Everyone may know about the usual coastal scene of Mexican beach life with cheap drinks and visitors who are just like you. The whales and migratory birds in the Riviera Nayarit know that scene.
But if you travel inland, and not along the coast, you’ll find yourself amid blue agaves, rolling golden hills, volcanoes, including wild crocodiles, in case you need an adrenaline rush.
In this agricultural oasis surrounded by the Sierra Madre mountains, you’ll encounter a Mexico that looks like a diﬀerent country from the tourist destinations and even glimpse a not-so-distant past.
I took the detour from federal highway 15-D to visit the Magical Town of Jala, located about three hours from Puerto Vallarta. Magical Towns, or Pueblos Magicos, is an initiative led by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism to promote locations known for legends, history, festivals, cuisine, and shopping.
If you love history, nature, and architecture, a walk along Jala’s cobblestoned streets will transport you into the daily life and sounds of a Mexico unique from the one you may think you know. The name of this town in its Indigenous language means “Abundant in the sand”.
The lifestyle of the 5,844 locals is slow-paced and an outsider may have the feeling that time has stopped here. Kids play with guns that are only real in their imagination, cocking their hands to use their thumbs as the trigger. A street fight has two opposing teams, fierce and strong, in a battle of will and trash-talking with a rope as the test of winners and losers. As older kids watch and wait their turn, two on each side pull hard, turning the rope taut, a dance of tension in the air.
Just when the kids on one side appear to have the advantage, victory is out of their grasp with a cry of surprise as everyone tumbles down. Win or lose, the heap of bodies makes no distinction.
The joy of tug-of-war was in the playing.
These scenes of everyday life, the normal struggles, and the inevitable victories and losses are around every corner.
The town’s time-worn buildings are painted in vibrant colors. With every step your eyes feast on the combination of hues that range from pastel pinks to deep blues, orange, yellow and green, creating an entirely new world for your senses to explore through a rainbow.
When the sun goes down, the brown mountains of the Sierra Madre turn a golden hue. You won’t want to miss this image because the watchful eye of the Ceboruco volcano protects this kaleidoscope of colors like an ancient sage that can see every whisper passing through the valley, and its silent mouth conveys wisdom to all who listen for it.
Every Friday and Saturday, the central square and the surrounding streets come alive with locals gathering to play music, and to dance with the mojigangas, gigantic puppets. It doesn’t matter if you are an outsider, you’re welcome to let yourself be carried away by the rhythm in the land where the mariachi was born.
An Old Form of “Social Media” Embraced in Jala
To catch the latest news in Jala, you need to be in the right spot at the exact time when the announcer arrives in his moving vehicle.
The gentle hum of the day is suddenly interrupted by a powerful voice that echoes far and wide. News, both joyous and sorrowful, fills the air as the man delivers updates for locals.
Unlike many in our connected world who rely on social media to stay informed, the townspeople of Jala receive their daily local news via a megaphone in a vehicle that drives through town so everyone can hear it. In Jala, tradition surpassed technology in this instance.
Among the news pronounced by Jala’s version of a town crier: A dog that had gone missing was reunited with its owners; a new auto repair shop opened for business; and a local man’s funeral had recently wrapped up, with his family sending gratitude to the many townspeople who attended. For a brief moment the town stands together in wonderment to take in these updates and agree on what the voice has shared — bringing them closer — allowing them to be one voice for their community.
Culinary Delights at El Rincón del Campesino
I have traveled throughout Mexico, and El Rincón del Campesino in Coapan is one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in the country. The nopales salad, made from the fleshy, edible green leaves of the nopal cactus and stripped of its prickly spine, is a delicacy in the central and arid regions of the country. Chilaquiles are served with beef jerky and black beans to heap on handmade tortillas. Don’t leave without trying the Atole de Guayaba, a hot drink made from whole milk, cinnamon, and guava.
El Rincón del Campesino is a family-run business on a mission to bring rustic breakfast buﬀets. Regulars include multi-generational abuelas and abuelos dining together for family brunch. Tables outdoors are set in view of the Ceboruco, or “The Black Giant”, for those hearty hikers fueling up before tackling the mountain or as their reward for a return journey.