San Sebastián del Oeste: A Journey Back to the Wild West
Why do we travel?
What do we get out of it? What does it do for us? What drives our desire to get out in the world and see new places?
I was visiting with a friend one day and asked her what she liked most about travel. She has traveled extensively and she’s lived in exciting places like India, Guatemala and Mexico. She put into words that same feeling of adventure I get when traveling somewhere new. She said that when she travels she loves to just walk new roads, meander and explore the town, taking in the newness of a place. There is something about simply walking through the streets that makes her come alive.
I love her straightforward perspective. Our desire to visit new destinations doesn’t have to be complicated and it definitely doesn’t have to be intellectualized. It comes from a deeper place in us to walk the roads others have walked and connect to the land and the people simply as they are.
Whether you have a few hours or you are pulled into the charm
and want to spend a few days relaxing in a quieter way of life,
I found San Sebastián is well worth the trip.
A 2-hour Trip to San Sebastián
On my trip to San Sebastián, with that conversation fresh in my mind, I did just that. It was one of those days when things didn’t go off as planned (a common theme when traveling in Mexico). I chose San Sebastián as a day trip while visiting Puerto Vallarta. I had been in Puerto Vallarta for almost a week and I was ready to get away from the tourist traps and see the real country.
San Sebastián del Oeste is one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns” (aka: Pueblo Magico). I’d read about it in the brochures I picked up from the Mayan Palace where I was staying with my friend.
San Sebastián was one of the package tours offered in the resort’s tourist books. But, they were selling it as an expensive packaged tour. Even without the price tag, a packaged tour is pretty much my least favorite way to travel. The stops are usually short and don’t give time to see and explore what I want. And the tour guides often have a non-stop script of chatter about the area, giving little quiet time to just enjoy the experience.
I was on my own, my friend stayed back in the room for a quiet day. It was the last free day we had before heading home so I wanted to make the most of it.
The lady at the resort’s concierge was helpful and told me where I could catch a local bus that would get me to San Sebastián. She even looked up the schedule in her book of information and pointed me in the right direction (a block or two off the main drag), informing me that the next bus should be departing at 11:00 am. It seemed easy enough. I’m familiar with Mexican buses and I like taking them. They give me a chance to travel like a local, plus they save a lot of money.
But, I arrived a the bus station early only to find that there was no 11:00 am bus and the next bus wasn’t leaving until 2:00 pm, which wouldn’t get me there until 4:00. And I learned that the bus would only get me within 10 miles of San Sebastián, where I would need to take a taxi the rest the way into the town.
In Mexico you can expect to wait.
At this point I realized that even a concierge in Mexico probably doesn’t know a lot about the area, little beyond what her books told her. Mexicans like to give an answer and seem helpful, even when they really don’t know.
The rule of thumb here is to ask three different people and if you get the same answer twice you can probably trust it. But mostly I’ve found that people don’t know much about the areas around them and exploring the country is something you just have to do for yourself. You don’t know until you go. It’s trial and error. (Just be sure to take good notes for next time you want to come.)
I was weighing my choices. Was it worth the two hour bus ride into the mountains with so little time left to explore the town? It would only give me two hours there and then I’d need to make sure to catch the last returning bus that leaves at 6:00 pm or I’d be stuck in the village for the night. I had no other plans for the day so I made up my mind to make the most of the time I had and go for it. After all, the adventure lies in doing something new.
On the bus to San Sebastián
Once out of the Puerto Vallarta area, the road meandered through coastal plains and then started its climb into the Sierra Madre mountains. The hills graduated from low brush to pine forests and the air had a gentle coolness you don’t get at the beach. We passed by pastures of livestock, valleys with lush vegetation, fields of nopal cactus and tall stalks of corn. Finally, the bus arrived at my stop, a crossroads in El Estancia. Exiting the bus, I crossed the highway to where a row of taxis lined up for the easy ride into San Sebastián’s central plaza.
Journey Back to the Wild West
Arriving in San Sebastián felt like I was traveling back in time to the Wild West. I almost expected cowboys to be riding into town and hitching their horses to posts outside the general saloon. Instead there was a craft market in the plaza with a live mariachi band playing, giving the reminder that I was in Mexico.
It’s no wonder the town feels old, it was founded in 1605, more than 400 years ago. Like many towns in the old west, San Sebastián was originally a mining town with approximately 20,000 inhabitants. Today it’s reduced to a small mountain community with just over 5,000 people. Yet it retains the old charm with colonial haciendas and grand casas giving it character.
The connection to Puerto Vallarta goes back as far. In those days salt was used in the mining and it had to be carried from sea by mule to these mining villages in the mountains.
These days the plaza is surrounded by white-washed colonial-style buildings with tile roofs, with modern conversions turning them into hotels, cafes, and gift shops.
I walked around the square and turned the corner, drawn towards the bell tower of the San Sebastián church, dedicated to the town’s patron saint. The doors were locked, so I settled on wandering around the church grounds. There was an old stockade, a locked cell with a barred door, adding to the wild west feel.
Down another block I came to a long row of old, wooden buildings that looked like they were right out of an old western movie, perhaps they were once hotels or saloons. But nowadays they are boarded up and out of use.
I took delight in the exploration. Around every turn I found something new. Walking further down the road and around a corner was a curved, stone bridge crossing over a gorge. My path took me further from the center as I went on to explore side streets with beautiful homes, bungavilia spilling over the walls, more turns and twists down the cobbled roads.
In the distance the Cerro de La Bufa Mountain rose high above the town. About 9 kilometers away, it takes another 45 minutes and a hired guide with a 4-wheel drive to get there. I wouldn’t have time to take in the views from the mountain this day.
No, it was already getting late and it was time to think of my return.
Trying to find a Taxi
I figured I’d just go back to where the taxi had let me off, but back at the plaza there wasn’t a taxi in sight. I started getting worried when I also couldn’t find a single bank or ATM (the town just wasn’t that commercial). I only had enough cash on hand to get me back to Puerto Vallarta. But what would happen if I couldn’t get back to catch that last returning bus? My friend was expecting me back. Even if she wasn’t, I didn’t have the money on hand to pay for a night in a hotel.
I still had a little time, so I stopped at a coffee shop on the plaza and bought a cup of tea. I asked the waitress for help. She knew some taxi drivers. She tried calling several of them, from a list they kept at the desk, but she had no luck. They were all at another town for some kind of festival that was going on!
I left there, about ready to give up hope, the bus would be pretty coming soon. Then I noticed there was still a fair amount of traffic leaving town. As a last resort, I decided to try hitching a lift. A couple of cars drove on past, then one stopped, with a friendly young couple who were headed back to Puerto Vallarta. They gave me a ride the whole way.
The best adventures are the ones that don’t go as planned, but are perfect in their serendipity, when you just feel the world is on your side. This was one of those wonderful, adventurous days.
Finding your way …
What to Expect
San Sebastián is a tourist town, but if you go there expecting modern conveniences you might be disappointed.
Bring cash. There are no banks or ATM’s in town.
There are hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and a few stores.
Taxi service is sketchy. You may find taxis without a problem, but the day I went there was a festival in a nearby town and all the taxis were off at the festival.
Several of our destinations are available with Aztec Explorers, our favorite Mexico Tour Company.
Getting to San Sebastián del Oeste
From San Sebastián: 2 hrs by bus, probably half that by car.
It is 45 miles from Puerto Vallarta, but to get there you traverse winding, mountain roads.
The local bus from Puerto Vallarta only runs a few scheduled times per day.
Be sure to get off the bus in El Estancia,10 kilometers from the town. You will need to take a taxi the last part. You may also want to arrange the taxi to pick you up, since they are not always available around the plaza.
Local guides provide tours to nearby attractions.
This is one place it could pay off to rent a car in Puerto Vallarta and come up for a day, perhaps even spend a night or two at the local hotel.
Cerro La Bufa
Cerro La Buffa is a beautiful mountain that rises over the town. It has excellent views all the way to Puerto Vallarta and the Bahía de Banderas far below.
You can hire a local guide and transport to take you the additional 45 minutes to the top of the mountain.
It is an old Spanish hacienda outside of town (2.9 kilometers from the town center) that still uses fireplaces and oil lamps, rather than electricity, giving it the feel and charm of the old mining days. It houses a museum of maps, documents and objects of more than 200 years are exhibited. They also offer accommodation.