San Pancho, Mexico: Swallowing the Sunset

“The wind was fair, and the small fleet hugged the shore, sailing past the Alvarado and the Banderas rivers, where Grijalva had traded beads for gold, past the Island of Sacrifices, where Grijalva’s men had seen the bloody altars, and finally anchored off the Island of San Juan de Ulúa, in the harbor of present-day Veracruz, on Holy Thursday, 1519. On Good Friday, Cortés and his expedition disembarked, built a small camp, and made contact with the local Indians,

members of a powerful nation called the Aztecs.”

Irwin R. Blacker

Nestled alongside the stunning, opalescent shores of the Pacific Ocean in the state of Nayarit and only a thirty-minute drive from the bustling tourist attractions and beaches of Puerto Vallarta, the Lo de Perla Jungle carpets tiny San Pancho, Mexico. Glistening like an exquisite emerald in the brilliant sunlight of the southern hemisphere, the Lo de Perla adorns the village with variegated tendrils of miniature vines and leaves. They curl up and around rough-barked tree trunks, wind over well-worn hiking trails, and invade village gardens rich with ripe tomatoes, and hot, red chili peppers and surrounded by lime, banana, and lemon trees. The vines creep in massive, tangled profusion up pastel, adobe walls and fences, casting a soft, green overlay which, if a visitor is not careful, can create the momentary illusion of a gentle, nurturing environment.

 

House and Pet Sitting in San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico

House and Pet Sitting in San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico

 

House and Pet Sitting in San Pancho, Mexico

House and Pet Sitting in San Pancho, Mexico

 

History of San Pancho, Mexico

Fewer than fifty years ago this delightful and tranquil, oceanside community was nothing more than a tiny fishing village and a dream yet to be realized. Located with its sister village Sayulita, each on opposite sides of a small peninsula jutting into the pristine waters of the Pacific, time seemed to have passed it by. Puerto Vallarta had become a booming tourist destination, for the gorgeous 200 mile stretch of coastline called Riviera Nayarit was an irresistible lure to those seeking the beauty of an exotic destination and relief from the cold North American and European winters.

 

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However, in the mid 1970s, San Pancho began to change, mostly because of the efforts of one determined man. The village’s lush rainforest, her nights filled with stunning displays of lightning, her grass huts, and her dazzling sunsets worked their magic spell on Mexico’s controversial president, Luis Echeverria. After having discovered the village, San Pancho became his passion. That passion would eventually be transformed into a dream that one day he would retire on the shores of Riviera Nayarit.

Echeverria would fail to realize his dream, yet because of his determination today San Pancho is a thriving, vibrant community. Merchants arrive from throughout Nayarit each day, knowing that they can purchase the fresh, abundant catch from Aztec fishermen who passionately ply their trade and are considered the very best at what they do. Villagers celebrate weddings, festivals, and birthdays in the Plaza del Sol, the charitable organization and learning center Entre Amigos actively and creatively helps citizens to develop skills to improve their lives, and those who love the sunshine lounge on brightly colored beach chairs, munching on chips and salsa and drinking ice-cold margaritas.  A few souls even dare to brave San Pancho’s extremely powerful undertows to surf the incoming waves which rip through the deep ocean bed and crash upon the shores, creating a spellbinding moment for those fortunate enough to observe the incredible power of the Pacific.

 

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One thing soon becomes clear to strangers upon their arrival in San Pancho. In this land the villagers, the Huitchol, who are believed to be the descendants of the pre-Columbian Aztec culture, understand that they are not in charge.  A likeness of St. Francis of Assisi stands at the entry of the beach malecón, looking protectively over the dogs, cats, chickens and other creatures of San Pancho. San Pancho Days, a nine-day celebration, which begins at the end of September, honors St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order and the first recorded stigmata in Catholic history.

Though the one small church in San Pancho is Roman Catholic, in many ways it seems that the old gods still rule after villagers leave mass and return to their daily lives. Human sacrifices have become a thing of the past, and the blood  is no longer drained from the veins of the innocent captives and slaves to quench the thirst of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli upon the altar of Tenochtitlan, but one would be truly misled if he or she failed to understand that in San Pancho the sun-god Tayau still retains much of his ancient power.

 

Ancient Mesoamerican Beliefs

120 immortals compose the spiritual pantheon of the Huitchol. Chief among them are Tayau and Kauyumaki, the trickster god. The Huichol call Kauyumaki the “sacred deer person.” This mystical entity, who appears in the form of a blue deer, dedicates himself to leading the Huitchol to the intoxicating plant, peyote, providing them access to another dimension for the purpose of conversing with the many gods of this Mesoamerican culture.

 

San Pancho, Mexico Wall Mural

San Pancho Wall Mural

 

The psychoactive properties of the small cactus, peyote, has played a significant role in the spiritual life of the Huitchol culture for centuries. Its use, considered a critical component in Huitchol shamanic rites, was common in Mexico at least 2,000 years before the arrival of the Europeans. Peyote, with its psychedelic alkaloid mescaline, is legal to use for religious purposes, yet, recreational use of this plant could result in 10 to 25 years in prison.

The Ancient Sun-God of the Huitchol

It is not Kauyumaki, the trickster god, the villagers of San Pancho are the most wary of. In this sleepy hamlet of dark skinned children marching off to school in spotless, white uniforms, hairless dogs panting as they lie listlessly at the side of the cobblestone pathways, and chickens cackling at the corner of every alley and under every tree branch, the unforgiving Huitchol sun-god Tayau consistently and brutally enforces his universal laws. Like the ancient Aztec god of the sun, Huitzilopochtli, Tayua’s edicts are immutable and uncompromising.

Those laws are simple. Avoid exposure to the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m, to prevent dehydration and possible heat related illnesses which could lead to death. Whenever possible, take advantage of the shade where it is approximately ten degrees cooler. Never leave home without carrying adequate liquids to hydrate your body. The citizens of the sun drenched San Pancho, located only a few miles from where the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains and the Bahía de Banderas converge, comply with Tayau’s decrees, for if they failed to do so, many would not survive.

 

San Pancho's Patron Saint, St. Francis of Assisi

San Pancho’s Patron Saint, St. Francis of Assisi

 

San Pancho’s Resident Artist

Staying out of the harsh sun’s rays was especially difficult for one San Pancho villager. Deaf, poor, partially disabled, and extremely disliked throughout the community, Joaquina’s harsh, sarcastic manner was interpreted by those around her as surliness.  As a result, most of San Pancho’s villagers avoided her when possible. Yet, Juaquina did not allow her disabilities or problems to prevent her from working. Each day, whether the sun beat down mercilessly or the rain drenched her clothing and flooded the streets she found it necessary to traverse, Jauquina delivered San Pancho’s mail. For this service, she received no salary, only tips from appreciative citizens.

Climbing the steep hills was a daily battle for Juaquina, for during the rainy season the streets are inundated with rainwater. It gushes in torrents over cobblestones pathways and accumulates in large puddles on the sidewalks, making walking difficult for even the most agile. As a result, it was a common sight to see Jauquina trying to pull herself upright again after having fallen.  The villagers feared they would be the recipients of her cantankerous behavior and what appeared to them to be cruelty, so to protect themselves they learned to ignore her plight.

 

San Pancho, Mexico's Resident Artist, Juaquina

San Pancho, Mexico: Resident Artist, Juaquina

 

Jauquina’s home life was not much easier than her work life. Without running water in her house, she was forced to wash her clothing in the river, pounding them upon the rocks to cleanse them. Her knees and legs were often bruised and blooded, for when she found it necessary to relieve herself at night she had no other choice than to use an outdoor toilet a short distance from her home. Her disability made it difficult for her to climb the cinder block steps leading up to the toilet, and often she fell and injured herself.

The motivational speaker and writer, Leo Buscaglia warns us that, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Buscaglia seemed to have been describing the lack of action taken by those who periodically saw Jauquina’s figure, alone, collapsed, and in pain on the sidewalks and streets of San Pancho.

The Touch of an Angel’s Hand

Often it takes the action of only one person to improve a  person’s life. In the case of Jauquina, it took the voice of a compassionate expatriate from Southern California who, after witnessing San Pancho’s mail deliverer collapse on the street, began making phone calls and sending emails to all expatriates throughout the area, requesting their help.

Soon donations were pouring in. Today Jauquina drives a golf cart to deliver the mail, and she receives a livable salary. She has an indoor bathroom and a new outlook on life. During the weeks in which these major changes were taking place her new friends discovered her love of art and her talent for painting. A few months later art lovers from throughout Nayarit joined the citizens of San Pancho to celebrate Jauquina’s talents and purchase her paintings at an art show held in her honor.

Juacina has become a Nayarit celebrity, and while I was visiting her home I was delighted to discover that her spirit no longer is angry and harsh. Instead, she glows with love, light, kindness, appreciation, and a newly discovered sense of pride of which her many, severe problems had previously robbed her.

“Kindness is the touch of an angel’s hand,” James Leonard Gordon reminds us. In this case, it was touch from the hand of angel from Southern California and her compassionate friends who lovingly came to the rescue of one in need.

 

San Pancho, Mexico's Street Murals

San Pancho Street Murals

 

San Pancho, Mexico’s Lo de Perla Jungle

When night falls in San Pancho, when its gentle, cooling breezes once again move like a restless spirit through the leaves of the coconut trees, those primordial memories instilled in us by our ancient ancestors cause us to stop and ponder the immense value of the sun. And when we hear the sound of the white-tailed deer’s tiny hooves upending a pebble, or when the Mexican beaded lizard rustles through the dried, fallen leaves, we remind ourselves that without this great orb of fire, none of this would exist. Without the sun, there would be no heat to warm us in winter, no sunlight to acclimate us to our surroundings and the dangers inherent in our environment, and no fruits and vegetables to sustain our bodies.

 

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Late in the night, when the raindrops patter rhythmically on the mango leaves, we truly begin to recall the power of that massive ball of ongoing nuclear fusion. It is then, when we hear the unfamiliar voices of the living creatures which, now that the sun has set and no longer threatens them, enrich the night with music of the Lo de Perla Rainforest, that we begin to understand how a culture lacking a scientific understanding of the sun, could visualize it as a loving, yet cruel deity.

 

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San Pancho: A Rainbow of Color

The Lo de Perla provides a home to bushy-tailed, brown squirrels which scamper up lemon trees, golden lizards which frantically scurry away at the sound of my footstep, and rainbow-colored butterflies that look like tiny fairies as they trustingly light upon my skin when I stand perfectly still in the dawn. Hidden from view, the villagers remind me, are the endangered jaguars, those sleek, dangerous creatures which once roamed this land in such vast numbers and are capable of bringing down an 800-pound raging bull.

 

San Pancho's Wall Murals

San Pancho’s Wall Murals

 

Down the road from me, an elderly Mexican laborer, dressed in the traditional peasant clothing one envisions when he or she thinks of Mexico, a white poncho and loose trousers, a wide rimmed sombrero, and sandals, rides his burrow to work each morning. He smiles as he passes me. He welcomes me with “Buenos días,” and a friendly smile.

Palm trees designed with perfect symmetry in a lighter tone of green provide a stunning contrast to the Pacific whose sapphire waves, fluctuating to the moon’s rhythm, move in the same primordial dance which the ocean was assigned at its conception. The waves look as if they were painted by the brush of a master.

“Let Me Bathe My Soul in Colours…”

The mystic, Kahlil Gibran, who seemed to see beauty in everything, expressed his longing in the following statement. “Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.” Had Gibran visited San Pancho, his wish would have been realized, for  it is truly a vivid rainbow of enticing color, luring us with its exquisite beauty. Most vibrant are the colors of the Huitchol. Those, the reds, oranges, and pinks, are symbolic of passion, love, and danger. These tones are a constant reminder of Mexico’s history.

“The arts of Mexico are heavy with the weight of the past, of gods that demanded the sacrifice of a thousand beating hearts in a day, of a world that ended every fifty-two years, of warriors who rushed into battle wearing the heads of jaguars or clothed in the flayed skin of their human victims,” the writer Bilolne W. Young tells us.

All these colors are unavoidable on the narrow, cobbled streets of this Central American paradise. In San Pancho, echoes of the past reverberate not in sound, but in exquisite symmetry, sacred geometric designs which are often referred to as “the blueprint of creation,” and brilliant bursts of dynamic colors which reach out, grasp the soul, and remind us of the holiness and fragility of all life on earth.

 

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The Divine Art of Color

Scientists estimate that within the color spectrum there are a possible 100,000 discriminable colors. Yet, both scientists and mathematicians tell us that color does not actually exist in the literal sense. It is simply a way for the human brain to interpret light waves.

 

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No matter whether color is the brain’s interpretation of light waves or whether the color spectrum will one day be proven to actually exist, is irrelevant. To interpret the reality of color, with its amazing complexity, in any way other than by intelligent design is to defy reason. I have yet to see the world’s greatest minds create light from nothing, much less 100,000 shades of light waves which result in vibrant, beautiful colors to brighten our world and our lives.

 

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John Ruskin reminded us that, “Of all God’s gifts to the sighted man, color is holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.” Here in San Pancho, wrapped in the arms of the Lo de Perle Rainforest and awakened each morning by the crashing of the waves upon the shores of Riviera Nayarit, I find myself in total agreement with Ruskin’s sentiments.

 

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Suggested Resources

Nayarit, Mexico 

 Nayarit History 

 Mexico’s Huichol Resources: Culture, Symbolism, and Art

San Pancho Days on the Riviera Nayarit

Peyote: The Last of the Medicine Men