for the smelting process.  Mules transported this salt to the mines around San Sebastián. The silver and gold from the mines was transported, again by mule, to Guadalajara and Mexico City.  From there it went to Veracruz where it was shipped to Spain once a year. 

San Sebastián grew in importance and prosperity.  Nearly thirty mines and ten gold and silver foundries existed by 1785. San Sebastián was at one time a provincial capital.  The town became a city in 1812, and by 1830 it boasted more than 20,000 inhabitants.

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 In those days San Sebastián had amenities not found in much larger cities, for example, a telegraph.  It also had first class medical facilities, a bank, and separate boys and girls schools.  Longtime residents comment that some of the nearby mining haciendas had electric lighting even before Mexico City. 

Those days were not to last as mining was halted by the revolution in 1910.  The prosperity and population of San Sebastián declined as the last mine was abandoned in 1921. The town fell into a deep sleep from which it has only recently awakened.  While agriculture and stockbreeding replaced mining as the principal activity, the population dwindled to its present level of about 600 inhabitants.

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 The beautiful church is dedicated to the town’s patron, Saint Sebastián.  It was originally built in the 1600s but was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1868.

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Now that the new bridge and highway from Puerto Vallarta are complete, the activity level in San Sebastián is picking up.  Travel time from P.V. has been reduced to just over an hour for the 38 mile / 62 km journey. An excursion into the Sierra Madre is always a feast for the senses.  As the altitude rises the temperature drops and the air becomes crisp.  The ridges are covered with towering pine trees and their scent fills the air.  Approaching San Sebastián you will find pastures for livestock, fields of corn and agave, and coffee plantations nestled into the narrow valleys.  La Bufa stands majestically over the village, the highest peak in the area.

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This picturesque mountain village will never be described as bustling, and that is a very good thing.  As you arrive at the very colonial town square, you will feel as if you’ve been transported to another time.  The village retains its colonial heritage in the well-preserved buildings that are as much as 250 years old.  Houses are constructed of adobe and wood.  The architecture is traditional, characterized by red and white houses and tiled roofs.  The main plaza consists of a central garden with a gazebo, surrounded by cobblestone streets that wander off in all directions.  The church sits just off the plaza, its bell tower rising into view from the square.

Two rivers flow through San Sebastián, the Ameca and Los Reyes, on their way to the Pacific.  Many smaller creeks fall from the hillsides, adorned with wild impatiens coloring their banks.

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San Sebastián ’s cobblestone streets give way to cobblestone walkways that wind all over and around the village.  The stonewalled pathways connect mining haciendas and various casas on the hillsides and along the rivers.  Around every corner there seems to be another mountain vista, a colorful batch of bougainvilleas, or a hidden ancient villa.  Ruined foundries, used in the processing of the precious minerals, lay waiting to be explored.   

San Sebastián’s dry season is November through May.  Average high temperatures in the winter season run in the mid-70’s °F (24°C), with average lows in the mid-40’s °F  (7°C).  You’ll be glad you brought that sweater for the cool evenings.

Keep in mind the summer (rainy) season can also be spectacular.  Although one can count on a rain shower nearly every afternoon or evening, low clouds hanging in the valleys give San Sebastián a mystical feel, and the lightning storms can be truly amazing to behold.  The foliage is vibrant and full.  The temperature is about 9°C or 16°F cooler than the coast, with much less humidity, a real respite from the steamy crowds down near the beach.  Average high temperatures during the summer are in the mid-80’s °F (29°C), with average lows of about 61°F (16°C).  It cools off quickly when the sun goes down.

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San Sebastián del Oeste has a fascinating history.  Here are two examples of what waits to be discovered and explored in the San Sebastián area. 

Hotel El Pabellón, located on the plaza, was at one time a fortress where silver shipments were stored while awaiting transport.  The garrison had turrets on all corners where soldiers could thwart would be attackers.  One turret survives and is now a cozy nook in a popular bar.  The banditos were such a problem a tunnel was constructed from a mine to the garrison to transport the silver so it could not be stolen enroute.  As mining operations wound down, the structure was used to store grain.

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On the way out, we also stopped at the Hacienda Jalisco, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were staying when they wanted some isolation and peace. This is a 200 year old building that has been resorted and is the perfect getaway for anyone interested in seeing the real Mexico. We met a very friendly guide who went out of his way to show us around. Unfortunately I didn’t remember his name.

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At Hacienda Jalisco, located near the airstrip on the west side of town, mining operations reigned for many years.  Expatriate Bud Acord, an artist from California, came to the Puerto Vallarta area in the early sixties when it was still a largely undiscovered gem.  He found this dilapidated 1840s era hacienda and restored it to its original state – including no electricity.   The result is fascinating look at life in Spanish colonial Mexico as it existed 150 years ago.

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Hacienda Jalisco is now part museum, part hotel.  The bottom floor has artifacts attesting to the role the hacienda played as the headquarters of a mining operation. There are also displays covering some of the hacienda’s more famous guests such as movie director John Huston, and actors Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole.  Guest rooms occupy the upstairs.  Oil lamps and candles provide romantic lighting for the hacienda’s guests after the sun goes down.

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Tucked away in the foothills about 20 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta, near the village of Desembocada is Hacienda Doña Engracia. We stopped there to get some original Mexican Tequila. We took a tour of their factory and they showed us the process of making excellent Tequila the natural way. As a strange coincidence, the guide at the distillery was Beverly, who was from Edmonton. She moved there about five years ago. And of course we bought 2 bottles of good Tequila (each)!

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Approximate distance from San Sebastián to:
Mascota                  54 km        34 miles
Talpa de Allende      78 km        49 miles
Puerto Vallarta        64 km        40 miles
Guadalajara           265 km     165 miles
 

This travel report is a little too long, but I hope you liked it!

Hope you have a good season!

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3 comments to “San Sebastian del Oeste”

  1. Comment by Luigi Fulk:

    wow what a interesting post , its really helpful for us
    and i saw this post on google and its not often that you see a site with such relevant information. ill pop back to your site later today

  2. Comment by Magical Mystical Teacher:

    We were in San Sebastian del Oeste the day before yesterday, and I wish I had stumbled across your post before going. How sad to have missed Hacienda Jalisco! I guess that means we’ll have to go back again, and we will, cobblestone road and all.

    Meanwhile, here’s just one of my photos of this magical village: Cobblestone Street

  3. Comment by Zdenko Kahlina:

    I’m glad you had a good time there. We did too… Just being on our own, far away from the resorts of Vallarta was a BIG bonus! We’re going there again in December. Thanks for your comment!

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