San Blas, Mexico was founded in 1531 as a busy port of call for the Spanish navy. In the late 1700s over one hundred Spanish families were sent to settle there and shortly afterward the small seaside town became an official naval base. According to Wikipedia, "for about twenty years in the late 18th century San Blas was one of the busiest ports and shipbuilding centers on the Pacific coast of the Americas, rivaling Acapulco, the eastern terminus of the trans-Pacific Manila galleon convoy."
Despite its grand beginnings, the little town was soon to find its fortunes sinking as everything about it made it - still makes it - an inconvenient and inhospitable place to settle: it has a beautiful beach that is completely occupied with flesh eating sand flies, the heat and humidity are almost unbearable, it's been the landing point of more than one monumental hurricane, monsoon rains and lightening storms flatten the landscape during the summer months, and the mosquitoes are epic.
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending six weeks there. It was one of the most difficult, physically uncomfortable experiences of my life; it was also inspiring, enlightening and brimming with local stories and mythology that made its history feel like an ever present ghostly specter. San Blas was a magical, disagreeable place that I'll never forget.
One of my great discoveries while there was the wreck of the Playa Hermosa Hotel. Located down an isolated stretch of beach, the hotel, which was built in the early 1950s, was initially planned to lure in the rich and famous. This was just before the time that the Hollywood film Night of the Iguana was filmed in nearby Puerto Vallarata and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton glamorized Mexico by buying their love nest in the region. Since its port was abandoned, San Blas has been looking for ways to regain its esteem and in the last fifty years this effort has mostly revolved around trying to compete with the popular resort towns in the region - something it does unsuccessfully by virtue of the local pestilence, which keeps tourists well clear of its long stretch of surf. To eliminate the sand flies would be detrimental to the mosquitoes and to eliminate the mosquitoes would be detrimental to the shrimp nurseries, which are currently the biggest industry in the town. There is a delicate ecological balance at play, one that leaves little room for tourism. Yet, they continue to try.
The Playa Hermosa Hotel is a ghost - one of many in the area. The owner of the bungalow I rented during my stay in San Blas, an old hippie who joyfully celebrated his independence from his home country on the fourth of July, told me that in the 60s when he was a child his mother brought him and his brother to stay at the Playa Hermosa. He said it was beautiful and glamorous back then: bright white and covered in sparkling aqua colored tile. He and his younger brother immediately ran out to swim in the ocean. When they were a few yards out they looked back to shore and noticed people waving their arms around, yelling something. It was only then that the boys turned out to sea and noticed the shark fins moving back and forth in the water beyond them.
"We high tailed it to shore and decided the pool was a safer bet. Then as sundown approached the jejenes came out and we were jumping and scratching and making way for inside!" Jejenes are the local term for sand flies. Despite this dubious first encounter, the gentleman eventually ended up moving back to the region and made it his home.
It is public record that back in the 60s actor Lee Marvin, probably most famous for his role in American war film The Dirty Dozen, frequented the Playa Hermosa because he thought the fishing was good. My landlord told me that it was also widely rumored that Jim Morrison spent a drug hazed week there in 1969 and it's where he wrote the classic song LA Woman. Of course, this is pure local mythology and there is absolutely nothing to back it up . I've looked at Morrison's tour schedule in 1969 and although he played Mexico City, there is no reference of him ever being in San Blas or the Nayarit region of Mexico.
After its hay days in the 60s, the hotel was mostly forgotten and slowly fell into disrepair. By the 80s, it's upper floors had been converted into apartments for ex-pat Americans who came to San Blas to live cheap, smoke pot and surf. Eventually even they moved out as the roof leaked and the electricity became non-existent. The final death blow to the hotel came in 2002 when the deadly Hurricane Kenna struck land at San Blas. The Playa Hermosa Hotel is in a beautiful location, but it would have been a deadly one with its windows looking squarely out onto the approaching squall. The 16 foot storm surge that hit the town in 2002 destroyed 95% of its buildings and left little more than a pile of rubble where the stark white hotel used to stand.
During an overcast afternoon, I visited the site and took some photos of what was left. There are rumors in town that someone plans to clear the site in order to build a new and better hotel. But it's been nearly 10 years since Kenna and that seems unlikely. What seems even more unlikely is that anyone would chose to stay there. Even though the hotel was only about 50 years old when the hurricane toppled it, there is something that feels ancient about what is left: the ghostly tall bone white walls, the remnants of the art deco architecture and everywhere, blue tiles.
There is a local bar in town called Billy Bobs; it is always filled with old weathered gringos telling stories about how they came to live in San Blas and about the mythology of the place. They smoke their pot, drink their cheap beer and listen to classic rock from the 60s and 70s. Jim Morrison's deep, hollow voice clatters out across the garbage strewn streets of the town and a crocodile named Fluffy lives in the back. "We feed him fish," they say.
San Blas is filled with ghosts.
All images by Amy Thibodeau