The western state of Jalisco is best known for Puerto Vallarta, with its beautiful beaches, resorts, restaurants and galleries. But for travelers who want to venture deeper into the heart of Mexico, Puerto Vallarta also provides a perfect home base for exploring San Sebastian, Mascota and Talpa, also known as three of the Magical Towns of Jalisco.
The Magical Towns of Mexico is an initiative led by Mexico's Secretariat of Tourism, together with local agencies, to promote destinations that provide visitors with a "magical" experience through their natural beauty, cultural heritage or historical relevance. Each year these towns are given funds to help maintain their charm, and each year the government re-evaluates the status of each Magical Town.
San Sebastian del Oeste
San Sebastian del Oeste has been a popular getaway for Puerto Vallartans for years and was one of the first places to be awarded this designation. The town is located at the foot of the Western Sierra Madre, about 90 minutes from Puerto Vallarta.
In the past it was an important mining city with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Today it remains a sleepy relic of its past, with just 600 residents, marked by its quiet, iconic plaza with a blue-domed cathedral. The drive to San Sebastian is visually stunning as you wind your way up into the jungle-covered hills and turn onto the cobblestone road that leads into town.
San Sebastian is a great spot for foodies, as well. Here travelers can sample local treats like huitlacoche (corn fungus), stewed with onions and spices, or mixed platters heaped with stuffed chili peppers, gorditas and machacas (dried meat). Local restaurants worth considering are the Restaurant & Galeria el Fortin de San Sebastian, which is known for its excellent coffee; El Galletero Magico, a hole-in-the-wall bakery that serves raved-about pastries; and Montebello Restaurante Italiano, a taste of Italy in the mountains of Mexico.
San Sebastian is also home to a distillery that produces mescal from the locally grown agave lechuguilla plant. Be sure to walk up Cerro de la Bufa, which is over 8,500 feet at its peak, to catch a spectacular sunset view. Some of the best times to visit this city are during the San Sebastian Fiesta on Jan. 20, with traditional rodeos; Aug. 15 for the Virgen de la Asuncion Fiesta; Sept. 15 and 16 for Mexican independence celebrations; and during Christmastime for its colorful festivities. Among the best places to spend the night in San Sebastian are the Hacienda Jalisco, the Hotel del Puente and La Galerita de San Sebastian.
Construction on La Iglesia de la Preciosa Sangre in Mascota started in the early 1900s, but the church was never completed.
Not far from San Sebastian is Mascota, another small colonial town in the Sierras. Brightly colored buildings with terra-cotta-tiled roofs flank the cobblestone streets, all surrounded by the towering mountains in the distance.
Mascota was established in the second half of the 17th century. Today, travelers can wander the winding streets, stopping into one of the many small restaurants to sample local dishes. In the morning, ask for a cafe de olla, or eat some of the homemade cookies and sweets, stuffed with mango, guavas and more. Adults will love the rompope, which is similar to eggnog and can contain vanilla, chestnuts or seasonal fruits and berries. Another place to visit is the Panaderia Blanquita for a cup of creamy Mexican hot chocolate. For typical Mexican food, there's La Casa de mi Abuelita or El Tapanco.
Outdoor activities are popular in Mascota, such as horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours and rock climbing. One of the most impressive sites in Mascota is La Iglesia de la Preciosa Sangre, a beautiful church that was started in the early 1900s but remains unfinished. Today the towering stone structure is still open to the sky, blanketed with brilliantly colored purple flowers.
Talpa de Allende
Leaving Mascota, wind through the mountain passes toward Talpa de Allende, one of the most important religious destinations in all of Mexico. This mining town was founded by the Spanish in 1585.
At the center of the town is the cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary,where each year thousands of devoted followers arrive on pilgrimages.
On the drive to Talpa, it is possible to see pilgrims hiking the miles of mountain road up to the steps of the church where they drop to their knees to finish the final few steps, while small brass bands play throughout the square to welcome them.
The streets surrounding the main square are packed with shops selling everything from handmade sandals and toys to tacos and candy. Talpa also has a long-standing tradition of producing candy, and the air is thick with the smells of sugary guava dulce de leche. This is a town where you will see few tourists and will come back to Puerto Vallarta having known you've done something authentically Mexican.
Vallarta Adventures offers designated tours to all of these towns, complete with a guide, tastings at local shops and lunch.