Yesterday, as I write this, I explored the town and area of San Sebastian Del Oeste (St. Sebastian Of The West) with a small group of others and an apparently legendary tour guide, meeting up towards the middle of the trip with a group of others who had taken another tour to the same place with a slightly different order but the same sorts of stops and for the same cost. I would like to explain the trip briefly and then discuss some of the thinking I have about such visits as this.
After some difficulty in getting in touch with the van in the morning, we began with a bit of a late start, as there were some questions about how to get into the hotel we are in since the entrance is closed for construction and has been throughout the entire Feast so far. Once we finally got in touch with our van and driver, it was off to enjoy a drive through a highway that takes one into the mountains. Each of the towns we passed through offered their own questions. Some of the towns appeared to be famous for one agricultural product or another, one of them had a massive jail, and they tended to have interesting histories–including a location that was famous for its mosquitoes.
After some driving through these areas we started going uphill towards our destination, in the mountains, driving over curvy roads with uncertain pavement, and occasionally over bridges that the tour guide called “Progress Bridges” that were promised back during the early days of the Mexican republic an only built starting in the early 21st century after the PRI lost power. Shortly after one of these gorgeous arch bridges we stopped at a tequila factory and tried their excellent añejo and slightly less excellent reposito tequila and heard about the process of turning the agave into a tasty drink and then continued on our path. Not too long after that we arrived at San Sebastian Del Oeste, moving to a coffee factory that had some excellent chocolates as well as a pretty strong brew and some macaws in captivity (the area of expertise of our tour guide, who has led efforts at creating refuges for these endangered birds).
After going to the coffee farm we took a short drive to a restaurant, had a tasty lunch, and then took a walk through the town. San Sebastian Del Oeste only has a few hundred permanent residents, many of whom are women and children and elderly, some of whom have their own businesses, and though the town looks beautiful there is not necessarily a lot going on there. Even so, there is a fair amount of activity that is potentially available–there are mines that were historically important, there are all kinds of historical buildings, including the church and several hotels as well as restaurants and other stores, there are atv opportunities, some beautiful creeks and waterfalls, and nearby mountains. Those who appreciate adventure tourism would find much to appreciate in the location and even for our party it was an enjoyable historical place.
After a lot of walking around on cobblestone streets and a look at various humble shops with jewelry and handcrafts and candy and the like, we drove back to Puerto Vallarta, passing by a police caravan and also having an amusing few minutes where our driver kept on trying without success to stop for a rest stop for himself, with the first two gas station we saw having their restrooms closed before he was able to find a third one on the other side of the highway that had open restrooms. By this time, though, we were very close to the hotel.
No town exists without a reason. To be sure, not all of the reasons for the existence of a town remain valid forever. San Sebastian Del Oeste is a gorgeous historical town, one whose original reason was to collect the nearby rich veins of silver in the mountains and alluvial gold in the streams and to send it down to the coast and ultimately to Spain to help finance the larger nation. Now the town still exists because its historical architecture and charming location has made it worth preserving as a “magical town” by Mexico’s tourism board. Towns exist because they offer something to the people who live there–namely a decent place to live and a good living–and because they offer something to the larger political communities of which they are a part–places of government, places of worship, places of trade, places to make goods and provide services, to grow food, and to entertain others. When a town’s purpose starts to fail, unless a new purpose can be provided, that town often falls into abandonment, and the people take with them their culture and their ways and their hopes and dreams for a better life and go somewhere else.