To Puerto Vallarta via the highlands

Route 70 is a little-travelled asphalt road that runs due west of Guadalajara through the highlands until the coast is reached just 10 km north of Puerta Vallarta. The gentle transition from beautiful farmlands to winding mountain roads passing through 'lost in time' villages with an Alpine look and feel and on to the colourful eastern suburbs of Puerto Vallarta makes this an unforgettable journey. This route is an excellent alternative for coastal-bound traffic during Semana Santa and Christmas, when the more popular Route 15/200 is jammed.

Ameca

Ameca was first settled by the Nahua in 1325 and then re-settled in 1522 by the conquistador Juan de Añesta (who arrived with only a sword in his hand and was considered the son of the Sun God upon arrival). It is best known for its citrus fruits and ranching, as well as a handful of ex-haciendas built for sugar cane production in the 19th century.

Most of the noteworthy sites are located in the centre. There is an interesting shrine to the
Virgin of Guadalupe
with twin blue-tiled steeples, built in 1875. The
Palacio Municipal
, although largely re-built 1917-1924, dates from 1529. The
regional museum
, is the second largest in Jalisco and holds a staggering 10,000 pieces of the region's archaeological and palaeontological finds. One of the ex-haciendas outside of town,
El Cabezón
(which dates from 1844), has a chapel containing a priceless and still-intact wooden, churrigueresque
retablo
(one of only four left in the entire state) with nine carved statues.

Ameca holds fast to its folklore traditions more than most Mexican towns. Not only does each and every church in town have its own fiesta, but
Carnaval
here retains much of its medieval origins, with effigies, passion plays, and the almost-extinct custom of burning a mock 'Bad Humour' denizen all playing a prominent role.

To the north of town in the
Sierra de Ameca
are the mysterious
esferas pétreas
- rocks of volcanic origin that are almost perfectly round. For many years natives believed them to be of supernatural origin; their shape is actually due to high-pressure crystallization.

Guachinango

At one time this pleasant little mining town was the state capital of Jalisco. Silver mining has taken place in this area since 1544.

None of this would be worth stopping for if it weren't for the fact that Guachinango is one of the few hillside towns in the region that is easily accessed and - in spite of its mining origins - is quite attractive. With a reputation as one of the most '
puro mexicano
' settlements in the state, it has a classical main square and an interesting 18th-century church with only one steeple. Its patronal fiesta runs from 31 January to 3 February and is highly regarded by Mexicans as an authentic example of village festivals that are otherwise long extinct. Guachinango is also well regarded for the quality of its musicians.

West of Guachinango

From Guachinango headed west, the next town of any note is
Talpa de Allende
, a popular pilgrimage destination during Holy Week. About 20 km after the turn-off for Talpa is
Mascota
, a tranquil town largely given over to eco-tourism, with many fine boutique hotels. The area is increasingly succumbing to the whims of North American retirees and those in search of winter residences, but for the moment still retains much of its charm and simplicity. The difficult access to most of these settlements has kept them, in the words of one writer, “seductively provincial”. Yet Mascota is also the primary jumping-off point to visit the even less accessible but gorgeous hamlets of
San Sebastián del Oeste
,
Los Reyes
,
La Navidad
and
Yerbabuena
.

Mascota

Apart from those interested in church architecture or rampant land value speculation, there isn't a great deal to do in Mascota, but this will change in the next year or so. Still best known for breeding fine Arabian horses, there are several small museums being restored, including the regional
archaeological museum
(Ameca's is vastly superior), a
cultural centre
, with photography and other rotating exhibits, and the
Museo Pedregal
, the last being largely a geological showpiece. The 19th-century (but still unfinished)
Templo de la Preciosa Sangre
('Church of the Precious Blood') is a short walk from the town's centre. Its entrance is framed in a Roman arch; its neoclassic altarpiece is one of the best in the region. It also contains a two-storey seminary in an exquisitely beautiful setting. Across from the plaza, the town's main church is in pristine condition. Outside is a large statue dedicated to the 20th-century martyr and local hero, the priest José María Roble, killed by Mexican soldiers during the Cristero Revolt and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

Talpa de Allende

Some 20 km southeast of Mascota lies the pilgrimage town of Talpa de Allende, founded in the 18th century and home to about 7000 inhabitants. It's a good bet there isn't a native Mexican anywhere in the country who hasn't heard of Talpa, and many have visited, usually on foot during Holy Week or during other major fiestas.

For centuries devout Catholics have walked to Talpa - in some cases covering hundreds of kilometres - to show their devotion to the Virgin of Talpa. The Virgin is housed in a glass case in the chapel within Talpa's basilica, which was built in her honour in 1782. The best time to be in town is for one of her three festivals: the feast of her crowning (10-12 May, when the town's population quadruples), the feast of her renovation (10 September), and most important, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (7 October). For online information (in Spanish) on Talpa de Allende, see http://talpadeallende.com.

San Sebastián del Oeste

Route 70 continues north from Talpa through the
Sierra Madre Occidental
(eventually winding westerly and terminating just north of Puerto Vallarta) for some 70 km, when it reaches
La Estancia
. Another 5 km north is the (poorly marked) turn-off for San Sebastián del Oeste, 15 km from the turning along some of Mexico's most serpentine roads. In spite of the increasing number of visitors, this tiny hamlet has come to epitomize the quintessential bucolic
pueblo clásico
. So much so that in 2008 it was officially designated Mexico's newest
pueblo mágico
, a select group of 34 towns that the government recognizes as having a unique charm and an outstanding history. For much the same reason, it was earlier named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.

There is plenty of good hiking in the region. A challenging climb (also accessible by car) is to the top of the nearest mountain,
La Bufa
, where there is a supposedly miraculous image of the Virgin. On a clear day the views stretch as far as the Bay of Banderas.

The town's church of
Saint Sebastian
was originally built in 1608, but rebuilt after an earthquake in 1868. There is a beautiful fresco of the martyrdom of the saint above the altar. Next to the church is the tiny local
museum
, which has an interesting mix of exhibits on the church and town.

The town has a rapidly growing number of hotels, but two in particular also double as local landmarks. The
Hotel El Pabellón
, on the plaza, was at one time a fortress where silver shipments were stored while awaiting transport. The garrison had turrets on all corners where soldiers could thwart would-be attackers. One
turret survives and is now a cozy nook in the town's most popular bar. Bandits were such a problem in the town's heyday that a tunnel had to be constructed from a mine to the fortress to transport silver so it would not be stolen en route.

At the nearby
Hacienda Jalisco
, located near a makeshift airstrip on the west side of town, mining operations reigned for many years. An expatriate artist from California came across the dilapidated 18th-century building in the late 1960s and restored it to its original state. There is no electricity (so don't expect TV, internet or telephone). The result is a fascinating look at what life might have been like in Spanish colonial Mexico. Now part museum, part hotel, the bottom floor has artefacts attesting to the role the hacienda played as the headquarters of a mining operation. There are also displays covering some of its more famous guests, which include John Huston, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O'Toole.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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