Todd Parker, Special to Vancouver Courier
Friday, August 07, 2009
Jalisco state is best known for the white sand beaches of popular resort town Puerto Vallarta, but this geographic and historic heart of Mexico is said by locals to have given the world three much more important things: charros (progenitors of North American cowboy culture), silver and (last but not least) tequila.
Without much effort one will find these iconic products represented in the shops and restaurants that line Puerto Vallarta’s streets, but for the restless, the curious and the brave, authentic Jalisco is easily accessible not too far off the Malecon oceanfront boardwalk.
San Sebastian, a silver mining town carved 400 years ago from the jungle an hour inland (and upward) from the coast, supported up to 30,000 souls in its prime. Today 600 remain, leaving the streets eerily empty as gardens go untended and the surrounding jungle inches back in.
With the silver industry almost entirely a thing of the past, San Sebastian now relies on tourist spending to survive. Several of the haciendas that once housed rich landowners, protecting them against roaming banditos, have been converted into hotels. The Royal Pabellon offers nine simple rooms, each with rustic bath and shower, and a central courtyard in which guests mingle, sharing stories of daytrips into the jungle in search of lost treasure.
A guide with mules can be hired for 300 pesos to lead a group to the abandoned mines in the hills, or in search of wildlife like the colourful macaw or elusive panther. For much less, one can enjoy lunch at El Arriero with generous servings of local tequila and its stronger cousin, raicilla. The town is currently pressing for both UNESCO World Heritage status and recognition as a pueblo magico, a designation that allocates funds to towns deemed to be particularly representative of the country’s culture and history.
Mexico’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site and star of the pueblo magico program is the famed town of Tequila. Further inland, about 350 kilometres, it is still accessible. A seat on a bus can be purchased for as low as C$25 round trip, and flights to nearby Guadalajara from the coast can be had for under one C$100. Tequila is the epicentre of charro culture, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains, where the sun shines relentlessly and often the only available cover is under a wide-brimmed hat.
The volcanic soil is dry and rocky where it has not been cultivated to support the blue agave that the local distilleries require to make their product. By law, tequila can only be produced in Tequila, and they produce plenty of it. With dozens of distilleries operating in or near the town, a visitor’s most difficult decision may be which tasting tour to join. For a visitor coming from Puerto Vallarta, the best solution may be to arrive in Guadalajara and then take the Tequila Express, a tour by train with multiple distillery visits. But be prepared for the sampling to begin shortly after boarding in the morning, and bring a jacket for the late return.
Guadalajara is the capital of Jalisco and was at the heart of Mexico’s independence movement. It teems with heritage sites, soaring cathedrals, and crowded markets. It also offers a glimpse into a Mexico that isn’t concerned about presenting itself for tourist consumption. Tonala market is where locals come to stock their kitchens, furnish their homes, buy gifts for each other. Vendors are less likely to haggle over prices here, but only because the prices have not been marked up for tourists with pesos to spare. Nearby Tlaquepaque offers more upscale shopping, the streets lined with storefronts rather than stalls.
Street performers prefer Tlaquepaque where patrons are more likely to have spare change. The intoxicating smell of roasting meats permeates both marketplaces. Look for a stand popular with locals and then feel free to sample. A quick tour of Guadalajara should include the historic centre where La Catedral Nueva, the oldest building in a city almost 500 years in the making, remains one of its most active sites of worship, and the Hospicio Cabanas building, another UNESCO site, houses the murals of radical artist Jose Clemente Orozco, whose politically motivated early 20th-century works on display here are often collectively referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas.
To enjoy a brief cultural tour into the heart of Jalisco, budget two to three days away from the beach. San Sebastian alone can be enjoyed as a daytrip from Puerto Vallarta with time left for an air-conditioned siesta before dinner. But for those who refuse to budge from the Malecon unless it is to a restaurant nearby, ask someone for directions to local favourites Tino’s or El Colequita, where abundant servings of fresh seafood can be had at almost incomprehensible prices (no haggling required). And don’t fret if you are unable to tear yourself away from those sandy beaches–Puerto Vallarta is the number one destination for Mexicans on vacation within their own borders, an endorsement worth a 1,000 words.