Beach palapas, blue water, angelfish, Gauguin sunsets, mahimahi al mojo de ajo—and a frog in the shower.

October 2002By Comments

Andy Patoski wades in the surf at sunset.
Photograph by Kris Cummings

FOR MOST OF MY ADULT life, I’ve traveled south to revel in everything the USA is not, the old Mexico where a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is mandatory, siesta persists as a tradition, and simpático really means what it suggests. “The weirder the better” was the code I lived by on the road. But between globalization, NAFTA, and the rise of tourism as an industry, that romantic version of Mexico has become harder and harder to find.

Of course my wife, Kris, and I have changed too. We were once card-carrying members of the international backpacking set, proud of how far we could go on $500. Today we wouldn’t be able to squeeze our two sons and all our stuff into her old VW convertible. And even if we could, there’s no way we could just take off for a month like we did way back when, bumming around south of the border. We have lives to live and so do our kids, whose schedules are far more complicated than ours.

In July we all managed to find happiness in a Pacific Coast fishing village called Yelapa. Although only a forty-minute water-taxi ride from the glitzy resort city of Puerto Vallarta, Yelapa seems a world away. Its draw is as much what it doesn't have as what it does: There are no roads, no cars, no pools, no air conditioning, no cell phone service, no newspapers, no chain resorts, no little shampoos and hand creams. Electricity arrived in the village of two thousand residents only a year ago.

To some, these conditions might sound rustic, even primitive. To me, they add up to the Mexican coastal experience distilled to its sweetest essence: a tranquil bay ringed by mountains, thick with tropical vegetation, that fall to a small, sloping beach and blue water busy with pelicans, albatross, and gulls. No additives are necessary.

Unless you really want to rough it—or rent a house by the week or the month—the hotel of choice is the Lagunita, a clutch of 28 palm-thatched casitas above the rocks at one end of the beach. Each casita has two beds with mosquito nets, a toilet and shower, tile floors, a reading table and light, candles, a bare overhead bulb, and a fan, but no TV or phone.

My regimen consisted of rising late in a state of blissful lethargy not unlike a drug-induced stupor; shuffling to the beach for a morning swim; then having a leisurely breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a fruit plate, eggs, and maybe bacon or hotcakes under the hotel's big palapa on the beach. After that Kris and I spent most of the day in the shade of one of fifteen or so smaller palapitas closer to the water, watching the day-trippers come in from PV on tour boats; snoozing while vendors materialized to sell them necklaces, slingshots, fresh pies (chocolate, lemon, apple, pecan), and saris "hechos en Indonesia"; eating lunch (the catch of the day, a sandwich, or a shrimp cocktail); leaving the shade to splash around in the water, then retreating to savor the hushed quiet after the day-trippers left in midafternoon; and feasting on more fresh mahimahi or snapper (grilled with garlic al mojo de ajo style), grilled chicken, or traditional Mexican plates for dinner—all leading up to the day's grand finale: watching the sun go down and Gauguin colors paint the sky. For a nightcap we would wander over to the hotel's pier to watch phosphorescent plankton illuminate the dark water like a Fillmore light show. Then we slept soundly to the beat of gently crashing waves outside our window.

Still, as parents, we couldn't help but fret about the boys. How long would it take before they were driven stir-crazy with boredom? Could they handle being so far off the beaten path? There weren't even swimming pools here. Happily, as it turned out, the genes have been passed on. Within an hour of arriving, twelve-year-old Andy was chasing hermit crabs and lizards above the tide pools and hoisting the hotel bar's pet parrot onto his shoulder. He ended up spending much of his time jumping the waves that break on the shoreline and figuring out how to crack open a coconut. Jake, who is seventeen, took to the clear, calm water with the mask and snorkel he had brought, reporting on angelfish, eels, rays, and octopuses when he wasn't lost in his own dreams. He horsed around with his brother more than I'd seen him do in a while. Kris complained that she was enjoying being lazy so much that she found it difficult to read.

The locals refrained from hustling us on the beach, preferring to wait for the day-trippers who entertain themselves drinking $5 coco locos (various liquors mixed with coconut milk) at the other beach bars or stopping at Chico's, next to the hotel, to rent horses (to ride in the jungle) or kayaks or arrange parasail trips around the bay.

If there were questions, we consulted Luke "Lucas" Donahue, the gringo who runs the hotel for the Indians of the village, who own the property. He gave us the lowdown on hiking to a waterfall in the jungle, about four hours' round trip; booking a day trip to Pasota, an even more remote bay, for swimming and diving; and finding the stairway that leads to the pueblo on the steep hillside across the bay. We decided to climb to the pueblo, almost melting in the midday heat while negotiating the warren of open-air dwellings and getting a glimpse of Third World coastal living. "You should come back in early December," Donahue told us later. "It's warm during the day and cool enough for a single blanket at night, and low-season rates are still in effect. In February it can be a two-blanket night."

But even paradise has its downside. On the second day, both Kris and Jake were stung by baby man-of-war jellyfish that had been carried toward the shore by afternoon breezes; the jellyfish are a seasonal phenomenon—"Agua mala," said a Mexican woman on the beach. Kris was in severe pain for a couple of hours. The hotel's bartender, Huicho, who is well versed in traditional remedies, recommended applying toothpaste to the welts and later vinegar, and shaving the area around them. After following his advice, at Kris's request I also applied ice. Something worked—which was a good thing, since the closest doctor was an hour away in Puerto Vallarta.

Bulbs hanging from their sockets and frogs in the shower would make most tourists uncomfortable, but we just laughed. Jake removed a frog one night, setting it free outside the casita. The next morning it was back in the shower again, so I just stepped around it. Live and let live. Dodgy electricity in the hotel led to a change of rooms one night (so we could have a fan that actually worked), but without that hassle I wouldn't have enjoyed a couple of lengthy philosophical conversations about immigration, cultures, and borders with Guadalupe Francisco, the Lagunita's maintenance man.

It's all the price you pay for getting off the turista grid. In exchange we avoided the typical resort town's endless barrage of hawkers pitching time-share bargains, breakfast specials, and good times on the cheap, not to mention congested traffic, American fast-food chains, and shops brimming with the same merchandise you find in the Nuevo Laredo market—and got so laid back that Andy didn't ask for his Game Boy until we had checked in at the airport. Jake said he didn't want to go home, and Kris couldn't seem to wipe the smile off her face. The old Mexico we remembered was still there, still able to work its magic on some gringos. We just had to look a little harder to find it.

Getting there: There are daily nonstop flights to Puerto Vallarta from Dallas-Fort Worth (American) and Houston (Continental). From the airport, take a taxi to Playa de los Muertos ($25, return trip about $8). The water taxi leaves Los Muertos pier at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily ($17 round-trip per person).

Where to stay: Hotel Lagunita, phone and fax 011-52-322-209-5055;, [email protected]. A casita with two beds is $75 per night in high season (December 22 through Easter), $45 in low season (Easter Monday through December 21). Breakfast $2 to $6, lunch and dinner entrées $5 to $11. (There are several other palapa cafes on the beach that cater largely to day-trippers and are open only for lunch, and two cafes in the pueblo.) For information on house rentals, search the Internet for "Yelapa vacation rentals."

What to do: Parasail rides ($30) can be arranged and kayaks ($10 per hour), horses ($10 per hour), and snorkeling gear ($10 per day) rented at Chico's, next to the Hotel Lagunita. Boat rides to Pasota can be booked at the hotel ($50 round-trip for two to six people).


Don't go near the water: Avoid drinking water that isn't bottled or purified—don't even brush your teeth with it—as well as ice cubes.

Montezuma's revenge: To help prevent it, some folks swear by chewing two Pepto-Bismol tablets four times a day—before each meal and at bedtime—starting the day they arrive and continuing for two days after they get home. If turista strikes nonetheless, a couple of over-the-counter Immodium AD tablets (follow the package directions) or a prescription antibiotic such as Levaquin can save the day.

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