While on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, senior editor Gay
Nagle Myers discovered San Sebastian, a mountain town where
tourists are few, the coffee delicious and the excursion
commissionable. Her report follows:
on't look for the town of San
Sebastian on your standard map of Mexico. It's not there.
The town is a pinprick on the far side of Mosquito Canyon in the
Sierra Madre mountains, located 90 miles inland from Puerto
Vallarta via a narrow, twisting road that takes four hours to
negotiate by car -- or 20 minutes by air.
San Sebastian, dubbed "The Town that Time Forgot," is simply
that -- a 400-year-old silver-mining town that, in its heyday,
supported 40,000 inhabitants, most of whom worked the mines.
Today, the population numbers 531, two-thirds of whom are
children. Their families work in the fields alongside the one
elementary school, just up the one road from the one church.
Dusty,cobblestone streets; a sienna-colored church; two cantinas
that sell local moonshine called raicilla; a general store
run by a 78-year-old village poet named Pachita; a wrought-iron
gazebo in the town square; a cowboy named Cheeko with his dancing
horse; the 11-room El Pabellon Mexicano hotel and El Fortin
restaurant; and a small bed-and-breakfast are the heart and soul of
This is as far from the shops, ships and shrines of Puerto
Vallarta as any traveler could get. I loved it. So, too, will
visitors who want to see the other side of Mexico.
A short flight carried me inland over the forested slopes of the
The landscape below was devoid of towns or villages. Rivers
meandered through canyons, and I spotted a few cows here and
The pilot explained during the pre-flight briefing that the
plane would pass twice over the runway -- the first "to scare the
cows away, and the second to land."
The very short runway at San Sebastian was a clue that I had
entered a time warp. A mix of gravel and dirt, it sported a slope
at one end to help stop the plane -- as well as to give it a
rolling start at takeoff.
My tour group of 12 walked down a dirt road to La Quinta, a
180-year-old coffee plantation run by 36-year-old Rafael Sanchez
Alvarado, who had been selected by his father to continue the
The 20th of 21 children, Alvarado was born in the plantation's
two-bedroom house in which he still lives.
We arrived at the height of the coffee season in Mexico, which
runs from February through May, so it was a busy time.
The bean-roasting machine was fashioned from an old oil drum,
which turned on a spit much like a roasting chicken. It was powered
by the engine of an antiquated washing machine.
Alvarado assured us he had a very modern, chrome roasting
machine. He had dismantled it for the arduous trip to a coffee
exposition being held in Puerto Vallarta a few days later.
His coffee is not exported, even to other Mexican towns. The 30
tons of Cafe de Altura beans annually produced at La Quinta remain
right in San Sebastian for its residents.
We sampled Alvarado's coffee, served to us by his wife and
mother. Lucky for me, he does sell a few bags to visitors, charging
us the same as he does the townspeople -- from $3 to $10 a bag,
depending on size.
Alvarado seals the 70 bags of coffee beans he bags each day with
the heat of a candle, blessed by the local priest.
Fortified by our java highs, we continued our walk into
"Soon, this road will be paved," said Jose, our guide.
"Telephones are coming this week -- maybe. We can't stop progress,
but everyone fears it will spoil this community."
It hasn't yet. Five years ago, San Sebastian was declared a
Unesco World Heritage Site, which might slow the march of
San Sebastian is a place where everyone knows everyone's stories
and where visitors' questions are welcomed and answered.
Jose explained that the town is self-sufficient. "Everything
grown here is used here."
The lunch menu attested to this, featuring bean salads; corn
truffles with garlic; chicken breast in tamarind sauce; and steak
with tomato sauce, all served family-style in a flower-filled
We visited the general store, where the diminutive Pachita has
stood behind the counter for 68 years.
Her inventory includes hundreds of packets of hooks and eyes
that were used before zippers, old knives, 40-year-old tin
canisters of Ceylon tea and sheafs of lined paper filled with her
Too soon, it was time to return to the plane for the flight back
to Puerto Vallarta and the present.
No one was in a hurry to leave. San Sebastian is like that.
For more information on San Sebastian, see:
Firm's forte is the unusual
Town draws day-trippers, others opt for local