Saturday, March 19, 2011


We have wanted to see more of the interior of Mexico and decided to take a road trip with our friends, Tom and Mary Ellen. We picked up a rental car in Puerto Vallarta and drove upcountry to San Sebastian del Oeste, arriving around eleven. Founded in 1605, San Sebastian was the center of mining for many years and in its heyday boasted a population of over 20,000 people, with 30 or so working silver and gold mines in the vicinity. It was the need for salt, which was used to extract silver from the ore that led to the founding of Las Penas, which later became Puerto Vallarta. The good times lasted until the early 1900’s when the city entered a steep decline. By then the mines were giving out and then the Mexican Revolution in 1910 finished the job. For the next 90 years the town slumbered and its population dwindled to only about 600 souls, with farming and cattle ranching as their primary means of sustenance. Today the town  is reawakening, with tourism as its economic engine. It's a beautiful place with an interesting history. Some of the buildings in town are over 200 years old. The church next to the town square dates from 1870 and is a splendid example of the architecture of that period, with its stone buttresses and magnificent bell tower.

Church in San Sebastian del Oest

We wandered around the square, checked out the church and soaked up the warm, dry air, which was a nice change from the humidity of La Cruz. San Sebastian sits in a small valley in the Sierra Madre at an elevation of about 4,500 feet above sea level.  The problem with San Sebastian is that it’s been discovered by tourists and, while there were only a few in town while we were there, there were busloads on the outskirts of town, and they filled the only good restaurant that we could find.

We left San Sebastian in the afternoon, driving up the winding road to the highway which took us south through the farming town of Mascota and on to Talpa de Allende, where we spent the night. Mascota is not a tourist destination, but it is a wonderful example of a working agricultural and ranching town. It was fascinating to see the local campesinos in their pickups and caballeros astride their fairly small horses riding around town. It reminded me of scenes in the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You could almost visualize the soldados opening fire as Butch and Sundance sat at an outdoor café eating their huevos rancheros.

Mascota Rooster
We didn’t stop in Mascota because we wanted to get to Talpa before sunset. About a mile out of Talpa we came to a roadblock manned by Policia Federales carrying M-16’s and sidearms directing us to turn right onto a dirt road. We bumped along for another couple of miles on dirt and cobblestones, taking a circuitous route into downtown Talpa.

There were thousands of Mexicans on foot converging on Calle Independencia, the main street leading into town and to the Catholic Church. Another squad of armed policias blocked the road at the entrance to the town, so I turned left and we found ourselves on a  narrow cobblestone street not much wider than a cow path, with not enough room to turn around so we continued on. The road got narrower, rougher and steeper, until we were driving uphill between two stone walls.  Luckily there was no oncoming traffic.  We drove around for half an hour and finally found a place to park and set out on foot to find a place to stay. There are plenty of hotels along Calle Independencia and it didn’t take long to find one with clean rooms and hot showers just a few blocks from the main attraction in town, the basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa, which houses the Shrine of the Virgin Rosario of Talpa. The Virgin is believed to have healing powers and is the object of the Peregrinos (pilgrims) who come from all over Mexico to seek solace from her.
Church in Talpa
We happened to arrive in town a week before St. Joseph’s day, which is the culmination of the pilgrimage, but already there were thousands of peregrinos in town. It was quite a spectacle as an endless stream of worshipers, some carrying banners, bouquets and other gifts for the Virgin marched past our hotel. Many carried walking sticks which are a symbol of the pilgrimage.  Some came individually and some as families. Still others came in organized groups wearing identical shirts and carrying banners announcing their home towns. Interspersed among them all were numerous mariachi bands. This procession started before dawn and lasted long into the night. To me, the town was bursting at the seams with people, but some locals told us this was nothing compared to the crowds that would be in town on St. Josephs day. Talpa was fascinating but it was difficult to see much of the city because of the crowds everywhere. As far as we could tell, we were the only gringos in town.
Peregrinos marching past our hotel

The next day we got back on the road toward our next destination. It too houses a shrine of sorts, and many people around the world have been known to make sacrifices of all kinds before its best known icon, Jose Cuervo. Our route took us through miles of farm and ranch country and all along the highway we saw people walking toward Talpa. Fifty miles away we could still see people walking along the road toward the shrine. Apparently it's a sign of devotion to walk all the way to the shrine from home, no matter where that is. Some of the people walk the last mile or so barefoot and some even do the last few yards on their knees.

We arrived in the city of Tequila in the afternoon and found a hotel next to the central plaza and within walking distance of the Jose Cuervo distillery, where we took a tour and learned all about tequila. For me the situation was curiously reversed. I had expected peace and tranquility in the sleepy little town of Talpa and crowds at the other shrine, the Cuervo factory. But the town of Tequila was as quiet and peaceful as Talpa was crowded and boisterous. We were met by a young guide who showed us around the factory and explained the process of converting the thorny agave plant into tequila. We learned the different types of tequila and how to tell them apart. At the end of the tour she gave us a tasting, which was much like a wine tasting. It was a most interesting tour.
Sculpture Garden at the Cuervo Distillery
After a restful night in the elegant Plaza Jardin hotel, we got on the road back to Puerto Vallarta and made our own pilgrimage… to Costco.  For some reason Costco has many American goods that just can’t be found in other stores in Mexico, such as solid white albacore packed in water. In my opinion Mexican canned tuna is roughly equivalent to cat food. We loaded up on supplies and headed back to La Cruz where we found our boats safe and sound. 

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