Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mexico! Part I

I wrote this blog on the plane back from Mexico but am just now getting around to posting it. It was SO LONG that I'm actually breaking it into two. Sheesh.

Carson and I are on the plane back from Mexico. I have three hours to kill so I figured I might as well write what we all know will be an epically long blog about the last 12 days. I cannot emphasize enough that I write this as a personal record for my own memories, and I encourage you to enjoy the pictures and skim the rest since no one else could possibly care about this level of detail.

November 30: To Mexico we go!

After spending the night in San Francisco we had an easy and uneventful flight to Puerto Vallarta. When we got to the rental car place we were in for a bit of a shock – apparently the insurance is as much as the car itself, and we were unable to waive it. We also upgraded to a slightly larger vehicle so our rental ended up costing us 1.5 times as much as we thought – whoops. Luckily the upgraded car was an automatic, a huge blessing since it turns out my aggressive driving and experience in foreign countries made me much better suited to navigating the Mexican roads. I drove about 90% of the time.

We got to our “fancy” resort (about 10 minutes south of downtown Puerto Vallarta) just after sunset. We had to change rooms almost immediately due to a pretty nasty sewage smell, and as I was checking out our second room I got stuck in the elevator. I had to pry the doors open and jump up about a foot to the floor – eek! We changed from a one bedroom suite to a studio room which was surprisingly much nicer – the bedrooms faced the noisy hallway and the living room was uncomfortable, whereas in the huge studio the bed was right next to the ocean-facing balcony. Much nicer to sleep to the sounds of the sea than people in the hall.

Carson using the computer in our second room.
The view from our room - admittedly pretty awesome.
Sunset from our balcony

A fun shell Carson found (I admit we threw it back into the
ocean from our balcony).
The next night we ended up changing rooms again due to ants in the bed – third time was the charm, though I did end up complaining and getting a partial refund due to our treatment. Having to change rooms twice should be cause for some apology from the hotel staff, I think, but instead they acted like I was the problem. In addition to the refund they have offered us a two night complimentary stay in the future, but I doubt we’ll take them up on it. The resort had sort of a strange vibe, partially because we were the youngest people there by decades. My parents would have been young there!

We ended our first evening with a late swim in the pool and dinner at the bar in our bathing suits – nice way to start a vacation.

December 1 – Gardens and Guadalupe

A day of false starts. We thought we’d go kayaking, but they only had one and not two person kayaks which didn’t appeal to me. Then we rented snorkels, but the ocean was choppy so we returned them to use at a later time. Finally we decided to drive a few kilometers south to check out the botanical gardens. What a lovely spot! One of the best parts was that the grounds were essentially empty so we had the trails to ourselves. Part of it lay along a river which was nice to wade in.
Main building at botanical gardens.
We almost ran smack into these beauties
a few times.
On the way back we stopped for roadside tacos, then spent an hour at the pool before getting massages at the spa. There was a 2 for 1 promotion going on, but I didn’t realize this meant we would get our massages together – I don’t really understand the appeal of a “couples” massage. Having Carson on the table next to me was more a funny distraction than anything, but it was still a good massage. After that the ocean had calmed down so we used the snorkels, and then we headed into Puerto Vallarta for dinner.

Unbeknownst to us, December 1-12 is the festival of Guadalupe, which happened to be the exact length of our stay. Each night in every city and town across Mexico, people make “pilgrimages” in the form of parades to the local church. A band accompanies them and they carry candles and sing “La Guadalupana,” a song that is now perpetually stuck in my head. They’re also generally accompanied by a young boy who lights loud fireworks in his hands and lets them go at the last minute – a very safe practice. Of course, we didn’t know any of this at the time, but we figured it out soon enough when we were crawling through traffic. We finally found somewhere to park on the dizzying hills behind downtown.

A slight exaggeration of the camera, but it was pretty crazy.
Of course, the benefit of any festival is the availability of street food. That first night we had an elote – a cup filled with fresh corn kernels, cream, lemon juice, and hot sauce – and then several tacos and tamales wrapped in banana leaves, followed by a torta for good measure. After all that eating, plus some wandering of the Malecon (main drag by the beach), we were ready to head back. Trying to get out of Puerto Vallarta was a whole other scene and it took me about 20 minutes of harrowingly steep and narrow street driving to finally find a road that wasn’t closed by the processions that would take us back to the highway.

Start of the procession on day 1 of the festival
Adolescent dancers in costume

Church of Guadalupe, the procession's

Self portrait on the Malecon
December 2 – Yelapa

At the recommendation of several people including friends in Ukiah, we decided to take a boat to the secluded beach of Yelapa. Rather than driving in and taking the tourist boat from Puerto Vallarta, we spent a fraction of the cost by driving a bit south to Boca de Tomatlan and taking the local water taxi. It was half as much and twice as interesting since it’s a primary form of transportation for locals who live in beach towns that are more easily accessed by boat than car. They load massive coolers, bags and boxes of groceries, and very old ladies into these boats, making for an even more interesting unloading process. For the beaches with piers they would pull up and hastily unload as many things and people as possible between the large waves; for beaches without, they just get as close as they can and then you have to jump out into the water. Yelapa was one of those beaches. We got there around 10 am, long before the tourist boats, and had the place to ourselves. We decided to walk on the main “road” which a path that is only big enough for quads (there are no cars in Yelapa). There were a lot of horses on this path.
You know your town is tiny when this is the main road.
The road follows the river and we walked for about 30 minutes before coming to a nice clearing where I went swimming. Unfortunately this was inhabited by the dreaded “noseeums” and we paid dearly for our lack of bug spray. I got off relatively easy, but Carson’s legs looked leprous until just a day or two ago. Luckily I had some liquid lidocaine left over from my Argentina days (which we sadly lost along the way, just before I was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes).

Can you find Carson in this picture?
After we’d had our fill of the river we walked back and sat on the beach for hours, drinking pina coladas and people watching. The cove was great for swimming and we spent a lot of time in the water. This was Carson’s favorite part of the whole trip.

The ultimate beach vacation photo op.
Yelapa panorama (click to enlarge)
That night we went back into PV to watch the processions and eat more street food. We had the most incredible tacos al pastor – marinated pork that they cut from a huge slab (similar to what you see gyros meat cut from) and served with hunks of pineapple. These tacos tied for best food of the entire vacation.

December 3 – San Sebastian del Oeste

Our three nights at the fancy resort up, we got in the car and headed inland 2 hours to a tiny Sierra Madre mountain town called San Sebastian del Oeste. It’s principal industry is – or at least once was – mining. Since almost no streets leaving PV were marked, and since we got four or five conflicting directions from Google and various people, it took us quite a while to find the right road. Carson also had the misfortune of a power outage directly in the middle of an ATM transaction so that he only got half of what he was charged for (we’re still working on resolving that one). But eventually we were on the right path, and the road was well paved if not obnoxiously filled with invisible and  huge speed bumps. Seriously, Mexico – paint those suckers!

I had read that the best place to eat was La Lupita, and it was the very first place we saw. We went for lunch which was a fixed price for several courses – fresh squeezed orange juice, a quesadilla, rice and beans, a pork and egg dish called machaca, chicken mole, and the ever-present handmade tortillas. It was the best full meal we had anywhere by a long shot. 

Lunch at La Lupita
After lunch we moseyed to the main plaza after lunch and found a cheap hotel I’d read was a good value called El Puente. It was definitely cheap and as a 100 year old building had lots of charm, but we were glad it was just for one night since the bathroom was only separated by a swinging door. We went for a walk and found a coffee plantation (delicious coffee that I bought in abundance) and an abandoned rodeo/bullfighting ring. 

The ring was strangely romantic

Me admiring coffee plants

Coffee in its many stages
Then we drove down two of the narrow cobblestone roads leading out of town, just to see where they went. They all turned from cobblestone to an even narrower dirt path, and we had to turn around both times before we got anywhere (our little Scala was not exactly an off-roading vehicle).
View of San Sebastian from one of our off-road trips.
View from the second road; it was getting dark so
we turned back before reaching the tiny town  high
in the mountains with incredible views, apparently.
We missed the Guadalupe procession which was, not surprisingly, tiny. For dinner we stumbled across what seemed like an out-of-place Italian restaurant, run by a real Italian. It was delicious! We each had homemade pasta which came with a salad and fresh baked bread, and then the owner brought us a small slice of pizza which made us regret not having ordered a whole one. Seriously impressive for a town with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.

Not much to do after that but go to sleep.

December 4 – Sayulita and ceviche (ruined for eternity)

We woke up early and left without eating breakfast. Our destination was Sayulita, an infamous surf town about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. It was about a three hour drive, and one we arrived we ate some tortas for lunch and then found a hotel I’d read about – Hotel Eden, a block from the beach and very reasonably priced considering the cable TV, air conditioning, and rooftop patio. Carson wasn't feeling so hot so we napped in the room for a few hours, finally hitting the beach in the late afternoon. It took us awhile to figure out what time it was. Technically Sayulita (which is in the state of Nayarit) is an hour behind Puerto Vallarta, but to make it easier on everyone the Mexican government recently decreed that Sayulita and several other nearby towns would switch to Puerto Vallarta time (which is in the state of Jalisco).

Even though it was 4 pm, it didn’t take long for Carson (sufficiently recovered) to find someone to give him a surf lesson right then and there. For $30 he got an hour and a half lesson and then another hour to use the surfboard by himself, which he redeemed the next morning. 
Carson, his huge board, and his instructor.
I found a chair and tried to read my book but couldn’t help watching him from afar – I even took a few pictures, though I was too far away and didn’t get him in most of the frames. This is the only one I got with him up on the board, though he got up quite a few times.

For dinner we went to the main plaza a block from our hotel and sat down at a restaurant for a front row seat of the Guadalupe processions. These ones were lively, with tons of loud fireworks including what I called the “firework head.” Picture this – a young boy, probably 12 or 13, holds a large hat-like structure over his head which has been fitted with about 2 minutes’ worth of sparking, crackling fireworks. He lights it on fire and then runs around the plaza chasing people – young kids, old people, terrified tourists – until the last spark goes out. I was agape.

I was on the verge of ordering fajitas when the waiter casually mentioned that they had ceviche. I don’t like the traditional Nayarit/Jalisco style of ground fish ceviche, but he told me it was hunks of fish and shrimp and I was sold. I wish I had ordered the fajitas. My old friend e coli came to stay for a few days after that. Now that ceviche has made me sick in two countries (damn you, Bolivia) I’m pretty sure it’s ruined forever. Even now, the word makes my stomach turn. All I can say is it’s a good thing that hotel room had a bathroom door that closed an a toilet that flushed properly.

December 5 – Just… gross

After assuring him I was fine and even preferred being left alone, Carson went surfing again and wandered about, coming back to the room occasionally with Gatorade and Pepto Bismol. I felt decent enough by around 2 to go for a short walk, and I talked a restaurant into making me some mint tea and uber-salty chicken broth while Carson ate real food. I know I needed the fluids and salts but it was an ugly scene after that and I didn’t bother drinking much of anything until the next morning. I did watch a lot of Keeping up with the Kardashians, though, so the day wasn’t an entire waste (note heavy sarcasm).

December 6 – A Day at the Beach

I got a good night’s sleep and woke up feeling more or less human, so we hit a local hot spot called Rollie’s, run by a retired American high school principal. Rollie himself was our waiter and he was a really sweet guy who told us he'd just become a grandfather for the first time. I had more mint tea and managed to eat a pancake without incident. After that we hit the beach, renting lounge chairs from a restaurant for 150 pesos (about $12) for the whole day. I read while Carson people watched, then I ventured into the water for a few minutes. It’s always amazing to me how exhausting everything is after just a day or two of being sick and I tried not to push it, but I really wanted to play in those awesome Sayulita waves. When we got back to our chairs the woman next to me asked if my name was Beth and if I was from Lake Forest Park. It was Evelyn, my high school best friend’s mom’s best friend! I’d been on vacation with their two families twice and remembered her fondly. That’s a small world scenario for you!

Lounging (you can see Ev and her husband next to us!)

For lunch, I managed to very slowly eat an entire chicken “milanesa” (basically a flattened, breaded chicken breast) and some French fries, and I felt fine.

Sayulita is extremely popular with tourists, and is therefore extremely popular with vendors. I understand these are people trying to make a living, and we did get some items – I bought a coral bracelet and Carson bought me a pearl necklace – but it was tiresome having to say “no gracias” literally every minute or two, and sad to say it to young children who shouldn’t have to sell crap on the beach in the first place.

That night we went back to watch the processions. They were particularly eventful since instead of the usual pickup truck used to cart around the live models – young children dressed up as the Virgin Mary and angels staring adoringly at her – they had outfitted a semi. The problem was twofold: first, the backdrop they’d built extended much higher than the wires crisscrossing the streets, resulting in a group of men running in front with sticks to push the wires up and over the frame (just a few inches from the exasperated teenager playing Guadalupe); two, the driver was not very adept at navigating the tiny, twisty roads. Suffice to say it was painful but amusing to watch and I’m still kicking both of us for forgetting the camera.

We ran into Ev and her husband and chatted for awhile before looking for dinner. I found a falafel stand and managed to eat about ¼ of a pita sandwich while talking to the very sweet owners and admiring their adorable baby, while Carson had some street tacos.

Panorama of Sayulita from our hotel's rooftop deck -
plaza to the left, ocean to the right.
And that's the first half of our vacation! I'll post the second half soon.

1 comment:

AmberAnda said...

Sounds like an awesome and quintessential Mexican vacation- beautiful beaches, questionable accommodations, great street food, surprise festivals and processions, local boat rides, and serendipitously running into folks from home. So sorry to hear about the ceviche incident though :( Looking forward to reading part 2!