Part 1 – We are dedicated, both as a hobby, and in an effort to find new places to show tourists, to explore all of the BACK ROADS OF NAYARIT that we can. Our vehicle is a 1985 Jeep CJ7. Modified with a jump seat in front, and with extra cushions in the back, we can carry 6 persons comfortably. Late models cannot. On this trip, in addition to myself, and my traveling companion, and licensed tour guide, Vicky Flores, we have along our good friends Terry and Lenor Coomber. We have packed the ice chests with sandwiches, soft drinks and snacks. We also have a thermos of freshly made coffee. The green beans from our nearby mountains were roasted and ground this morning.
Home is Rincón de Guayabitos, a small community about an hour North of Puerto Vallarta. It is about 8:30 A.M. and we are loaded up and heading North on highway 200. We pass through the green country side with bananas, tropical fruit and tobacco fields on either side. Very beautiful. About 20 minutes later, we are fueling up in Las Varas, a farm town, which also has a few fisherman and the only hospital for some distance in either direction. This is also the intersection for travel to the North coast and San Blas.
Editor’s Note: “Back Roads of Nayarit” is a series of essays written by Bob Howell, a long-time resident of Jaltemba Bay. We are sharing his stories in an effort to preserve Bob’s memory – and to help Bob’s partner and traveling companion, Vicky Flores Ramirez, who still lives in La Peñita and quietly carries on the work that she and Bob so loved. You can learn more below.
A quick check to see if we have everything buttoned down and we are off and headed in the direction of Compostela. We pass by La Cuata, the road going to the hotsprings of Jamurca and then to coffee country. We are starting to climb into the mountains. The road is well paved, but as usual no shoulders. If you break down here, there is no place to go. Pull outs are few and far between. Soon we pass the road going to the Volcano El Molote and more hot springs (a great swimming hole near the village). The country is dry at first but then becomes green. We fly past Las Mesillas, then the shrine, where may be seen a lot of candles and where the local folks, and travelers stop to give a prayer. This road has many curves, and many accidents, which Vicky can attest to. She is a nurse at the hospital at Las Varas, where she works at night. She has seen the results of these accidents more than she would like to remember. Don’t travel this road at night.
Before we know it, we have dipped down into the beautiful valley, where lies the pueblo of Compostela. We come to a well marked intersection and go in the direction of Guadalajara. We soon stop at a “Casa de Cobre” (toll booth) and pay $28 pesos. This road is well paved and is wide enough to pull off if necessary. Emergency phones are located all along. I remember over a year ago when the car developed a problem. Vicky walked to the nearest phone, just a few minutes away. Before she returned to the car a tow truck arrived. They were very courteous and took us and our car back to a garage in Compostela. No charge and they refused a tip. Try that in the states. Big bucks.
It is 9:45 and we again charge ahead on this adventure. The road is easy and we have a great view of the valley and the mountains. We begin to see agave plants here and there. Agave needs 8 to 12 years to age. It is the main ingredient of Tequila, the demand for which is beginning to outpace the supply. Agave may be grown anywhere, but can only be distilled in the state of Jalisco. Good Tequila will state 100% agave on the bottle, and if it is aged it will say “reposado.” If it does not so state, then it is only 51% tequila and could have been distilled yesterday. Enough of this lecture. However, there will be more later because I intend to check out the Tequila Train this summer.
Off to our right we see the Volcano San Pedro de Lagunillas. Then, to the left we see the lakes, or lagoons of Lagunillas. It is very scenic, and the Pueblo, which is larger than you would think, is a very typical Mexican town. The larger lake, of course, has a resident monster, according to the locals, and it is on the list for future investigation. Maybe we will overnight in a canoe and light candles, or something like that.
A bit further on we pull into a rest stop, which overlooks a very secret place for us. There is a small village that has a great swimming hole. I know you won’t believe this, but not only is the water crystal clear but it is cold in the summer and warm in the winter! And no, I haven’t been drinking. The name of this village is to be revealed at my wake. After a refreshing cup of our great Nayarit Arabica coffee, we are off again.
On down the road it is 10:40 A.M. and we pull into a PEMEX to top off the tank. One disadvantage of my jeep is that it is 6 cyl. and I never pass a gas station. After refueling and a comfort stop, we proceed. We pass the Pueblo of El Torreon, where Vicky’s daughter Brenda used to teach school. It is a poor pueblo, which has seen better times. Most of the able bodied have gone to the cities or North of the border. There is not much work here. Shortly we reach our first goal. Santa Isabel. It is a small Pueblo, which is mostly known for farming, honey and pottery. You can see and buy in the various stands alongside of the road.
Reaching the last stand, which today is empty, we turn to the right and head down through farms and sugar cane fields. After a couple of kilometros, we reach our point and stop. From the jeep we can only see fields and hills. We get out and walk a few steps and what do we see. A beautiful jungle canyon. There is a river flowing below. Before this we see clear pools surrounded by ferns. There are a number of waterfalls. No one is in sight. We have it all to ourselves. An untouristed spot. Down we go. The locals have built steps, and it is an easy descent. Dropping all but our bathing suits we climb in the lower pool. Wow! Cold. We paddle across and let the waterfall splash over us. This is dreamy. We chat, laugh, have a Caribe cooler and climb rocks. Vicky climbs down to a lower fall and pool near the river. Terry and Lenor paddle around and enjoy. It is hard to leave this wonderful place, but finally we must.
It is 11:30 and we reluctantly bid a fond farewell to the cascadas de Santa Isabel. Off we go, continuing down the free road and in the direction to Guadalajara. Soon we see a sign that says Tetitlan. We turn right and almost immediately enter that Pueblo. Here we are going to see a very old hacienda. Much of which is still standing. This hacienda stood off attacks by bandidos, Indians and for some time against the revolution. When last we visited, one of the village elders pointed to the towers and walls that defended until the last. Finally overwhelmed, many of the defenders were stood against the walls and executed. You can still see the bullet holes to this day.
In the second part we will tell of the ancient caves we found. These have to date far beyond the later civilizations of the Aztecs, Olmecs and Toltecs. These were cavemen (cavewomen also).
Then we will tell of the only intact old hacienda that we have ever found. And, it is for sale too!
Part 2 – In part 1, we told of our trip past Compostela, the lakes of Lagunillas and the great little Eden and swimming holes of Santa Isabel. Finally ending as we entered the Pueblo of Tetitlan.
The street we enter on is Avenida Independencia. This is a nice little place with narrow cobblestone streets. We follow the street past a little restaurant and a bull ring (actually, a place where the charros, or cowboys practice their roping and other skills with all classes of livestock as well as bulls).
We pull under a large shade tree in front of part of the old hacienda. There are a couple of saddlehorses tied in front and some locals deep in conversation. The hacienda is quite large and there are still small waterways serving their intended purposes. I prepare coffee and snacks while Vicky takes our friends on a tour. The buildings, corrals, storage sheds and various shops are in various stages of disrepair. Vicky shows them where they once lived, worshiped, worked, fought off Indians, bandidos and later revolutionarios, and where many died. A canal came from the river, far above, and entered by a circular flume from the high ceiling with force enough to drive the wheel, which in turn drove the equipment. Much of this hacienda was planted to cotton, which not only were used in looms of the ranch, but exported to Tepic, which had a number of textile mills. Mostly owned by Englishmen. Those ruins may be seen today. One of which is still intact. After the revolution and land redistribution, most of the surviving hacienda owners left.
After coffee and refreshments we hop aboard our jeep and continue on. A short distance down the road we come to the Pueblo of Valle Verde. A lively little place with several small cafes and tiendas (stores). At the railroad crossing there is a large train station, still intact. For the benefit of at least one of our readers, we take a full front photo. This was a passenger stop a few years ago. Now, trains only stop for cargo. There is still a station master. He tells us that passenger service may resume next year. I would really like to make the trip from Tepic to Guadalajara. I remember a number of Mexican train trips of years back. Of traveling 3rd class with the chickens. One of the cars usually had a plank bar. Beer was in buckets of ice. No window coverings. Usually someone had a guitar. I remember one time, we were in the middle of the Sonora desert, and I had boarded at a whistle stop by the name of El Coyote. I had been on board long enough to be settled down with the chickens and a small pig or two, and sufficiently fortified with a few cervezas when all of a sudden… ah, but I am losing sight of the story at hand. Such is the plight of the aged.
We cross the tracks and continue on down a cobblestone road until we come to a balneario – another spring fed swimming spa. It soon appears that we are on the wrong road, so we return to the village, ask directions and off we go again. We are passing through rolling hills and we get glimpses of the railroad now and then. Soon we come to a sign that says Agua Tibia (warm water). This looks interesting, and the road is on our map. It says “Las Cuevas” (the caves). We end up in a few false roads, but finally come to a stream in a little valley and there are three caves on a cliff side. One is very large. They are elevated above the valley floor, and seem to have some kind of construction at the cave edges and made of small slate rock. Were these shelters, small living quarters, graves? It looks similar to that of the cave dwellings found in Arizona and New Mexico. The very high ceilings are blackened. Quite likely by fires over the centuries. The floor is almost powdered soil. I have the urge to dig down and see what is under here, but some things are better left alone. Vicky, who is almost pure Totonaka Indian, is suffering from bad vibes and says the spirits do not want us here. She refuses to enter the caves. We look around a bit and then continue on up the valley. There is a lake just beyond. We would like to picnic here, but the mosquitoes are attacking us.
We reverse our course and go on some distance away from the mosquitoes, stopping under a tree for a shady tailgate lunch. We break out our ham and cheese sandwiches, complete with home made bread and butter pickles and our local mountain grown coffee, roasted and ground fresh this morning. There is also beer, Caribe coolers and soft drinks.
Part 3 – After lunch, on to Amado Nervo, named after a famous Mexican poet, who’s home is now a museum in the state capital of Tepic. A must to see. The cobblestone road is really rough here. You have to go very slow or fly over the top. It is shaking us up. We are still in rolling hills and it is beautiful. There is a large valley over to the side. I don’t see anything in the valley except a couple of cows. A canopy of greenery, almost covering the road, soon appears. Vicky notices a tree bearing some kind of strange fruit and we stop and gather a few. Vicky says it is used to cure some disease. It is interesting to listen to Vicky when we are traveling or hiking. She misses nothing. Always pointing to plants and explaining the many natural remedies. She knows the names of nearly ever plant, tree and bird. A bus passes. It is loaded with people, so I assume it is the local transportation. It is difficult to see any paint under the corrosion and it is dented and battered beyond belief. Is this the final run before the wrecking yard?
Terry and Lenor Coomber, Bob Howell in the courtyard of the hacienda in El Conte. / Top photo: Exploring the ruins of an old barn and stable at El Conte.
Continuing on we pass a small ranchita, the first sign of civilization in some time. I don’t know what they grow or what they do. We see a lake down in the valley to our left. It is fair size. I would like to visit it, but I don’t see any way to get down there. Soon we enter Amado Nervo. We stop at the main plaza. This town was formerly named El Conte (The Count), after the hacienda of that name, the remainder of which is located just the other side of the Plaza. The home itself is the only intact hacienda that we have seen. The out buildings are huge, but in disrepair. The more than 30 foot ceilings are giving away in spots. We enter the hacienda home itself. The many pillared patio in front is huge. As we enter through the large wooden front doors we notice an old crank telephone on the wall.
In the adjoining reception room there are pictures on the wall of the count and countess,who were of some European royalty. The pictures are of a handsome young man and a lovely young lady. For some reason I am drawn to them like a magnet. I must learn more about them and this hacienda. The room is very long and has a huge bath. Maybe this was where the Count and Countess slept. On the opposite side of the entry way there is another reception room still partially furnished with the old furniture. These ceilings must be 20 feet high. There is a large wall safe. The caretaker says there is no key. Who knows what secrets lie within! This enters into a bedroom. Many old things are on the walls and scattered around. A lot of old reading material. Entering the hacienda proper we see a very large courtyard. There is a swimming pool size fountain in the center. The courtyard is bordered by patios with many large pillars. Walking around to the right, we come to bedroom after bedroom. The last time we were here, most were locked up and no one lived here. We see all of the rooms are open and there is a new caretaker. Now it seems to have limited use. There are five bedrooms, most very large, some with living or sitting rooms. There is one very large bath. Next is a large bar room, complete with tables, leather chairs, pool table and bar. I think this could be my favorite room. There is a kitchen, a living room with old wood stoves, and then the dining room. More bedrooms, a library with very old typewriters, printed material and antiques. We see more bedrooms one of which has a small bath. I think we have seen about a dozen bedrooms and maybe 4 baths. Some changes would have to be made to meet modern times. Although, in those days, most homes had no toilet facilities, so this place was very modern by most standards.
The caretaker informs us that the owner (he called her La Contesa) would like to sell. He did not know the price, nor was he able to tell us how much land was included. A lot of work here. But what a masterpiece if you could do it. What could be done with it. A retreat? A weight reduction spa – once checked in there would be no escape except through the castle size front doors. Lots of room for the 10 most wanted. The IRS would never find you. Your ex! Vicky took a lot of nice photos, I only wish you could see them.
Anyway, the caretaker shows us through the outbuildings, interior shops, corrals, stalls for livestock and passage ways. Many are in almost hopeless disrepair. We climb to the top of the granary and it gives us a spectacular view of the area. We note a large group of buildings on the edge of town. The caretaker tells us that this was a winery. It is interesting to note that very old wineries are nonexistent. The Spanish, in order to prevent competition, prohibited the making of wine, with the exception of the churches, and that wine to be used only for religious purposes. I would have liked to visit the winery, but it is getting late and we have a long way to go.
As we are leaving, the caretaker points to his saddled horse and offers to trade straight across for my jeep. Maybe I passed up a good deal, but I felt four of us would have been a bit much for the horse. Anyway, all aboard the jeep and off we go.
We are going to try and find the old train station. It is listed on the map as Estacion Conde. It even shows a building. Going up to the track and taking a side road we locate the signs, one on each side of the track, and they both say Conde, however a foot search on either side fails to show any evidence of a station. On the opposite side, and some distance away we see some old ruined buildings, but they don`t look like they would have been a station.
We decide to try a different road, which seems to go straight across to Lagunillas. Passing through rolling hills, and through many areas planted to agave, we have an easy half hour trip and reach the highway near Lagunillas. We are about an hour and a half from home.
by Bob Howell
Originally published June 29, 2002 on La Peñita Folk
Back Roads of Nayarit” is a series of essays written by Bob Howell, a long-time resident of Jaltemba Bay. The series details his day trips and adventures between 2001-2007. We are sharing these stories in an effort to preserve Bob’s memory – and to help Bob’s partner and traveling companion, Vicky Flores Ramirez, who still lives in La Peñita and quietly carries on the work that she and Bob so loved. Sometimes her bodega is packed full of donated clothing, school supplies, toys and medicine; sometimes it is bare. If you enjoy reading these articles, please consider making a donation so the McKibben Foundation (Nurse Vicky’s Dispensary) can continue helping schools, seniors and needy families in the Jaltemba Bay area. And if you have copies of any of Bob’s old stories or photos, please contact us.
Click here to read Tom Plattenberger’s personal dedication entitled “In Memory of Bob Howell” which serves as an introduction to this series.