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The San Blas you’ll love is the Mexico you’ll find beyond the beach

The bones of the historic church, Our Lady of the Rosary, built on San Basilio hill in 1769, remind admirers that with a new roof, a door, and windows, this survivor from a distant century would put San Blas on every visitor’s must-see list. Memorialized in the poem “the bells of San Blas,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it needs a new set of bells, as well.
The historic church built on San Basilio Hill in 1769 is a popular wedding venue.
(Steve Haggerty)

Passengers arriving at the airport in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, practically vibrated with anticipation as they headed for the exit. I felt a sense of excitement too, but instead of Puerto Vallarta I was heading for a long weekend in San Blas, about 95 miles north on the Pacific Coast. I was hoping to find the Mexico I remembered from a trip with my parents when I was in grade school. I had booked a boat tour for my husband, Steve, and me in La Tovara National Park, known for its mangroves, marshes and rare birds. And I had reserved a room at the Hotel Garza Canela, owned by chef Betty Vázquez, a TV personality on “MasterChef Mexico.” The tab: $620 for hotels (four nights), $830 for meals and $160 for a car rental.

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Hotel Garza Canela is owned and operated by a local family. Lush gardens, a playground, a swimming pool and a chapel make a great base for exploring San Blas.
(Steve Haggerty)

THE BED

Once I learned that Vázquez and her family owned the Garza Canela ( “boat-billed heron” in Spanish), I had to try it. From the street the hotel resembled a house. But when I stepped onto the patio, I realized I was in a traditional walled hacienda, with 35 rooms and eight cottages. The 5-acre garden was bursting with fruit trees and flowers. “My father loved these trees,” said Vázquez, who stopped to introduce herself. “He planted every one.” After a day exploring San Blas, our reward was a swim in the pool and a tall, cool drink on the third-floor balcony of our 1980s-retro room.

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Preparing “bacalao al pil pil,” a traditional Basque dish, is a three-day project, according to Master Chef Betty Vasquez, who describes each step for the photographer.
Chef Betty Vasquez blends elements of indigenous, Mexican, Spanish and French cooking in her dishes.
(Steve Haggerty)

THE MEAL

The dishes at El Delfín, Vázquez’s restaurant in the hotel, were so varied it was hard to choose. The Cordon Bleu Paris-trained chef blends Mexican, Spanish and French ingredients and styles with elements of indigenous cooking. To start, we ordered a gently flavored cream soup made with corn, shrimp and poblano chiles and served with cotija cheese and bacon. My entree, the baked fish filet, caught that day, was lightly bathed in a sauce of an orange and white wine. Steve chose the flank steak with a red wine sauce, served with chorizo and beans. We lingered over the strawberry-mango ice cream and a bottle of wine.

THE FIND

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San Blas is historic to its roots. The small town, established in 1531 on the Santiago River, was a freshwater stop for Spain’s “treasure” ships sailing from the Philippines. As a naval base in the 17th century, it was charged with supporting Spain’s expeditions as well as Father Junípero Serra, founder of the missions, who sailed from San Blas. The fort atop San Basilio Hill, known as the Contaduría, is the town’s pride and joy. We prowled through the chamber where silks and spices were stored and admired the 180-degree view of the town and ocean far below. The stone ribs of the church still stand, a popular wedding venue.

In recent years, families and novice surfers have discovered the Riviera Nayarit’s once quiet beaches.
Families and novice surfers have discovered the Riviera Nayarit’s once quiet beaches.
(Steve Haggerty)

THE LESSON LEARNED
I thought I knew Mexico, but the Riviera Nayarit proved me wrong. In Sayulita, I wandered on tree-shaded streets lined with art galleries and craft shops. In San Francisco, a.k.a. “San Pancho,” I sampled six kinds of tacos at a beachside restaurant, then toured the backstreets, dreaming about vacation rentals. The biggest surprise was Matanchén Bay, near San Blas, the world record-holder for the “longest surfable wave,” at 5,700 feet. Riding a board on a breaking roller for more than a mile? Now that’s a trip.

Hotel Garza Canela, 106 Paredes, San Blas, Mexico. Doubles from $90.

El Delfin Bar & Restaurant, Hotel Garza Canela. Entrees from $10.

La Tovara National Park


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