Mexico – December 2020

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Maraika Bar, Las Animas, Mexico

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For better or worse we fled the USA for our annual pilgrimage to Mexico for two weeks over Christmas and New Year. The theme of the trip revolved around frequent bathings in alcohol comprising externally applied anti-COVID-19 gels and hand wipes and copious quantities of internally imbibed alcohol in the form of freshly crafted margaritas. In an effort to stay alive we probably consumed enough tequila to knock a horse off its trotters 😉

Our first foray into Puerto Vallarta city was encouraging – masks on almost all faces and everyone was very well-behaved. We stayed at Icon Vallarta in the northern hotel zone because we wanted to be able to hole up in a self-sufficient luxury apartment should we decide it necessary to hunker down for the week. Nice place – fab view – expansive coarse sand beach (not my favorite) but, if there were a next time, we’d stay much closer to the Romantic Zone or way south in the Southern Beach zone. The Old Town, with its narrow cobblestone streets, is attractive and colorful and the highlights of the small and walkable town are the iconic Cathedral (Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe – which is not as old as it looks); strolling along the mile-long Malecon (oceanfront promenade) admiring the waterfront public art sculptures and (in the older section of town) the beautiful palapa-roofed waterfront restaurants and bars; the Rio Cuale art and crafts market with its River Cafe; and the Romantic Zone which is the best-preserved section of the city with its red tile roofs, boutique hotels and great beachfront restaurants. The Plaza de Armas was the quietest we have ever seen in any Mexican city and the bandstand stood idle for the week we visited – the effects of COVID could (unsurprisingly) be felt everywhere.

On our first night we headed into town to eat dinner and sample the jalapeño margaritas at the excellent La Palapa at a toes-in-the-sand, socially-distanced table watching the sun set over the Pacific, the alternating colored lights illuminating the Los Muertos Pier (with its contemporary sail design) and the twinkling lights on the hillside haciendas and beach bars along Playa de Los Muertos. All perfect so far!

The undoubted highlights of this city were for us, however, outside of the city. Since my birthday was endured in lockdown and our 21st anniversary was similarly somewhat of a damp squib, I decided to pull out all of the stops and booked us into Le Kliff for lunch at what must be one of the most spectacular cliff-top restaurants in the world. In celebration of our very late anniversary we were regaled with a large red heart balloon and a chocolate dessert which should explain why Geoff is carrying a red balloon around the grounds of the restaurant. Le Kliff is on the winding coastal road towards Boca de Tomatlan in a rambling contemporary palapa-style building with dining tables on the huge wrap-around patio, or more secluded in shady garden terraces but the best view in the house was from the table below us on a terrace hanging out over the sea. Absolutely beautiful! We strolled through the garden and swung on the swing with the sunlight dazzling on the ocean around us. If this were a hotel we’d have stayed there and not moved for the entire week.

You can’t visit Puerto Vallarta without following in the footsteps of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton first came to the town when filming John Huston’s Night of the Iguana in the 60’s and subsequently bought the main villa at what is now Hacienda San Angel as a Valentine gift for his wife Susan. Back in the day they called it Casa Bur-Sus. Year later it has evolved into a truly gorgeous antique-filled luxury boutique hotel decorated with farolito candles at night. You can dine on the open-air terrace under crystal chandeliers and watch the sun setting on the hillsides all around and over the Bay of Banderas as the frigate birds ride the thermals way overhead. This is where we would stay in the old town itself if we were to return to Puerto Vallarta … or maybe, having said that, we’d stay next door at Elizabeth Taylor’s considerably more lavish and palatial Casa Kimberly which Burton gave to her. In the heady days of their affair a connecting bridge (Puente del Amor) was built between Casa Kimberly and Burton’s casita. Here we ate Christmas dinner at The Iguana restaurant at a table with a birds-eye view over the afore-mentioned Bridge of Love serenaded by a notably excellent mariachi band who were safely ensconced in the courtyard as far away from our table as possible … even better!

We sampled many delicacies at the posh restaurants in town – Joe Jack’s Fish Shack on Christmas Eve was also excellent although my COVID OCD was kicking in with the lack of socially distanced tables and I found it troublesome to successfully eat dinner through a mask 😉

Aside from lunch at Le Kliff, the highlight of this region was undoubtedly the (warm and sweaty) hike from the fishing village of Boca de Tomatlan through the jungle to Las Animas beach. Crossing the bridge over the estuary behind the harbor in Boca we were immediately plunged into a world completely removed from the luxury of Puerto Vallarta. We trampled on the well-trodden route through rustic back yards – laundry drying in the wind, friendly pitbull dogs nuzzling passersby to scratch their fleas, tiny chihuahuas scampering through legs and noisy cockerels chasing chickens through the dust. We traversed cobblestone pathways, dirt tracks in the jungle and precarious boardwalks over crashing waves. We clambered over rocks and slid up (and down) slippery mud and scree slopes passing a fabulous variety of scenery from jungle to deserted yellow sand beaches, and from clear teal waters to smooth granite boulders strewn along the coastline. We were almost entirely alone for the 2½ hour hike (too many photo stops had slowed us up). The ultimate destination was the well-known Las Animas beach but it was too busy and noisy for us. Thankfully, en route, we had already discovered the best beach bar on the Pacific (at Casitas Maraika) so we re-traced our steps and whiled away the rest of the afternoon with lunch and extensive internal alcohol-cleansing in the form of passionfruit margaritas (yum yum). As a result, there was no possibility that we would be able to hike back to Boca so, for a small fee, we took their boat back to the harbor at Boca.

The following day we drove back to Boca aiming to catch a water taxi to the considerably more obscure little fishing village of Quimixto. The village is only accessible by boat so we grabbed the tiny water taxi (panga) at the harborside, nestled down amongst the supplies being ferried to the villagers and 25 minutes or so later we found ourselves yet again in an entirely different world. This was very rustic Mexico. I had read about the sweeping expanse of unspoiled beach and a waterfall to which you could hike in half an hour or so. Sounded worthwhile. I planned the hike would be followed by lunch at the one and only beach shack (Los Cocos).

Arriving at the dock we passed through the quiet, cobblestone village and followed the route past a herd of horses tethered in the shade which the lazy amongst us could hire to ride to the waterfall. We crossed a bridge over the river, paddled through mud, hopscotched over rocks in riverbeds and passed through pathways channeled in the clay terrain positively effervescent with freshly-pooped horse poo. The ultimate destination was, disappointingly, a singularly uninspiring waterfall which flows into the La Puerta river. We stopped at the restaurant there with brightly colored tablecloths at which we were forced to buy a drink if we wanted to see the waterfall any closer (entirely unnecessary with hindsight). Rashly, Geoff was tempted to use the bathroom at the restaurant which he subsequently found didn’t have any running water … thank goodness we didn’t choose to eat there before discovering that water was a luxury this facility didn’t enjoy. Back at the beach the sea was so rough I couldn’t dip my toes into it without being washed out into the Pacific. We had lunch on the sand at Los Cocos literally miles from any other human where 2 scrappy-looking stray dogs scampered off with our guacamole and chips 😉 Gotta love rural Mexico … the real Mexico as opposed to the 5-star version 😁

We cut our losses at Quimixto and caught the next water taxi back to Maraika Bar where they had run out of all of the food which we wanted to order – but they still had plenty of passionfruit with which to keep us supplied with margaritas, so it wasn’t all bad!

We might have visited other well-known beaches outside of the city such as Conchas Chinas or Playa las Gemelas (which is reputed to be PV’s finest beach) or taken a panga out to Majahuitas or visited the Botanical Gardens but the draw of the location of Maraika’s Bar (and its passionfruit delights) was too strong and we simply ran out of time. Beaches in which I had less interest (following extensive research) would have been Mismaloya and Yelapa due to their popularity.

For the weekend we headed off for a couple of nights of utter rest and relaxation up in the Sierra Madre mountains at Villa Nogal, a boutique hotel in the diminutive “pueblo magico” of San Sebastian del Oeste. Only forty-two miles and a ninety minute mountain drive from Puerto Vallarta, we passed through an arbor of shade trees on the final approach into the the pueblo bouncing along the pot-holed cobblestone road. We finally arrived in San Sebastian – four hundred years away in pace and history from the coastal resorts.

Highlights of the weekend: the view from the beautiful, cozy terrace sipping margaritas as we watched the vultures gliding at eye level on the thermals; spectacular golden sunsets over the Sierra Madres; the food (at Villa Nogal, Jardin Nebulosa and Paraiso) … and doing absolutely nothing for 48 hours 😁

We did manage to tear ourselves away from the view for 2 jaunts around the village just to stretch our margarita-filled legs. We stopped at a peculiar little coffee shop (Café de Altura) where I spent the subsequent 20 minutes balanced on one buttock trying to prevent myself falling through the broken wicker chair on the “patio” sipping truly awful coffee from a polystyrene cup. Slightly more notable was a quick visit to El Galletero Magico bakery where we enjoyed a bakery item which we didn’t order! For once we couldn’t blame the mess up on my translation skills as the baker spoke unexpectedly excellent English. He simply didn’t have what I had ordered and didn’t feel inclined to tell me – so he gave us something else entirely … Either way, we ate it entirely alone in his large backyard which redefined the term “rustic”. Chickens scratted about kicking up the dust at our feet and goats roamed amongst the tables. I felt like a bit-part actor in a living tableau from a 17th Century oil painting – the 17th Century being very likely the last time that the dangerously uneven cobblestone streets of San Sebastian saw any maintenance work whatsoever 😉

To be fair San Sebastian has been around since 1605 when it was founded by silver miners and has considerable colonial charm but they could definitely do with attending to some of the craters in the roads and pathways before they start losing tourists.

What we hadn’t accounted for when packing for the vacation was the 40°F drop between night and day 4,600 feet up in the mountains. It made for some chilly dinners on the terrace of Villa Nogal wrapped up under sheepskin rugs and blankets at the table and some even chillier breakfasts. Still, as we watched the sunset glowing golden on the Sierra Madre mountains, surrounded by flickering flames from the open fire pits as they caught the silver glitter on the Christmas deer in the garden, it was quite magical … and absolutely worth the loss of all sensation in our extremities! Anyone in the PV area in need of doing absolutely nothing for a couple of days (because unless you want to visit a coffee plantation or hike to Cerro de la Bufa for a view over the town, there really is absolutely nothing to do in San Sebastian!) they would do well to choose a sojourn at Villa Nogal with its immaculate, manicured garden and beautiful rustic, colonial rooms with a modern twist. It was well worth the visit even with the constantly faltering internet connection and frequent (albeit brief) power cuts plunging us into the inky blackness which you only experience in the mountains.

Time to warm up back at the coast for the remainder of the trip. I had booked into Avela, an adult-only “luxury” boutique hotel in Sayulita in the Riviera Nayarit. Although not luxury by any stretch of the imagination, the hotel would have been fine were it not for the other considerably younger clientele who treated the pool and spa like their very own party zone. It did, however, pretty much set the tone for our experience in the town itself. Once a small fishing village, Sayulita is now an utterly overcrowded, chaotic and largely unappealing town. It has some attractive and colorful buildings and the beach was far more attractive at 8am (when it was empty of anyone other than people clambering into fishing boats from the sand to visit the surrounding islands or watch whales) than at any other time of day. Even without COVID and the fact that nobody (neither the holidaying Mexican families nor the thousands of 20-somethings from the USA who had flocked to the town – it seemed – to get drunk and/or stoned) had any intention of wearing masks or attempting social distancing, this place was not for us. It was almost as if the visitors and residents were wearing their rebellion against masks as badges of honor. Quite astounding given that the town (which is entirely dependent on tourists) was closed by the authorities for the entirety of the summer in 2020 due to soaring COVID numbers and deaths after the deluge of tourists last spring in 2020. We did find one restaurant complying with the rest of the world and, even better, they heeded my request for a table outside as far away from other people as possible. The iconic and excellent Don Pedro’s had great food, good beach views (ignoring the millions of beach umbrellas) and good cocktails so we returned once more and sat at the same “isolated” table … perfect …

Aside from 2 positives which I mention below, we couldn’t wait to get out of the town and find somewhere less ghastly and overrun. We spent a happy morning with Orca Sayulita on Nero, a small fishing boat, bobbing about in the waves watching male humpback whales fighting over “the ladies” and “moms with newborns” which was fantastic. It’s been a bumper winter for humpbacks in the Bay of Banderas because it’s an El Nino year. Because the main beach in town is jam-packed with umbrellas, surfers and partygoers we followed the coastal path past Amor hotel and through the graveyard en route to Playa de Los Muertos which was slightly less crowded – but still not enough for us. So we continued uphill on the dirt track at the back of the beach and followed it for another 15/20 minutes or so into the jungle before we found a sign for the almost deserted Playa de Carricitos. It took some brief scrambling and clinging onto chain-link fence scrabbling downhill to access it but it was pristine and the only people on it were locals which is always a good sign!

The best of the Sayulita area (aside from the above) are well outside of the town. Fifteen minutes north from Sayulita is the small town of San Francisco (also known as San Pancho) where we spent the final 2 days reclining on socially-distanced sun loungers at Las Palmas bar and restaurant being plied with margaritas and tacos all day. San Pancho is far more laidback and relaxed so we were quite happy. With its massive expanse of relatively wild beach and (compared to Sayulita only the occasional whiff of marijuana) San Pancho was undoubtedly the high spot in the Riviera Nayarit for us. Breakfast at Kokonati cafe both mornings was excellent (their cakes and tarts were even better). We saw turtles hatching on the beach; I bought fresh coconut from the beach vendor and Geoff bought a Mexican blanket (that we will likely have no further use for) because he was complaining that his Floridian-thin blood was freezing in 70°F 😉; and we idly watched the huge wild waves crashing onshore – sufficiently distanced from other lifeforms to thoroughly relax for our final two days in Mexico.

Thirty minutes or so south of Sayulita back towards Puerto Vallarta is the fishing village of Bucerias. Bucerias beach was dotted with colorful bars and restaurants on the sand with barely any other tourists of note. We grabbed coffee in the garden at La Postal in the back streets of the village before Geoff flopped down for a massage at one of the tents on the sand with its white sheer curtains billowing in the breeze. I holed up at a beach bar waiting for him to join me for lunch at Sukha Beach House. The beach is serenely peaceful by comparison to Sayulita and, as I had absolutely nothing to do whilst waiting for Geoff, I watched the sweet and snack cart vendors trailing up and down the beach, a troop of horses galloping past on the sand and pigeons collecting twigs on the sand to build nests in the palapa roofs. We returned to Bucerias on our last morning for breakfast at El Cafe de Bucerias en route to the airport. It was worth a visit for the food and the hot chocolate but may be best avoided if you’re in a rush … particularly for instance, if you are in a rush to catch a flight 😉

COVID successfully avoided and another region of Mexico off the bucket list!

2 replies »

  1. Hi Jenni,

    Happy New Year to you both. I have just read your latest exploits and it looks like you had a great time. Glad you managed to keep clear of the nasties. We had a quiet Christmas with just a short visit Christmas Day from Richard and the family. They are very afraid of being near us as in their jobs they are dealing with lot of unknown people. They worry what they would bring to us. Still at least we saw the children open their presents.

    Any how, keep well and stay safe.

    Pauline. X


    • And to you too. Glad you at least got to see your family albeit briefly. We’re surprised with all of the traveling in 2020 that we’ve stayed out of trouble so successfully although we’ve been super cautious – despite getting on planes! Things can only get better!! Fingers crossed xxx



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