Thursday, January 30, 2014

San Blas Part 1: A sleepy fishing town with endless beaches

An empty hammock waits for someone to loll away a balmy afternoon at Playa Mantanchen. The playas (beaches) around San Blas were almost empty when we visited, even though it was the January high season. Playa Matanchen is just south of San Blas on Mexico's Pacific Coast. It curves in a great, unbroken arc of warm, white sand around Bahia Mantanchen. As I stood in the shade of this palm-roofed palapa I could see Aticama, directly across the bahia. That is where we stayed in Aticama Bed and Breakfast, a small, rustic hotel run by a couple of laid-back expats from the US. This posting is the start of a new series focusing on San Blas and its many interesting attractions. In Part 1, I will give you a look at the little fishing town itself, and the area immediately around it. In future posts, we will explore some of its history as a famous colonial-era port, and I'll take you for a stroll along some of its beautiful beaches. We'll also take a boat cruise through a crocodile infested lagoon and visit Mexicaltitán, reputed to be the legendary Aztlán, the starting point of the great Aztec migration that ended when they founded Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) in 1325 AD. For a Google map showing San Blas and the surrounding area, click here.

The Overview

View of San Blas, looking north from the old Spanish fort on a bluff overlooking the town. In the distance you can see a bend of the estuary that empties into Bahia Matanchen at San Blas. Before we visited San Blas, our experience of the Mexican state of Nayarit consisted solely of driving through its rugged mountains. We were surprised at how much rich, flat, farm land we found. In addition to bananas and coconuts, beans and corn, the farmers of Nayarit grow mangos, coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane. Fishing is also important, especially around San Blas, where shrimping is a major occupation.

Looking like gulls with their wings extended, shrimp boats hover near the harbor entrance. A local fisherman complained to us that many of these boats come from elsewhere and have hurt local fishermen by voraciously scooping up the local shrimp. Not only do they devastate the shrimp population but, in the process, they destroy a lot of other sea life. Coconut palm groves line the shore, providing food, palm fronds for palapa shelters, and shade from the sun.

Just off shore to the west is a shrine holy to both Catholics and Huicholes. The statue atop Piedra Blanca (White Rock) is the Virgin Mary, somewhat of a newcomer. Since many centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous Huichol people have believed that the rock represents Tatei Haramara, the Goddess of the Sea and Queen of the Five Colored Corn. Five is an important symbolic number for the Huicholes. They also call the rock Washiewe and, to them, it represents the western-most of the four cardinal points of the earth. It is the only one of the four associated with salt water. The other three points are located in San Luis Potosi (east), Mesa del Nayar (north), and Lake Chapala (south). The Huicholes regularly conduct religious rituals on Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island) in Lake Chapala, near where I live. Each of the four points is centered on a rock and is associated with a separate deity. I photographed Piedra Blanca/Tatei Haramara/Washiewe from the Spanish fort, several miles away, using the extreme limit of my telephoto zoom.

The "New" and "Old" churches stand next to each other at the Plaza. Behind them you can see the estuary near its mouth at Bahia Matanchen. During colonial times, sailing ships from the Far East used to cruise up this channel. San Blas continued as a port (although much diminished in importance) during the 19th Century after the Mexican Republic was founded. On March 12, 1768, the ship La Purisima, carrying Fray Junipero Serra, departed from here to found San Diego, the first of the 21 famous Franciscan missions in California. Today, the channel is used only by small fishing boats, tourist launches, and sailboats.

La Plaza Principal

The Plaza Principal at San Blas is lovely and well-maintained. Its many trees offer cool shade and there are numerous attractive wrought-iron benches on which to while away an afternoon. The Plaza is typical of those found throughout Mexico. It is centered on a kiosko and one of its two sides is dominated by two adjacent churches, while the other contains local government building, called La Presidencia. We found considerable activity in and around the Plaza at every time of the day we visited. In the mornings there were vendors hawking vegetables and people enjoying coffee at a small shop fronting the plaza. In the afternoons, activity picked up as people hurried about on various kinds of business. In the evenings, the streets had few cars, but were thronged by bicyclists and skateboarders, while the benches were filled with people enjoying ice cream from a corner store. We occasionally encountered expats who were locals, but saw few foreign tourists.

The "Old Church" is located on Calle Sinaloa at the northwest corner of the Plaza. Oddly, despite an extensive literature and internet search, I cannot find an actual name for either this church or the so-called "New Church,"which stands next to it. If anyone can supply the names, I would appreciate it. In any case, the Old Church, made of adobe and stone, was begun in 1808 and finally finished in 1878. Unfortunately, it is no longer in use, and we could not go inside. In spite of its somewhat decrepit state, the Old Church has an interesting connection with the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1882, Longfellow wrote the poem "The Bells of San Blas," based on a magazine drawing. The bells had once been part of Templo de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a church built on the high bluff called San Basilio, just behind the Spanish fort. The Templo had been constructed in 1788 and was in use until 1872, although its roof had collapsed in 1816. In 1878, the bells were finally installed in the Old Church's campanario (the belfry above) after they had hung from a rustic frame for many years. Longfellow saw a Harper's Magazine story about the old bells, accompanied by a drawing showing the pitiful state to which they had been reduced. The story was ironically entitled "The Tower of San Blas." The poet was moved to write a melancholy tribute to the bells, speaking of the greatness over which they had once tolled, and how they were now silent among the ruins of the past. This was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's last work. He died twelve days later. To read "The Bells of San Blas," click here.

The steeples of the "New Church" rise high above the Old Church. A mother and her young son strolled quietly through my shot as the daughter tagged along behind. The New Church was begun in 1957, but the steeples were not completed until 2011. The building is attractive enough, but I am much more drawn to those with rough old stones, streaked with time and encrusted with obscure symbols from past centuries. The blue canopied stalls behind the palm trees are used by artisans plying their wares.

The central kiosko of the Plaza Principal, with the Old Church in the background. A child hangs onto the railing leading up the steps as palm trees gently sway in the background. Mexican kioskos are both ubiquitous and unique. They follow a very similar design. There are usually six to eight sides to the base, with one or more sets of stairs leading to a platform. Kioskos are usually open-sided, with the roof supported by columns rising from each corner of the base. Often the railings are of intricate wrought iron design. They are generally--but not always-- roofed with clay tiles. Some, like this one, are simple in construction and use. Others are more complex. I remember one that had the tourist office built into the base, an extraordinarily good idea but not generally duplicated elsewhere. The one in San Cristobal de las Casas is two storied, with a bar/restaurant on the first level, and a platform for the marimba band on the second. Virtually every Mexican plaza, whether in a mighty city or a humble pueblo, contains a kiosko as its centerpiece. One glaring example to the contrary is Mexico City's vast and famous Zócalo, which is simply a huge but starkly empty paved square.

People in the town get around on a variety of vehicles. Four-wheeled ATVs were common, but motorcycles even more so. I saw more motorcycles in San Blas than in any other place we have visited. Under the blue umbrella behind the ATV is a tricycle-powered vendor's cart, yet another method of transportation. The red and white building in the background is the Mercado Municipal (City Market) containing stalls for sellers of vegetables and fruit, and displays of fresh cut meat. Also prominent are stalls selling the fresh fish pulled each day from Bahia Mantanchen and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

La Presidencia Municipal is the chief government building in the Plaza Principal. It houses a number of municipal offices. A municipality in Mexico is roughly equivalent to a county government in the United States. A municipality will contain a chief city which usually carries the same name, but it also includes the surrounding farmland and smaller towns and pueblos. La Presidencia, like the rest of the Plaza, is attractive and well-maintained. The large banner across the front proclaims to an on-going public health campaign.

A large mural of a Huichol man contemplating Tatei Haramara covers a wall in the Presidencia. Nayarit honors its indigenous heritage in a number of ways, including this mural which greets visitors in the entrance hall of the Presidencia. The Huichol, who call themselves Wixáritari ("the people"), hail from the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental which covers parts of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango states. They are a very ancient tribe whose sacred fireplaces have yielded carbon traces dating back 15,000 years. The Huichol are fiercely protective of their culture and both men and women typically wear traditional clothing on a day-to-day basis. They make and sell beautiful bead-studded handicrafts and colorfully embroidered clothes with representations of sacred animals.

A statue of Independence War hero Jose Maria Mercado stands in front of La Presidencia. Father Mercado was one of the priests who took up arms when Father Migual Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famous "grito" (cry) for revolt against Spanish rule in November 1810. Father Mercado led a rebel army that took Tepic (now the capital of Nayarit). He then marched on San Blas, an important Spanish naval base at the time. Although the Spanish were well armed, there were only a few hundred royalists in San Blas and the local population supported the insurgents. The Spanish surrendered and Mercado sent 42 cannon to Hidago's army. However, Hidalgo was defeated at Calderón Bridge in 1811 and the Spanish then sent an expedition against San Blas. Father Mercado and his Compaña Fija de San Blas were outnumbered and outgunned. Most of his subordinate leaders were captured and executed, but Mercado himself died mysteriously. His body was found at the bottom of an oceanside cliff and no one knows the real story of his demise.

The Centro area

Booths lined the streets surrounding the Plaza. This day was apparently their tianguis (street market) day. Clothing, shoes, kitchenware, and nicknacks of various kinds filled these stalls. It seemed that anywhere a person could set up an impromptu stand, there was merchandise for sale. Most of the goods seemed to be marketed to the local population, rather than having a tourist orientation.

An elderly woman sits behind a table overflowing with fresh, whole fish. The one with the long tail hanging over the edge is probably a dorado (mahi mahi). An old table and chair, a cooler, and an old-fashioned balance scale were all this woman needed to do business.

San Blas residents barter over fresh fruits and vegetables. Two customers consider quality and prices offered at the rustic, curbside booth. Across the street is the official Mercado Municipal. The sign at the top of the photo advertises a carniceria (butcher shop). To its right and left are signs for Coca Cola. The US soft drink company not only sells under its own name but also owns popular Mexican companies like Ciel, which markets bottled water, an important product in Mexico where tap water is generally considered unsafe.

"Billy Bob's" is a popular local bar catering to both Americans and Mexicans. My eye was caught by the huge, artificial Long Horn skull. Actor Lee Marvin "discovered" San Blas in the 1950s and for a while it was a popular deep sea fishing destination for the Hollywood set. We found evidence of earlier waves of expats in various eating and drinking places. However, other sites along the coast have become more famous and popular over the years. San Blas has reverted to the sleepy fishing town it has been since the 19th Century. Expats in residence seem to like it that way.

Viejano's Bar sign shows a balding, elderly surfer sharing a board with a buxom blonde. Viejano's (Old Guy's) bar is very rustic and seems to have been one of the watering holes for the wave of hippies and surfers who arrived in the 1960s and 70s. Notice the tongue-in-cheek sign over the door, advising hippies to use the side door. In a later posting, I'll show you Stoner's Surf Camp, a collection of palm frond huts on tall stilts set into the deep beach sand at Playa Borrego (Sheep Beach). It used to (and may still) be a focal point for the surfing set.

Mangrove lagoons

San Blas is surrounded on three sides by thick mangrove swamps and placid lagoons. This area is teeming with wildlife, including Great White Egrets such as the one perched on the mangrove hummock in the upper left. Almost 300 species of birds have been identified in the area, and it has been a magnet for birders. Less welcome are swarms of mosquitos, although they are not bad in the winter months. Year-round, however, the je-jenes (also known as "no-see-um's") plague visitors and locals alike. They are most active in the late afternoons and evenings. Carole got chomped several dozen times by the almost invisible little critters. She finds it a bit annoying that they don't seem to have a taste for me. I came away without a single bite. A goodly supply of strong insect repellent is recommended, along with well-maintained screens on your hotel windows.

The ridged back of a crocodile betrays the presence of another hungry resident of the lagoon. The single road into San Blas passes through the mangroves and is paralleled by lagoons. I noticed a break in the thick stands of mangrove where I could get some photos. A Mexican motorcyclist was already there and he waved off to the right, exclaiming "cocodrilos!" I looked closely and in the distance I saw several floating objects that could easily have been mistaken for logs. With my telephoto, I picked out the tell-tale ridges on the croc's back. The Mexican exclaimed "cocodrilo!" again, a little more insistently this time. Almost, it seemed, with a warning tone.

A River Crocodile snoozes on the lagoon shore in the warm morning sun. As I fiddled with my camera, I happened to focus my eyes just in front and below me and almost dropped my new Nikon. Not 2 meters (6 ft) away I saw this formidable-looking fellow. The sign next to me on the edge of the water warned that these crocs can move muy rapido (very quickly). Fortunately, this one seemed more interested in continuing his nap than in lunching on me. I did notice, however, that his eyes were open and focused in my direction. This species of croc reaches adulthood when about 2 meters long, a little shorter than this fellow. They have been known to reach a snout-to-tail length of 7 meters (21 ft)! In a future posting, I will take you on a boat tour through the mangrove swamps and visit a local crocodrilario, where crocs are raised from the egg stage before being released into the swamps.

This completes Part 1 of my San Blas series. I always appreciate feedback and questions and if you have any, please either leave them in the Comments section below (it may say "no comments" if there are none yet) or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I notice you didn't mention the no-see-ums. Anybody who visits San Blas without repellent is going to find evenings a misery. I was told the town couldn't spray because it would endanger the shrimp.

  2. Hi Jim, I enjoy your post as always--so informative and well-written. My wife and I just returned from a month happily spent not too far south of San Blas, in Yelapa--an isolated fishing village on the south rim of Bahia de Banderas. You've most likely heard of it, although I didn't see it listed on your posts. One thing that we love about the place is that it has virtually no road access. The main drag through the pueblo is an 8 foot wide cobblestone path with much more horse traffic than the occasional ATV "moto". It's part of a large comunidad indigena at Cabo Corrientes--sort of like a US Indian reservation. You can read a little about it at a blog post I recently wrote-- Have you written about any other such areas? I'm interested in knowing more. Again, thanks for your information. I'm now reading what you've written about the Lake Chapala area as we are visiting an amiga there in June.
    Tom at

  3. Article ideas very clear . Your writing style is very unique. I very much appreciate the articles you write . Hope you continue to create the beautiful works.Thanks a lot for sharing. 

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim