San Sebastián del Oeste in Jalisco, Mexico, is a quiet village of colorful old haciendas nestled among the tree-covered Sierra Madre Mountains about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Puerto Vallarta. Scenic countryside, the charm of a traditional town, a rich history, and welcoming locals make San Sebastián del Oeste an excellent day trip for Puerto Vallarta vacationers.
What would have been a several-hour trek a couple of decades ago is now a two-hour drive on a two-lane paved road. Views of farmland change into mountain vistas as the road winds up to San Sebastián’s 4,500 feet elevation. While you can rent a car and drive yourself, I highly recommended taking a guided day-trip tour. Several Puerto Vallarta tour companies offer such a tour. Rather than worrying about navigating and driving, you can relax and enjoy the scenery. A tour guide directs you to highlights and provides background information. As a bonus, most San Sebastián day trips include stops at a tequila distillery and a coffee farm.
An item to note on the drive, other than the scenery, is the impressive bridge you cross shortly before you reach La Estancia and the turnoff from the highway to San Sebastián del Oeste. Supported by an arch spanning the deep San Sebastián Gorge, El Progreso Bridge is a work of Mexican engineering. Before the bridge had been built, the drive to San Sebastián would have taken a couple of hours longer and been more treacherous with the road weaving in and out of the canyon.
San Sebastián del Oeste is designated as a Pueblo Mágico. Pueblos Mágicos (“Magic Towns”) are communities of historical importance that have maintained original architecture, traditions, history, and culture. They are places that display the national identity. Their special magic connects visitors to Mexico’s roots and traditions. That special magic is evident as soon as you enter the village of San Sebastián del Oeste.
Centuries-old haciendas and well-maintained colonial-style adobe buildings with gabled red tile roofs line the cobblestone streets. In the heart of the town, you’ll find a plaza with a bandstand. As you wander the streets and alleys, you may feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. It is possible to imagine what life was like in the 1700s and 1800s when San Sebastián del Oeste was an important mining center.
Our tour guide pointed out highlights as he led us through the village, after which we had time to wander around on our own.
Portal Morelos, located next to the plaza, was once a European import business. Today, many of the stores and businesses located in it retain European names. Other colonial buildings house restaurants, handicraft stores, silver shops, or hotels. The town is small and there aren’t a raft of shops, but the handicrafts on display are lovely and the shopkeepers are happy to talk to you about their products whether you’re buying or simply browsing.
The bell tower of Iglesia de San Sebastián rises above the other one and two-story buildings in town. Dedicated to San Sebastián Mártir, the town church was originally constructed in 1608 and rebuilt in 1868 after an earthquake. The exterior is relatively plain, but the more ornate interior is worth seeing. It features Corinthian columns, a vaulted ceiling covered in frescos, and many statues and paintings throughout the church.
The small village is picturesque and the pace is slow. One of the best things to do is to simply take in the view of the centuries-old building against a backdrop of mountains and breathe in the mountain air while lingering over local coffee at a café patio or on one of the benches lining the central plaza.
San Sebastián del Oeste feels worlds away from the beaches and bustle of Puerto Vallarta, but history connects the two places.
The area around San Sebastián del Oeste was populated by the Tecos people before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Gold, silver, zinc, and lead were discovered and mining began. San Sebastián de Oeste, founded in 1605, became an important silver mining center. Over 100 silver mines existed between 1840 and 1910.
The mines in the hills needed salt for the smelting process. The Vallarta area, which up to that point had been a small fishing village, became a small port and base camp in the mid-1800s. Salt and other supplies were delivered by boat to the area, which became known as Las Peñas de Santa María de Guadalupe, or Las Peñas for short. The goods were transported up the mountains via donkeys. Las Peñas later became Puerto Vallarta.
Mining stopped when the Mexican Revolution began in 1910. Mining did not resume when the revolution ended in 1917. Many foreign companies had moved elsewhere. The last remaining mine closed in 1921. Today, the main industries are agriculture and tourism. At its peak, San Sebastián had a population of 20,000. Now, between 600 and 700 people live in the town.
When mining was at its peak, several wealthy families controlled most of the business. A descendant of one of the wealthy mining families created a small private museum in the family estate to preserve the history of San Sebastián through the display of family items and documents. Casa Museo Doña Conchita Encarnación is located at the edge of the central town plaza.
Also at the edge of the plaza is an old house that was adapted to function as municipal offices. Here you can view an antique jail cell.
Fantastic Mexican Food
Although San Sebastián del Oeste is small, there are several restaurants. Our tour group ate lunch at the family-run Comedor La Lupita. We sat at a long table covered with a brightly colored tablecloth in an airy room with a beamed ceiling. A brick-half wall separated us from the open kitchen in the corner. We could watch food being prepared.
Our delicious meal consisted of cheese quesadilla starters followed by rice, beans, shredded beef, and the best chicken mole I’ve ever tasted. Traditional Mexican mole is a thick sauce that can take hours to prepare. Ingredients, there can be up to 30, vary by recipe and usually include dried chiles, spices, nuts or seeds, and chocolate.
We were offered the purple agua de Jamaica beverage, also known as hibiscus iced tea, infused with flavor from the roselle plant, a member of the hibiscus family. I like agua de Jamaica, but for those who preferred to drink something else, other beverages, such as beer, could be ordered.
On our way to San Sebastián del Oeste, we stopped at Hacienda San Sebastián, a family-owned tequila distillery. Tequila is made from the blue agave plant. We saw what was involved in distilling tequila and had the opportunity to sample some of the flavors. The distillery made a variety of tequilas, including ones flavored with coffee, chocolate, vanilla, or almonds. They also made raicilla, a beverage distilled from two different types of agave plants.
La Quinta Mary, a 14th-century hacienda at the edge of the village, is the site of an organic farm where descendants of the original family grow and process coffee. The high altitude produces rich and flavorful coffee.
Café de Altura at the front of the property is a coffee shop and store selling coffee and coffee-related products. The walls contain photos and information about the Sanchez family. The plantation behind the building contains groves of coffee and fruit trees. Our day trip included a tour of the plantation where we learned about the coffeemaking process.
Coffee beans are harvested when they are cherry red. They are then spread out and dried in the sun for 2 to 3 weeks before being sorted, cleaned, and separated from their husks. Four baskets containing coffee beans at different stages showed us the changes in the beans as they are processed. We also saw the roasting machine. It is the roasting process that brings out the aroma and flavor of the beans.
Regardless of which tour company you choose, most of the San Sebastián del Oeste day trips include tequila tasting and a stop at a coffee farm. The order in which those are done varies from company to company. In our case, the coffee farm was our last stop before starting the drive back to Puerto Vallarta. It was a great way to end a delightful day.
Pro Tip: Given the higher altitude, temperatures in San Sebastián del Oeste can be cooler than in Puerto Vallarta. Bring a sweater with you. Bring mosquito repellent as well. While we didn’t see a lot of mosquitoes, I did get a bite or two while standing outside the church.
There are plenty of interesting locales to visit in Mexico. Consider: