Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mexico! Part II

When last I left you we were in Sayulita and I was recovering from food poisoning.

Friday, December 7 – Melaque

Our last morning in Sayulita. We had breakfast at Rollie’s again, and by “we” I mean “Carson.” As is always the case with this bastard bacteria, I had a good day followed by a bad day. As someone who lives to eat, possibly the worst sensation in the world for me is being both starving and nauseous. I watched him eat with envy. I don’t think I was particularly pleasant company.

From there we headed to Melaque, a sleepy beach town about 3.5 hours south at the edge of the state of Jalisco. Carson enjoyed learning to surf but his ribs were bruised and we were both tired of the crowded, overly touristy vibe, so we were both ready to get out of dodge and didn't even mind sitting in the car for a few hours.

During the ride, about every 30 minutes I would eat five or six almonds and cashews, feeling totally stuffed after each handful. If you know me you know the hilarity of that scenario, considering I generally manage to out-eat everyone else. Other than having to drive through the madness that is Puerto Vallarta yet again, including a very pot-holey section of highway 200 that was a little like a mine field (which we drove about a dozen times), the ride was uneventful. Once in Melaque we parked and wandered around. All the oceanfront hotels were essentially the same so we picked one with a seaside balcony and the customary hard beds. 

Carson using the internet at our Melaque hotel,
Puesta del Sol. Everywhere we went had internet.
View from our Melaque balcony. This place was cool
because the kitchen was actually outside on the
balcony (sadly no picture).

It was only 5:00 but we hadn’t eaten lunch, so we headed to a pizza place I’d read about for an early dinner. It was distractingly salty, but I did manage to take down two whole pieces. Then we hit the plaza, just in time for the Guadalupe procession complete with marching band and fireworks.

December 8 – Barra de Navidad

Melaque is in the same cove as its more famous neighbor, Barra de Navidad. It’s only about a mile away so after a breakfast of leftover pizza we walked there on the sloping beach, admiring skinboarders and stopping for a swim along the way (and just stopping a lot in general since I was still so easily winded - I was pathetic and Carson was patient). The cove has great big waves that crash with a thunderous boom against the shore – I love that sound!

Taking a break
We walked the pier at Barra where we found this beautiful statue. I'm totally obsessed with it!

Then we were roped into a private boat tour of the bay, including a populated canal and an expensive hotel with disgustingly large yachts anchored in front.

Barra de Navidad canal
From there he asked if we would like to see “just a little bit of the ocean” and I said sure, thinking he’d just pop out and back and include it in the price of the tour. No such thing – he took us on the full “peninsula” tour, trying to talk us into a full-day fishing and snorkeling expedition the next day all the while, and then charged us for both the bay and ocean tours when we declined the fishing trip. It was boring and it was a swindle at $60, but… oh well. I didn’t really feel like arguing about it as I could tell he was desperate for some business (tourism not being what it once was).

On our "peninsula" tour (note the Gatorade - still not
fully recovered at this point).
We had a nice lunch at a little French bakery – croissants and the first post-sick coffee for me, ham panini for Carson – and then took a cab the short distance back to Melaque. We had a pretty uninspired plate of street tacos for dinner and thought we missed the procession that night, though we found out later it was held in a neighboring town (apparently if the towns are small enough they take turns). What we didn’t miss, however, was the most incredible thing I ate the entire trip (tied with tacos al pastor): The BEST CHURROS OF MY LIFE. I consider myself a churro connoisseur, so I do not say this lightly. I was cursing my shrunken stomach for only being able to take down two of the five pieces we got for ONE DOLLAR, but I savored every bite. My mouth is watering right now.

Mmmm.... churros....

December 9 – Sunday football

After breakfast at the local market and a morning walk on the beach, I talked Carson into a lazy day of watching football and playing rummy in our hotel room. We went out for lunch at El Froy’s on the beach where I ate some decent ribs (once I scraped the gallon of gross BBQ sauce off them).

Carson has a beer at El Froy's

Then we swam and lounged for awhile on the beach before going back to our hotel to swim and lounge by the pool. We saw some fruit vendors walking by and beckoned to them, buying a mango and a pineapple filled with watermelon and papaya, all for about $5. We had a lot of fun horsing around in the pool and I suspect the old people staying there (why were we constantly surrounded by old people??) were divided as to whether we were sweet or obnoxious.

Dinner was, again, uninspired. The whole trip I was disappointed by the food in general (not that food poisoning made anything more appetizing, but usually I eat really great food in Mexico). Luckily the churro vendor was out again and I was able to reach sugar nirvana for the second night in a row. More football and rummy before going to bed. I thanked Carson for indulging my sports request and in his constant, good-natured way, he just shrugged and said “sure.”

Monday, December 10 – Snakes and crocodiles and an unexpected change in plans

We woke up early and headed south again, this time to Cuyutlan in the state of Colima. We stopped for breakfast in Manzanillo, one of Mexico’s biggest ports and also a big tourist spot which I almost chose to fly into instead of PV. An hour was enough to see that we weren’t missing much, though I did have a delicious latte. Further down the road we stopped for a coconut, the second of the trip, and while it tasted just like the coconut water I love to drink, Carson was disappointed both times.

Machete-ing coconuts in style (she had on heels).
It wasn’t long before we were in Cuyutlan, specifically at the sanctuary that inspired this destination. Called “el tortugario” (the turtle-arium), it was originally designed to help preserve the 13 species of ocean turtle that come to Mexico. It has since evolved to include crocodiles and iguanas under its protective wing.

A baby crocodile in captivity (they are
eventually released into the mangroves).
After checking out the turtles and crocs that were housed in a variety of pools, we took a boat tour through the Palo Verde mangroves. This was the highlight of the whole trip for me.

Soooo happy right now
It was just the two of us, and even though it was a private tour it only cost 120 pesos (I gave him 200 – best $15 I spent). The mangroves are fiercely protected by the locals and our guide was both knowledgeable and passionate without being preachy. He also had an incredible eye for crocodile heads in the water, birds in the branches, and even camouflaged snakes. After passing by at a good speed, he suddenly reversed and slowly drew up next to a mangrove with a sleeping viper curled up in it. A moment later we came upon this baby alligator taking a nap on the lily pads:

So tiny! Hard to imagine it ripping you apart.
We also saw tons of birds: blue, green, and white herons, cormorans, falcons, pelicans, and lots more I can’t name.

A falcon looking regal.
Then we went into the mangrove tunnel, which was created by nature but expanded by man with federal permission so they could take boats through.

About to enter the tunnel
Caution: low branches and possible snakes!

He warned us to watch out for vipers dropping into the boat, but assured us they don’t bite – they squeeze you to death instead (awesome). He also had something special to show us: a boa sleeping off a meal. It was about 5 feet long, according to our guide, and would stay there for 2-3 days until it was done digesting. Awesome!

Digesting boa (this is about half of him)
Mind the hanging roots!
After we got off the boat Carson took this picture of me on the walkway. He took a lot of pictures of my back; I am a fast walker and I guess I left him behind a lot!

All we had left to see were the iguanas, and this big guy was proudly situated at the top of the food pedestal. I guess they're illegal to hunt and semi-endangered, making me feel guilty about having eaten iguana tamales on a past trip (whoops).

After that we headed into Cuyutlan, a truly teeny tiny beach town. I imagine on the weekends it's probably a bit more hopping, but on a Monday it was the definition of dead.

Empty main drag
Empty beach boardwalk
We wandered to the three nearby hotels, one of which was under construction but open (no thanks), one of which was closed, and the other of which was pretty cheap for a pretty gross little room, which we took. Then we walked to the only open food stall and had a torta before hitting the beach. We swam for a bit but the waves were big and the undertow strong, so we walked down the abandoned beach instead.

Cuyutlan is the only beach I'd seen with kiddie pools;
anyone else seen this on a beach anywhere else?

We stopped a ways down, buried my legs in the sand, let the tide wash them off, and then walked back. By then it was only about 4:30 and we were bored. Hanging in our room was not an option, and there was nothing else to do... so we took a quick shower under the weak trickle (it probably would have been better water pressure if we turned the bathroom sink on and submerged various parts of our bodies), packed our bags back into the car, dropped our room key on the counter without saying anything to the staff, and hightailed it back north on the 100!

The best part of our hotel was the
door to the bathroom.
We figured we'd drive until we didn't feel like it, stop for the night somewhere, and finish the drive back to Puerto Vallarta the next day. We accidentally got on the toll road which we decided was okay until we discovered it was $10 for only 30 minutes' worth of road! There was no turning back so we paid it, but we were shocked at the price.

We ended up making the entire five-hour drive in one go, pulling up to a beachfront hotel I'd previously vetted about 20 minutes south of PV at 10 pm. The night clerk was surprised to see us but gladly let us into a room. We were both very happy to not be sleeping in our cheap, dingy Cuyutlan room, and that our long return drive was already behind us.

Tuesday, Dec 11 - Tequila, Mismaloya, and El Kliff

We woke up and the first thing I did - the first thing I did every single morning, in fact - was scan the ocean for dolphins or whales. They were evasive buggers. Our hotel room at the Mar Sereno had large balcony with a gorgeous view. The room itself was inexplicably large, and the entire hotel was clearly a sight to behold in its glory days (possibly the 1970s), but has since fallen into a state of disrepair.

Ginormous, mostly empty room
Beautiful balcony
There were few guests and fewer employees, and it was rather like staying in an abandoned mansion. It was about six stories tall, with the top of the building at street level and the bottom a sheer drop or some steep stone stairs down to the rocky ocean.

Mar Sereno from the beach
Someone a long time ago built a little swimming hole where the water comes in at high tide, and at low tide you could walk around it and look at the crabs and little fish stuck in the pools. Everything was overgrown and rusted or eroded away, and I felt like I was in the secret garden, ocean edition.

Carson in pursuit of marine life

The hotel changed hands a few years ago, and I suspect someone who didn't know much about hotels (and the maintenance inherent in oceanfront property) bought it without realizing what it would take to restore. We were glad for the emptiness, though; it was a far cry from our fancy resort.

We needed gas and I was craving roasted chicken, so we drove into PV to accomplish those two goals. Then we went to a tequila distillery near our hotel where the tastings were free and self-serve; their trick was to get you drunk so you bought more, and from the looks of the people there, it was very effective. The guy who came to help us was already beyond tipsy at 1 pm, often overstepping the boundaries of appropriate with dirty jokes and even a flash of the bag of weed he had in his pocket when we told him we were from Northern California. Luckily his drunkenness worked in our favor as he offered us a steal on a sampler of flavored tequilas (the girl ringing us up called him "Santa Claus," not a little annoyed). I usually hate tequila but this stuff was really good; it's entirely made and sold on premise, all in small batches and none of it exported. It was expensive but we felt like we'd gotten our money's worth.

Carson models a fancy bottle while our salesperson
gives us the hard sell.
From there we drove to nearby Mismaloya beach and lounged next to the ocean, drinking fancy drinks, playing cards, saying no to the many vendors, and trying to ignore the many American tourists surrounding us.

The Mismaloya river terminates there so the water was much colder to swim in than usual, but we still had a nice final dip before heading back to the hotel to dress for dinner.

I thought it would be nice if we had a fancy meal on our last night. We tried to go to Chico's Paradise which looked super cool, but it was only open for lunch, so instead we ended up at Le Kliff, one of the most expensive restaurants in the greater PV area which happened to be right next to our hotel. The first thing we noticed was a romantic table for two set up beneath the restaurant; the host told us someone was going to propose there that night, but they showed up after dark and missed the view!

Wedding central
We were relatively early - a little before 6 - and we were seated at a great table right on the edge of the open-air patio overlooking the ocean. One other party was already there, and soon a group of 40ish women were seated right next to us. It soon became clear these ladies were here to celebrate the end of a meaningful vacation with gusto.

The service was clumsy and forced; rather than creating their own style, they were clearly trying to emulate the uber fine dining establishments in the U.S., with little success. Our waiter was unimpressive. Rather than offering us menus, he asked what we were drinking and pushed the 'special seafood platter.' I said what, you don't have menus? He begrudgingly supplied a wine list and food menu, and we got a bottle of red that I used to drink in Chile, calamari to start, and steaks for the main course. The calamari was salty and tough and the steaks didn't fare much better, with tough meat and globs of congealed cheese between the slices of semi-raw potato gratin, but neither dish lacked the fussy detail people seem to associate with expensive meals.

Not great

Our waiter insisted on addressing every communication to Carson, even though I was always the one to respond to him. Even when he brought the bill and I personally handed him my credit card, he still put it down in front of Carson. I wanted to strangle him, especially when he asked how much tip we wanted to include. "None," I said. "We'll leave cash." And we did, but not as much as he expected I'm sure. So all in all, the food and the service were a bust. But the night was worth its $100+ price tag.

First... there were the neighbors. A group of coati (cousins of the raccoon) live nearby, and I'm sure no better meal can be found than in an open air restaurant filled with tourists. I noticed them first and cautioned Carson not to feed them since they are notoriously aggressive, at least in Argentina. Then a few minutes later came a scream. Not a little one; a full-blown "OMG" scream, from the older woman at the first table. She had just noticed our dining companions. The waiters lazily shooed them away, but it wasn't long before the same terrified scream was heard. The poor lady was so terrified she actually went to wait in the car while her dining companions hurriedly finished their entrees and her husband spoke harshly to the manager, who looked sympathetic but indicated their surroundings and said, "the restaurant is open and they live in the jungle; there's not much we can do."

Coati invader - it was hard to get a good
picture of them but they have looong tails.
Then there was the group who came next, a three-generation family of 12 led by a bitchy matriarch who, upon seeing Carson and I occupying a table for four at a superior table, asked why we couldn't be moved so they could enjoy our seats instead. I only know this because I watched it go down; to their credit, the wait staff did not indulge her request. After they were seated next to us, they proceeded to do those tourist things I hate the most: mock the menu, the restaurant, and in essence the culture; ask for complicated things in rapid-fire English, like a "sample of wine tastes;" and talk loudly as if they were the only ones present. Luckily I was half a bottle of wine in by then so I was more amused than annoyed. Carson joked about saying something to the woman on our way out, like "you can have our seats now."

Then there was our favorite group - the 40ish ladies. They were there to have a memorable night, including three courses each, tearful toasts, dozens of flash-happy photos, and best of all... homemade music. One of them brought her guitar, and their elder companion went to each table and asked if we wouldn't mind listening to "one song from our friend who is a wonderful musician." What were we going to say, no? They finally got the manager to turn down the (admittedly awful smooth jazz) music, and then she proceeded to play and sing a song from their table. But that wasn't all, my friends! She then got up and walked to each table, playing private concerts for all of us lucky diners. We were last on her rounds and had actually just paid our bill, but we didn't quite escape.

She was a pleasant woman and had a sweet enough voice, but she didn't have a trained voice and she didn't play the guitar particularly well; in short, not the kind of person you'd expect to have the balls to treat a restaurant like a house party. We were very polite, however, and did not laugh about any of this until we were safely back in our room. We both agreed the night was worth it, but that the next time we dropped a bill on a meal it would be on killer food and hopefully less tacky dining companions.

Wednesday, December 12 - Adios, Mexico

I woke up and made a last hopeful scan of the waters for marine life, only to be disappointed yet again. I wanted to go to one last beach (our flight wasn't until 5), but Carson didn't feel like getting wet and sandy before flying, so instead we packed and headed into PV to see what the final day of the Guadalupe festival looked like. First, traffic was crazy. We finally got through town around 11:00, parked on the other side of everything, and walked back. There were THOUSANDS of people cramming the streets, waiting to get into the Church of Guadalupe. Apparently this would go on all day and all night.

This doesn't even capture the madness
We found what we thought was our original al pastor vendor and had a delicious plate of tacos while watching the hordes slowly pass by.

Then we headed to the Malecon to get a few cheesy souvenirs and an ice cream. We also admired the many performers, including living statues dressed to the nines, a pair of sand-covered chess players, and sandcastle builders. What drives me crazy is American tourists snapping pictures of them like crazy but not giving them a single peso. Tourists of the world, take note! If you take a picture, you should really pay for it.

I loved this wishing well and threw several peso into it:

With nothing much left to do, we headed to the rental car agency, turned in our trusty Scala, and had nearly three hours to kill before our flight. We passed them in a generic airport restaurant, eating bar food and playing many rounds of rummy.

Finally it was time to board and we ended up with a row of three to ourselves. I hogged the computer writing this blog and before I knew it we were in San Francisco. Customs wasn't too bad, our bags came right away, and we walked out right as our shuttle was pulling up - I love perfect timing! We were both pretty hungry so once we got the car I found a nearby Vietnamese restaurant (something you can't get in Ukiah) and introduced Carson to the wonderful world of pho. It was the third best thing I ate on my entire vacation.

We made it to Ukiah at about midnight, dragged our bags in through the rain, and promptly passed out.

And that was our successful Mexico vacation!


tourareas said...

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AmberAnda said...

Wow, it seems like you guys did and saw so much! I can't believe you were braving the roads and navigating that whole time. The fancy dinner night sounded so ridiculous! I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for a portion of that evening.