By Madeline Milne
The town of Mascota is a short two hour drive from Puerto Vallarta, 103 kms into the mountains behind the Bay of Banderas, where it’s a little cooler and there is almost no humidity. Located in the state of Jalisco, the town has a population of about 14,000 and is primarily based on agriculture. Settled by the Spanish around 1530, the town has a long history that predates the Spanish by at least 2,000 years.
Driving north towards Bucerias, you take the Ixtapa exit just past Home Depot, and drive straight. You literally can’t get lost if you stay on that road. The drive takes you through the town of Ixtapa, past the jail, through a number of small towns and ranches. The scenery is stunning, with rolling hills, lush farmland, and thick jungle. As you climb up the mountain, the jungle disappears and the pine and oak forests start to emerge. This is one of my favourite landscapes and makes me nostalgic for my childhood home near the Okanagan Valley.
Just before the town of San Sebastian del Oeste there is a very impressive bridge that spans a drop that is over 1000 meters. Stop and walk to the middle of the bridge just to see how far a kilometer looks from above. Once you get back on the road you are about 30 – 45 minutes outside of Mascota.
We stayed at Rancho Esmeralda which is at the entrance to the town. Situated in a beautiful setting, with a number of charming cabins, an outdoor pool and amenities set among fields and surrounded by the embracing mountains. Rancho Esmeralda is set up for self-sufficiency and you should at the least bring snacks to tide you over in the morning and evening. It is a great place for families, reunions, or even romantic vacations. Each cabin is set far enough apart for privacy and all come with lovely verandas where you can watch the birds in the morning.
There are a handful of other charming hotels further along towards the centre of town. All seem to be built in the delightful hacienda style, with inner courtyards. They range from $400 to $1000 pesos a night and may or may not include breakfast.
Early in the morning on our way to check out some of the surrounding towns, we stopped at an inviting café and I had one of the best mochas I’ve ever tasted, along with a perfect coconut cookie. Around the main plaza there are a number of coffee shops, most selling locally grown coffee and fresh baked galletas.
We decided to hit the road early to visit the towns of Yerbabuena and Navidad. Heading out of town towards Guadalajara, as you reach the Pemex, you can stay right and head to GDL or you can lean left and head towards a number of smaller towns. They are a total of less than 20 kms kms from Mascota along a tight one-lane road that in rainy season should encourage you to exercise caution.
Yerbabuena – Navidad
Yerbabuena is as cute as they come. About two kilometers from Mascota, he town is clearly enjoyed by the affluent weekenders from Guadalajara and the grand homes are all set with clay tile roofs and stone foundations. The tiny plaza has a lovely rose garden and the church is postcard perfect.
Apparently there is a very good restaurant along the river but it was early and we had our coffees in hand. Next time.
From Yerbabuena, we carried on to Navidad. This village was settled years ago by French immigrants escaping religious persecution and today the population is tall and slender with fair hair and light green or blue eyes. The town itself is extremely small (pop. 230) and appealing with some interesting mural work at the entrance to the town.
We stopped for a short time to visit the plaza and church, which was renovated in the 1980’s, and clearly looks like it was renovated in the 80’s. We headed back to Mascota, taking in some spectacular vistas of volcanos, valleys, and farmland. Once in town we stopped at the Museo Estatal de Arqueología.
Museum – Ruins
It is co-sponsored by National Geographic and is very well done. As is to be expected in a Spanish speaking country, the displays are entirely in Spanish. I thought we were out of luck but we were thankfully found by the only English speaking guide, who was pleased to share his knowledge and practice English with us.
The most prestigious item in their collection is a cut quartz that was exhumed from a burial site found by a local farmer. The quartz is fascinating because it is likely the earliest known cut stone in Latin America and believed to be 5,000- 8,000 years old.
The hole that has been drilled through the stone suggests it comes from another culture as the technique is not known in this region – or really anywhere at this point in history. The placement of the stone signifies its value among the peoples of the valley who lived here approximately 2,500 year ago. Personally, I found the exhibit on the petroglyphs absolute fascinating. Unfortunately we were short on time when we learned of their existence.
On my next visit – and there will be many – I intend to spend the day hiking around looking at the petroglyphs. There is something so tangible about seeing rock carvings that it gives me thrills up my spine. This is one of the most prolific petroglyph sites in Mexico. There are also some fascinating cave paintings in the vicinity.
Having asked around about things we should definitely check out, the Casa de las piedras kept coming up. Just around the corner from the Museum of Archeology, we had the extreme pleasure of visiting with the artist, curator and local resident Señor Francisco Peña.
For the past 25 years, he has made it his life’s work to cover his home in stones that he collects from the river. He sorts them based on size and colour and then applies them to everything. Literally everything, including his bed, the television, the fish tank, the telephone. Francisco is a charming man who speaks wonderful English and will warmly invite you to enjoy his creations.
A town treasure, Francisco also has an impressive collection of archival photographs of Mascota and he writes books on local history and genealogy. Very likely this will be the best $10 pesos you have ever spent.
We then moved on to the Temple de la Preciosa Sangre which is an unfinished ruin of a church that was to be built in the late 1800’s for the local residents of the town, who had been pushed out of the central church by the newly arriving Spaniards.
The ruins felt otherworldly and ancient, with crumbling mortar, winding flowering vines, and the setting sun dappling the walls through the overgrown trees. It seemed as though the castles and churches of my imagined Narnia had come to life.
World’s largest Molcajete
For a late lunch we headed to Laguna de Juanacatlan home to the world’s largest Molcajete. A Molcajete is a lava stone mortal and pestle that you can purchase in many tianguis (markets) throughout Mexico. Typically used to grind the ingredients for salsa, it is also used to serve a widely varied dish called Molcajete which is very similar to Fajitas but served in an oven-baked Molcajete. After climbing into the giant Molcajete for some crazy photos, we sat down and enjoyed a delicious meal. Just a few weeks before rainy season, the lake was quite dry, but some imagination and the clearly visible high water mark suggests the lake laps the base of the restaurant patio.
Satisfied with our meal, we headed back to Rancho Esmeralda where the sun was setting on the valley and the golden hues added vibrancy to the landscape. This valley was a culture-sustaining paradise for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, and today continues to nourish the local communities.
When you go
A visit to Mascota and the nearby towns is highly recommended for those of you who enjoy driving the back roads. Spanish would be helpful but not necessary, as signs are well marked and a polite smile will get you a helping hand, if needed.
Bring a phrase book and prepare your maps prior to setting out as cell phone service can be spotty in the mountains. Mexico is so much more than the strip of sand around Bandaras Bay; the ancient cultures rival anything you will find anywhere else in the world and are worthy of your exploration.