Printed in the Vail Daily February 1, 2009
Searching For The Authentic Mexico
It has been 40 years since I first camped on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Mismaloya Cove of Night of the Iguana fame, was little more than a lovely beach with exceptionally clean water, palapas and a small restaurant. The movie set with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s house lay deserted and crumbling on the point.
Now, the picturesque cove is another resort hotel like the untold numbers which have sprung up over the years. The formerly tranquil Puerto Vallarta long ago joined the ranks of all-to-popular beach destinations.
This is my third visit over the ensuing years. The growth is staggering. Yolanda and I made reservations on-line for two nights at a four star hotel north of the city in Nueva Vallarta, the most recent area of development.
At a reasonable $100 per night, the Villas del Palmar was well worth the price. Situated on a narrow beach with a lovely view north to Punta Mita, it delivers on it’s promised resort experience. Three beautifully landscaped, saltwater pools cascade one into another surrounded by palm trees and lounge chairs.
Come to find out, this is a timeshare or whatever they call them now. Enticed into their presentation with the promise of free transportation, breakfast and a dinner, or maybe it was the free bottle of Tequila, we endure the relatively soft-sell seventy-five minutes, getting away with bank account intact.
We take a rickety bus into Puerto Vallarta and find the city dirty and over run with tourist traps. For some reason I can never understand, Mexicans throw trash where ever they feel like it.
Dinner was at La Vitea, an outdoor restaurant. A soft, warm breeze plays across the paseo. Conversations of promenading locals and tourists are punctuated by the gentle sounds of rolling surf. For under $30 including a glass of wine and a beer, Yolanda and I share a generous salad, delicious crab cannelonis and an excellent linguini with large shrimp in a rich, flavorful saffron sauce. No need to buy the large portion, the smaller portions, costing a third less, are sufficient.
Two buses are required to get back to Nuevo Vallarta. The brakes on the first rattletrap make a long, deafening, metallic groan that vibrates through my spine every time they are applied. The second bus, much nicer, takes us on a long, winding tour through the sprawling resort of Nuevo Vallarta.
I am blown away by the development. Guarded gates shield the residents from the populace. Marinas, golf courses, high-rise condos and mega-resorts go on for miles. Though beautiful and impressive, this is not the Mexico we came to experience.
After two nights of luxury, we board a first-class bus for the twelve hour trip to San Miguel de Allende and a hoped for taste of authentic Mexico. We share the trip with two friendly couples from Michigan. Bonded by the long, long trip together, we become fast friends and enjoy many wonderful meals with them in San Miguel.
The road to Guadalajara, our first stop, rises quickly through a dense, tropical landscape. Enormous, flowering trees compete with palms and lush foliage for light. Colorful birds flit amidst the canopy, startled by our passing. Even now, during the dry season, the beauty is lustrous.
An hour takes us to the vast central plateau. For the next four and a half hours we move eastward through a landscape of verdant hills, lush valleys, small, dusty towns and agave-filled fields. Mountains rise to meet the sky. It’s been forty years since first driving this road and none of it is familiar.
Guadalajara’s sprawling, unattractive suburbs meet us far from the city center. The bus deposits us at a terminal somewhere among the low bare brick and cracked stucco houses to wait the hour for our connection to San Miguel.
The last five and a half hours prove less interesting. The is landscape drier and flatter, with large expanses of huge Nopales, a beavertail-type cactus used in cooking and salads.
We pass slowly through the crowded streets of Leon, a crowded industrial city. After the sun sets, the outskirts of Guanajuato appear through the windows. In the dark we make our way on a two lane road through low mountains, held up briefly by the aftermath of a horrific head on collision.
The lovely lights of what I suspect to be San Miguel de Allende appear in the plain below. Exactly twelve long hours after we begin, we arrive. For thirty pesos, about three dollars, a taxi takes us to Casa Crayola, a small, eclectic grouping of colorful casitas and rooms surrounding a lovely garden. Already, I sense a change in atmosphere and attitude, a pride of place with deep cultural roots, a tranquility born in confidence, knowing that your town is among the best places on earth.