Puerto Vallarta, Mexico: “Donde esta casa de cervezas?”
Amy and I decided to blow five vacation days in Mexico this year. We stayed at the Sierra Plaza Golf Resort in Marina Vallarta, about five minutes from “old downtown” Vallarta. It is a splendid five-star place with all the charm and Mexican tiling anyone could hope for. Like all good resorts, the help were helpful, the rooms were roomy and the bar was swim-up.
We had a 2-bath villa that included a private pool in the backyard (hello!), a whirlpool for two, a covered patio and a balcony. The TV reception was limited to about six stations all playing reruns of The Simpson’s in Spanish. That was entertaining enough until we realized we got HBO, Cinemax and even Showtime, too!
It is primarily a golf resort (being surrounded by one of only two courses in the area), still, we spent the bulk of our lounging at the main pool complete with the obligatory thatch-roof-covered swim-up bar. (Golf is too much like work.) While we were there, we had the dubious honor of having a film crew shooting scenes for a Mexican soap opera to air on Telemundo. (We may have inadvertently been extras in the production, so the next time you’re out of work watching daytime Mexican TV, look for us in the background eating in the resort restaurant.) Speaking of the restaurant, it was actually quite good. Meals that would have set us back US$60 at least, only cost about half that. Yet, we felt like we would’ve been missing something if we’d just stayed at the resort (like Montezuma’s Revenge, for example), so we hopped on one of PV’s frighteningly loud buses and bounced roughly into “Centro” (“Downtown,” for you gringos).
Our trip to Mexico was a joyous experience filled with sun, fun and inexpensive Tequila shooters—everything you need for a good vacation.
The town of Puerto Vallarta (forever immortalized by the actor/actress career graveyard known as “The Love Boat”) is small, easy to navigate and Gringo-friendly. The rampant poverty I experienced on the streets of Acapulco was noticeably absent here. (Occasionally, we encountered children making a half-assed attempt to sell touristas Chicklettes, but you could tell their hearts weren’t in it.)
The main drag through Centro, runs in one direction along the “Malecon”, which means roughly “boardwalk where the endless blue ocean meets tacky souvenir shops”.
On the right, you have a wide sidewalk dotted with palm trees, white park benches and a thin strip of sea shells that passes for the beach. Walking on the left side, you’ll stroll past small “farmacias”, shops, jewelry stores, boutiques and every damn chain restaurant known to man. Well, not every one, but there’s a Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, McDonalds, and even a Hooters (shouldn’t it be called “Chichis”?). There’s even a restaurant that we’d never heard of but figured was the Mexican rip-off of the chain concept called Carlos OBriens. (After a few Tequilas I’ll bet that seemed very funny.)
South of Hooters, at the end of the Malecon, there is a small island created by a shallow river dumping unregulated toxic waste into the Pacific. Palm-covered sidewalks and quasi-expensive restaurants take up most of the real estate on this one-horse island. It is considered the Romantic Zone and if the locals weren’t too exhausted from the blistering heat to have the energy to commit crimes, this would be the perfect place for it. But fortunately, there isn’t.
Travel further south, and you’d hit the beach Mismaloya, where John Houston shot the movie, Night of the Iguana, (a black and white talkie starring people you’d vaguely remember from when your remote control was acting up and accidentally left you on the Turner Classic Movie channel before you corrected it). For that inestimable feat, they’ve erected a statue to the man. (For what exactly, I’m not sure. Despoiling the town? Bringing fast food chain restaurants to the beaches? Who knows.)
We ate at a number of very good restaurants recommended by Fodors. The US dollar is still kicking the bejeebers out of the Mexican Peso to the exchanging tune of 1:9.4 or so. Thanks to that economic gift horse you can eat like one at the swankiest place in town and still walk out with almost as much money as you walked in with. I had a particularly nice Filet Mignon for $112.00 pesos (US$11.20)! Unbelievable. We felt so guilty about it, we over tipped. (Hey, maybe that was the idea all along…) If you’re going, we’d recommend Le Bistro, Chez Elena and Chef Roger.
NOTE: As for the don’t-drink-the-water issue, locals are proud to point out that their newly installed water filtration plant has made the area water safe for tourista’s for all five years of its existence, a fact we could corroborate because we didn’t get Monty’s Revenge. Well, not until we got home anyway.
One of the nights (they all blur together), Amy and I ventured into the Romantic Zone and proceeded to romance several Margaritas until they wouldn’t even respect Ed MacMahon in the morning. While basking in the inner glow of ethanol, I fired up the cigar I had purchased in a small tobacco shop along the Malecon. It was a Cohiba—a pretty decent Cuban cigar you can buy easily in any country besides ours because of that whole Castro embargo thing. In Mexico, it cost around US$12 and was fairly nice, although not as nice as the free one I bummed off a venture capitalist in Tampa (the “free” part may have been what made it better). Still, it was balmy out, a small husband and wife jazz duo was butchering…er, performing “Girl From Ipanema” and so I was blissful. Or at least, that’s what people who remember told me the next day.
I rarely smoke cigars. In fact, the only reason I ever tried one in the first place was because I found out you don’t inhale them (a real plus for an avid nonsmoker like me). And after the Cuban I had in Tampa, I rarely smoke anything EXCEPT Cuban cigars (the difference is, to be honest, quite startling.) That also helps keep my “tar” input low. Ultimately, even really good cigars have the same effect on me as do bad ones. They make me feel like crap the next day. And on this particular night, we had to take a boat tour the next day. Suffice to say, I did not enjoy the trip. In fact, I spent most of the ride in perpetual hand me a bucket mode. See kids? Smoking really is bad for your health.
We sailed an hour out to the mouth of Banderas Bay (Bay of Flags) where a tiny volcanic island sat covered almost entirely in bird excrement— something they failed to mention in the brochure. Hmmmm.
It’s a sanctuary for birds, although with two inches of caa-caa coverage, I doubt there are many humans eager to picnic there. After Amy did some snorkeling (I passed on this opportunity as I didn’t want to lose my lunch into a rent-a-snorkel), we proceeded to one of the small, crappy psuedo-beaches sprinkled infrequently along the bay. Amy and I stayed aboard while everyone else went ashore. As a result, we didn’t have the chance to step on any stingrays or cut our feet open on volcanic rocks like the rest of the group. Likewise, we missed out on the hurl-inducing dinghy ride over. Maybe next time.
Unfortunately, while we lay prone on the upper deck of our party boat, Amy and I were pelted mercilessly with UVA and UVB rays. We had to go buy the jumbo bottle of Aloe to stem the resulting pain. Being from Mediterranean stock, Amy’s burned skin took on a deep, luxurious tan color later that day. I, who had doused myself in SPF and was virtually untouched by the sun, still managed to peel like a snake for the next four days.
I’d recovered from the boat ride and Cohiba by the next day, so we took a tour on a nice shiny air-conditioned bus to the inner-continent, specifically the town of Tequila, outside Guadalajara. The arduous, two-hour bus trip up through the mountains went quickly as our tour guide regaled us with go-nowhere stories, pointless observations and factually dubious historical anecdotes. Fortunately, there was no shortage of “el banos” breaks.
Our first stop on the tour was the now-cooled sputum from one of Mexico’s inactive volcanoes. We hiked up a small hill devoid of any usable, man-made steps to a rickety, metal pipe tower that overlooked literally miles of jagged, black volcanic rock(see below). Too bad the world runs on the gold standard instead of the black volcanic rock standard.
Our second stop was the ruins of a Christian temple dating back to the age of Piling Big Rocks On Top of Other Big Rocks.
The structures—or rather what remained of their foundations anyway—were said to be constructed facing true north to exacting standards, although coming from Mexicans, that’s like saying a sitcom was produced to the exacting standards of Public Access television. It was hard to tell what was ruins and what was just as shabbily constructed more recently. (Mexico is rife with half finished buildings. They’re not in the process of being built, they just up and stopped building it.)
Our third stop was the Sauza Tequila distillery in the town named after it. Tequila, not Sauza. Here, we learned why Mexican building standards are so lax. The distillery has been around since 1836, mere moments after tequila was first discovered no doubt. As legend has it, a lightning bolt from the gods struck a blue agave plant and cooked the juices inside. Indians, being Indians and apparently crazy from the heat, decided to lick the juices of the plant. And the rest is Alcoholic’s Anonymous history.
The Blue Agave plant is a member of the cactus family despite its uncactus-like appearance (see above). Rather than the cactus you usually imagine—bulbous with thorny spines jutting out from all surfaces, or the kind Wile E. Coyote hid behind while trying to capture the Roadrunner—the Blue Agave grows just below the surface like a radish and puts up a splaying of pointy razor-sharp leaves. Like other members of the cacti family, it thrives just fine thank you in the 90 degree heat on very little water. (I later found that being a cactus farmer involves more work than just planting it and then leaving.) Once the plant has grown for 8 years, it’s dug up, trimmed and sent to the processing plant for de-juicing. (They banned the traditional licking part of the process in the late 1970’s.)
I hesitate to hazard a theory as to why the Mexican people are so poor by US standards, but on first blush I would have to point to the sky. Arcing its way across is a blazing ball of fusion and full-on melanoma machine. It’s a blessing for agricultural unless you happen to work in that field. Or, rather, out in them. It takes a worker maybe two minutes to dig up and prep one plant for processing. Each plant holds about twenty liters of tequila. And each worker gets paid US$4.30 per 1000 liters. Do the math. Now remember that the next time you think your job sucks.
All in all, Mexico is a swell place. The weather is beautiful, the prices are cheap and the poverty doesn’t bug you too much. What more could you ask for? I highly recommend the place and give it four stars.