San Pancho, Mexico

Last week, I traveled from San Francisco, California to San Francisco, Mexico (better known as San Pancho) with my parents and my sister.

We chose San Pancho primarily for its convenience: it was a relatively short flight from SFO, it was a warm place to go during the winter, and I thought a small town would be easy for our family to navigate.

But I didn’t expect San Pancho to give me a feeling of truly traveling, of being somewhere that felt foreign. Mexico is such a common destination for Californians that it often seems like it’s just another part of the state, but our time in San Pancho reminded me how fantastically different it is to be in Mexico.

At first glance, San Pancho didn’t look fantastic. In fact, it looked pretty depressed. The streets were made of dirt and rocks. There were street dogs, like I’d seen in Palermo, Sicily, and more chickens in town than people.

Where I’d expected the brightly-colored buildings, there were also many cement structures so dilapidated or unfinished that I wasn’t sure it unsure if they were inhabited or if they were still under construction.

But the town grew on me. For such a small town, it was surprisingly lively. Every time we went out, we saw something new: a man in a sombrero on horseback, six pre-teens on an ATV, someone selling fresh fish and shrimp out of the back of a pick-up truck, a man pushing a plastic-lined wheelbarrow full of gummy candies.

At dinner one night, we heard a piercing shriek and saw a man pushing what looked like a screaming chimney down the main street; a local said the man was selling sweet potatoes that he roasted in this portable steam oven.

Aside from the dogs and chickens that roamed the streets, we saw a pig tied to a palm tree in a dirt lot. Behind a fence in what I assumed was someone’s back yard, there was a bull. We went to the beach for sunset most evenings and one night, we found a group of people releasing baby turtles back into the sea.

There was a constant sense of discovery in San Pancho, something I associate more with city living, rather than life in a small town. I tend to think of small towns as being quiet, too, but as my sister observed, there was always noise in San Pancho. We heard roosters crowing at all hours of the day. We heard the slightly muffled sounds of a neighbor’s radio or the intermittent hammering of a construction crew nearby. Each morning, the propane tank drove through the town’s streets, endlessly playing their advertisement, which I probably mis-heard as: Centa! Centa! Centa Gas! Centa! Centa! Centa Gas!

Despite these new sights and sounds of Mexico, our time in San Pancho was a true vacation. We spent hours reading in the sun and cooling off in a salt-water pool. We walked to the local tortilleria for a medio kilo of warm tortillas and a container of salsa and went to the tiny market for chips, beans and beer. The ocean was too rough for swimming but we went to the beach nightly to watch the sunset.

I hadn’t been to Mexico in nearly 15 years before this trip, but little San Pancho brought Mexico back to life for me.



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