As we are driving back to Guadalajara Yara tells me that she had an amazing trip but if I had told her in advance that we would be taking the free road through Mascota she never would have agreed. The old highway that goes from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, by way of Mascota and San Sebastián del Oeste, has a reputation for being dangerous. The two-lane highway is rural, sinuous and runs through territory that a criminal organization claims. The reward was visiting two more pueblos mágicos on the way to the beach. This is old Mexico. Towns that were founded in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The architecture and scenery just isn’t found in the city. We took all the necessary precautions and will probably do it again.
The old road to Puerto Vallarta runs through farm country and touches the pueblos mágicos of Talpa de Allende, Mascota and San Sebastián del Oeste. Each of these towns has significant cultural importance to the people of Jalisco. Talpa de Allende attracts thousands of the faithful who make a yearly pilgrimage to visit the cathedral. In Mascota the ruins of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church and the active Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Dolores are a must see. San Sebastián del Oeste has scenery that feels like it is taken out of a movie. The subtropical forest is perched in a valley that overlooks Puerto Vallarta. The streets are lined with adobe houses and lead to one of the most beautiful town squares in all of Mexico. Plus, the highway leads to the beach.
2015 was a rough year for security in the Mexico. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison again, May 1st was the worst three-day-weekend ever and more than one military convoy was ambushed along the highway outside of Mascota. The area got a bad reputation and tourism plummeted. Two years later I still wouldn’t travel the highway at night but during the day it was absolutely delightful. You need to drive carefully through the curves. We saw an overturned tractor trailer and the police that were directing traffic around the accident looked really nervous.
Planning the Trip
I had been wanting to see the area for years but wasn’t keen on the eight hour drive to the beach. The free roads are winding two-lane highways that go through every pueblo and add hours to your trip. The toll road takes half the time to get to the beach but there is nothing to see along the way. This trip was as much about visiting the pueblos along the way as it was about going to the beach.
We left Guadalajara at a reasonable hour late in the morning. I had closed the restaurant the night before and couldn’t get up at 6am like I had planned. Given our departure time we had to make some decisions about which pueblos mágicos we would visit. We ended up skipping Talpa de Allende on a coin toss. That left us will Mascota and San Sebastián del Oeste.
We were fortunate to be traveling just after the rainy season. The scenery has every shade of green imaginable. The locals call Mascota the emerald of the mountains because the landscapes are painted so intensely green. As you drop down the valley from Talpa into Mascota the scenery goes from Alpine to subtropical and all the color saturation explodes. You realize real quickly that this is farm country.
As you roll into town the highway goes from paved asphalt to cobblestone streets. I don’t remember seeing one stoplight in the entire village. There is a small cluster of 19th century buildings around Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Dolores that makes up the downtown. We found a charming cafe for coffee, munchies and a bathroom break. Cafe Nápoles sell a couple blends of locally grown coffee. The locals like their coffee a little darker than I do but I love trying new blends.
The Churches of Mascota Jalisco
After shooting some photos of the active basilica the locals told us about the ruins of the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo. Construction of the church was started in the 19th century but never finished. Red stone walls rise up out of the overgrown grass in the shape of the cross. Lizards sunbathe on the open aired walls. There is a working convent next door that maintains the ruins as a park. I can only assume that construction began just as Mexico’s reform movement was gaining steam and funds became scarce.
We hung out in Mascota for a little over an hour before continuing on our way. The town was delightful and left both of us wanting to come back again. We were in a little bit of a rush but we heard that they make a pretty mean birria around here.
No matter which way you drive in from you are going to have to go through the curves. The highway that leads to San Sebastián del Oeste is slow and sinuous as a result of the elevation change. As you drop in from Mascota the air becomes much more humid and the temperature continues to rise.
San Sebastián del Oeste
San Sebastián del Oeste is a few miles off of the highway so keep an eye out for the turnoff at La Estancia. We stopped in La Estancia, in the middle of a cornfield, for a quick bite to eat. The tortillas were recently ground on a metate from corn grown out back and the wood fired comal is the sort of thing you only see in the ranches. The food was simple yet exquisite because of the ingredients. The owner of the restaurant made Yara a cocktail with raicilla that they distill locally. The old men go up in to the hills to look for wild agaves that are ripe to cook, ferment and distill into the famous local spirit called raicilla. It is an ancestral process.
The road from La Estancia to San Sebastián is paved with cobblestones and probably wasn’t intended for automobiles. It seems like you are driving straight into the clouds as you approach the entrance to the village. San Sebastian de Oeste is a 16th century mining town and one of the most beautiful pueblo magico that I have visited. First of all the cloud forest scenery is breathtaking next to the 19th century adobe architecture.
San Sebastián del Oeste is a great place for outdoor activities because of the surrounding forest. Because we were limited on time we decided to have coffee the Plaza Morelos and visit the church. I can’t wait to go back with a couple of days because I want to climb to the Bufa viewpoint and stay at the Galeritas Hotel. We felt like we were traveling back in time while walking the cobblestone streets. These pueblos are the heart of Old Mexico and a real treasure. You have to see them to really know Mexico.
We left San Sebastián a little late. We made it to Puerto Vallarta before dark but we still had another 45 minutes until Sayulita. In Mexico it isn’t a good idea to be driving at night especially on the free roads. Again, the highway from Puerto Vallarta to Sayulita is narrow with lots of curves. Make sure you plan ahead and always leave more time than you think you will need. There is always something cool to see along the way.
We spent the next couple days in Sayulita at Brian’s place, Hacienda de Cereza. He has a great Airbnb rental that I highly recommend. I surfed Burros in Punta Mita for two days relishing every wave. This was one of the best road trips that I have ever taken and I can’t wait to do it again, stopping at all the places that we missed.