FIRST SIGHT, the string of open-air food stands
clustered along the dusty highway appeared as little more than a
rest stop, a south of the border version of the Baghdad Cafe for
travelers on Mexicos highway 200, but when we turned off the road
and headed toward the bay, a town appeared. In a narrow stretch
of land between the highway and beach, there was a zocalo -a town
square- and it was humming with small town life.
one end of the plaza, tanned taxi drivers in short-sleeved shirts
stood together and gossiped. Nearby, marketstall vendors hawked
tropical fruits and vegetables, department-store clothes and housewares.
Kids rode bikes and played basketball, or, if they were older than
border, ducked in doorways to smooch with their sweethearts.
wife and I were in the town of Bucerias, looking for paradise. "This
must be it", I said to Laurie. The sky was watermelon pink.
A honey-colored light hung in the hills. A buoyant tropical breeze
was blowing in from Banderas Bay.
to the point, we were searching for a quiet vacation spot, an out-of-the-way
place to enjoy if not Old Mexico, then at least some remnant of
the sleepy beachland that used to lure Americans southward. The
plan was simple : Fly to Puerto Vallarta, drive north along the
coast, and hope that my high-school Spanish, rusty as a 57 Chevy
sitting in the back yard, would spring to life when needed. So,
we hopped into a rented VW "Bug" - the generic car of
Mexico - and struck out for parts unknown.
STOP, BUCERIAS, about 30 kilometers north
of Vallarta. Once an outpost to collect shellfish - the town name
is derived from bucer, to dive - Bucerias now is a bustling little
town of 20,000 people. More than 750 expatriates, most of them Americans,
live in white villas and bungalows scattered along the beach. The
town also has the distinction of serving as the filmshooting locale
for the TV detective show Sweating Bullets.
for the address of a friend of a friend, we drove through one of
the towns dirt streets - there were no street lights and no sidewalks
- and gaped at the natural beauty of the area. Rich, bright green
vegetation draped down from the hill surrounding town. Palm trees
lined the beach. Thick, hand-sized red and purple hibiscus and bouganvillea
blossoms cascaded over every wall.
at this garden", Laurie gasped when we located the house two
blocks from the beach. The yard overflowed with gracefull coconut
palms and leafy banana trees, a lemon tree, a papaya tree, row upon
row of bouganvilleas.
strolled past a thatched-roof "palapa" hut, used as a
large umbrella for sitting outdoors, and entered an open, airy two-story
house with all the nice mexican touches: handmade tiles, intricate
brickwork and a mirador - a rooftop balcony - to view the bay.
host was Mr. Lee Gibson, a 47-year-old, likable, gregarious American
who owned a folk-art shop in Oakland before moving to Bucerias.
Four years ago, he opened a travel agency in Bucerias. He is bilingual
travel-savvy and willing to go out of his way to help tourists.
Not surprisingly, the agency is blooming.
is like Vallarta 25 years ago", Lee told us as we watched a
crimson-and-gold-sunset from his porch. "Its very quiet, very
residential. There are a few hotels, a few good restaurants, but
theres zero nightlife. Here, you just relax on the beach".
next morning, we made a dash for the beach - 5 miles of blissful,
powdery white sand. For two hours, Laurie and I lay on the blanket
of sand, baking two weeks of Seattle rain out of our skin.
the next few days, we did little else, content to take dips in the
warm water and listen to the surf. It didn't take long to slide
into a routine: Stake out a sunbathing spot, sink into a book and
exchange pleasantries with the handful of fellow tourists who walked
Puerto Vallarta is young, sporty and hormonal, Bucerias is as comfortable
as a pair of huaraches. In Puerto Vallarta, you might drink and
dance through the night; in Bucerias, you collect beach shells,
grill a piece of fresh fish at your condo and sip tequila in the
dark on the balcony.
we mustered energy to ride bicycles around town. Each trip ended
with a guilty pleasure at Pie in the Sky, a local bakery that created
out-of-this-world treats: Chocolate fudge brownies, pecan tarts,
Grand Marnier cheesecake. These were desserts of the gods, made
by a couple of ex-San Francisco hippies.
didnt take long to realize that Bucerias wasnt "Old Mexico",
but it was congenial and full of small kindnesses. One morning,
we ate at El Gringo Viejo, a restaurant not known for gourmet cuisine,
but when we asked for papaya and there was no papaya, the Mexican
owner felt obliged to retrieve a melon from his own kitchen at home.
ON THE ROAD, we reached a junction just as
we pulled out of Bucerias. We could follow the coastal highway or
continue on route 200, which veered inland, we chose the later.
highway now became narrow, curving, full of tropical vines and vegetation.
A cool, dark air reached out from the jungle. Creeping through a
canopy of trees, we climbed a low mountain range before the road
the next half-hour, we cruised through verdant ranchland, dotted
with horses and cattle and a scattering of tall trees. The sun beat
down on a broad, leafy crop. We didnt recognize it until we drove
past several large, opensided barns where the plant was hung to
20 kilometers from Bucerias, we turned off the road for Sayulita,
a fishing settlement of 1,000 people tucked into hilly jungle terrain.
Noisy roosters greeted us as we made our way through a small, vibrant
village. At the end was a secluded bay, an inlet with a black beach.
Big waves crashed against the shore.
come from Australia to surf here", said a woman standing beside
us. Her name was Adrienne, a former Californian who moved to Sayulita
13 years ago to start TĄa Adrianas, a bed-and-breakfast. A B&B
in a primitive village? It sounded improbable, but we took a look.
sun filled tile-and-adobe house was immaculate-tearoom tidy and
brightly decorated with ceramic sculptures, painted fabrics, and
sea paintings. Built in 1979 to host group retreats, the B&B
now houses individuals who seek a quiet, meditative spot. Adrienne
said she encourages travelers to get involved with the village and
was pleased that some had volunteered to work on community projects.
about B&B proprietorship, we returned to the highway and traveled
in silence until we spotted a cobblestone road. It led to a drowsy
little town called San Francisco, where the few people we saw were
sitting idly on porches and wearing aimless faces. We drove until
we hit the ocean. Two open-air restaurants bordered the beach, but
neither looked eager for business. A shaggy mutt slept in the shade,
completing the picture of small-town languor.
the beach was a jewel: a thick swath of talcum-soft white sand beside
a roaring sea. Again, the smell of the ocean filled the air. And,
again, the number of tourists was small enough to fit into the trunk
of our VW.
water is so beautiful", I remarked to a mexican woman traveling
with her new husband. Yes, she said. But it was "muy bravo"
very strong. I was glad I asked: A stiff undercurrent and a steep
drop-off made swimming dangerous.
stretches of the beach nearby were less wild, we were assured by
Rick Gardino, the manager of Costa Azul Adventure Resorts, a cluster
of white villas set outside of town overlooking the ocean. The resort,
closed for repairs, was re-opening and would rent sea kayaks and
mountain bykes. He hoped to market the resort to "older generation
adventurists". "Y know surfers who now are lawyers and
have families", he said.
creaky and somewhat diminished, we moseyed back to the highway and
headed for Rincon de Guayabitos. Rincon has a reputation as a poor
mans Puerto Vallarta, a picturesque town on the verge of discovery.
We arrived just as the sun was going down. Situated on a pretty
half-moon bay - the Bay of Jaltemba - the town was bathed in a glorious
light, the kind of light you could take a butter knife to thick,
syrupy rays that coated bathers with a warm golden glow.
of brightly colored fishing boats, called pangas, glistened in the
sea. Pelicans swooped into the water, crashing the waves for fish.
A group of mexican children squealed in delight as they tried to
hold onto a large rubber raft being towed through the shallow, gentle
was thoroughly charming scene, made even more satisfying by the
piquant smell of barbecued fish wafting through the air. A string
of a half-dozen palapa restaurants lined the beach.
wandered into the Villanueva restaurant and sat down to a bowl of
soup heaping with seafood, a brochette of jumbo shrimp and a lip-smacking-good
piece of filleted dorado (mahi mahi). "This must be paradise",
I sighed, happily, Pancha a second Dos Equis.
pretty near used to be ", came the voice from the next table.
I turned to see an older man, a John Huston look-alike who was addressing
me in midbite. He was a sports fisherman, a retiree named Ray who
had been coming to Rincon for 10 years.
he said, was a gentle place alive with plenty of eccentric, crusty
characters, mostly vacationing fishermen and RV types who stay for
several weeks or months at a time. A throwback to the old days when
a dollar went a long way, the town still was a bargain: You could
stay at a clean hotel for 20 bucks, eat a fish dinner for under
$ 10, and spend your change on a few drinks at the Posada Real before
turning in for the night. But things are changing, he said. Rincon
is turning glitzy with several highrise hotels, lavish private homes
and a commercial district.
OUR TRIP WINDING DOWN, we doubled back toward
Bucerias, just north of the town, we turned eastward along the coastal
highway. The road, which deadends at Punta de Mita 22 kilometers
away, follows the Bay of Banderas, curving in and out of thick vegetation
to offer spectacular views of the bay.
passing through Cruz de Huanacaxtle, a small town popular among
sailors because it has a low-cost marina, we stopped at Playa Destiladeras.
By now, we'd become slightly inured to the scenic charms of beautiful
beaches, but Destiladeras took our breath away.
has stunning panoramic view of the bay, along stretch of silvery
beach backed by sandstone cliffs and clear, turquoise-colored water.
Its lonely beauty and solitude suggested timelessness: We could
have been in the year 1992 B. C.
continue to skip along several smaller beaches before reaching our
final destination: Punta de Mita, the point where the bay meets
the ocean. It was the end of the road. We turned the engine off
and took a look around.
place had an edge-of-the-world feeling. Instead of lush, tropical
landscape, the land was flat, arid, desertlike. A fierce, ever-present
wind had reduced everything higher than a shrub to kindling.
years from now, you wont recognize this area", said our host,
Lee Gibson, pointing to the open sweep of land in front of us. Developers
were planning a major upscale destination resort community featuring
a sleek 200 room-hotel, championship golf courses and private landing
walked down to the beach, littered with jagged white coral to see
fishermen mending nets and caring for their boats. They'd had a
good day and were cheerful and smiling.
Mexico, the sea is the show; and here, where the ocean was filled
with rock outcroppings, snorkeling was ideal. We donned masks and
slid into clear, softly churning water. For the next several hours,
we drifted in and out of a series of coves. Schools of brightly
colored fish swam by as we meandered through the water.
on the beach, we opened a bottle of raisilla - mexican moonshine
- and soaked up the sun. "This is it", I said to Laurie.
"This must be paradise". "No, no, this isnīt paradise",
Lee interjected. "You see those islands over there?".
He was pointing across the water . "They've dolphins and sea
turtles and crazy birds called blue-footed booby birds. Its like
the Galapagos, and nobodys out there. You want to see paradise?,
thought about hiring a boat to see paradise. Then, I took another
sip of raisilla and lay back in the sun to contemplate my choices.
Gallo is a freelance writer living in Seattleand is a frequent contributor
to Alaska Airlines Magazine.