Once upon a time in Mexico

7:30am mid January I sit in my window seat on a tarmac in Toronto already a half hour behind the scheduled takeoff-  thankful for the decision to just do carry on; as my layover in O’Hare was now much shorter.

I’m never drawn to an “organized” vacation. I enjoy getting off the beaten path and enjoy new experiences and adventures.  I’ve found backcountry camping more relaxing than a crowded all-inclusive resort with pool.

A good friend of mine, Steve, spends several months a year in Puerto Vallarta Mexico and always told me to come visit. For the longest time I  would never give it much thought. That is until this January when  he finally convinced me to go with the promise of uncrowded beaches and a non-tourist experience. I was skeptical.

My portage between terminals in Chicago went off without a hitch and I was now on a 737 enroute to Mexico. Excitement grew as the ground 30000 feet below changed colour to brown, then to farmland, then mountainous terrain turned to forest. We began our descent and I forgot to change into shorts.

 

Customs was a breeze and I made my way through the terminal to meet up with Steve and his friend Andrea. After quick introductions we were on our way to the convenience store to grab some travellers (beers) for the bus ride to Steve's place in Bucerias.

Once you get the hang of it, bus routes are easy to navigate and it's a cheap way to get around. They have the locations they stop at painted on the windshield. A great tip is never sit at the back of the bus as most have terrible shocks. Our stop in Bucerias is about a 30 minute ride north of Puerto Vallarta.

Steve rents a 2 bedroom condo about a block from the beach, and about a half block from The Barchelata Beer Bar- a great spot to relax from a day of travel. From there I gained a second wind and we walked down the near deserted beach to Breakers bar and then ended the day with some great live music at Jax’s Bar.

 

Day 2 started with an unreasonable hangover. Fortunately Andrea made a pharmacy run and a couple Advil and some crazy electrolyte beverage later, I was ready to go. A short walk from Steve's place is a restaurant/jazz bar known as Jazzy Restaurant. I had the Shrimp and Gouda Omelette with Chilaquiles (tortilla chips and a spicy tomato sauce). I wish I could remember the server's name as he was truly a professional and seemed to genuinely care about your experience.

Around noon we met up with Andy’s (Andrea) friend Rebecca and drove to a fish market at the harbour in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle where we grabbed 2 kilos of the freshest tuna, mussels, shrimp, and clams for about 450pesos. From there it was off to Buzzo’s Restaurant where we had Balazo’s; a snail in a shot glass of clamato, soy sauce, lime juice, chilli powder and I think worcheshire sauce. Apparently it doesn't necessarily have to be a snail, sometimes it's eel etc (I think they just wanted to see my reaction- it was tasty). A few more pints were had and then a short walk down the beach to home.

 

The third day started a bit slow and we were at the surf school ( www.mictlansurf.com )  in Punta de Mita by around 10am. We weren't going surfing although the weather and surf were perfect. These guys were taking us to check out Marieta Island, specifically some secret beach which wikipedia says was created by a bomb, and was only accessible from a cave carved through the volcanic rock by the ocean.( marieta island )

We got sized up for some flippers and made our way to a very crowded dock. David, our captain, managed to get the boat out with little effort. It was about a 15 minute ride to the island in high surf. Edgar, our guide, seemed a bit concerned about the tide, and upon arriving at the entrance, I understood his concern- i didn't see the entrance. Andy was also worried as she had been there before; in fact she used to climb the rocks at the islands before they were a protected site. She pointed out the entrance location and explained that you would normally see the whole cave/tunnel leading to the beach as well as view the beach itself. Currently only the top few feet of the cave was visible between swells. Steve and I briefly discussed the option of backing out and I gave a quick look to Edgar, who simply replied “if we go it will be an adventure, but we need to go now”. I looked to Steve to get his weigh in on Edgars comment, but he had already jumped out of the boat.

Edgar, Andy, and I joined Steve in the water and we made our way through the waves and towards the entrance, which was only visible now between the waves. Edgar had explained to us that he would take us through one at a time. Steve was first and he and Edgar disappeared into the cave between swells. The excess air in the cave seemed to be forced out at each swell only adding to the apprehension about the whole experience.  Edgar reappeared and it was now my turn. He timed the swells and we entered the cave, waiting for the sea to rise and the air pocket to keep us safe before continuing to the next part of the cave at which point he said swim like mad and before I knew it, I was on the beach.

We only had about 10 minutes at the beach, but we had it to ourselves. On a normal day at low tide the tour companies will amass on the site and there would be wall to wall people in the small space. It was truly a spectacular site and we earned the ownership of the sand, albeit brief, as the tide was still rising.  We left the same way we came in, except this time we fought against the pounding waves and current through the cave and back to the boat. The rest of our time was spent looking for whales that spend their winters in the bay.

 

Back to old town day four. A 30 minute ride from bucerias to Las Glorias  then another quick ride to the heart of old town we sat at Freddy's with a coffee waiting for Andy. She was on her way with climbing gear. After she arrived we had a great breakfast and headed for a bus that would take us to one of Andy’s climbing spots at the ocean. She asked the driver to stop at what appeared to be a random spot along the oceanside road and we made our way to the cliff face. Fun tip: watch what trees you touch, some have tiny hairs on their bark, like a stinging nettle.

Andy, our instructor, is a 3 time national climbing champion, and Pan-Am top three. Steve is a firefighter and has a trust in the ropes and knows the art of belaying and rappelling.I have been on a climbing wall once and really don't remember it. Before I knew it, I was in a harness and making my way up the first part of the ascent. I was out of my league but eager...until I had to transition from one angle to another. Frustrated I descended and it was Steve's turn. He hit the same wall as I did so Andy added another carabiner for us to grab on our way through. It worked and with a renewed motivation both of us earned the view from the top. Climbing was done and the tide was invading our belaying rock. Andy began her climb to grab the carabiners and was up about 40 feet when I yelled to her to hold tight as a large wave approached. I was tied in and braced for the wave. It hit and knocked our gear amongst the rocks. Steve went to retrieve as an even larger wave followed. I had enough time to yell to Steve, who had already seen the approaching wave and began to brace. Seconds stopped as i lost steve under the wave, myself crashing into the rock face. I was tied in - technically to Andy 40 feet above. Steve resurfaced with a huge grin on his face and commented “that was close”.  We joined with Andy at top, sorted the gear, and made our way back to the bus stop.

After dropping off our gear at Andy's, we had the intention of going to check out old town while Andy had her weekly training in the afternoon- she’s also part of a racing team and every Thursday you can see the team train on a sailboat called Dread Nought  (its the one with the pink sail), theres a great article I found here: http://virtualvallarta.com/puertovallarta/read/readtoursandactivities/Vallarta-Women-Sailor-Team.shtml . Andy received a quick text and informed us that we could come too. Sore from climbing and ready for a pint, we quickly said yes, beer can wait and I’d never been sailing.

 

My idea on a sport I’d never really taken the time to watch has dramatically changed forever. The deck is filled with ropes and pulleys in constant movement, ready to deliver a great burn or pinch, the boom (the part of the sail that always knocks a person off a boat you see in the movies) is willing to take you for a ride or provide a concussion, and what they call the pennine press; a series of block and tackle and rope that moves the boom and the sail, is ready to live up to its nickname. Steve and I were given the job of weight and “grinders”. A seemingly simple job of operating on the winch crew that -when not winching- hurls as much of oneself over whatever side of the boat needs counterweight. It seemed like consistent organized chaos to me, a sport that involves teamwork and communication, which was, understandably, mostly in spanish (on my list of things to learn). It was an incredible experience that I continue to be thankful to have been part of.

After several pints at a marina bar with the team, we made our way back to Andy’s place. Andy’s daughter, Dani, suggested we stop for some local cuisine and made us promise that we couldn't inquire about the meal until after we ate it. We agreed. I’ve always been a bit guarded by street venders, but the soft shell tacos were amazing and eating cow's head didn't really bother me ( I was pretty hungry). It was getting late and we really weren't feeling like the hour long bus back to Steve's, so we stayed at Andy’s. I slept under the stars on the roof in a hammock. Oddly enough the sounds of a new city and country didn't keep me up.

 

The rest of the trip was equally as great. Each day we’d all try to get to a beach to watch the sun set. We did a pub crawl down the boardwalk through the old town.I slept on the roof again. We met up with Andy’s friend at his hotel (Oasis Hostel) and had some drinks on the roof. Andy showed us some great dishes and recipes (check out a couple here: http://quickescapes.ca/trips/taste-mexico ) and we made salsa for an amazing pig roast in Bucerias. Im hoping Steve and Andy will write for our blog, so I won't write anymore about it. Mexico is a great country. The food is spectacular and the people are friendly. The land and seascapes are endless and you really can't beat the weather (in the dry season anyway).

I really have to thank Steve for his hospitality and Andy for sharing her city with us. I managed to get off the beaten path, meet some really awesome people, and reset my brain for the year ahead. If I can go climbing in the morning and sailing in an afternoon in one day in Mexico, then I should be able to maximise my days off in Canada. It's about achieving the work life balance, quick escapes from mundane. Now to find a climbing gym in the city.