By Nick Gallo.
At 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 Mexico’s 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.
At one end of the plaza, tanned taxi drivers in short-sleeved shirts stood together and gossiped. Nearby, market stall vendors hawked tropical fruits and vegetables, department-store clothes and housewares. Kids rode bikes and played basketball, or, if they were older than a little
border, ducked in doorways to smooch with their sweethearts.
My 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.
More 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.
First 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 film shooting locale for the TV detective show Sweating Bullets.
Hunting 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 bougainvillea blossoms cascaded over every wall.
“Look at this garden”, Laurie gasped when we located the house two blocks from the beach. The yard overflowed with graceful coconut palms and leafy banana trees, a lemon tree, a papaya tree, row upon row of bougainvilleas.
We 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.
Our 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.
“Bucerias 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”.
The 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.
For 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 by.
If 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.
Occasionally, 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.
It didn’t take long to realize that Bucerias wasn’t “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.
Back 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.
The 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 flattened out.
For 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 didn’t recognize it until we drove past several large, open sided barns where the plant was hung to dry: tobacco.
About 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.
“They 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 Tia Adriana’s, a bed-and-breakfast. A B&B in a primitive village? It sounded improbable, but we took a look.
The sun filled tile-and-adobe house was immaculate-tea room 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.
Daydreaming 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.
Again 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.
“The 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.
Other 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 bikes. He hoped to market the resort to “older generation adventurists”. “Y know surfers who now are lawyers and have families”, he said.
Feeling 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.
Dozens 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 water.
It 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.
We 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.
“It 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 mid bite. He was a sports fisherman, a retiree named Ray who had been coming to Rincon for 10 years.
Rincon, 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 high rise hotels, lavish private homes and a commercial district.
With our trip winding down, we doubled back toward Bucerias, just north of the town, we turned eastward along the coastal highway. The road, which dead ends 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.
After 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.
It 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.
We 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.
The 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.
“Ten years from now, you won’t 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 strips.
We 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.
In 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.
Lying on the beach, we opened a bottle of raicilla – mexican moonshine – and soaked up the sun. “This is it”, I said to Laurie. “This must be paradise”. “No, no, this isnït 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 nobody’s out there. You want to see paradise?, That’s paradise.
I thought about hiring a boat to see paradise. Then, I took another sip of raicilla and lay back in the sun to contemplate my choices.
– Nick Gallo is a freelance writer living in Seattle and is a frequent contributor to Alaska Airlines Magazine.