Bucerias: near - but a world away - from tourist swagger. by Linda Shaw
sit alone in La Lomita, a cafe in a brick courtyard under a canopy
of trees thick enough to hide the stars.
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.
waiter, Jim Viliesid, nods south toward the resort town of Puerto
Vallarta and states the obvious:
noise," he says, "is over there. Here it is quite."
even quiter 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
staff, quietly chatting at the counter, look up and say goodnight
as we walk to the door.
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.
- and not much more.
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.
more to do in Bucerias at night than watch ants cross the road -
but not much.
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.
year, thousands of tourists land at Vallarta's airport and head
south to that city.
of us go north to fishing or former fishing towns with all of Vallarta's
sun and none of its swagger.
glance, these villages look like little more than the sum of dusty
streets and a few one-room stores. Hidden from view, however, their
is the first of about a half-dozen such towns within an hour's drive
north of Vallarta.
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.
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.
nights later, we asked Viliesid what people do here, thinking we
might have overlooked something.
to the beach," he said. "Go to the beach, go to the beach."
that's what we do - sometimes heading out early when the morning
mist still washes the sand and nearby mountains in a pale blue.
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.
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
no matter what time of day, we can count fellow beachgoers on our
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 strenghten.
speak some Spanish
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.
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.
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 taht would drive the kids into sour moods - but something
other than hotel culture, somewhere we could be tourists of a different
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
On Sturday 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
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
She gave her
father the 10 pesos (about $1.50) from our purchase, then ran off
with some of the money to buy tacos.
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.
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.
Miami Beach in the '30s," says Teri Murray of Pie in the Sky.
"You can just see it coming."
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.
8:30 p.m., there's little else to do, and this is what I came here
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