This article is from the December 1996 - January 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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There’s More to Jalisco than Puerto Vallarta

by Maryann Armbrust and Lamar White

The travelers who wrote this article are Maryann Armbrust and Lamar White. This was their fourth trip as a couple to Mexico. Maryann speaks some Spanish and Lamar is a fearless driver. He works for Personalized! Tours & Travel in Portland, Oregon, taking guests on escorted tours of the Pacific Northwest.

It was April, and we were headed to Guadalajara, using the Puerto Vallarta airport as a cost-effective way to fly from our home in Portland, Oregon. We knew, however, that even the Tapatia’s home city would not hold our attention for the ten days we planned to be in Mexico. We scouted around for nearby Mexican towns without tourist attractions but with the rural values of the country which we had come to love. We found some very Mexican, and most enjoyable, places to visit in the Sierra Cuale mountains which separate Guadalajara from the Puerto Vallarta coast.

At the front end of our trip we followed the advice of The Mexico File [October 1995] and visited Sayulita, in Nayurit state. This small village is 35 km north of the Puerto Vallarta Airport, just off of Mex. 200. We stayed at the recommended Tia Adrianna’s bed and breakfast, officially Villa de la Buena Salud (reservations in the USA through the Tia’s daughter Lynn at 619-942-9640), and this turned out to be a great choice.

Two of the restaurants we tried are right on the beach: one is a thatched-roofed, open-sided palapa, called El Costeno, where we ate pulpo ceviche and fresh salsa, a perfect re-introduction to Mexico’s charms. One block south towards Punta Sayulita is a great restaurant, Don Pedros, which serves wonderful food and superb margaritas on the second floor. Don Pedros is closed on Tuesday, but we discovered that the small restaurant across from Tia Adrienna’s was open and served excellent fish.

As for additional sleeping accommodations, Mike and Ellen Crill plan to have several casitas available this fall...their house is right on the beach and at least one of the casitas will have a fabulous view of the bay. The Crills are delightful and very helpful with local information. Call 415-928-3908 (USA) for reservations. There is also a more basic motel in town for the adventuresome, as well as campgrounds and trailer parks.

Motoring on to Guadalajara (north via Mex 200 and the toll highway that parallels Mex 15 which you pick up near the town of Compostela), we passed through the Sierra Vallejo mountains and near a seemingly recent volcano (Volcan de Tequila?). And, yes, that greenish blue agave plant was in abundance, but we did not stop to take a tour of a tequila distillery. The drive took about three and one-half hours from Sayulito. Once there we discovered that many Tapitios, as Guadalajarans refer to themselves, were on vacation from Wednesday before Easter until the following weekend, so the town was fairly quiet during our four-day stay. (A standard guidebook will contain the information necessary to be a tourist in Guadalajara.)

Based on travel tips in Puerto Vallarta Handbook, by Bruce Whipperman (Moon Publications, Chico, CA), we decided to return to Puerto Vallarta via Talpa, Mascota and San Sebastian, all deep in the Sierra Cuale mountains. It is this adventure which will make the 1996 vacation to Mexico so memorable for us.

Motoring to Talpa de Allende, as it is officially known, is a steady four-hour progression from good to decent to poor roads. To get there, travel from Guadalajara toward the coast on Mex 15, and soon turn west onto Mex 70 towards Ameca. We passed fields of sugar cane and more agave plant. Ameca itself is a pleasant farming village. A few kms outside of the town, the road begins to ascend several smaller mountain ranges on the road to Talpa. The intersection is well marked, and the road dips to cross a creek, and then climbs through a small woods. Curving sharply, we crested a ridge, and saw the road snaking into a valley below us.

Talpa, one of three sites in Jalisco where the Virgin Mary has reportedly appeared, is situated in a small river valley, about 4200 feet in altitude. We entered the city on Holy Saturday, creeping down the side of the hill behind the ubiquitous Jalisco buses. Lamar remarked that there must be some good hiking trails here because of all the walkers, but we soon realized that all those walkers were pilgrims! Because of the heavy influx of visitors, a traffic policeman was even necessary in this town of 7,000 to direct the onslaught of cars and buses.

We had decided to stay outside the town, at the Hacienda Jacarandas (named for the beautiful purple tree in bloom all over Jalisco) which was recommended in the Whipperman Handbook. Unfortunately, the bridge which we needed to cross to drive to the Hacienda had a major crack in it. We opted to ford the stream (with much encouragement from the pilgrims wading in the water). Up a rocky and rutted road we found the Hacienda...beautifully placed on a rise just far enough away from the bustle of the pilgrim-filled town. Unfortunately, we discovered that its owners,Bill and Guy, had closed their establishment for the season. In fact they are selling the Hacienda, a wonderful many bedroomed house with a lap pool, lovely garden, and a great view, which they lovingly built and decorated. They were full of information on the city, its history and its inhabitants, including a growing ex-pat community. They assured us the city would clear out by early evening (and they were right).

Armed with a recommendation for a hotel and restaurant in Talpa, we descended back into the evening. While the hotels were pretty basic, our disappointment at not staying at the Hacienda probably colored our view that Talpa could use a good tourist hotel. We ended staying at the Hotel Los Arcos for 100 pesos. As for food, Juan Jorge’s Tacqueria, right on the square was good. JJ speaks excellent English and is more than willing to help. We tried to eat later at La Papayo but they had run out of food by the time we sat down for dinner! We ended up back at the hotel for dinner, which was just adequate.

The pueblo was alive with pilgrims visiting the new museum which is devoted to the Virgin, the small mercado, the "rollo" stores which sell the local guava candy, and, of course, the church which houses the statue of the Virgin. We watched a band of Huichol Indians dance in front of the Church, both on Saturday night and again on Easter Sunday. On Easter, they were one of many assembled pilgrim groups which either danced or sang outside the Church and then proceeded into the Cathedral. They were interspersed with other pilgrims, crawling on their knees to the front of the Church.

The next morning we decided to head into the "rough roaded" environs that the Whipperman Handbook warned us lay ahead if we tried to travel on to Puerto Vallarta through the mountains. We climbed back up the hill to Mex 70 and turned towards Mascota. The highway was new and very driveable...but then it turns out it had been built just last year.

Mascota is located in a verdant valley and is an agricultural center. We chose to stay at another Handbook recommendation, Hotel Posada Corona, run by Cuca Diaz, a truly wonderful woman who goes out of her way to make you feel at home. (She has a daughter who is very sharp and speaks English well enough to be of great assistance. She runs the quick service store next to the hotel. Cuca’s son runs the restaurant next to the store, a clean and efficiently run eatery.) Our room was neat, and the bathroom and shower were adequate.

We arrived in the middle of Mascota’s annual festival and were treated to a big parade, wonderful stallions with lovely riders dressed in classic Jaliso outfits, bands and local dignitaries. The late afternoon parade began at the town’s wonderful petunia-filled plaza which is the center of social life in the evening. Sunday night found us there watching beautiful chicas eyeing handsome chicos, with mothers hovering in the background, and a local band playing in the central band box. The evening was very restful and served as a charming contrast to Talpa’s pilgrim-driven bustle.

Feeling quite adventuresome, we took the Handbook’s advice to visit several colonial pueblos in the mountains to the north of the town. This turned out to be our first taste of really rough roads. Our destination was Navidad, about 30 kms away. On our way we stopped in Yerbabuena and Cimarron Chico, which are wonderfully isolated towns...perfect if you are looking for a quiet hideaway. We learned that the mountain roads are very dusty, and any steep part is likely to have bumpy paving stones, undoubtedly to aid in traction during the summer’s rainy season. The trip took almost two hours one way.

In Navidad, we stopped at La Terrazo, a balcony bar on the second floor of a little restaurant. We looked over the plaza and across to the town’s church. Our hostess, Maria Helene, explained that there was one bus a day from Navidad to Mascota and that in Navidad everyone was family... blood or otherwise. Horses were tied up at the hitching post, no tv antennas were in sight, and life seemed very peaceful. While we did not see any hotels, we are quite sure something could be worked out if one wants to enjoy Navidad’s ever so clean air and wonderful locale. Back in Mascota, we asked Cuca Diaz about renting a place for a longer stay. She said it would be difficult to rent a home but she would be happy to assist anyone who wanted to rent an apartment. (Her phone number in Mexico is 6-02-50 and her address is R. Corona No. 72, Mascota, Jalisco).

San Sebastian was our next destination, a mining town begun in the 16th century that had become a ghost town because of the loss of the mine. We had asked Bill and Guy if the road to San Sebastian was passable and they assured us that it was. Well, just! Starting out around 10 a.m., we slowed to a crawl not 5 kms outside of Mascota and never really went any faster. We made it to San Sebastian in about three hours, 45km away. The road was about as rough as the road to Navidad, and it was more desolate.

San Sebastian is located up a side road which delivered us to a multilevel plaza. There are several stores on the plaza, a hostel, and a posada. It is also a quiet town, perfect to walk around, with a few restaurants (Restaurant Christy, which we ate at, had a very adequate meal with delightful family service) and a modest church with a great garden full of fabulous roses. The Handbook said that it was similar to towns as they were in the last century, with enough activity to keep them from becoming abandoned, but still just a shadow of the 50,000 population that was there prior to the closing of the mines in the 1930s.

The hostel is of interest: it is called El Pabellon and its rooms open onto a wonderful courtyard. The rooms are delightfully furnished, and have colorful tiled bathrooms. The hitch is that the place is owned by Puerto Vallartans who keep it for their own use. If we went back, we would try to find them with the idea of renting a room..

The other option, however, is Hacienda Jalisco, owned by Bud Acord. It is located about 3 km from San Sebastian, and has its own airport runway (so you can reach it easily in a small chartered plane from Puerto Vallarta), and is truly a lovely hideaway up in the mountains. The Hacienda is located on a clear stream and has a wonderful vegetable garden which supplies the greens for dinner, as well as a beautiful flower garden. The guest rooms are on the second floor of the main building and are tastefully decorated in understated Mexican fashion. Two are undergoing some construction, due to a fire, but should be ready by now. Bud himself is quite a raconteur and will set up hikes, horseback riding or other diversions for those who don’t find just sitting enough.

As we journeyed on to Puerto Vallarta, I really appreciated Bud’s blessing to us as we left: "Drive carefully." The next four hours were literally "hell on wheels." We won’t bore you with the saga, but suffice it to say that when we next visit these enchanting spots we will fly from Puerto Vallarta or rent a jeep in Guadalajara and drive through Mascota.

We ended our vacation in a less adventuresome fashion, luxuriating in the Hotel Molina de Agua in old Puerto Vallarta. As we looked out on the beach, our thoughts really were on how we would structure our next vacation into the Sierra Cuale mountains. But return we will to the hidden jewels of Talpa, Mascota, and San Sebastian. They are all different, and any one could serve as a wonderful base for hiking, birding, horseback riding, and camping...far away from the tourist attractions of Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara.