Tiny San Sebastian offers a blast to the past

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 San Sebastian.

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 Sierra Madres.

The landscape below was devoid of towns or villages. Rivers meandered through canyons, and I spotted a few cows here and there.

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.

Pachita, 78, is San Sebastian's resident poet as well as the keeper of the town's only general store - whose inventory is older than the proprietor. 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 family business.

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 town.

"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 progress.

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 courtyard.

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 poetry.

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 B&B

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