Sweet secrets of Sayula

articles Travel & Destinations

Marvin West


In the early years of the 21st century, the beautiful Mexican town of Sayula had a wildly fluctuating gringo population. Half of it was lost in one day — when Paul and Debbie Katz moved to Chapala.

It doubled 10 months later when they returned.

Don Sellers was the stable 25 percent. He’s there and isn’t jumping around. Don and his wife, Carmen Estela Garcia Arámbula Sellers, said goodbye Seattle and hello Sayula in 1999. They’re in for keeps. Their home is exactly the way they want it and they are surrounded by Carmen’s relatives and childhood friends.

There’s another gringo, a Canadian, around somewhere.

“We don’t talk to him,” said Don, “because we never see him.”

The Katz couple found it advantageous to go and come. There were three going-away parties and a shower of gifts when they packed up and departed. There was a party when they returned for a visit. There were two welcome-back parties and more gifts when they wised up and hurried home to stay.

“Leaving and returning were both lucrative,” said Paul with a very Jewish wink. “There were just a few more hugs and tears in the going than coming.”

Why so few gringos? Good question. Sayula is no secret. It is an easy destination, just off the main line between Guadalajara and Colima, Highway 54D, path of least resistance from middle Mexico to Manzanillo and the west bank.

It is clean enough to be mistaken for spotless. Flowers and shrubs in the plaza reflect tender loving care. Main streets are paved. A row of meters guarantees a place to park. Five weekly newspapers gather all gossip and sell ads to the same stores. You need to know that one journalist is blind.

There’s another guaranteed conversation piece. Hector Mendoza Magaña built his Mi Ranchito restaurant around power pole 119. I am not making this up.

There is no record of an early designer but the center of town has a hint of architectural class. All around the plaza are arched doorways that seize your attention.

Sayula had a historic theater, Cine Eden, dark for decades. The roof is sagging but the walls refuse to fall. Visitors stop, stare and study old posters plastered here and there. Thus, it is neither in nor completely out of show biz. The reason is divided ownership — as in four ways plus descendants!

The renowned Jose Ojeda knife factory is a feature attraction with 15 generations of craftsmen on the cutting edge. OK, so what is now famous for really fancy stuff started as a blacksmith shop.

There’s a part-time lake and marsh that attracts an awesome assortment of migratory birds — and several photographers. On the edge of town is a military base dedicated to reforestation. In town are small, medium and large candy companies that market sweet stuff with a crusty top in little, handmade wooden boxes.

Outside of town is one heck of a tomato patch, supposedly the biggest in all of Mexico.

D. H. Lawrence wrote about Sayula in Chapter 7 of The Plumed Serpent and that alone should have drawn a crowd. He would have you believe there was an automobile running around town in 1927.

Indeed, there is old money in Sayula and a bank to shelter it. So, how do you measure pesos you can’t see? Now hear this about Carnaval and a couple of dinner parties.

” Carnaval demonstrated the money that is in this town,” said Sellers. “In addition to all the activities, the parades and rides, they had their popular dinner dances on Sunday and Monday nights.

“It cost, each night, 325 pesos to reserve a table for four and another 150 pesos for each person attending. That means 231 per chair. And, you couldn’t bring your own bottle. You had to buy what they were selling, from 200 pesos to 650.

“Even with those prices, Sunday attendance was about 800. Maybe 700 on Monday. Some went to both celebrations. Profits went to the city for improvements.”

Sellers, Katz and el presidente Samuel Rivas Peña agree Sayula population is about 31,000 and holding. Young adults still rush away to big cities or north of the border, in search of immediate wealth and higher octane entertainment. The good news is many eventually return. Katz says several have brought their savings and leaned back to live the good life — or even open businesses in Sayula.

“There are many fine homes and fairly new cars,” said Sellers.

“And quite a few business chiefs,” said Katz, “if you believe all you hear.”

Sayula has something you won’t find in New York or Los Angeles. Just off the plaza is a volcano warning system, a sign about the size of the drive-through menu at McDonald’s. It evaluates air quality to give residents an idea of how Volcán de Fuego is behaving over near Colima. There’s a green light for good, orange for caution and red for “Where did I put my face mask?”

Dr. Jaime Arturo Paz Garcia, founder and first director of Proteccion Civil, tried to get ahead of what the fallout might be if the volcano really, seriously erupted. He erected warning systems in towns and villages. His office earned considerable respect, well beyond Jalisco borders.

Alas, Dr. Garcia and his idea became a political football, to be kicked out in favor of a friend or relative, then recovered in times of earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters.

“I don’t know if the warning system still works,” said Sellers. “The lights are out on our sign.”

Incidentally, Dr. Garcia was born in Sayula. He is Carmen Sellers’ nephew.

Because Mexconnect is fair and balanced, there is an obligation to report frowns as well as smiles. At issue in a recent Sayula controversy was colorful graffiti. Not much at all, or way too much, depending on your point of view.

Some see young people expressing themselves in red or yellow, black or blue as perfectly normal. Others consider it a plague on civilization. The blind writer said he saw nothing wrong with graffiti. Readers didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The wife of one editor had a brilliant plan for prevention, better than beer restrictions at your neighborhood Stop-and-Go. Anybody who wants a can of spray paint must present a photo ID and sign the sales record. Oh no was the cry from the hardware store, suddenly a bastion of civil rights, also point of sales for paint and paint remover.

The town isn’t in absolute unanimous agreement about tomato farming. So, how come the finest fruit is exported? And what about those migrant workers? That one Canadian wanted to know about pesticides.

The migrants are mostly Huasteco, Triquis, Nahua and Tlapaneco people, many from the state of Guerrero. The biggest farm provides limited shelter and a bus to haul workers downtown for Saturday shopping. More sophisticated customers turn up their noses at the intrusion. It seems there is no bathhouse at the tomato farm.

Did I mention that Sayula is a remarkable town? The Gonzalez sisters transformed an inherited hundred-year-old house into a showplace hotel. What once was a seed warehouse and flour mill now offers bath, bed and breakfast for just 79 U.S. dollars per night.

Shhhhh, company is coming. Still to be announced but already funded is an exclusive 24-room hotel and spa.

Ah yes, the sweet secrets of Sayula — and not a single gringo to spare.

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2004 by Marvin West © 2004
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