On the Pacific side of Mexico, you can step back into the colonial life and times of San Sebastián del Oeste.
Founded in 1605, this historic village is nestled in the hills of the Sierra Madre mountain range. Silver miners settled the town. Visitors can see the miners’ original homes and shops. In addition, the historic church features paintings, statues, and artifacts.
Dive into the life of a miner by strolling down the cobblestone and dirt streets lined with wooden structures. Immerse yourself in the historic museums documenting the families who lived and worked in the village.
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You can book a hotel for an overnight stay or choose a one-day bus tour from Puerto Vallarta. Major operators, such as Vallarta Adventures, offer this “journey back into time and into the traditional Mexican culture.” The cost per person averages US $100. I was so glad that I took the time to visit. During my stay in Puerto Vallarta, I also visited San Pancho and Sayulita.
Expect to be shocked by the structural preservation of this 400-year-old town. I could almost imagine riding through town on horseback or stepping out of a buggy on the wooden boardwalk.
“It’s like time stood still. It’s like a museum of how the old Mexico was.”Gareth Price, Vallarta Adventures
Before there was a highway connecting Puerto Vallarta to San Sebastián, operators traveled by small plane and landed in a field. Now you can reach San Sebastián by a one-hour bus trip.
To head back to the 1700s, all you need to do is pull on your boots and begin hiking up the cobblestone road. Up ahead, you can see white buildings with red tile roofs. A rock fence lines the road. Even with the modern conveniences, such as cars slowly driving by, you will still feel yourself entering the “Time Machine.”
A dense grove of trees is nestled along the road for a long stretch. It would probably be scary passing this road at night when the ghosts of miners swagger back from the bar. But in the bright light of day, the road simply becomes a portal.
Although you will want to explore the central plaza, take time at the beginning to visit a small history museum. Inside, you’ll find a panoramic mural that tells the story of San Sebastián. It is quite remarkable.
Casa de la Cultura
This tiny museum is located in a colonial white stucco building. A wooden sign above the massive wood door announces your destination: Casa de la Cultura San Sebastián del Oeste.
Casa de la Cultura tells the story of its people. I read the script writing on the wall: “bienvenido! Anhelabamos deseosos de dia te decimos nuestro pueblo, nos sentimos embargados de alegria.”
Casa de la Cultura
“Welcome! We longed for the day, we tell you our people, we feel overwhelmed with joy.”
San Sebastián del Oeste Mural
Inside the Casa de la Cultura, you will see the painted mural on the back wall. Since there is no ceiling over the open-air plaza, the sun streams into the space. Only the blue sky contains this extraordinary piece of art.
The painter chose a multitude of images to demonstrate San Sebastián del Oeste’s complex culture, including the indigenous people, the wild beasts, and the Sierra Madre mountain range. He shows a closeup of a young boy wielding his ax, accompanied by his mule and faithful dog. In the distance, we can see the villagers traveling the mountain road. The historic church is on high, silhouetted by a band of yellow light.
I found myself playing a game of “find the object,” as my eyes traveled busily over the myriad of images: rock engraved with hieroglyphics, a butterfly, a hummingbird, a parrot, a big cat, an agave plant, a spray of sunflowers, and a bowl of fruit.
Virgen María Altars
As you head next to the central plaza, you will wind past traditional religious objects. I saw an altar on the side of a building to honor La Virgen María (the Virgin Mary).
Her statue is set on a ledge, held up by an angel. Potted cactus plants sit adjacent. A necklace of pink and yellow rose buds is strung behind her head.
I also saw a small altar honoring the Virgin Mary at another house. The clay sculpture is set in a windowbox on the stucco building. Her hands are clasped in prayers.
Plaza Revolución Mexicana
San Sebastián features a central plaza with benches, walkways, and plants. Large trees provide a canopy of shade even at high noon. I visited in December so the plaza was decorated with an imposing Christmas tree.
Fascinating fact: The old Mexican towns always incorporated a main plaza (Plaza Mayor) as dictated by the “Laws of the Indies” governing Spain’s colonies in the Americas and Asia. These laws regulated the social, political, religious, and economic life of the settlers and indigenous people.
The Crown’s laws also mandated intricate aspects of town planning, such as an elevated site, fertile soil, and opportunity for fortification. To control traffic, the streets would fan out from the main plaza. In addition, essential buildings, such as the Governor’s house, the church, and important government offices, would surround the plaza.
The town fathers rechristened the square as Plaza Revolucion Mexicana in 1983-1985.
Iglesia San Sebastián Martyr deserves at least 30 minutes for a leisurely tour of the building. The Augustinian friars built this church for their priest Poca Sangre Alonso in the 17th century.
Over the years, the church has undergone several modifications starting in 1818 through 1897.
“The temple is neoclassical, its decoration is baroque, purely pictorial.”Church San Sebastian Martyr
The lovely white building features a dark red entrance door. Above it, there is one small window covered by bars. The grand church features murals on the ceiling, glass chandeliers, and a painted mural above the altar. The worn tiled floor alternates between red and beige. The wooden pews gleam.
If you can visit during a religious festival, you can witness the community spirit. I was lucky to visit Puerto Vallarta during Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival in December and see the parades.
Casa Museo Dona Conchita Encarnacion
Another must-see stop is the house museum documenting the wealthy Encarnacion family who lived in San Sebastian. You will see many personal artifacts, including vintage dolls, wooden toys, baby portraits, crockery, bottles, and wine glasses. A wooden guitar leaning against the wall is painted with tendrils of green vines. Signs warn “No Tocar” and “Usted puede tomar fotos pero ‘sin flash’ gracias.”
There is a keepsake mural displaying prayer cards, photos, and flower note cards. You are asked to sign your name and place of residence in the Guest Book. It is hauntingly beautiful in this crowded museum room.
Just like any historic town, there are a multitude of shops to buy souvenirs, artifacts, and homemade goods. You will want to browse at the small shops where artisans display their work. I saw some beautiful quilt squares displayed outside one shop.
You can also buy pottery, china, and statues.
If you need a jolt of energy, consider stopping to see a Mexican coffee plantation. Located at the entrance to the town, the historic complex features gardens, coffee bean trees, and macaws. Pull a branch down to squeeze a green coffee pod. Sniff the pungent aroma of the leaves.
This family-run coffee plantation is named Cafetalera La Quinta. Visit the “familia” by studying the old-time photographs hanging on the walls of the lobby.
After your tour, you can purchase the plantation’s coffee beans, ground coffee, candies, and espresso beans.
As a Pueblo Magico (magical town), San Sebastian del Oeste town will bewitch you. Mexico honors its culture by celebrating the small towns and villages that embody the best of its folklore, traditions, culture, history, nature, and cuisine.
While I have no desire to be a silver miner, I did enjoy seeing how the people of this small mountain village survived centuries ago.