By Linda Shaw
We sit alone in La Lomita, a cafe in a brick courtyard under a canopy of trees thick enough to hide the stars.
It’s 8:30 p.m., and my husband and I linger over coffee. We were the first of a handful of customers on this Wednesday evening. Now, we are the last.
Our waiter, Jim Viliesid, nods south toward the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and states the obvious:
“The noise,” he says, “is over there. Here it is quiet.”
It’s even quieter when Viliesid switches off the electric mix of tapes he’s played all evening – Chilean folk songs with their haunting flutes, passionate Mexican ballads, American jazz and a little Cajun zydeco.
The staff, quietly chatting at the counter, look up and say goodnight as we walk to the door.
We have the cobblestone street in this small beach town to ourselves, too. Two blocks away, the waves hit the beach with a boom. A few dogs bark. Headlights come toward us, then turn off.
Ants – and not much more.
Just before we reach our rented house, we stop to watch a band of ants carrying leaves across the street. At places, their ranks are two feet wide; there must be tens of thousands of them in the effort. There’s more to do in Bucerias at night than watch ants cross the road – but not much.
As a family with two children, ages 4 and 7, we didn’t want much more. We weren’t interested in the hotels, the discos or the shopping in Puerto Vallarta, a former small town that’s long been a big-time resort with a Hard Rock Cafe (open until midnight), a 650-room Sheraton, and two McDonald’s.
Each year, thousands of tourists land at Vallarta’s airport and head south to that city.
A few of us go north to fishing or former fishing towns with all of Vallarta’s sun and none of its swagger.
At first glance, these villages look like little more than the sum of dusty streets and a few one-room stores. Hidden from view, however, their beaches shine.
Bucerias is the first of about a half-dozen such towns within an hour’s drive north of Vallarta.
Twenty minutes after we leave the airport, our taxi turns left off the two-lane highway, then bounces down the hill toward the beach, weaving around potholes big enough to be effective speed bumps.
Ten minutes later, our bags sit in a house in the middle of a large garden that wraps around four other rentals, and our toes are digging in beach sand as we join friends who had arrived earlier.
A few nights later, we asked Viliesid what people do here, thinking we might have overlooked something.
“Go to the beach,” he said. “Go to the beach, go to the beach.”
And that’s what we do – sometimes heading out early when the morning mist still washes the sand and nearby mountains in a pale blue.
From our beach, we can see several miles northwest to Punta de Mita, the north end of the Bay of Banderas, and south past Vallarta’s high-rise hotels, glass boxes in the distance.
A few times a day, a vendor yells or motions to see if we want to buy T-shirts, silver, jewelry or wooden carvings. Small groups of Pelicans come more often, skimming the break of a wave as they fly up the beach.
But no matter what time of day, we can count fellow beachgoers on our fingers.
For a change of scene, we walk to the nearest grocery, stopping on the way to pet or feed Pancho, a pet donkey who greets passers-by by sticking his nose between the bricks of his latticed fence.
The grocery is about four more blocks up the street, past two five-story, timeshare condominiums that tower over almost everything else in town; a laundry, two restaurants, the town’s travel agency and the brick walls of the beach homes with hand-painted tiles displaying their names – Casa Linda, Casa Santa Anita.
Sometimes we pass the grocery and walk 10 more minutes to the town plaza, crossing the concrete bridge that connects the more touristy south part of Bucerias to the main part of town which has about four blocks of businesses, a school, a police station, the town plaza and a big, white church that could use some fresh paint.
Many mornings, we buy corn tortillas at the nearest tortilleria, Tortilleria Ivanez, a few blocks up the hill and across the main highway. Ken and Sean love to watch as employees put beach-ball sized lumps of masa into the top of the rumbling, room-long maching. Moments later, the conveyor belt carries cooked tortillas out the other end, ready to be weighed and sold. Eaten so fresh, the tortillas alone are a treat.
In a week’s stay, we visited such businesses enough that storekeepers recognize and talk with us. In Bucerias, tourism is on a scale small enough to be personal.
“You should walk; you’re big enough to walk,” the polite owner of a downtown vegetable store teasingly scolds my 4-year-old , who that afternoon was in his dad’s arms.
The woman who runs the grocery nearest our rental house usually overestimated our Spanish proficiency. But it was fun and satisfying when we could keep up, like the evening she shared the story of one tourist who struggled to communicate in hand signals. She said he pounded a fist on the counter, then waved his arms like a bird. She laughed, saying she finally figured out what he wanted: an airmail stamp.
On my first trip here two years ago, a visitor from Alaska warned: “Don’t write about this place,” as if Bucerias were a little-known secret.
But Americans who live here say Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once owned property on the beach here after they filmed “Night of the Iguana,” the 1964 movie that made Puerto Vallarta a star.
Between 200 to 500 foreigners live full time in Bucerias. Hundreds more own vacation property.
With so many expatriates, the town has a number of tourist comforts. Phones, for example, and the Las Palmas Travel Agency, where with help from an English speaking staff, you can change money, rent a cor or call home. Owner Lee Gibson, a 50-something former Californian with a booming voice, helps visitors find everything from real estate to dog food.
Less than a block from the agency, Mark’s Bar and Grill serves pizza and cappuccinos and shows American football games on its T.V.
Other businesses owned by or catering to gringos include Famar Restaurant, where the Martinez family serves waffles as well as huevos rancheros at breakfast. A block away, two former Sausalito, Calif., residents run the Pie in the Sky Pasteleria (bakery) where they sell rich desserts such as “besos” – brownies with a fudge center.
Yet foreigners in Bucerias are just part of what is clearly a Mexican town of modest means and about 10,000 people. Even in its poshest section, there are vacant lots tangled in weeds and overgrown bougainvillea, waiting for the Mexican Peso to strengthen.
Must speak some Spanish
Gringos can’t expect to get by without speaking some Spanish unless they restrict themselves to the travel agency, two or three restaurants (including La Lomita) or the Jack Tar Hotel at the south end of town.
“We’d done the hotel thing before,” said Dennis Dickey, formerly of Snohomish, talking about how he and his wife, Dita, first found Bucerias, where they recently retired.
“Pretty soon a Sheraton hotel is a Sheraton hotel,” he said. “We were looking for a little more adventure.”
We were seeking a little adventure, too – not a long backpacking trek or sightseeing tours that would drive the kids into sour moods – but something other than hotel culture, somewhere we could be tourists of a different breed.
In Bucerias, the boys, coated in sunscreen, rode countless waves and had room in the garden to play tag and hunt for fallen coconuts. Carl, my husband, and I had a chance to give our high-school Spanish a good workout. We all soaked up the rhythms of a different place.
The boys were shy about trying out the Spanish phrases we taught them. But they kept their eyes open, especially for other kids, and made themselves at home, quickly acquiring a taste for some new foods – especially tortillas, fresh-squeezed pineapple juice and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread).
On Saturday night, we went to the town plaza where a local crowd was socializing, buying snacks and browsing at stands selling clothing, kitchenwares, souvenirs and cheap, plastic toys.
One man rode to a clothing stand on his mule, bought a shirt, then tried to leave his dirty old one behind. The vendor made him take it with him.
As the red sunset faded, the light bulbs strung over the stands glowed like small beacons.
More People than usual were in the street, but the sidewalks were far from full. The biggest crowd – about 50 people – was inside the church.
We wandered around for an hour as the vendors set up then dined at a seafood restaurant nearby. We stopped in the square again for a few minutes, by chance sitting behind a young vendor of about 10 who, just minutes earlier, had succeeded with a spirited charm in selling me a small, onyx turtle.
She gave her father the 10 pesos (about $1.50) from our purchase, then ran off with some of the money to buy tacos. In Vallarta, I doubt we’d ever see where our money had gone.
For years there’s been talk of a new highway from Guadalajara to this part of Mexico’s Pacific coast, a road that would bring many more tourists. Travel agent Gibson crosses his fingers when he says he hopes the road doesn’t come to close to his town.
Gibson would like to see a few more rental houses, and a few more shops in Bucerias. But he also wants the town to retain the atmosphere he found 11 years ago when he parked his RV in the beachfront trailer park.
In his first few days, he found a hospitality toward foreigners absent elsewhere in his travels to buy Mexican arts and crafts for a family shop in Oakland, Calif. People didn’t try to hustle him. Within a month, he bought property. Even if that road never comes, however, others think Bucerias days as a semi-backwater are numbered.
“It’s like Miami Beach in the ’30s,” says Teri Murray of Pie in the Sky. “You can just see it coming.”
Perhaps it’s telling that, at least in English-language promotions, Bucerias and nearby towns measure themselves against big brother Vallarta. Bucerias is “Vallarta 20 years ago.” Sayulita, a smaller town to the north, is “Vallarta 40 years ago.”
On our last night in Bucerias, we walk to the grocery for ice-cream bars; the kids are too weary from riding waves to walk all the way into town for “paletas” – Mexican pure fruit popsicles. The kids sit on the store’s steps and eat, and we chat with the owner. Some local kids and two adults are playing soccer in the street. Ken, now revived, wants to play with all the passion of a seven year old.
After he shags the ball a few times, they invite him into the game. It takes him awhile to figure out where the goals are – one marked by a milk carton, the other by a rock, but he soon knows where to aim. The turf is the cobblestone street. Everyone takes at least one spill.
It’s dark and hard to see the ball by the dim streetlight, but Ken’s enthusiasm shines as he finds some common ground in their lives and his.
Carl goes on to put our youngest in bed. I stay to watch. It’s 8:30 p.m., there’s little else to do, and this is what I came here for.