Silhouetted against the inky night sky, the rickety metal structure some 25 meters tall is now fully ablaze.
Fireworks are spinning off in every direction over the town’s square, sending a shower of sparks onto the laughing crowd jammed together in celebration in the town’s plaza. Amid the craziness and the settling haze, a man taps us on the shoulder.
“Amigo,” he says, pointing upward. “Sometimes it topples over!”
Ah, Mexico! How we’ve missed you. It’s good to be back.
Like the long-lost friend or lover you’ve never forgotten, Mexico has welcomed us back with a bang. Her touch — the gentle probe and sensuous dance she offers — is hard to resist.
Located some 150 km north of Puerto Vallarta on the coastline in the state of Nayarit, San Blas is dubbed the Mexican Venice for the number of waterways that flow through and around it. Filled with lush growth, it’s a mecca for birdwatchers since many species use the sheltered waterways as rest stops on their migratory routes. We had arrived there the evening before a wild and crazy festival of water and fire known as the Feast Day of San Blas was to take place.
Truly, if the coastline of Mexico is her necklace, then places like San Blas are the gemstones that frame her voluptuous body. Filled with hidden coves and glistening bays, her shoreline dazzles and shines, showcasing stunning curves and offering passageways to hidden valleys.
Over breakfast on the morning of the festival, we watch workers build a tower in the town’s square. A young man named Hector responds to my sneeze with a “salud” (bless you).
“Gracias,” I reply.
He tells us that the metal structure will be used for the finale of the daylong celebration. “The whole day will be fun,” he says. “Don’t miss it!”
That afternoon, we gather back at the steps of the 300-year-old church along with locals, dancers in indigenous dress and musicians. Everyone is waiting for Día de San Blas to begin.
Suddenly, the church doors open up and the local priest walks out. Behind him, parishioners carry a two-meter-tall statue of the town’s patron saint, San Blas, down the steps.
The procession winds its way through the crowded spectator-filled streets. We join in and are jostled along as the parade heads toward the town’s docks. There, the priest and entourage climb aboard a waiting shrimp boat.
Around us, people are frantically searching for seats on various waiting panga boats. The narrow channel that heads to the ocean is awash with boats, many loaded heavy with passengers. All are following the lumbering shrimp boat making its way out of the protected passageway.
As we crowd onto the dock’s edge, wondering how to get our own ride, our friend Hector appears.
“Hola, mis amigos canadienses! Are you wanting to get on a boat?”
“Sí!” we reply.
Immediately, Hector turns his attention to one of the captains docked on the rocky shoreline. “… and my Canadian cousins,” he finishes, pointing to us. We score rides with Hector on a waiting speedboat.
More suited for summer-lake fun than an oceangoing adventure, the approximately seven-meter-long boat has managed to squeeze 12 of us on board. The only person wearing a lifejacket continually clasps her hands in prayer. At that point, the only thing I’m believing in is that we have a Titanic-size chance of going under.
The ragtag flotilla that’s assembled on the water looks like some madcap rescue operation.
Craft of all sizes — some decorated, many overcrowded, most without lifejackets and stuffed with families and grandmas holding babies — chase after the lumbering shrimp boat. We take the bow seats and are immediately drenched by the rolling seas crashing over into our boat.
We start bailing as prayers grow louder. I’m praying we won’t be soon going under. But if there needs to be a rescue, boats are literally within an oar’s length of us.
Our destination is a rock outcropping some two kilometers offshore, white from the droppings of nesting birds. We slowly gather around the rugged poop-stained peak in the middle of the bay.
Boats dart in every direction, bouncing over the waves. Someone has managed to scale the 30-meter-high rock and seems prepared to jump off. Everyone jockeys in closer for a better view.
Shouts of “Jump, jump!” fill the air along with “uno, dos, tres!” The crowd waits in anticipation for the circus-like finish to the mayhem.
Our captain senses that retreat might be the wiser of directions. Could it be the constant bailing or the smoke rising from the overworked motor that has him frowning? We turn and start back toward shore.
Now, as if sinking in the high seas didn’t seem like enough fun, our captain decides that getting crushed should do the trick. We head toward the growing line of boats waiting to receive a dousing of holy water from the priests aboard. This is a traditional blessing for another prosperous and safe fishing season.
It is almost our end as we struggle to come alongside the much larger shrimp boat. Our bow end bounces squarely into the side of the towering steel-hulled shrimper. The vessel’s booms loom scant meters above our heads, swinging from side to side.
Our captain manages to avoid one disaster, only to have the stern end of our undersized and badly overloaded craft smash off the side of the shrimp boat and narrowly miss getting caught in the larger boat’s wake. Feeling blessed at having avoided a high seas catastrophe, we chug back to shore.
On the dock, we say goodbye to Hector and promise to return in the evening for the finale.
That night, we crowd into the town’s plaza with hundreds of townspeople to watch the fireworks display.
The 25-meter tower of incendiary items seems secured by ropes tied to palm trees standing in each corner of the square. Fireworks line its sides. Spinning wheel designs and a fireworks-filled wire in the shape of a butterfly at the tower’s top await their moment.
The crowd roars as a Roman candle rockets from the church steeple. The fireworks on the tower are lit.
Children dance under the sparks and around the tower as if enjoying a warm rain from a summer’s night storm. Without safety barriers, people edge closer.
Above their heads, fireworks continue to screech and whirr, climbing ever higher up the tower. It is a spectacular show of light, smoke and noise. Through the smoke now settling over the plaza, Hector just nods and points to the tower.
We have our escape route, just in case.
The finale to Día de San Blas sees the butterfly ablaze, spraying a mammoth-sized shower of sparks in a wide arc.
The craziness of the night even extends to the church as fireworks explode down one wall and a last crescendo of Roman candles are sent from atop the steeple. Hector laughs. “Sí, no problemo!”
This is the Mexico we look for.
From the fragrance of her land, to a stroke of her finger on the back of our necks, to the joyous laughter of children and smiles of families visible through the settling smoke of a fireworks display, this is a passionate, humid land, the people proud, kind and generous.
It’s a place where locals like Hector stop to talk to you and, if you are lucky, find you a seat on a boat ride. It’s a place with adventure and heart.
Sí, Mexico, no es problema!
Shayne and Yvonne Konar are retired teachers who have traveled extensively with only carry-on packs. To read more about their adventures check out their blog, Backpacks and Flipflops.