We didn’t plan on visiting San Sebastian del Oeste on Mexican Independence Day. Neither did we expect to have a guide immersed in Mexican history. It was all happenstance, a fortuitous occasion. As our bus climbed the steep, curvy road into the Sierra Madre Mountains above Puerto Vallarta, our talkative guide climbed on his soapbox. We learned a lot about the Mexican Revolution.
On November 20, 1910, people throughout Mexico were urged to rise up in revolt against Mexico’s autocratic president, Porfirio Diaz. Times were bad, especially for the poor, i.e. just about everybody. Ninety five percent of Mexico’s wealth was controlled by five percent of the population. Vast swaths of land were tied up in haciendas. Peasants who worked these haciendas were treated little better than slaves.
It would take over a decade but eventually the people of Mexico won massive reforms and better living conditions for themselves. Two legendary figures, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, rose out of the conflict. Both would be assassinated but their names and legacy would live on into modern times as heroes of the common man and symbols of freedom, not only in Mexico but also around the world.
Our bus passed by cornfields, crossed over a high bridge and stopped. It was apparently a Kodak moment. The bridge was famous for cutting a couple of hours off the journey to San Sebastian. The old road made its way tortuously in and out of the canyon. Once it had been a burro trail, used to bring salt up from Puerto Vallarta, which was known as Las Peñas at the time. The salt was used in the smelting process to help break silver and gold out of the rich ores in the region.
Peggy and I dutifully took photos of the bridge. More importantly, we took advantage of the available restrooms. We’d consumed lots of coffee waiting for the bus. The next stop was a tequila factory where we sampled the wares, checked out an agave plant, and bought a bottle of orange-flavored tequila that made vanilla ice cream taste like you had died and gone to Valhalla, or some other yummy place. I am ever so glad we didn’t discover how good it tasted until just before we left Mexico. Otherwise I would have consumed gallons of ice cream and been charged double for the airplane ride home.
The most interesting stop on our journey to San Sebastian was to visit Hacienda Jalisco, one of the old haciendas whose history was related to the silver mining. You can still see the smelters. The hacienda’s thick walls provided protection for storing the treasure of silver before it was sent onward. Burros carried it to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and finally Vera Cruz, where it was shipped out once a year to Spain, maybe. Getting to Spain assumed that pirates didn’t relieve the treasure ships of their glittery cargo in the Caribbean.
Hacienda Jalisco’s silver mining history came to an abrupt end with the Revolution of 1910 but another type of silver, the silver screen, awaited its future. Discovered and restored by the American expatriate Bud Acord in the 1960s, the hacienda was to become a favorite hangout of John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during and after the filming of the Night of the Iguana. Today it happily continues to serve as a B&B. Brochures describe it as romantic. There is no electricity and rooms are lit by lantern at night. You might sleep in the same room where Burton and Taylor pursued their scandalous, extramarital affair.
Our final stop before San Sebastian was at a coffee plantation that shared a building with a coffin maker.
Our son Tony made it to San Sebastian before we did. He bought a sailboat while living in San Diego, sailed it to Puerto Vallarta with his girlfriend Cammie (and our nephew Jay), took the bus up to San Sebastian (without Jay), went on a horseback ride to a remote waterfall, and asked Cammie to marry him. You can’t get much more romantic! We were eager to see the town.
Treasure seeking Spaniards settled San Sebastian in 1605. To put this into perspective, Jamestown, the first British settlement in North America, was founded in 1607. First Spain and then Mexico continued to pull silver from its surrounding mines up until the Revolutionary era of 1910-20. Once a bustling community of 20,000 importing luxury items from far away Europe, San Sebastian is now a quiet community of 600 surviving off of agriculture and a small tourist trade. Peggy and I liked it.
An attractive bandstand dominates the central plaza (Revolution Square) and provides views of the surrounding town and countryside. We had just missed the Independence Day celebration so Peggy and I had a pleasant lunch, walked through the town, visited the impressive Church of Saint Sebastian, and stopped to watch a local craftsperson weave a basket so quickly we could barely see her hands move. I could happily spend a week, or several in the town and surrounding area.
NEXT BLOG: One Hundred Thousand Thank You’s for One Hundred Thousand Views.