San Sebastian

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February 24th 2010
Published: March 1st 2010
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The one organized tour we took was to San Sebastian del Oeste in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidentals. The bus tour included a stop at a family-run tequila distillery “Raicilla de El Nogalito de San Sebastion“, a stop at a small coffee plantation, and then on to the town of San Sebastian The guide was very knowledgable, and was fluent in both Spanish and English. He kept us entertained with stories of the history of the area, points of interest, and pointed out birds, animals, and plants native to this area. As we drove, we passed from the jungle vegetation found at sea level on the coast into oak and pine forests as we drove higher into the mountains - to San Sebastian at almost 5,000 feet.

·First, we visited the tequila plant. The family grows the blue agave on their land - it takes 8 years for the plant to mature into having the “pina” in the centre ready to harvest. The pina looks like a pineapple after all the outer leaves are stripped away (by hand with machetes), and the flesh is caramel colored and very juicy and sweet. These pinas are then cooked in a large stone oven (the guide called it a Mexican microwave) for many hours. Then the flesh is cooled and mashed - also by hand using a huge hollowed out log and a big stick - kind of like a mortar and pestle. The juice is captured and the fibre is removed, then the juice if fermented, then distilled. The sweetness of the pina gives the finished product a very smooth feel in the mouth, and of course, the distinctive taste. Some of the tequila is aged for 9 months and is sold as “reposado” or “rested”. Some is aged for at least a year or more, and is sold as “anejo” or “old”. Some is flavoured, either with manderins that they also grow themselves, or with vanilla and coffe beans. We were given a taste of all of these, and they were all excellent. This brand can only be bought from the family farm, as they don’t make enough to sell to stores. The man who explained everything to us was the member of the family who had the best job - he gave the tour to all the buses and visitors to his place, and had to taste the tequila along with us when we all got our tastes. We came away with a lot of knowledge, a new appreciation for tequila, and a couple of expensive bottles to enjoy at our leisure.

The coffee plantation was also a very small, family run operation. They grow fruit trees like orange, grapefruit, lime and avacodo in amongst the coffee plants in order to control the amount of sun that the coffee gets. Too much sun, and the plants get sun- burned and don’t produce properly; not enough and they get spots on the leaves and also don’t produce well. They alternately plant and trim the various companion trees to try to provide just the right amount of light and sun to the coffee plants. Once the coffee beans are ready to pick, they are hand-picked and spread out in the sun to dry. Then, once dried, they are run through a machine (looks like a big meat grinder) which removes the hulls from the seed, which is the coffee bean. These beans are washed, then spread out to dry again. Then they are roasted, at which point they become the coffee beans that we are familiar with. The amount of time they are roasted determines what kind of coffee they will make. The shorter amount of time produces a regular Arabica coffee bean - a little less flavour but more caffeine. A longer amount of time produces a dark roast which gives more flavour, but interestingly, less caffeine. The dark roast can also be used for expresso. We were given a taste of coffee (good), and a couple of hand-made candies that they also made there - some candied guava (kind of gritty with the seeds), and candied peanuts - like a beer nut (yummy). And of course, then we could buy any of these products to take home with us.

San Sebastián was founded as a mining town in 1605 during the Spanish colonial period. Gold, silver and lead were mined around the area. More than 25 mines and a number of foundries had been established by 1785. The town reached a peak population of some 20,000 people by 1900. The prosperity of the city declined after the revolution of 1910, and a decline in the mining of the area. It now has a population of about 600. It is very small and rustic, with some of the concrete structures hundreds of years old; most buildings are painted white with red tile roofs, and the streets are steep and narrow, of dirt or cobblestone. So narrow in fact, that every time a vehicle came down the road, we all had to squeeze to one side or the other up against a building so that the vehicle could get by. The central plaza, it's bandstand and surrounding buildings are typical of the colonial period. The church, dedicated to San Sebastian, was originally built in the 1600s but was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1868. Colorful murals have been loveingly hand painted, and rustic decorations hang from the walls, hand made from dried corn stalks, vines, and pinecones. This is done because they can’t get fresh flowers all the way from Puerto Vallarta to have in the church all year long, so the local ladies make other decorations that will last. The mines are long gone, although the ruins of them are still there, some distance from the town. This is very peaceful town, which has changed little in hundreds of years. We visited a small family run museum and listened to the fascinating story of the great-great granddaughter of one of the original Spanish families who settled to mine in the area, and saw many of the antiques and artifacts of the family. We also had a wonderful traditional Mexican lunch of cheese quesadillas, then chicken tacos served with refried beans and homemade salsa, then a wonderful chicken mole with fresh tortillas and more refried beans and salsa. To drink was a refreshing pineapple-cantaloupe aqua fresca. All you could eat and drink, hot, fast, delicious, you couldn’t ask for anything better. A really great day and a wonderful trip.

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