Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Old" Puerto Vallarta Lives on at Three Small Villages

When Puerto Vallarta was “discovered” in the 1960s by film director John Houston and used as a location for a Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie, it was a remote, almost inaccessible Mexican fishing village with a palm-lined beach, surrounded by rocky cliffs and wild jungle mountain. There was a dirt airstrip and only one road in and out of town, and it was often closed.

Well, those days are long gone. Vallarta, or PV as locals call it, is a city of a quarter million people with a huge tourism infrastructure welcoming millions of tourists and cruise ship passengers every year.

But it’s still easy to get away from town and return to that edge-of-the-world, jungle beach-paradise feeling at three small, nearby villages: Yelapa, Sayulita and San Poncho.

Drinking Cerveza at a Palapa in Yelapa
Until a few years ago, Yelapa had no outside electricity and no roads. Today, power has come to this town of 700 people and there is a tough, four-wheel drive road hacked through the jungle, but almost all visitors still arrive by boat.

You can catch an hour-long water taxi from the main pier in PV, but it’s more exotic to take a bus or drive along the rugged, cliff-lined coast six miles south to Boca de Tomatlan. This is the “end of the line,” the southernmost town on Bahia de Banderas (the 7th largest bay in the world). From here, the paved road turns away from the sea and heads southeast, climbing up into the jungle and mountains. To the west there is 50 miles of coast that is only accessible by water.

Boca definitely feels like the “end of the line.” Jungle palm trees come to the edge of the bay, and the only sounds at the few waterside restaurants come from birds overhead or waiters snapping open bottles of Pacifico.

All activity centers on the boat dock, where launches holding 6 to 15 passengers leave every hour or so for a string of beachside villages: Playa Las Animas, Quimixto and -- the farthest out and most popular -- Yelapa. It costs $10 for a roundtrip, 35-minute boat ride to Yelapa, and you get your money’s worth. The trip can get quite rough in heavy seas (prepare to get wet), but as you round a rocky point and get your first view of paradise, Yelapa appears like a dream.

Verdant, green jungle pours down to a turquoise-colored bay, where on a thin sliver of sand there are a dozen or so palapa restaurants…and nothing else. Large numbers of people settle in for the day here, snacking on grilled shrimp, fish and beer, while the waves lap up to their feet, but the town is worth exploring. A jungle river divides the town from the restaurants; you can hike a half-mile into the jungle to the one bridge, or just wade across the knee-high stream.

There are a couple of general stores in town, and there’s a pleasant hike to a 150-foot high waterfall (which has, of course, an accompanying restaurant and bar), but the most fun is just seeing the houses and people who live here. There are 20 restaurants and 34 houses or small inns that take overnight guests, so with “day-trippers,” it’s a lively enough place, but still so quiet you can always hear the birds, the surf and the occasional clip-clop of a local riding a horse. Judging by the horse traffic on the town’s only street, the locals don’t walk anywhere they can ride.

Water taxis come all morning and leave at 4 and 5:30 in the afternoon. We dined on fresh fish and vegetables at Domingo’s, one of the seaside restaurants, and other than occasionally having to lift your feet for a rouge wave that washed up under the table, it could not have been more peaceful. A great Web site, has information on accommodations. People staying in town raved about the view of the stars at night…but if you crave a little more action at night than stars, then it’s time to head north of PV to Mexico’s hottest tourism destination.

Sayulita Serenade

There are condo developments, all-inclusives and private gated communities going in to the north and south, and it’s only a matter of time before Sayulita looks like the congested madness that has taken over Bucerias to the south. But for now, this little town 20 miles north of the PV airport is just about perfect.

For years, it survived as an out-of-the-way surfer paradise, accessible by dirt road with a mile-long beach, big breakers, and a string of beachside palapas. The surfers are still there, along with a wild assortment of hippies and beachcombers. There are drums at sunset, dreadlocks and bikinis, and the smell of marijuana is always present.

But paved roads have brought shopping, dining and lodging (and the first wave of tourists) so the town – a half dozen streets scattered between the beach and a small plaza -- is jumping. You can stay in a basic double room overlooking the waves for just $40, but two great, more upscale places to stay in town, just a block from the beach, offer gigantic bungalows with kitchens and outdoor patios for $80 a night. and Aurinko Bungalows, There’s a general store across the street with an ATM and you can walk to a dozen restaurants.

What’s really surprising is that Sayulita offers better, easier and more fun shopping than PV. Galeria Gypsy is a shop devoted to crazy Mexico, everything from Day of the Dead to Mexican wrestling, all fun, all unique, with even some items from India thrown in. The owners scour Mexico looking for fun, moderately priced Mexican folk art. A block away, La Hamaca has put together a two-story shop of some of the finest indigenous folk art in the country, all displayed in a store that is absolutely beautiful. Weavings and pottery, jewelry and Huichol beaded art work, and all at reasonable prices. The dozen or so shops in town stay open until 9 p.m. every day, filling that void between sunset and serious drinking.

Then it’s time to head to the Sayulita Fish Taco and Tequila Bar, which has an incredible 330 different tequilas to try. If owner Mark Alberto is at the bar, he’ll teach you the elaborate process to go through to taste tequila in the proper way (it involves lots of swishing tequila around your lips and mouth before swallowing). They also have an incredible shrimp burrito for $5 and a second story deck overlooking the plaza.

There are plenty of restaurants on the cobblestone back streets of town, but the beach restaurants are hard to beat. Try the mixed seafood ceviche – shrimp, scallops and octopus cured in lime and fruit juices and served with green pepper, tomatoes and avocado.

Sayulita is not “deep” Mexico. You’re as likely to hear English as Spanish and it’s filled with ex-pats and snowbirds. But it’s not “resort” Mexico either. For the moment, it’s a barely discovered hole-in-the-wall, surrounded on either side by rocky headlands and jungle, with a surf that’s too strong for most swimmers, surfer bars that smell as much of marijuana as beer, quiet backstreets (if you want ‘em) and bars that rock if you don’t. And the stars? Well, they may be brighter in Yelapa…but not by much.

Sunset in San Poncho
San Pancho does not exist on maps. It’s official name is San Francisco, but that’s too high-sounding a name for this one cobblestone street town, so they call it by it’s nickname, “San Pancho.” (Pancho Villa’s real name was Francisco, so all Francisco’s are nicknamed Pancho).

Located just three kilometers north of Sayulita, the village is light years away in atmosphere. There are fewer pot-smoking hippies (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and a more pervasive, upscale atmosphere with fancier restaurants and galleries. Even the sand in the beach is softer.
This is a quiet place, except for the surf, which is almost an exact duplicate of Sayulita – rock headlands to the north and south and a curving arc of sand for a mile in between, pounded by big waves that make swimming chancy. Much of the beach at San Pancho backs up to private houses, which is good in that it will keep away major development. The center of town has the usual beach palapa restaurants.

The big story in San Pancho is the La Patrona Polo Club Restaurant, Bar, Lounge & CafĂ© – an incredible complex that has a full scale polo field in the center of the village with Saturday night polo games, dressage shows, and an exquisite, multi-story outdoor bar with live music after the matches. It’s simply amazing…and it’s one of two places along this part of the coast (the Break Fast in Sayulita is the other) that offers Modello Chope – a new Mexican beer that adds nitrogen to an amber beer, creating a Guinness-like concoction that foams on top. If Guinness is the “blond in the black dress,” this is the “brunette in the brown.” Delicious and different.

There’s only one hotel in the village, but it’s a beauty – Hotel Cielo Rojo ( for about $100 a night. There are a couple of gorgeous galleries (the Galeria Azul had a Spanish guitarist playing on Saturday night and wonderful photographs and paintings) and several fine dining restaurants, as well as a number of local places. Compared to Sayulita, this is a sleepy little town, with lots of charm – and money -- but still a pretty undiscovered territory. The one brochure in English reads: “Today San Pancho is a beautiful place witch will become you return again and again and again (volver volver voler).” Can’t argue with that.

And they have a much better sunset than Sayulita, with the sun dropping directly into the sea, instead of over headlands. If nothing else, come for the sunset and a walk on the beach, then stroll through the town, brushing the odd rooster and chicken out of the way. Spend 24 hours here, and you’ll know every dog in town like an old friend.

Up the Coast…The “Riviera Nayarit”
No matter how much you might like things to stay the same, you can’t blame Mexico for trying to make money from tourism, and the next huge resort boom is the so-called “Riviera Nayarit,” the whole coastal area north of PV up to San Blas and beyond. There are developments and billboards for new developments, and when they say this area of wild rocky coast, jungle, mountains and high surf is the “new Cancun,” well, it’s time for a quick shutter and another tequila.

Nayarit is the Mexican state just north of Jalisco (the state that contains PV). At the present, they are in a different time zone, so 30 minutes from the PV airport, you lose an hour in time. Don’t change your watch – especially if you have to eventually catch a plane in the old time zone. Time does not matter a whole lot in Mexico anyway, and they are going to be switching to one time zone soon.

Though there are already several awful all-inclusives and retirement communities going up, it’s still worth the drive to Rincon de Guayabitos – an authentic, colorful, Mexican beach resort town that is especially fun on Sunday when it’s filled with locals and music and hundreds of pelicans. Playa Lo De Marcos is between San Pancho and Guayabitos and is the last undiscovered country – the place to buy, if you’re so inclined. The beach looks nice, but this is one sleepy town at the moment.

Partying in PV
Of course – since you’re there at the airport anyway – any trip to PV should include a night or two in town. For $80, you can have a balcony above a wild, palm tree-lined, pounding, rocky surf at Hotel Playa Conchas Chinas ( It’s a mile walk to town on a trail that occasionally hugs a cliff, at other times requires racing across a pocket beach before the waves crash in, but if that’s too much, it’s a five minute, 20 cent bus ride.

In town, the Funky Monkey on the malecon – the town’s seaside sidewalk – has real $1 margaritas and a second story view. La Bodeguita Del Medio is a chain (out of the legendary Hemingway bar in Havana, Cuba, by way of London and Prague) and as crazy as it sounds, it’s fun with live music, Cuban food, and rum drinks (which is a nice change from tequila). In the day, swing by the Naval Museum (on the malecon next to the arches) – it’s free and tells the story of pirates and Spanish galleons.

Of course, the most fun in PV is climbing up and getting lost on the cobblestone backstreets, walking the malecon at midnight when the open air dance clubs are in full swing, eating shrimp on the beach, walking along the river at night, hanging out at Playa de los Muertos pier with fishermen at sunset, watching pelicans swoop in for dinner, sitting in the plaza in front of the cathedral, admiring the art and statues along the water, drinking tequila in a local bar, watching the street performers (they get better the more you drink), listening to the strains of a mariachi band playing in the distance…. and avoiding Senor Frog and cruise ship passengers as much as possible.