Tag Archives: puerto vallarta

Too Many Rules

One of the things I’m reminded of when I travel south of the border is how rigid and sterile some aspects of life can be in the states. Last winter, returning from 10 days in Mexico, my first errand was to Target to restock the fridge. It struck me how antiseptic everything in the grocery area was, even some of the produce: portioned, pre-wrapped and entombed in plastic and styrofoam. All the cheese varieties I enjoyed sampling at the Rizo Market in Vallarta were now reduced to Kraft brand “cheddar” or “sharp cheddar,” held firm in perfect little shrink wrapped rectangles – while the only other fancy cheese option being an wallet busting trip to Whole Foods. Compare that a local market down south where you can pick and choose samples of all sorts – including this small block for under $3.

That’s not to say you can’t find locally grown fruits and veggies in the U.S., or that the similar big box processes aren’t found in a Mexican Super Walmart or Gigante, but coming from a local market where eggs are so fresh they don’t need to be refrigerated, it’s a change. If I’m staying somewhere for more than a couple nights I always prefer to rent an apartment or hostel with a kitchen – and make my first stop is to a local market. It’s cost effective, fun and doesn’t force you to eat every meal at a restaurant.

At local markets you notice the differences. Last fall in Argentina I saw box delivery truck with a fully stripped cow hanging by its legs in the back, stopped in front of a restaurant early morning. While it was surprising to see I realized and appreciated this meat was probably on a farm just days ago, and after being processed was now being delivered to butchers and restaurants, rather than being stripped down in a factory and hauled across the country on a refrigerated semi truck.

Meanwhile back in the states we have seven step placards on how to wash our hands.

In April I had just spent a week in and around Puerto Vallarta. (I somehow wound up going here three times in 11 months with different people.) I tip well and am not a high maintenance diner, but I do have one habit in restaurants: I like to pick where I sit. I certainly won’t hog a huge table for two people, but if I spot a quiet table back in the corner versus being seated in the center or middle of traffic flow I don’t hesitate to ask to me moved. Friends with server experience have told me this is annoying since they attempt to evenly spread patrons to each person’s section. That’s completely understandable, but if I’m spending my hard earned money on a nice dinner I want the best possible experience.

In Mexico, or in any local restaurant who’s appreciative of your business, should you say “That table looks perfect,” the host will usher you over, pull out your chair and say “Enjoy your meal.” A meal is an event, and it’s understood that the ambiance is part of that meal. That’s exactly what happens every time at the Espresso Ristorante, a favorite Italian place pictured above in Vallarta.

Jump back to my last return to the U.S., when in less than 20 minutes after clearing customs I was reminded of the glaring corporate lifestyle. We had a few hours to kill in Phoenix before connecting to our respective cities, and I walked us down to the Chili’s (US Airways terminal) to relax and have a beer.

My Mom wanted to sit on the faux “patio,” or the quiet area looking into the mall like terminal. I told the host we were going to grab the small table and an extra chair. “No No,” he said. “The two seat tables must remain only two so servers and patrons can pass through.” Understanding that, I told him the table was at the end of the aisle and there were no other customers in that area. He gave us a pained look, so not wanting to be “that guy” I acquiesced and followed him to a booth in the noisy interior, where I learned the names of toy dinosaurs from a rambunctious five year old on the other side of the half wall.

It certainly didn’t ruin my evening, or make me hate Chili’s, but abruptly transitioning from a relaxed less rigid atmosphere to an establishment governed by well meaning rules is a stark and noticeable contrast. While a schematic of rules and operational methods benefit the greater good of corporate continuity it often creates obstacles to simple enjoyment when applied in a non-logical manner…

I believe a good response to customer service is “If that makes you happy, doesn’t bother anyone else, we’ll be happy to oblige!” More companies should make their their mantra.

Yelapa . Mexico

While exploring the surrounds of Puerto Vallarta and nearby mountains we spent a day in Yelapa, a small village tucked inside a cove roughly 30 miles south of Vallarta. Yelapa is unique in that it’s a beach town, yet no roads lead to it and it’s only accessible by boat. The lack of “mainland” access gives the small hamlet an island feel, and for years has protected it against major development.

About 100 local families call Yelapa home, with an additional group of U.S. and Canadian regulars during the high season. Yelapa’s “streets,” consist of winding narrow trails leading into the hills and a forming a maze of paths in town with cafes, small markets and tiendas closer to the shoreline.

Although it wasn’t necessary we reserved space on a water taxi the day before. These small boats seat about 20 people and leave every 30 minutes in the mornings and afternoons from Los Muertos pier, making the trip in about 40 minutes. The ride provides stellar views of Vallarta, Mismaloya and the Sierra Madre mountains behind Bahia de Banderas. Arriving Yelapa there are three stations in the small bay – the north dock which is mainly residential, the beach club in the center and the dock in the main village. We weren’t sure where to exit, so we hopped off at the beach and walked about 15 minutes into town via the hillside.

After finding our way back down to shore thanks some kids’ directions we ended up at one of the few open restaurants, “Cafe Bahia” directly in front of the dock where we had a wonderful breakfast of eggs benedict, black beans, corn tortillas and coffee.

An unexpected sight: When we found our way back to the shore we saw this enormous James Bond style yacht was suddenly parked in the bay. While impressive to see in person it’s quite ostentatious and out of place among the small boats and canoes in the small bay. I was told the owners harbor it along the coast a few days of the week to save on fees associated with docking in Puerto Vallarta. (Meanwhile a staff of at least 15 was milling about to make sure the likes of me didn’t sneak aboard for closer look.) Caste issues aside the helicopter was pretty damn cool.

A short walk up the Yelapa River is a cascade and pond, and a two hour hike further I’m told is a spectacular waterfall which is well worth the walk. Our feet needed a break so we chartered a horse and mule. I’m not exactly a skilled equestrian and my horse wandered off a different path before stopping and sticking his entire head into a local convenience store. We paid the gentleman 200 pesos each, (about $18,) to guide us and borrow his friend’s horses. This was way overpriced for such a short excursion but knowing our tourist dollars go directly into local hands makes it very well worth it. Later on I asked the same guy where can I could rent a sea kayak, and he pointed to the beach and said, “Sure you can take mine there that my kids are in.” and summoned his two youngsters into shore.

Above left: One of the small “streets.” Right: One of the fancier houses.

The village isn’t visually perfect. There are unfinished homes and foundations scattered about, and hoses are strung through trees and over the paths delivering water to homes without plumbing. You won’t find any five star resorts here, but from reviewing the local list of rentals I think I’d have no problem spending more time in this unconnected and relaxed hideaway.

To reach Yelapa from Puerto Vallarta: Visit the Los Muertos pier in the old town south of the Rio Cuale. Several water taxi operators are consolidated in one stand, and a round trip ticket is $25. Some of the resorts in Puerto Vallarta, like the Lindo Mar Resort, offer day trips to Yelapa to their guests or will at least provide discounted rates and shuttle services to the water taxi stations.

A cheaper alternative – take any city bus south on Highway 200 past Mismaloya to Boca de Tomatlan. Water taxis run more frequently between Boca and Yelapa, and are cheaper than from Vallarta.

Yelapa.info has plenty of details.

Several places rent rooms and apartments. Yelapa.info is an excellent one stop resource for lodging.

We saw campers on the beach, and along the river leading up to the small waterfall.

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Canopy Tour . Puerto Vallarta

I’ve wanted to do a canopy tour, or zip line ride, for some time.   The concept is simple: You get strapped into a multiple point harness, latch a handheld wheel onto cables strung between trees and platforms, then fly over or through the treetops for a birds eye view of the land.

I’ve seen ads for them during past trips to the Yucatan Peninsula, but although the Yucatan jungle is beautiful I never found zip-lining appealing due to the flat landscape. I’ve seen photos of zip liners in Costa Rica and it looked like a fun adventure. So when in Puerto Vallarta Mexica recently I decided to give it a shot. Puerto Vallarta sits snug up against the lush Sierra Madre mountains making for some scenery in addition to the adrenaline rush.

Several companies offer the tours. Actually with the number of vendors plying for your business it seems like several thousand companies. The couple managing the condo we stayed at recommended “Los Veranos.” Their office is next to the Pemex Station, just up the hill from old town Puerto Vallarta. We hopped on their small bus and 20 minutes later after a ride down the rugged coast overlooking the bay we were in the village of Mismaloya.

Upon arrival we stowed our valuables, (so they wouldn’t fall out of pockets and plummet to the forest below,) and gathered around to watch a primer and safety demo on how exactly to zip-line. It’s quite simply and extremely safe. Our professional guides were energetic 20somethings who made everyone feel welcome. After a demonstration using one of the kids in our group we proceeded and and I had no qualms whatsoever.

Our first few runs were under the trees. Eventually we hiked higher and above the treetops making some long “zips” a few hundred feet above the valley and river. A few short walks were required allowing us to pause a bit and take in the surroundings. When the group periodically assembled on a platform or ledge our guides pointed out local such as a coffee bean native to that Mexican region.

I can’t say it was the most phenomenally thrilling activity I’ve ever done. I’m not scared of heights, so I got a little bored mid way just sliding back and forth. But the last few lines are a few hundred feet over a river – which provides a stellar view of the mountains and valleys.

While I probably won’t do another zip line tour is was an enjoyable day, and I was able to cross it off my travel “to-do” list. Since this trip was just sitting on the beach with friends it was an excellent time to do something underwhelming, rather than have it eat up a day somewhere more exotic like Costa Rica or someplace.

Here’s some additional photos if considering such an adventure. It’s great for the kids too and the ones in our group had a great time. If in Puerto Vallarta I’d recommend Los Veranos as well.

Dispatch from Mexico: A Local’s View on Swine Flu and the Media

In March I visited Puerto Vallarta for a few days.  My friends stayed at the Hotel Mercurio, a small hotel in the heart Puerto Vallarta’s old town.   I stayed at a nearby condo because I wanted a kitchen, but since I exchanged a few emails with the Mercurio I wound up on their email list.  Although I didn’t stay there I enjoyed their pool/bar with friends.

I received this email today from manager Paul Christ.  I’m posting his correspondence below because I think it’s important to hear an alternative to the mainstream barrage of pig flu “news.”    The non-stop coverage may have fallen since last week, but unfortunately the economic damage has been crushing.   There are thousands of people like Paul who own businesses or rely on tourism dollars, a great percentage of it from Americans.

Whether or not you agree with the technical aspects of his note I think it’s very well worded and worth reading.  He also references this biting editorial from Alternet, which provides some less heard opinions too.

In light of the current international fixation on the spread of the Type A virus, H1N1, I have decided that it is time to communicate a few facts to friends of Hotel Mercurio. We have, like all hotels and businesses in Puerto Vallarta, been hit with a rash of cancellations in the past week. New reservations are almost non-existent. The situation is dire. We are struggling to avoid layoffs. If you’ve stayed with us, you know that our employees are a family, and we are responsible for their well being. And while we understand the abundance of caution, it is also important to us that you know the real situation regarding the flu in Puerto Vallarta.

Just as the U.S. media has done with regard to border area violence, they have painted Mexico with one broad brush. It seems incredible to those of us in Mexico that the U.S. seems so oblivious to the immense size and diversity of Mexico. All the major TV media outlets depict Mexico as a uniformly dangerous, violent place, source of illegal and undesirable immigrants, and which is now “plagued by contagious disease.”   The fact is, most of Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta, is peaceful, safe, and healthy. The violence is over 1,000 mile away. Puerto Vallarta has a lower crime rate than MANY U.S. cities…perhaps even yours! The nearest case of H1N1 virus is some 600 miles away.

To CNN and other 24/7 news outlets, we say this: Please check your map. Mexico is somewhat larger than Rhode Island, and Mexicans resent being depicted generally as gangsters, victims, or dying of illness.  U.S. media treatment of Mexico is neither accurate nor fair.
So, here are some facts.

There have been no confirmed or even suspected cases of H1N1 flu in Puerto Vallarta. In fact, there have been no cases in the state of Jalisco (which includes Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico), where Vallarta is located. If you live in a U.S. state or city where H1N1 has been confirmed, you are more at risk of contracting the virus at your local grocery store than you are in Puerto Vallarta. But even going to your grocery store, your major risk would be an auto accident on the way… not catching a case of the Swine Flu.

The Secretary of Health for Mexico has announced that the number of cases in Mexico generally, is beginning to decline. This is in keeping with epidemiological models that predict the rise and decline of contagions based on a number of factors such as the season, general health of a population, population density, etc. Thus, it’s no surprise that this is turning out to be much less of an “event” than the U.S. media has made it out to be during the past week.

There is, to date, no scientific evidence that the behavior of this particular strain of flu is any different from normal, seasonal flu virus. It seems no more contagious, and does not seem to have a higher mortality rate than normal, seasonal flu (which may kill over 30,000 people per year, but this doesn’t make the news!).

All the aforementioned being said, the response of the Mexican government has been both rapid, and admirable. Not because there was any certainty that this could become a vast and deadly pandemic, but out of an abundance of caution. The most recent indications are that, in Mexico, the worst is over, and it wasn’t nearly the big deal that the media made it out to be. Bars and clubs that were ordered closed in Puerto Vallarta are re-opening today. Schools will be opening this week. It is time to get back to normal (because, in fact, nothing abnormal has occurred).

Most of the public does not understand the scientific community’s use of the term “pandemic.” It does not refer to the deadliness of an outbreak of illness. It means merely that the outbreak is spread across multiple countries, and is spread from human to human, thus has the potential for many cases to develop. The fact is, we have a number of pandemics of flu every flu season, but it doesn’t become the #1 item on CNN round the clock for weeks on end.

The airlines are not refunding, but are allowing re-scheduling. We feel no obligation to offer more than the airlines are offering. This is particularly the case given the utterly unfounded fears that have become rampant this past week. This situation is not YOUR fault, but it isn’t OUR fault, either. If anyone might be blamed, it seems the MEDIA is responsible here.

So, if you have vacation plans for Puerto Vallarta, we simply ask you to look beyond the hype, and come to enjoy our beaches, our friendly people, our vibrant nightlife, our endless variety of gastronomic delights, and the natural beauty of our area.

We’re here to serve you, and look forward to your visit!
Paul Crist and the entire team at Hotel Mercurio

Best Food Cart Ever

I headed down to Puerto Vallarta last Thursday morning, escaping just one hour in front of a wet and heavy Colorado spring snow.  It was a very fortunate morning, as I had expected to arrive very late or not even arrive Thursday at all.

I didn’t partake in anything of cultural or social significance during my stay, which makes it difficult to write a travel blog about local flavor and culture.  However even though Puerto Vallarta is a tourist destination with its time share hucksters and beachfront highrises, the contrasting Zona Romantica neighborhood, south of the Rio Cuale, is a beautiful old area and the ONLY place I’d recommend for establishing a base in town.   This being the gay friendly part of the most gay friendly town in Mexico it’s not surprising it’s the best area.   There are a few bars on Calle Olas Altas (tall waves,) luring in packs middle of age couples with mutiple tequila shots and Mexicans belting out La Bamba, (probably while rolling their eyes,) but overall this area is far more subdued – and I really did enjoy it.

There were  of course tourists, (like me,) however we met a lot of guys vacationing from Guadalajara and Mexico City, along with many expats living or working there.  It was definitely not the rowdy spring break crowd in this older part of Puerto Vallarta.

In addition sitting on the beach with friends I spent time wandering the neighborhoods hugging the steep hills, visiting the markets, taking pictures of tile, and practicing my Spanish with locals.    And I got another haircut.   This baffled my friends, however I explained that at a Peluqueria, (salon or barber,) I pay $7 which includes a substantial tip.  At Floyds here in Denver I pay $24 with tip.  Hence I sometimes time my haircuts to occur when visiting countries where the dollar is strong.

This was my friend’s first time in Mexico.  He’s from Bulgaria, so he made a point of telling the local guys he wasn’t American.  His boss and family had warned him of the insanity and lawlessness in Mexico – which he was laughing about by his third day there. I haven’t read the official travel warnings, but you’d have to try really hard to find yourself in trouble here.

On the subject of unnecessary fear, one of them has to do with food stands like these.  Many folks with your best interest in mind advise to remain as far from them as possible.  They’re completely wrong.  LOCAL stands are fresh with a wide selection of eats, very filling, and extremely inexpensive. You can portion together a full meal for few dollars, so it’s a good way to keep your budget in check.

I might abstain from mobile vendors in tourist areas or along the beach, as they fill a one time hunger need and don’t rely on return business. However places like these are staples of the community, and when you encounter one like this it can be well worth it.  Locals that serve their friends and neighbors do not gamble cooking an inferior product and aim to keep their repeat business.

These ladies were here working late nights til 3am serving young people taking a break from the clubs, police officers on the beat, and nearby restaurant staff getting off from work.    Check out the big bulbs of onion in the lower left.  We returned to this place two times more and were amazed at how great a meal it was for under $2 US.   And we got to sit on the block and eat with the locals.

If this crew set up shop in LoDo I’d imagine the line at 1:30am would be to Brighton.

Unrelated: This house next to the condo I rented is for sale. It’s perched on a hill and has a great view of the town and ocean. If I weren’t such a city person it would be very tempting – that is provided my boss and coworkers would allow me to work from “home.”