Flying Into the Past

Puerto Vallarta’s mountain villages are accessible by plane

By: Maribeth Mellin

Crafts are one of the most desired commodities
Crafts are primitive but one of the
most desired commodities.
A small plane glides over Banderas Bay, putting Puerto Vallarta into perspective. High-rise hotels and terra cotta-tiled roofs give way to waterfalls and rivers streaming to the sea. Pines grow thick on steep mountains. Happy to have abandoned my plans to cruise into the Sierras in a rental sedan, I relish the rush. Puerto Vallarta is blessed with a spectacular

setting on Mexico’s largest bay, backed by the forested Sierra Madre. Beyond the modern city’s excellent beaches, restaurants and art galleries lie small villages and settlements mired in history. It’s not easy to reach these pockets of rural indigenous culture, since roads are few and distances great. But Vallarta Adventures closes that gap with its air tours to mining towns and Huichol villages in a sturdy 14-seater Cessna.

Our destination on our first air tour was San Sebastian del Oeste, an 18th-century silver-mining town. About 600 people live in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, growing coffee and agave and raising livestock. We visited the La Quinta organic coffee farm, where Rafael Sanchez picked beans from 100-year-old trees. Outside the family home, horses clomped by on cobblestone streets and the air was heavy with the scents of pine and wood fires. Dona Conchita, the town’s historian, gave our group a tour of photos and treasures from six generations in her family home. Lunch at another family establishment included bowls of machaca, rice, beans and hot tortillas tasty fuel for a stroll around the town. All too soon, our guide counted his charges as we assembled by the plaza and climbed into a truck for a ride to the airstrip. The flight back to the city went by way too quickly. But at least we had our La Quinta coffee with its scent of mountain earth and air to summon our memories.

The experience was so otherworldly we signed up for another plane ride to San Andres Coamihata, a tiny village far from paved roads and modern conveniences. We arrived in early morning after an hour’s flight northeast of Puerto Vallarta. Benito, our Huichol guide, blessed us as we entered the village where two men played a dirge on handcrafted instruments similar to violins. Although it has only 120 registered residents, San Andres is akin to a capital city for the 16,000 Huichol living in similar remote mountain outposts. Among the few indigenous groups in Mexico to retain their pre-Columbian traditions, the Huichol have little interest in allowing outsiders to corrupt their lifestyle. Vallarta Adventures is the only company bringing tourists to San Andres; their tours run just once weekly from December to April.

Huichol children play in San Andres
Huichol children play in San Andres
Accompanied by our guides, the musicians and the inevitable band of semi-shy children, we checked out the worn table where shamans determine future events during a peyote-enhanced trance. Inside the circular ceremonial house, Benito explained the petroglyphs covering the walls. In the church, he showed us a hole in the dirt floor representing the womb of the world. It was difficult to absorb the cultural and historical information dispensed through multiple translations. The people had the most intense impact. Bashful women in bright yellow blouses and long blue skirts stood half hidden behind wooden doors; many covered their faces the moment they sensed a camera pointed their way. The kids gradually warmed to us, kicking plastic water bottles into the air and exchanging Spanish and English names for everything from scrawny dogs to the sky and sun.

It seemed little time had passed when we were led to a gathering of artists displaying their handicrafts. Were it not for the gorgeous Huichol beaded masks and figurines sold in fine galleries throughout the world, few outsiders would even know about this ancient tribe. The crafts displayed for our perusal were simple and primitive but far more desirable than any collector-quality art in Puerto Vallarta’s pricey shops. We bought bracelets and necklaces, beaded iguanas climbing carved branches and masks with swirling patterns and flowers representing peyote plants. Treasures in hand, we wandered slowly toward our plane, reluctantly boarding the steps. Nearly the entire village gathered as we rumbled along the dirt airstrip and ascended among the clouds.

“The contact with the people is the best thing you could ever experience,” said our guide, Martin Aver. “We always leave with a great emotion.”


Vallarta Adventures offers air tours to San Sebastian and other mountain villages and Huichol communities near Puerto Vallarta. Our San Sebastian tour lasted about five hours and cost $155 per person. They also offer a seven-hour land tour for $75 per person. The air tour to San Andres costs $210. Tours to Guadalajara and coastal towns are also available, along with private air charters. The company has a travel agent newsletter and gives agents reduced fees for tours booked for clients.