Copyright © Derek Brace
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En El Muelle de San Blas
Sorry, the title, On the Wharf of San Blas, and the first line are from this brilliant Mexican rock song by the super-group Maná. If you haven’t had the luxury of hearing this song, I highly recommend it, especially from the magical night in Miami back in 1999 when they did the MTV Unplugged recording. Amazing.Anyway, after receiving a few recommendations, along with the reference from this song, I really wanted to visit the tiny fishing town of San Blas, a few hours down Mexico’s Pacific coast (north of Puerto Vallarta). Cervando, my friend from the airport in Cabo San Lucas, grew up here, my friend Fabienne’s dad told me all about it a few days before I left, and I had heard other good things from fellow travellers.
Not being a big name tourist destination, it took a few out of the way buses to get there, so I arrived right at dusk, and the town was ready for me. Walking out of the bus station with my big backpack on my shoulders and my smaller one and much needed water bottle in hand, I heard some traditional Mexican music and some sort of canons firing from just around the corner.
Entering the central town square surrounded by two churches, the town greeted me in royal fashion, with vendors, games, dancing, music, fireworks…everything. Despite my arrival to the party, no one really seemed to notice my arrival and continued in their merrymaking. Undaunted, I thanked them for the party and made my way to one of the small hotels in town, turning every few seconds to make sure that those canon firing sounds truly were just some inexpensive fireworks being shot up into the air.
I had soon checked into my small, basic hotel room, happy to see that the overhead fan and another one by the bed worked quite well. A few rooms of the hotel surrounded a bit of a broken down courtyard, highlighted by a small cage with a huge, white pelican inside, which they had apparently rescued a few years ago and is the mascot of the hotel. And, they either treat it so well that it doesn’t want to leave, or it cannot fly anymore, as the wire cage only extends about three feet into the air. Anxious to get back to my welcoming party, I dropped my bags and walked the two blocks back towards the plaza.
At this point, a large procession was making its way into the larger of the two churches, accompanied by groups of dancers dressed in indigenous costumes, stomping their wooden shoes to the beat of the pounding drums that filled the air of the town. Along with many of the other residents, I watched as the congregation packed into the church, completely filling every open space and even spilling out into the adjacent street.
Letting my hunger get the best of me, I wandered around the square, looking for a nice cafe with outdoor seating to continue watching my party. I found a great, somewhat expensive place (which explains why it was deserted) on the other side of the square and had a delicious meal with salad, garlic bread and spaghetti. As much as I truly love Mexican food, even I have moments when I would like a different taste, especially after having variations of beans, rice, tortillas, beef, chicken and salsa for the past few weeks for every meal.
As I observed the scene, I was happy to find that some accounts of the sandflies and mosquitoes that I had read about weren’t really affecting me. I was either fortunate to be there at the right time of year, or they didn’t particularly care for my gringo blood, perhaps finding it bland and unimaginative.
Soon, after a nice oil stain on my shirt from the salad dressing and a tiny bit of tomato sauce on my shorts, I was back in the plaza, watching the procession leave the church and another folkloric dance. As an old man dressed in a cowboy hat and all white played a violin, a group of 12 or 15 children, dressed in native costumes and the same wooden shoes as before, danced around him, performing spins and other moves while maintaining the rhythmic, pulsating beat. I found it a bit ironic that this mix of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism was accepted, but I guess the missionaries would have to take what they could get sometimes.
Despite the welcoming, small town feel of the place, I was exhausted, so I headed back down the road to get a bit of rest before hoping to go on a canoe tour the next day.
Being a fishing and surfing town, the few beaches of San Blas aren’t really the main attraction. La Tovara, I was told, was the attraction that I couldn’t miss. La Tovara is a tiny town up the river from San Blas, reputed to have houses built on stilts above the partially crocodile infested water below, along with a nice natural spring behind a few of the houses that made for a refreshing bath.
Walking out to the edge of the steamy town, I found a young kid advertising tours to La Tovara, but the problem was that I was by myself, and hence I didn’t have the advantage of bargaining. With a group, it would only cost about $9 to take the tour, but since I was alone, I’d have to pay the entire $30 or $40 myself. I decided to wait it out, hoping some other crazy gringos would somehow appear out of the seafood restaurants nearby.
Within about 20 minutes, my wish was granted, with three Mexicans appearing and inquiring about a canoe trip. I asked to join their group, and the four of us, plus our guide, boarded the small boat and motored our way out into the muddy water.
Beginning in a wide river, we were soon diverted into smaller and smaller tributaries, lined by thick brush and the long, twisted roots of the numerous mangrove trees that covered the river banks and provided a canopy above us. At some points we had to duck the overhanging branches. At two very low bridges for local roads, we had to duck completely into the boat to pass under without decapitating ourselves.
Along the way we saw herons, some other water birds, and turtles, though no visible crocs. Soon, the coastal plains behind the muddy mangrove swamps grew into fields of sugarcane and small forested mountains. The soft white clouds reflected nicely off the placid, dark water, with our boat making the only ripples in the superbly calm area.
As we rounded a nondescript corner, the stilt houses sprung from the water, standing tall in a group of three in front of us. As it turns out, these tiny wooden huts, with small decks, supported by four tall pillars about six feet above the water, were not actually houses of the locals. They were used for the filming of the Spanish movie, Cabeza de Vaca, which was a pretty bad movie about the conquistadors first exploring America (I have the movie, so watching it a second time with some knowledge of the scenery hopefully won’t be as painful as the first time).Moving further down the river, we arrived at La Tovara about an hour after we departed, finding it to be a pretty, yet tiny little lagoon with a restaurant and a few houses, and that’s pretty much it. Apparently my Mexican tour buddies were in a bit of a hurry, so we decided not to eat there, and we sped away to our next stop through the quiet mangrove streams – the crocodile farm.
Here we found another lagoon with a sort of small zoo. Each cage contained a few fairly large crocodiles, along with one pen with about two hundred little baby crocodiles crawling all over each other, not a sight for someone scared of reptiles (no, not me, you…I like reptiles).
They also had a few other cages with wild boars, coatis and raccoons who seemed accustomed to people and enjoyed a nice back scratch from one of the visitors. Though some of the crocodiles were around 8 feet long, they didn’t compare in size or reputation to the massive ”man-eaters” of Australia, but I didn’t want to offend the primitive reptiles, so I didn’t mention it to them.
Another hour of cruising the water brought us back to the river dock, and then I decided next to explore the hill overlooking the town.
Originally founded as a military town back around 1770, San Blas has a nice large bluff overlooking the town and adjacent coastline, making it an easily defensible city and stronghold for the Spanish at the time. So, I climbed the steep hill, fighting off the sweat and sunscreen in my eyes (this was an epic 6-minute battle), and made my way to the lookout point, featuring a large stone fortress with canons and a small church.
Also in the fortress was a tiny giftshop and a local man who is apparently known throughout Mexico for his folk songs. He told us a few stories and legends about the town, most of them involving shipwrecks, loves lost to the ocean, etc.
In fact, one of the stories about a woman losing her lover and waiting for him on the wharf is the basis for the aforementioned Maná song. Not only are they a great band, but they are spreading social and cultural awareness along the way. Bravo. Though, after the prideful stories about the town, I didn’t have the heart to mention that a cheesy rock song was one of the reasons that I was visiting his beloved town.
We talked for a long while about my impressions of Mexico and his knowledge of the country, and he even sang a song for us a capella…though he almost forgot the second verse, but he assured us that he’d practice a few times before a true performance, and that it’s hard to remember all of the legends. It has already been very interesting speaking to locals about their towns, hearing the history, knowledge and pride that they have for these interesting places.
Next, I went back into town, where, of course, I had to make my way to the muelle de San Blas (the wharf). I walked around a bit, took a few pictures and met another proud local about my age, who was actually fully dressed in military gear, including the omnipresent AK47 machine gun carried by any sort of security guard, policeman or soldier.
It’s a bit disconcerting the first few times that you see fully armed men walking the streets, standing next to you, accidentally brushing your shoulder with a machine gun, but you have to get used to it, or at least pretend that you don’t notice it. I found my eyes drifting a few times during the conversation, being drawn towards his…his gun…pfff.
So, Sergio told me all about things to do in town, places to go, people to see, etc. After a few minutes there, I was off again, walking more around the quiet town, not wanting to leave, yet knowing that I need to keep moving to see all that Mexico has to offer. Soon, I’ll be off to an ancient town called Mexcaltitán, only a few hours from San Blas.