Monday, February 27, 2012

A week in which I learn what it means to relax on vacation

My week in Chacala, Mexico near Puerto Vallarta with Jacob was as pleasant as it was short. I don't think I've ever done so little in seven days. Our life consisted of reading by the pool, reading by the beach, swimming in the ocean, eating seafood, drinking watermelon smoothies and instant coffee and sweetened condensed milk iced lattes (my Spanish-country specialty), and watching movies on his laptop at night. Even if we had wanted to do more we really couldn't have as there is virtually nothing noteworthy near this tiny enclave by the ocean. Here's how the trip went down. (Caution: if you're new here, be warned that I document my life with minute and irrelevant detail. Like Tolstoy, only less Russian. And less, you know, masterful.)

Day 1: Saturday, February 4. Drunk at 8 am.

Here's what I packed, plus my dope pedicure that was sullied very quickly by a never-before-witnessed (by me) type of sand that seemed normal but stuck like glue:

I had two guest passes to the Alaska board room which we took full advantage of at 8 am before our 9 am flight. Did you know there is free food and booze there?? We had two Bloody Marys apiece and I had pancakes from a fascinating pancake machine, plus yogurt, a hard boiled egg, and a bagel to go. We were reasonably drunk by the time we sat down to our uneventful and homogenous flight; I've never seen so many old white people on one plane. We both slept and then waited in a pretty long customs line where the tourists were getting angry - we couldn't get away from their bad vibe fast enough!

I was hung over from the morning's drinks, and we were both hungry and more than ready to start our beach vacation, so instead of dealing with an annoying makes-a-stop-every-mile local bus I talked a cab driver into taking us to our destination 1.5 hours away for 1,000 pesos (about $80, definitely worth it). We dropped our bags in our beautiful house and got to the beach at sunset, where we promptly ate fried fish, lobster, and shrimp with our toes in the sand. There's virtually nothing to do in Chacala at night and we were pretty beat so we watched Lord of Illusions and passed out. That is a freaky movie.

Day 2: Sunday. All our days looked like this.

Having gone to bed at about 10 pm (9 pm Seattle time) we woke up early and ate breakfast at Chac Mool, a beachy restaurant that became our spot for the week. We went to nearby Las Varas to get groceries via colectivo, a fixed-rate taxi that drove the 9 kilometer road to the highway and then the 2 kilometers into town. Seeing that there wasn't much to do in town we hightailed it back, stopping at a roadside fruit stand to get a watermelon for about a buck fifty:

We were on the beach by noon and spent the rest of the afternoon on the sand, buying tamales from a beach vendor and testing out the warm waters. We spent the day in a fairly giddy state.

Jacob went swimming in the ocean for maybe his first time ever - this was his first tropical vacation and his first time to Mexico! The water couldn't have been better, rolling waves and zero undertow. There was a boat towing a long banana-like float which took about 5 people at a time for mini joy rides through the bay, eventually stopping long enough to get the rope at an awkward angle and then gunning it to whip them all into the water. We watched this go on all afternoon and it never got less funny.

That night we had a large fish for dinner cooked sarrandeado (barbecue) style before watching the second half of the superbowl at Chac Mool (I was elated to see the Giants spank the Patriots yet again). Jacob met some Mexicans visiting for the weekend from Guadalajara and drank Jack Daniels late into the night with them, language posing no barrier to friendships forged over whiskey. The next morning there was a half a bottle of Jack on our counter.

Day 3: Monday. Starting to feel like Groundhog day.

Another breakfast at Chac Mool kicked off this lazy day spent reading poolside and at the beach. We had the great fortune of a house to ourselves for the rest of the trip since our place, split into three apartments, was vacated by the other occupants on Monday morning. (Interesting side note - nearly all tourists here are from the west coast of the U.S. or Canada, and the family staying above us was actually from Edmonds, a stone's throw from where I grew up.) Here is Casa Monarca, where every detail was accounted for. The massive jugs of filtered water were truly a blessing!

Although we benefited from the house to ourselves, I did feel bad for the owners. Apparently there is reduced tourism from years past, and lots of houses - including Casa Monarca - are for sale. It's unclear if there's any one reason for this but it's probably a combination of a bad economy and the U.S. travel advisory against Mexico.

Monday was a holiday so the beach was still crowded. Jacob got a floaty after giving up on going with his new friends to Guadalajara, and we spent a good amount of time in the water. After our ocean swim we had lunch, delicious fried shrimp and a disappointing ceviche made with sierra in which the fish is ground instead of cubed. That afternoon we had incredible massages in an open tent on top of a hotel with a view of the ocean - I'm still kicking myself for not getting a photo of the view. For dinner we laid off the seafood and had super cheap
tortas, Mexican sandwiches, in the one place in town it looked like the locals might eat. The night was warm so we got pillows and blankets and watched El Matador snuggled up on chaise lounges by the pool. Here's Jacob getting us set up:

Day 4: Tuesday. We tried to do something and failed.

The day of false starts. We cooked breakfast at home - a mushroom, poblano pepper, and onion scramble with bacon and toast. Then we tried to hike to a nearby beach, which was a no go since the trail was extremely complicated. Then we went to the dock to see if someone would take us to the beach by boat, but no one was there except the pelicans:

Feeling we'd given productivity the old college try, we settled for laying on Chac Mool's ocean-side chaise lounges, drinking
liquados (smoothies), sharing a burrito (they catered to North American tourists but it was a damn fine burrito), and going swimming. It had been a three-day weekend so the beach had been relatively crowded, but on Tuesday it was all ours:

That night we went to Las Varas to participate in their annual
fiestas patrias for their patron saint Guadalupe. On our way out of Chacala we caught the only sunset we saw all week (the weather was such that the days were half cloudy, half blue skies, with clouds generally masking the other sunsets).
Once in Las Varas, we scouted what looked like the best place to eat at the festival and settled here:

We limited ourselves to two tacos apiece so we could eat two more at another stand, just for comparison. The first one won by a long shot. Jacob waiting patiently:

We had gotten there fairly early so by the time we were done eating the parade was just starting, and we watched a long procession of people holding candles led by a small brass band and a man who l
it bottle rockets by hand. Every now and then they'd stop and this same man would light a long firework rope on fire and then, along with a kid (probably his), they would swing it like a jump rope until it burned out. Jacob loved this - "You can't do this in the U.S.! We're so over-regulated!" The parade ended with a float with the Virgin Mary and a biblical scene playing out behind her. It wasn't until we saw them up close that we realized these statues were actually live actors, mostly teenagers. We pondered whether or not this was an honor or an annoyance for these kids.

Afterward I decided I wanted to play a dart game and won some chocolate wafers the first time around. Then I wanted to win dominoes and played twice more at another stand, during which I feel I was lied to by the carney and argued with him (which Jacob got on tape). Finally, in my last ditch effort to get my way, I exclaimed, "But I'm a tourist!" (There weren't many of us there.) To which he stoically replied, "and I'm a business man." Jacob had a good laugh over that one once I translated for him.

Then Jacob decided he wanted a big fancy drink. Result: this piña colada, which came with a complimentary festive plastic glass which I decided to model. I'm sure you'll be impressed by how tan I am:

As we drank it we watched some kids perform typical Veracruzan dances on the main stage, during which Jacob traded his empty plastic tumbler for a beige ceramic glass filled with tequila and something sort of cinnamony. That was enough festival for us and we caught a cab back to Chacala and watched a movie before going to bed.

Day 5: Wednesday. Attack of the hives and urchins.

This morning I woke up to discover with horror that my entire face had broken out (zits? bug bites? chicken pox? all three?) and my shoulders and upper arms were covered with hives. Awesome. We ultimately decided our sunscreen was the primary culprit, which I had been using a lot more liberally than Jacob. After assuring me that I was not, in fact, terrifying to look at, Jacob and I cooked breakfast at home - the same scramble plus a watermelon smoothie - before going to the dock for our pre-arranged private boat tour. We started with the nearby beach Chacalilla and its neighbor El Caleta which is supposed to be some of the best surf in the area. There were surfers out but it was a full moon which I guess makes smaller waves:

Another boat passed us and hollered excitedly, "
ballenas!" Whales! Sure enough, we turned to see humpbacks breaching in the distance. It was easy to convince our 18 year old captain to take us closer and I'm sure he would have gone even without the promise of a good tip. Unfortunately by the time we got there they had moved on, probably my biggest disappointment of the trip.

From there he dropped us at Las Cuevas, a small private cove with caves lining either side. He left us with snorkel gear and the promise to return in 2 hours. Most of the time we were at this beach we had it entirely to ourselves, which is always a special feeling. That's Jacob on the beach:

I taught Jacob how to snorkel in the murky water, warning him that snorkeling in the Pacific is never that exciting but that it would be a valuable skill to acquire anyway. He was doing well until he ran into some sea urchins hands-first. Poor guy, I should have spent some more time instructing him on maneuvering. Back to the beach he went but there wasn't much to do until we got back to the house. Luckily our young captain was prompt. Once home Jacob performed surgery on his hands using the rudimentary tools at his disposal: tweezers, fingernail clippers, a sewing needle, razors pulled out of a face razor, and the bottle of Jack Daniels. An hour later he had only gotten about half of the little bastards out.

That night we ate on the beach with an older Canadian couple we had met on the beach the day before. Jacob had surf n turf and quite a few drinks so that he was increasingly animated throughout the evening. I had sopa de mariscos (seafood stew) plus a piña colada. Jacob is convinced the Canadians were entertained; I just hoped they weren't offended.

Someone told Jacob that soaking his fingers in vinegar would dissolve the remaining spines, so we set up shop on the rooftop patio with lounge chairs and the laptop and watched Collateral while Jacob cursed about how much the vinegar stung and finished the rest of the Jack Daniels. The vinegar didn't seem to do much and I advised him that his body would push them out on its own and to stop worrying about it. He was skeptical until two mornings later when he woke up to find the second to the last piece literally sitting on top of his skin and was forced to admit I was right, which he did very good-naturedly.

Day 6: Thursday. Wish we had a do-over for this day.

We decided to hit up the weekly market in nearby La Peñita, so we woke up early and got out of dodge without even having breakfast. There was brief thunder and light rain during the cab ride there but the sun was out by the time we arrived. First impressions were lasting - a run-down town piled high with old white tourists and Mexican residents who resented them while trying to make money from them. This symbiotic relationship has always been sad to observe and I'm always left wondering, what was life like for these people pre-tourism? I felt it strongest in Peru.

We bypassed the tourist restaurants and sat down at a long table on the sidewalk for a breakfast of birria (stewed meat) tacos and pozole (tripe soup). By now I'm used to getting strange looks when I eat where the locals do. When it has a good vibe the people love it, maybe giggle at me a little, sometimes ask questions. When it has a bad vibe I get bad service, suspicious looks, and an inflated bill. This place definitely fell into the latter category when we were blatantly charged double.

I normally love a good market but this one was depressing. Here is Jacob, getting the fear:

The combination of old tourists, Mexican vendors yelling in broken English, the heavy breakfast, and the previous day's alcohol consumption proved a perfect storm for Jacob and we hightailed it from the market to the beach. More disappointment here. Apparently the beach was heavily damaged in a storm several years ago and never rebuilt, so that half-intact ocean-side buildings are filled with trash and dead fish.

We had c
onsidered walking to nearby Rincon de Guayabitos on the beach but the high tide and the never-ending pilgrimage of more old white tourists from Rincon to La Peñita dissuaded us. At the end of their march there was an estuary they had to scramble across, which reminded me of crabs scurrying over rocks:

This photo is my favorite thing to come out of our ill-fated morning:

We threw in the towel, negotiated a cheap cab fare, and went back to Chacala to recoup from what seemed like a stressful morning. We laid by the pool and then in front of Chac Mool where we ate another burrito.

That night we had reservations at a private residence next door to our house, where a woman named Doña Chabela cooks for tourists twice a week. We had signed up the first day we arrived, figuring it would be a funny experience with good and cheap food. Little did we know we were in for an Awkward Evening. For the low low price of 60 pesos each (about $5), we were treated to fish meatballs in tomato sauce, a glass of jamaica (hibiscus) juice, a squawking bird, a mosquito attack, and a bunch of head-smacking white tourist moments. The jamaica was the highlight by far. We got out as quickly as we could and debriefed each other on the horrors of our individual conversations (we politely moved seats so other people could sit with each other). I had to deal with three contenders for World's Least Engaging Human with a side of Negative Nancy, forcing me to flex every small-talk muscle I have, and Jacob was stuck with a part of a group of 11 middle-aged women (and one dude) there for a yoga retreat who were 1) angry when they arrived late and yet couldn't be seated together... on a 20-seat patio, and 2) insisted they pay with dollars because "we've been paying with dollars everywhere!" (I'm sure they were very popular with the locals.) With our faith reaffirmed in each other's company as ample social interaction for the week, we watched Slumdog Millionaire from the comfort of our beds.

Day 7: Friday. Who knew a coffee plantation looks like this?

For our last full day of vacation we arranged to go on a coffee plantation tour with some old white tourists. Our 7 am wake up call wasn't too bad since we'd been going to bed so early anyway, and once I compulsively checked to see if my skin had worsened (bless you, Jacob, for saying to me every morning and even a week after we got back to Seattle: "Your skin totally looks better!") we ate a leisurely breakfast before getting underway. Luckily the two Canadian couples in our car were hilarious; we were spared the Americans in the the other car, two of whom asked incessant questions and one of whom repeatedly said, "muy gracias." (If you speak any Spanish at all, you're cringing right now.)

The coffee is planted from 600-1,000 meters in the shade of taller trees wherever they can - no rows or fields, just haphazard plants scattered up and down ravines that people have to get to as best they can to pick. Apparently last year they had a bumper crop but this year, due to bad weather and some other circumstances I couldn't quite divine, was poised to be no bueno. I have to admit that there was a seeming lack of urgency; our guide calmly informed us that at this point, a large enough amount of rain would ruin the now-ripe beans, and with a week's worth of rain forecast I'm shocked there weren't more people harvesting from the many trees we saw loaded with beans.

Incidentally, did you know that coffee beans picked ripe from the tree are actually pretty tasty? Each fruit contains two beans nestled inside a faintly sweet flesh that you can chew on. The raw beans themselves aren't palatable. This plantation grew several varieties of arabica.

Unfortunately, although this area was filled with hundreds of wild orchids, none of them were flowering. Our guide pointed out other interesting plants that apparently cure cancer, relieve throat irritations, assist with blood clotting, and help women produce more breast milk. He also told us there used to be jaguars and other big cats in the area but they were hunted into the deeper interior. It is still populated with jabalí, wild boar, that locals hunt for food.

I felt fortunate to speak Spanish since the rest of the group was reliant on a nice gringo with intermediate Spanish skills for translation. I didn't want to make him feel bad so I only stepped in when his translations actually misinformed the group. Jacob got the benefit of the whole story from his own personal translator, though.

After a long walking tour through the jungle-y plantation, we went to the family coffee stand where Jacob and I ate the bacon-avocado-tomato sandwiches we'd made that morning and had truly delicious lattes. We each bought 2 kilos of their shade-grown, organic coffee that had been roasted the day before. Yum.

We were back by 3:00, but the weather never fully cleared so we spent the rest of the afternoon reading at the house. In addition to packing, I'm pretty sure we watched a movie that night. Here is Jacob deflating his inner-tube:

Day 8: Saturday. Back to the grind.

Another day of rain but we chose the right time to visit with the full week ahead forecast for storms and grey skies. Good for us, bad for coffee harvesting and newly-arrived tourists.

We had carefully allocated our remaining pesos to leave the house cleaner a tip, with 100 pesos (about 8 dollars) left for breakfast. Of course we had to go to Chac Mool. Our entrees took up 85 of those pesos (I had molletes for the third time, a favorite I always forget about once stateside - bread with refried beans and cheese put under the broiler until bubbly and brown). We wanted to tip of course so we didn't get drinks, which is unusual so I explained to the waitress that it was our last day and we were down to our last 100 pesos. She very sweetly brought us two cups of delicious coffee, on the house. Small acts of kindness like this make my heart sing.

We shared a shuttle to the Puerto Vallarta airport with (surprise!) some old white tourists. We had to check a bag since we'd bought a ton of hot sauce, but somehow it only cost us $20 (and a thorough search). I usually travel alone so no one is familiar with how aggro I get at airports, but Jacob bore it incredibly well in both SeaTac (where I had to go through the #$&* naked-body scanner and complained bitterly about it) and in Puerto Vallarta (where my bag was searched coming AND going, and every single person annoyed me, but somehow not Jacob because he intuited that this was not the time to heckle me or really do anything but be extremely nice and patient with me - thanks bro). We had an expensive and mediocre meal at a generic airport restaurant where at least one annoying American was taking shots of tequila. I'm all for getting drunk at the start of a vacation, but on the way home?

Our flight was uneventful and blessedly short. We were in and out of customs in 12 minutes, and not only did they not search our bags, there wasn't even a scanner to put them through which I found strange. We didn't care, though, since they didn't hassle us about our six bottles of hot sauce or 10 pounds of coffee. Jacob had parked at his parents' house so his dad picked him up and Amber came for me. To my delight she had cooked dinner at my apartment for us - roasted root vegetables and mouflon steaks that she shot and butchered herself, the second time we'd had this incredible meal in a few weeks. All in all a very relaxed week worthy of being called a true vacation.

General observations on Chacala compared to other parts of Mexico:
  • Unlike most Mexican towns, Chacala is not arranged arround a main plaza, but instead is built around two roads that run parallel to the beach. Everything was done in cobblestones, which are horrible to walk on and hell on a car's wheels. I can't remember seeing cobblestones anywhere else in Mexico.
  • Also unlike other areas of Mexico, the dogs seemed well-fed and the streets and highways were free from piles of garbage. This was not an unwelcome difference.
  • Like Mexico, there were roosters everywhere. I think they're my least favorite animal. The roosters, combined with the trucks with speakers attached to them that drove around relentlessly each afternoon selling produce, or shrimp, or tanks of gas via pre-recorded and scratchy tapes, prevented me from getting a single nap on my whole vacation!
  • The food in Chacala was disappointing compared to some of the incredible eats I've had elsewhere in Mexico. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad, but just not filled with 'ohhhh daaaamn that's the best thing I've ever eaten' meals like most of my trips have been.
If, after reading this, you are still not satisfied that I provided enough detail... I suggest you take up Tolstoy immediately.

1 comment:

Joanne Marie Punzalan said...

After reading your post and seeing all the photos, I was inspired to have my own version of a week’s vacation in Chacala! Mexican beaches are one of my favorite summer destinations because it is in these places where I find peace for my soul-searching activities.