This article is from the December 1995 – January 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
San Blas, A Strange Attraction
by David Simmonds
The State of Nayarit may be the prettiest in Mexico…not for its beautiful colonial cities or pre-Columbian pyramid, for it has none. The beauty lies in the ancient mountains and its inhabitants, the Huichol Indians. And in the coastline, which is almost entirely undeveloped. The scenery is much like that of Hawaii, the part that hasn’t been paved. San Blas is an old town of fishermen, located mid-state on the West coast. It was to become a tourist mecca in the 1950’s. The President of Mexico, Miguel Aleman, had arrived for the dedication ceremonies that would propel the village into the status of Acapulco. It was a done deal. The sunset affair was loaded with all the delicacies of the bountiful Pacific and the adult beverages were aflow. Life would never be the same for the fine folks of San Blas. Thwap! What was that? Slap! Ouch! People are getting bit and can’t even see what’s biting. The locals call them jejenes. We gringos have since named them no-see-ums. Along with their big brothers, the mosquitos, these biters brought all plans to a sudden halt. President Aleman and his entourage were gone by sun-up and the locals went back to doing what they have always done…fishing.Approximately 15 years later I arrived in San Blas late one evening to camp on the beach for a few days. By 3:00 A.M. my buddy and I were in the ocean up to our necks waiting for the sun to rise so the bugs would depart. When we finally were able to return to the van we were greeted by a Jeep full of federales intent on a thorough search of all our belongings. These guys clearly meant business and I was sure to become a victim of the tales I had heard of, being “planted” with drugs. At which point you either procured a great deal of money or went to jail. Suddenly the insect bites seemed insignificant. But after a complete perusal of the van they left with just one piece of advice: “Get out of town.”
I didn’t return for 24 years.
SAN BLAS TODAY…
Two very disparate groups are the main visitors to San Blas today. The winter brings groups of birders. In the summer it’s a surfers paradise. It’s a good thing they have different seasons, although the common thread of nature might produce an interesting coalition. There appears to be a year- round expatriate community numbering around 15-20. That’s people, not families. These folks are not real sociable. They like their remoteness and privacy and if they wanted a bunch of tourists around they would have settled in Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, thank you very much. It brings to mind a Jimmy Buffett song, “Banana Republics”:
Some of them are running from lovers,
Leaving no forward address.
Some of them are running tons of ganga.
Some are running from the IRS.
Expatriated Americans feeling so alone.
Telling themselves the same lies
That they told themselves back home.
Down to the Banana Republic things aren’t as warm as they seem.
When none of the natives are buying any second hand American dreams.
Bogart would have been right at home in San Blas. Or maybe the Hemingway character in Islands in the Stream. The locals are friendly enough without being condescending and they don’t jump through all the tourist hoops just because you might have some pesos to drop. For this reason some travelers aren’t real crazy about going there. The people go about their daily lives of working, loving, playing and making it from day to day in the same way they always have. This is an ordinary Mexican town that happens to be surrounded by extraordinary beauty. I like San Blas very much.
The town is bordered north and south by two estuaries, the ocean to the west and the Rio Thievery to the east. The rich vegetation of the area includes mangos, papayas, tobacco fields, coffee and banana plantations, sugar cane and the ever present mangrove swamps. This tropical setting attracts hundreds of thousands of migratory birds in the winter. It has been reported that nearly 400 different species can be seen in a season, one of the highest number in the world. For this reason ornithologists travel here from all over the world to do what every ornithologist does…birdwatch I would imagine. Bring your binoculars.
The summer is when the surfers come with their boards and plenty of insect repellent. Playa Las Islitas has been named by The Guinness Book of World Records as having the world’s longest wave at 5,700 feet. I met an expat (Bob) who verified this and said that “one quarter to half mile waves are not uncommon…and by the way, please don’t tell anyone about this place.” He wasn’t smiling. Bob has lived in the area for five years and pays $50.00 a month for a little place down the beach near the village of Santa Cruz. I didn’t have the heart or the nerve to tell him I was researching for a newsletter.
The port of San Blas has a long history of attracting a rather disenfranchised element, dating back to its founding by the Spanish in the 16th century. By the mid-18th century Dutch and English pirates were often lurking offshore to relieve Spanish galleons returning from the Philippines of their booty. For protection, a fort was built atop the hill (La Contadura) overlooking the town.
In 1741, the Russians reached Alaska and in the ensuing years their fur traders expanded their activities along the Pacific coast of North America. The Spanish had always considered this their domain since they had “discovered” the Pacific and had become quite alarmed about the Russian intrusion. In a move to head off the crisis a new naval base was established at San Blas in 1768. This was the same year the Franciscan monk, Junipero Serra, set sail to set up a series of missions in the Californias.
San Blas was chosen because of its abundance of fresh water, salt and wood. Spanish cedar was the preferred wood for boat building and the local Indians provided a source of labor. At this period in history there were probably as many inhabitants of the town as there are today, around 8,000.
By the mid 19th century immigrants were arriving from overseas in great numbers with the population swelling to more than 30,000. Many of these people would eventually relocate to Guadalajara and Mexico City.
After 1880 San Blas started a decline in population and importance. Spain was losing its domination of the North American coast and in time Mexico won its independence. The town of San Blas would become a footnote in history and a stopover for the occasional tourist who was brave enough to combat the buzz of the fearless no-see-um.
THINGS TO DO
I’m not real fond of guided tours but I have to make an exception here. The jungle cruise to La Tovara is a must. The trip takes 2-3 hours depending on how long you want to stay at the crystal clear fresh water lagoon at the midpoint of the ride. Here you can swim, have lunch, drink a beer and relax. The ride itself is in a 30-foot panga captained by one of the locals. You will see numerous birds, some turtles, crocodiles, and iguanas living in a pristine jungle of vines, ferns and mangrove. If you get a little rain, as I did the trip is even more complete. This is a much better trip than was had in the Everglades of Florida. The cost this past September was 140 pesos
($21.00US) for up to four people. Truly a bargain. You board the boat by the bridge as you enter town. Make your arrangements the day before and tell your boatman you want to leave early in the morning, say 8:00. The first boats see the most birds and animals and the water is at its glassiest.
Near where you catch the boat a road goes up a hill to the remains of the old fort and cathedral. The cannons are still in place and the view affords an opportunity of quiet reflection, imagining the lives and times of the forefathers who settled this part of the world. You wonder if they were able to appreciate the same beauty you have before you. Or was life just too brutal and hard to consider such musings?
Along the way to the fort is the town cemetery. On the entrance gate is written: “Here begins eternity. All worldly grandeur is vile dust.” This seems an appropriate missive for a town like San Blas. The glitz and glamour have bypassed these folks and you get the feeling that ‘s just fine with them. In some ways the town feels more Spanish than Mexican, and the physical appearance of many of the residents would seem to confirm this. The European features seem prominent in many of the faces and physiques I saw.
The old Custom’s House is still barely standing. It’s near the end of Juarez, the main road in town. You can’t miss it as San Blas is only about ten blocks in each direction. A few of the streets in the center are paved but the rest are dirt, and if you go in the rainy season you’ll need shoes that will probably be left behind because they will never again be clean. If you are on foot during the rains you may easily walk several blocks out of your way trying to figure out how to get to where you’re going without being up to your knees in mud. It can go on like this for days, seemingly unnoticed by the locals. Like I said, I like this town.
This is where you do your swimming and surfing with fifteen miles of beautiful, sand beach. Las Islitas, three miles from San Blas, is lined with palapa restaurants serving fine fresh seafood and, get this, banana bread. It seems when this was a bit of a hippie retreat in the late sixties. Getting the “munchies” was fairly prevalent and banana bread was the antidote of choice. Now every vendor on the beach sells it. Only in Mexico! This is also the site of the famous mile long wave, as earlier noted.
Perhaps the most scenic of the beaches is Los Cocos, another four or five miles further south. On this beach, lined with palm trees, you may be the only person within sight. The body surfing was recently as fine as I have experienced in years. It is amazing that this bay hasn’t been developed with resorts. Those biting insects are a mighty deterrent indeed. Let’s hope they continue to thrive!
The south end of the bay ends at the village of Santa Cruz. I don’t know of a hotel there but there is a terrific one a couple of miles north of town, the Paraiso Miramar (info to follow).
A word of caution: San Blas isn’t the place you would go for a luxurious respite. It is a nature lover’s paradise, but you won’t be pampered. As is true along most of the Mexico Pacific Coast, the fall months immediately after the rainy season provide the lush, vibrant environment that clearly punctuates the reason we travel to this amazing country.