Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dive deep into Mexico's colonial history

San Sebastian is just a 90-minute drive, but it's centuries from Puerto Vallarta

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SAN SEBASTIAN, Jalisco, Mexico -- It's a simple enough matter to hire a guide and a mule in this town and go riding off in search of buried treasure in the caves of the Sierra Madre mountains -- but you had better beware of The Curse of the Sunken Mine.

San Sebastian is a mere 90-minute drive from the Pacific coast resort of Puerto Vallarta, but it takes the traveller four centuries back in time, deep into Mexico's colourful colonial past.

Nestled in the folds of mist-wreathed mountains, the former gold and silver mining town is a living museum of the 16th-century invasion of Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors who uprooted an ancient Indian civilization.

Today, only about 600 people still live in the yellow, mud-brick cottages lining the narrow cobble-stoned streets. But, at its peak, the town had almost 50,000 residents. The New York Life Assurance Company maintained an office here, the only one in the entire country.

So important to Spain were the precious metals unearthed here that during the late 18th century, King Charles IV dictated the town's affairs by personal fiat from his palace in Madrid.

A handful of Spanish families controlled the mines, inter-marrying to produce a "pure" line of succession through several generations whose descendants survive to the present day.

The immense fortunes in precious metals exported from the area are incalculable.

How many lives were lost in the process is equally unknown. Legend has it that in one incident alone hundreds were buried alive because of an angry priest's curse.

According to a local historian, the priest had gone to a mine to solicit funds for his church.

The miners refused to surrender their hard-earned cash.

The natives of Mexico may have been forcibly converted to Christianity, but to this day indigenous tribes are not entirely convinced the god of their foreign conquerors is any improvement over their own deities.

They were happy enough to appropriate Christian feast days as an excuse for another fiesta.

But they were also known to conceal their own icons in the walls of newly built Christian churches, so that when compelled to worship there they might do so with an untroubled conscience.

But in this particular case the vengeful priest was not to be put off lightly.

He removed his sandals and slapped them together to summon the wrath of God down on the recalcitrant natives. Thereupon, the roof of the mine collapsed, dooming all those inside to a horrible fate. It is said that on stormy nights their terrible screams can still be heard. And each year on Holy Friday, their spirits come to haunt the precincts of the San Sebastian Martyr Church.

The church, like most buildings in San Sebastian, has seen better days. Swallows build their mud nests among the rows of plaster saints gazing, guilt-ridden, from its peeling walls.

In fact, the town's remarkable heritage was in dire peril of itself being buried under the relentless approach of the jungle. Just in time, federal and state grants are helping to preserve and restore the historic settlement.

Guest books in the local museum are filled with the names of Canadian visitors who have come to marvel at the treasures currently in the care of Maria Guadaloupe Encarnacion, a direct descendant of one of the old families. Four generations of her ancestors look down from the walls with a stern, Old-World dignity. From ancient, iron-bound trunks, Maria exhibits women's and babies' clothes imported from Europe more than 100 years ago.

Should you want to look for some gold of your own, local tourist officials would be pleased to provide a guide for around $30 a day, slightly more if you want the mule. Even if you find no gold, the natural splendours of the region, and the rich variety of flora and fauna, will be their own reward.

Accommodations, from the primitive to the luxurious, are available in San Sebastian. A bed in a spartan room opening on to the garden courtyard of a former hacienda can be had for as little as $15 Cdn a night. Or you can choose a suite at the lavishly renovated Mansion Real starting at $120 a night.

And for amateur prospectors, here's a tip. On a back wall in a corner of the restaurant is an old blueprint of the mines that could give you an edge on your competition. Before you set out for the treasure caves, however, you might do worse than shovel a few pesos into the collection box back at the eerie little church in San Sebastian.

It would be a shame if the last sound you heard after your pick struck a chest of ingots was of a pair of priestly sandals slapping madly in the mountain air.

-- Canwest News Service



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2010 E5

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