Most visitors see Puerto Vallarta as an easy and relaxing step into Mexico, with good food, beaches, pleasant walks and plentiful shops.
But this Pacific tourism hub is largely missing one thing: history. Fortunately, that’s easy to find in nearby mountain towns, all of which possess their own distinctive brand of charm.
PV was barely even a town until the early 20th century. Before then, the rich veins of gold and silver in the Sierra Madre range to the east captured all the attention. The Bay of Banderas was simply a convenient port for shipping ore out and bringing supplies in without navigating the steep peaks and thick jungles to the north and south.
Colonial history in the mountains dates back to the 1500s, when conquistadors battled the indigenous people, the Tecos, and discovered precious metals. The high-elevation towns were thriving powerhouses until the mines closed and beach-themed tourism took over as the region’s dominant economic engine.
The rapid loss of prestige and population left the mountain towns frozen in time, their colonial glory preserved, to varying degrees, through decades of benign neglect.
Three of those towns, San Sebastián del Oeste, Mascota and Talpa de Allende, are officially designated “Pueblos Mágicos,” recognized by Mexico’s tourism promoters as “en el imaginario colectivo de la nación” — in the nation’s collective imagination. Places that earn the Pueblos Mágicos designation are quintessential Mexican towns, 111 nationwide, full of the character we tourists seek but sometimes don’t find until we get off the beaten path a bit.
My husband and I were already familiar with one Pueblo Mágico, Sayulita, which lies on the coast about a half-hour north of PV. So are the many other tourists flocking there for good beaches, great surfing, and a more intimate vibe than PV offers. We had already explored it and other coastal towns. It was time to head inland.
San Sebastián is only 45 minutes from PV. Mascota is about two hours away, and Talpa de Allende is another 45 minutes, which makes an overnight trip a better deal to visit those. (The largest of the three towns, Mascota has the most hotels, though the number is growing in the others.)
The easy way to reach the mountain towns: Sign up for an organized tour, pay around $80-$120 for a day trip, and join other tourists on an air-conditioned bus. This is a good option if you’re a small group or want someone else to do the planning for you. Many visitors rave about tour guides well versed in giving English-speaking tourists the scoop.
Then there’s the hard way: renting a car and driving, which can be terrifying, especially given narrow roads and bizarre local rules (you pull over to the right to make a left turn? What?). But it allows you to stay overnight in a charming remote town, spend more time hiking and exploring, and ditch time limitations.
We went for something in between and hired a professional driver with a cushy Suburban. Although the total cost seemed steep — $250 plus tip for the full day — we split it among five people, making it cheaper than the tour bus. Our driver, Daniel, spoke good English and offered information about the area when we asked. We could go where we liked, when we liked, as long as we returned by nightfall.
Mexico’s commitment to its Pueblos Mágicos is evident in the nicely paved, albeit winding, roads to San Sebastián and Mascota, and we saw very little traffic. Next time, we might just drive — during the day, as streetlights are nonexistent.
The landscape quickly changes from tropical jungle to alpine forest, and by the time we neared San Sebastián, at nearly 5,000 feet up, pines, maples and oaks dominated the hillsides. Coffee is a staple, and we stopped en route at a small producer, Café de Altura, for a look into growing and roasting.
Each town’s history and personality is palpable. Mascota is set in a long-inhabited broad valley, and its archaeology museum is a big draw. Talpa’s lovely Our Lady of the Rosary church draws thousands of pilgrims every October to honor its petite patron saint, nicknamed La Chaparrita. San Sebastián’s mining history intrigued us, so we focused our time there.
San Sebastián’s flower-filled central square is flanked by colonnaded sidewalks and old stucco and stone buildings painted red and white, the town’s official colors. It’s easy to believe that at its height in the 19th century, the population was four times its current size of about 5,700 and supported 30 mines in surrounding hills.
Daniel set off to fetch our guide to the mines — we had heard it was possible to hike to some — and set us free to roam the quiet side streets, buy snacks from a corner bodega, investigate the handsome and well-preserved baroque church, and visit the two-room history museum. There, the elderly docent spoke zero English but was thrilled to have visitors. Between our minimal Spanish and his enthusiastic miming, we learned a bit about the region’s history, all the way back to the Tecos.
Workers were busy re-cobbling streets and plazas and fixing up old buildings beyond the main square. Hotels and restaurants appeared freshly opened, ready for a flood of visitors that had not yet quite materialized. Instead of the tourist-oriented restaurants on the main square, we found a traditional Mexican place, Fonda Eva María, and ordered sopes, delicious little corn patties topped with vegetables, meat, and sauce. The ladies in the old-fashioned kitchen didn’t mind when we peeked in to say hello.
A mining past, a tourism future
Our young and eager guide to the mines, Ricardo Chávez Nava, grew up in San Sebastián. He left to study tourism and returned to open a guide service, Malibrí Turismo. His aim: to give visitors a local’s perspective while helping jump-start his hometown’s economy. “I want my family to stay here,” he said, his affection for this place shining in his smile. He also gives tours of the town and takes people on guided hikes, bike trips or drives to basalt cliffs, waterfalls, haciendas, hamlets and vistas. From one famous hilltop, La Bufa, you can see all the way to Puerto Vallarta.
Daniel drove us 10 minutes up an increasingly rough dirt road and, curious himself, joined us for an hourlong walk past a half-dozen mine shafts and well into one.
While we expected to see American-style mines with reinforced doorways, these were merely holes in the mountainside. Ricardo handed us headlamps, then described miners picking away at the tunnels by hand as we explored as deep as we dared.
The mines supported sprawling haciendas, estates housing bosses and business operations. Some of them are still standing, many of them reborn as hotels. The most famous, Hacienda Jalisco, about a mile downhill from San Sebastián, was first built more than 200 years ago. But its intrigue lies largely in its more recent past: During the 1960s, it was a getaway for the likes of John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The hacienda offered lodging until a partial roof collapse in 2015. Now it’s a slowly crumbling museum to its own past. We wandered, fascinated, through the building’s once-gracious rooms. Many of its painted plaster walls, now faded to pastel, were decorated with memorabilia from its heyday. We gave a small donation to the caretaker before we left.
The final must-do: Visit a tequila distillery. The place we visited felt like a bit of a tourist trap, and the tequila wasn’t cheap, but at least we could say we’d bought a local bottle. It’s not quite like going all the way to the town of Tequila, also a Pueblo Mágico, but it was a taste, so to speak.
In a way, this area is the opposite of Puerto Vallarta: not much shopping, no nightclubs, few English speakers, dry rather than damp, old instead of new. Everything was civilized and people were friendly, but the place wasn’t overflowing with tourist-based infrastructure.
In other words, it was just what we’d been looking for.