This engaging book analyses the historical geography of the port of San Blas, on Mexico’s west coast, and its hinterland which includes the small city of Tepic, the state capital of Nayarit. This area held immense importance during colonial times, was one of the main gateways for trade and influence peddling during the nineteenth century, before lapsing into relative obscurity at the end of the that century, and into the twentieth century. The tourism industry has sparked a mini-revival but none of the many grandiose plans for this coast have even been brought fully to fruition.
The Camino Real in Richter’s title is actually a branch from the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Inland Royal Road, the spine of the colonial road system in New Spain). During colonial times, this linked the inland city of Guadalajara to Tepic and thence San Blas, though the modern highways uniting these places no longer follow the same route.
Robert Richter has known this area personally for decades, and his intimate knowledge of the local geography shines through. The book combines his own personal experiences with intensive historical research, both in the library and on the ground. Richter’s objective is to pin down the precise route of the Camino Real, and then find every remaining vestige of it that he can on the ground.
In reading the story of San Blas and the Camino Real, readers are treated to a dazzling array of insights into what made this area tick for so long before subsiding into something of a backwater. This branch of the Camino Real, from Guadalajara to San Blas, played a key role in the history of Western Mexico, and saw everything from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, priests and smugglers.
As Richter points out, “The Matanchen Bay-San Blas region grew in geographic and strategic importance to become the most important Pacific seaport between Guayaquil, Ecuador, and San Francisco, California, in the 1830s, a major international way station for both legal and contraband trade between an ungovernable Mexico and the rest of the world.”
This growth continued and, “In the 1850s, the cultural, economic, and political events roiling all along the Camino Real from San Blas to Guadalajara, especially in the mild sierra valley surrounding the city of Tepic, spawned a new regional identity, and eventually, a new political entity—the Mexican state of Nayarit.”
Richter tells his story with passion and it is impossible not to be drawn into the narrative and share his excitement as he sets out to find “missing” sections of the Camino Real, accompanied by a motley crew of secondary characters. To what extend does he succeed? Sorry, no spoilers here!
Inevitably, the past merges with the present and the future. What began as a seemingly straightforward historical geography becomes at turns a travelogue, journal of fieldwork and short essay about the sustainability of economic development along this coast. Richter is clearly not against change, but argues strongly that local tourist development in the future must take account and respect the region’s ecology, its history and its culture.
As the back cover blurb aptly states, “To explore Nayarit’s wild and gorgeous geography, trying to site the ancient Camino Real, is to stumble over another road running toward the state’s future economic development as part of the Mexican Riviera.”
This book should be of interest to geographers everywhere. It serves to prove that historical geography need not be dull and stuffy but can be made relevant, exciting and even entertaining, at the same time as it offers us valuable insights into possible futures.
One minor plea: please add an index when the second edition of this book is prepared!
“Search for the Camino Real, a history of San Bad and the road to get there” is one of several books by Richter centered on the fading coastal village culture of Nayarit and the Mexican Riviera. His adventure novel, “Something like a Dream” (Oak Tree Press, 2014) is an especially entertaining read, with a lively plot and well-described settings ranging from the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta to Nayarit fishing villages and tiny Huichol Indian settlements high in the Western Sierra Madre.
Map of the beaches of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit, Mexico shows the location of all the key places mentioned in Richter’s books.