During a delightful trip to west-central Mexico, near the Pacific Ocean coastline, even Mexicans we met were interested in the hand-made, traditional leather and tire-soled huarache sandals we wore during our daily treks. After all — they’re hard to find these days.
We had found them in the main square of tiny La Peñita, one of the many villages of the oh-so-diverse Mexican “Riviera Nayarit,” in a little cobbler shop called the Huarachería Colotlán.
The owner there is 72-year-old Jose Salas Hernandez, who started his shoemaking career as a child 60 years earlier and still lovingly crafts huaraches with his wife, Rosario, using a tree stump workbench, hammer and chisel.
In this area of the country, there’s an eclectic mix of expats from all over the world, along with a proud local Mexican culture. You want your ham-and-eggs breakfast with a latte? Or some tasty huevos a la Mexicana with fresh tortillas? It’s all here.
Almost everyone has heard of Puerto Vallarta, the long-popular Mexican vacation destination in Jalisco that draws droves of vacationers from the United States and Canada each year (along with many who have moved there permanently.) But there is much more to explore and enjoy outside of the beautiful city in the heart of the sparkling Bay of Banderas.
This region is full of dense jungle foliage — where towering ferns, palms and vines join together in jumbles of tumbling bougainvillea and hibiscus surrounding azure Pacific waters. The dense mountains loom behind at various angles, making for landscapes Gauguin would have loved to paint.
We’ve visited numerous times, and we never run out of new places to see.
Tiny, charming Yelapa
We started with a pleasant, but bumpy, 40-minute ride in a canopied water taxi ($25 or 280 pesos, round trip) from the Puerto Vallarta Los Muertos beach pier to Yelapa, an itsy-bitsy pedestrian-only village hugging the rocky coast at the southern tip of the bay.
Somewhat reminiscent of an Italian fishing village, Yelapa has a rather weird melange of bohemian Yanks, Canadians and Europeans, some living in lavish villas, others residing in humble abodes alongside the friendly locals.
This is a place where all residents commingle — there aren’t any gated communities keeping the haves and have nots separated. Old men sit under arches at the same spot every day, sipping beers and calling out “buenos dias” to passers-by, and children scamper about barefoot and fancy-free while well-behaved dogs and cats take siestas.
Yelapa is not a place for anyone with physical disabilities or shoe fashionistas — there’s plenty of climbing on cobblestone walkways amid pesky mule and horse droppings. (Don’t forget to bring good flashlights.)
We stayed at the scenic Casa Pericos (House of Parrots), a three-suite, towering open-air palapa built four years ago. More than 3,500 boat loads of material — carried up by mules and donkeys — and over 72,000 palm fronds woven together went into its construction.
The suites sit directly over the rocky coastline, and guests feel like they are a part of nature — indeed, the place is backed by huge rocks and flowers and, occasionally, you might spot an iguana peering in.
The exotic decor is mostly from Indonesia and Mexico. The full kitchens and baths are modern and well-appointed. There are other rental houses and small inns to choose from, but Casa Pericos offers the largest rooms and the most dramatic location on the secluded Playa Isabel beach, which has good visibility for snorkeling.
The main beach, about a 30-minute walk from Playa Isabel, has six or seven palapa-covered rustic restaurants serving fresh fish and seafood — or, as in our case, wonderful chiles rellenos at a place called Fanny’s.
We were charmed by Yelapa’s smallness.
We were invited to the rustic community center, along with probably every other person in town, to celebrate a young boy’s birthday. Strong youngsters wielding bats attacked piñatas, seeking the candy inside, huge plates of steaming tamales and rice were served to all, and we felt completely welcome.
Do not forgo the easy, 10-minute hike from the town center to the lower waterfall, which features a huge cascade of cool water plunging into a shallow pool that is perfect for a dip.
Surrounded by giant ferns, palms, rock walls and mist, this is a place I’m revisiting in my memories. The upper waterfall hike is about two hours long; we heard it was well worth it, but we were short on time.
On to Nayarit
The next day, we took the water taxi back to Puerto Vallarta and headed for our next destination. Just 10 minutes north of the international airport, we entered the state of Nayarit.
Never heard of it? Mexico’s 10th smallest state (out of 31), is a diverse destination that attracts birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking a taste of the authentic, unsullied-by-tourism Mexico.
On our weeklong visit, we traveled through a scenic green countryside with rolling hills, enjoying endless views of sugar cane fields with fronds blowing in the breeze; mango, banana, and papaya orchards; and tobacco farms.
We were just a few yards from enormous crocodiles and inches from an exquisitely beautiful jaguar, viewing thousands of migratory birds in the emerald-green rain forest, eating succulent dishes we had never heard of before and meeting fascinating people from all walks of life, such as the elaborately adorned Huichol Indians, who still live an ancient pre-Hispanic lifestyle.
We were just a few yards from enormous crocodiles, inches from an exquisitely beautiful jaguar, viewing thousands of migratory birds in the emerald-green rain forest ...
Nayarit’s modern, intercoastal highway is serviced by comfortable, air-conditioned buses that stop in each town — with very reasonable fares — or one can rent a car or use taxis. The region mixes the mega all-inclusives, luxury spa and golf resorts of Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita with fabulous Pacific surfing and paddle boarding in such villages as Sayulita and San Pancho (aka San Francisco).
There’s also world-class birdwatching to be found in San Blas, plus colonial architecture and art, and a heady dip into other cultures.
About 62 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, we reached Chacala, a 300 or so permanent-resident beach town known for its long, rolling waves, brown sugar sand and laid-back ambiance, popular with Canadians in the winter and with Mexicans the rest of the year.
300 The approximate number of permanent residents of Chacala, a beach town known for its long, rolling waves, brown sugar sand and laid-back ambiance.
The town itself is very quiet, but its attractions lie in its palapa-topped restaurants serving fresh fish, a few touristy shops and the famed fruit-salad-filled pineapples sold from carts on the beach.
Our stay here was at the tranquil Mar de Jade (Jade Sea) holistic retreat, run by Laura Del Valle, a retired family practice physician raised in the U.S. and Mexico, her daughter Angelica and her son-in-law.
A philanthropist who has practiced Zen Buddhism for many years, Del Valle built the retreat piece by piece, starting in 1980. It hosts meditation sessions and yoga in three expansive salons with hardwood floors, ocean views and billowing curtains.
Tourists come for its camplike serenity and holistic cuisine — produce is all grown at Mar de Jade’s own organic farm whenever possible, and chicken and seafood are the only meat offerings — served in a small buffet for all meals, included in the price. Bar service is extra.
The owners give between 30 and 40 percent of proceeds to several Chacala-area nonprofits, especially to the impressive, well-run Montessori/Waldorf primary school, which the family founded, with all 25 children on scholarships.
Mar de Jade has 137 large, nicely furnished rooms and offers an easy stroll to the town beach. Yoga and meditation sessions are offered once or twice daily at no extra charge. Guests can enjoy the lovely swimming pool, spa, cold plunge pool and Jacuzzi in the property’s lavish gardens.
We were mesmerized each night by the Pacific sunset view from the restaurant patio — swirling oranges, pinks, roses and yellows. It seemed that every diner was up, snapping away on their phones.
Canadians love this area of the Riviera Nayarit, and they flock here in such numbers during wintertime that our next destination, the DeCameron All-Inclusive Los Cocos in Rincón de Guayabitos, is sometimes affectionately called the “DeCanadian.”
Rincón de Guayabitos is a small, bustling city, with a lively beach scene. There are the usual touristy shops and a wealthier expat section of gorgeous homes on a much quieter beach.
The city is separated from its neighboring village, La Peñita, by a hanging pedestrian bridge. La Peñita is very tiny but well worth a visit for the aforementioned huaraches and a look into Mexican village life — a place where siestas are still taken and everyone seems so relaxed that it puts Northerners like us to dreaming of someday moving here … aah.
In these villages, beach carts sell fresh-caught grilled fish or shrimp on a stick (palitos de pescado or camarones) for about $2 each, or a whole grilled fish for about $3.25.
From Rincón, we embarked on a snorkeling trip for just $8 each to the islands offshore (about 15 minutes each way) and experienced delightful views in Caribbean-like waters.
Small boats on the DeCameron beach can be hired. They’re all part of the same cooperative, so they should charge the same, but typically snorkel gear is extra.
You can arrange with your boat captain to spend the entire day on the island for $10 per person (beach chairs in the shade). He will pick you up at the hour you choose.
Wintertime guests will most surely see humpback whales offshore — the entire region is their migration area.
The posh pleasures of Punta Mita
Perhaps nowhere will one feel the contrasting experiences of Riviera Nayarit as in Punta Mita, which is the uber-exclusive area on the “point,” or peninsula of the white-sand coastline, featuring the posh Four Seasons and St. Regis resorts, along with a few smaller properties.
Not to be confused with Punta de Mita, which is the small Mexican community on the point offering guest houses and small inns, Punta Mita is where most tourists head for the very pricey hotels with spectacular golf courses, spas, restaurants and pampering (think celebs like the Kardashians, Arab sheiks, Silicon Valley CEOs —they all come to Punta Mita).
Punta Mita features several annual events, such as the classy April “Punta Mita Gourmet and Golf Classic,” which brings acclaimed chefs from all over Mexico to show off their creations, as well as famed golfers, such as Mexican professional golfer Lorena Ochoa, to give clinics.
Punta Mita is the closest departure point for excursions (priced from $95 to $120 per person, depending on outfitter and departure point) to the uninhabited Marieta Islands, a national park originally protected by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s.
The park’s famous “hidden beach” is reachable only by swimming through a natural 50-foot tunnellike cave with just 6 feet of air space between water and rock. This can only be done at low tide.
On most days, this is a spectacular, never-to-be-forgotten experience. That said, opt out of a visit on days when the ocean is kicking up — that calm cave can be very scary when waves push swimmers up to the rocky top with force.
Punta Mita Pacífico, the par-72 Jack Nicklaus course, is famous for its 3B Hole — the only one in the world — known as the “Tail of the Whale” because it is located on a natural island 199 yards from the tee and along the beach.
These hotels are so luxurious that beach chairs are equipped with hanging “snooze” signs to signal to attendants that one doesn’t want to be disturbed during naps.
This beautiful course is joined by the Punta Mita Bahía course, and both are shared by the Four Seasons and St. Regis properties and are open only to Punta Mita Club de Golf members and hotel guests.
These hotels are so luxurious that beach chairs are equipped with hanging “snooze” signs to signal to attendants that one doesn’t want to be disturbed during naps — and when we arrived for a swim at the glorious Lazy River swimming pool at the Four Seasons, complimentary frozen chocolate banana drinks would miraculously appear by our chaises.
A special offering of the Four Seasons are the cultural sessions led by Enrique Alejos, a wondrously educated man who gives spirited talks on mescal, tequila, chocolate, constellations and stars, along with other history, culture and gastronomy topics — at no charge.
Days after our return to reality, I find myself often thinking of our impromptu roadside stop to a mango distribution site. The man in charge came out in dirty overalls, brushing his hands off to shake ours.
“Welcome,” he said, as he invited us to explore with friendly gestures and smiles anyone would understand.
We watched crates of mangoes being sorted by smiling women, dogs lazing at their sides, and the gregarious man sent us on our way with a bag of luscious peachy-pink mangoes, exuding that indescribable aroma that only the ripest fruit has — and wouldn’t accept any payment.
“Enjoy!” he said. And we did, every day, with juice dripping down our chins.
If you go
Getting there: American and US Airways fly direct from DFW to Puerto Vallarta.
Where to stay:
▪ Yelapa: Casa Pericos (no children under 6, prices range from $95 to $295, open year-round); 805-308-2209; www.yelapacasa.com.
▪ Chacala: Mar de Jade (various plans available, such as all-inclusive); www.mardejade.com.
▪ Rincón de Guayabitos: DeCameron Los Cocos all-inclusive; 866-593-0039; www.decameron.com.
▪ Punta Mita: Four Seasons Punta Mita; 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com/puntamita.