Mexico Style: Vamos a Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, y Yelapa
Let me tell you about a place baked in sun, soaked in humidity, and served with a shot of tequila. An unexpected flavor. Un lugar diverso (a place of diversity). Lovers sharing Frappucinos y besos under a blanket of air conditioning in a Starbucks on the square downtown. Surfers in bikinis and shorts carrying long boards balanced perfectly atop their heads. Men and women with fair skin, crisp shirts, and Canadian accents parading up and down the cobbled streets of La Zona Romántica. This place is home to many who love it with their full hearts. And as unexpected as the flavor may be, it is one worth tasting. So vamos y bienvenidos a Puerto Vallarta.
I was not supposed to visit Puerto Vallarta. At least not anytime in 2019. But this year has changed me. I say yes instead of maybe. I can worry about things in 2020 I tell myself. Pero ahora, it is time to live. Labor Day weekend has traditionally been a time for me to visit family in Northern California and wander the rugged coastline of Mendocino. This year however, my family was pulled in different directions. Up until a few days prior, I thought I would just have a quiet holiday to myself. But “quiet” is not on my agenda these days. After sharing some “beach beer” with a good friend in Venice, we both realized that our immediate futures would intertwine. She needed some adventure as well. A few drinks and a bag of Popchips later, our plan to visit Puerto Vallarta was born.
What a town. Remember how I said it had an unexpected flavor? I wasn’t talking about the carne asada or a roadside coconut. Puerto Vallarta is the closest thing to a mixing pot that I have seen in Mexico. Located on the southwestern tip of Mexico in the state of Jalisco, PV is known for being a “resort town.” As someone who stayed in budget hotels and a “sort of resort”, I am here to tell you a tale of the other side. Let’s start with the ocean because if you know me, you know I’d rather be swimming. This ain’t yo mama’s Pacific Ocean (unless your mom is from Puerto Vallarta LOL). With temperatures hitting highs of 87-88F in the late summer months, you can bet your bottom peso you do not need to bring a wetsuit with you in your suitcase. The city lies on a section of the Pacific referred to as La Bahía de Banderas (a giant protected bay with a coastline that stretches approximately 100km or 62 miles). Popular tourist beaches such as Playa Los Muertos are hubs where people can relax on the beach, buy local crafts, or catch one of countless water taxis to “hidden beaches” that cannot be reached via car or bus.
TRAVEL SAVY TIP: Dallas and Los Angeles are two of the major hubs for flights headed to Puerto Vallarta from the US. Expect to be routed through one of those if you cannot find a direct flight from your city.
LA ZONA ROMÁNTICA
Just south of PV proper is a section of the city referred to as La Zona Romántica “The Romantic Zone.” Little did I know when my friends booked a townhouse there for the week that I would be walking into “little West Hollywood.” If you aren’t familiar with the suburbs of Los Angeles, California, West Hollywood is home to a loud and proud population of LA’s gay community. The same can be said about La Zona Romántica. Openly gay couples walk the streets, entering and exiting tequila tasting shops and stores with rainbows flags taped to the windows. Another flag you will see throughout this area is the Canadian flag! Puerto Vallarta (and a small town just outside the city called Bucerías) is home to a large expat community of Canadians trying to ride out those long icy winters. I found it fascinating seeing local Mexican population communicating with the “Canadian locals.” Isn’t life wild?
If you would like recommendations on where to stay in this area, I cannot rave enough about Pinnacle Resorts. Traveling in the city’s low season for tourism (late August-September) meant that hotel prices were CHEAP. We snagged a 2-bedroom townhouse with a fully stocked kitchen, patio, two bathrooms, a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the entire city, and a bar with happy hour margaritas for a fraction of the cost of something similar in the states. This building is located on the southern end of La Zona Romaántica and is walking distance to countless restaurants, shops, and beaches.
Fair warning…this time of the year is not as popular for a reason. It is the rainy season. However, of the 7 days I was there, it rained heavily the first morning for about three hours and then nothing but blue skies with whimsical clouds. The storms tend to move in after 8PM and most rain will happen in the evening and early morning. For the price, I would risk it! Be a cool kid like me and bring water-friendly footwear (I used flip flops and my swimrun shoes the entire trip), a lightweight rain coat, and an emergency poncho to cover your belongings.
I learned from the “locals” (aka a gay couple from San Francisco who owned a condo in our building) that the better beaches for swimming and cleanliness are south of La Zona Romántica. Just a few kilometers down the coast was an area referred to as Conchas Chinas (Chinese Shells). This beach was breathtaking. Multiple sea coves with ornate rocks and inlets. You arrive at the beach by descending a steep cobblestone road lined with homes perched on either side. From there, you will take a semi demolished staircase down even further, passing an older couple in a covered stall selling bottles of water, cooked meat on skewers, and fresh fruit. At the bottom you can choose to walk a little or a lot to find the perfect nook to lay your towel down. I attempted an open water swim at this beach and was mostly successful. There seems to always be boat traffic to deal with in the Puerto Vallarta waters. It was an extra item to be aware of while swimming. That, and the barracuda that chased a school of fish into my face. I live to tell the tale.
PRO TIP FOR SWIMMERS: I would highly recommend hitting the water earlier in the day. I asked a local lifeguard what time he recommended and anytime between sunrise and 11AM is better for boat traffic. And in Mexico, I always recommend using a colorful swimming buoy for open water activities. It makes you much more visible.
YELAPA Y VALLARTA ADVENTURES
Yelapa is a small fishing village tucked away on the southern end of La Bahía de Banderas. You can only arrive in Yelapa by boat. It is a gorgeous place enveloped in jungle, with rivers and waterfalls like latticework against the thick foliage. If I could change one thing about my trip, I would have chosen to spend more time in Yelapa. It is by pure accident (I seem to say this a lot) that I came to Yelapa in the first place. My friends and I wanted to go snorkeling and found a local tour company called Vallarta Adventures that promised “hidden bitches” and snorkeling (the Spanish accent makes the word “beaches” a little naughtier). With less than 24hrs notice, we booked the tour headed towards Yelapa and Majahuitas. Who doesn’t love a good hidden bitch.
A rambunctious boat ride later with a crew of lively guides and an eclectic tourist group, we arrived at Yelapa. They led us through the small town comprised of brightly colored shacks, down a winding cobble stone path, and deep into the jungle cover. After a short walk of about five minutes, the group paused at a breathtaking waterfall with a wading pool. Obviously my clothes were off in mere seconds (I had a bathing suit on, take a breathe) and into the waterfall I went. I could have stayed there for hours, swimming and playing in the water. I feel like a piece of my heart is still there floating peacefully beneath the canopy. From here, we walked towards the river and back to the beach. The “hike” as they call it is not long, not very steep, and does require you to go THROUGH the river on foot. I was almost crotch deep, so shorter people prepare to get wet. The rest of the tour took us to a hidden bitc......beach called Majahuitas. Here were docked and were able to snorkel, paddle board, free dive, and ride a banana boat towed by a man who gave ZERO FUCKS about flinging the gringas into the ocean. Loved every second of that. This was by far the most touristy thing I have ever done but it was a unique and quirky way to see some rare gems of Jalisco.
Technically, Sayulita was the first city I visited upon landing at the Puerto Vallarta airport. But it was such a great experience, I saved it for the end. Sayulita is a well-known tourist destination in the state of Nayarit. It is more commonly referred to as a “surf town,” and you can see the city center flooded with beach go-ers and international visitors in all seasons. You can get to Sayulita by taxi, bus, or Uber. Yes, Uber. I used Uber so much to get around Mexico, I should have a platinum membership by now. The ride from the airport to Sayulita one-way was about $20 USD and takes around 50min depending on traffic. On your way to the town, you will pass through a small city called Bucerías (an area my Uber driver informed me was primarily populated by Canadian expats! Canada……are you telling us you are a little cold?)
One of the highlights of my visit to Sayulita was a little coffee shop & roastery called Another One Coffee Roasters. Nothing like an affogado on a crisp 91F afternoon. You can see local businesses like this all over; sharing art and an attention to craftsmanship that you might not find in Puerto Vallarta proper. Love you Sayulita.