This article is from the February 1998 The Mexico File
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Will Success Spoil Barra de Navidad?
by David Simmonds
I have often wondered how the histories of the two towns, Puerto Vallarta and Barra de Navidad, might have been changed had John Huston filmed "Night of the Iguana" 150 miles farther south some 30 years past. Would Barra have become the international headquarters for "party-til-stupid" revelers as the still beautiful Vallarta has? Might it yet? The answers are maybe and probably. How's that for first class reporting. I feel like Bill Clinton explaining...whatever it is this week.
Not that Barra de Navidad (henceforth referred to as Barra) has been completely unchanged since my first visit in 1975. The town has grown and the no-see-ums are no longer the dominant cultural focus. No, on my most recent trip in November, the hot topic had been elevated to the recent swamp-draining. It seems that the rainy season had extended into the fall, and the lagoon was full. Heavy equipment was employed to create an opening out to the sea, resulting in a lower lagoon and a very dark and murky ocean. So much for a little body-surfing after my four-hour drive down from Puerto Vallarta in our suspension-challenged VW bug rental. The usual azure sea was black for several hundred yards out with snakes crawling out of the slime on to the newly reed-covered beach. It was very weird. Weird enough to leave one of my traveling buddies, Karl, speechless for the first time since we first met in Little League many years past. Karl will talk to a tree stump if a breathing person isnt in sight, stone sober. He soon recovered, however, and didnt shut up again for the rest of the week.
Located off the normal tourist track, Barra retains an atmosphere of semi-seclusion. It would be my choice for relocation if I ever enroll in the federal witness-protection program. The "wise guys" wouldnt find you here. Not enough red wine and ziti in town.
I looked and listened closely to the middle-aged gringos, hoping I would be the one to find D.B. Cooper. He could have hidden here. I wanted to ask him, "D.B., what were you thinking as you floated down toward the tree-tops under your parachute? What in your life prepared you to undertake this improbable theft?" But, although there are a number of interesting characters in town, none answered to the name D.B.. The search continues.
Barra de Navidad (Christmas Bay) was named on Christmas Day in 1540. It was a port at that time for the early expeditions to the Orient. In about 1590 the Manila fleet was moved to Acapulco and Barra became like so many other west coast communities, scratching a living from the production of bananas and coconuts and the fish taken from the sea.. Shortly after WW II electricity came to the town, followed by a paved road from Guadalajara. With the road came the first tourists, although not in great numbers. They tended to be weekenders from the big city looking for a quiet respite on the beach. And to a great degree that is still the composition of the majority of visitors today. The "season" spans from December though March when the town picks up the pace a notch, but the rest of the year fairly crawls. No Hard Rock, no Pizza Hut. Not even a Bings Ice Cream Parlor has found sufficient reason to "improve" the neighborhood. If you look up the word "siesta" in the dictionary, youll find Barra de Navidad. It is tailor-made for an afternoon nap.
Barra reminds me of San Blas, farther north up the coast, except its cleaner, friendlier and seems to have a better handle on biting insects. The summer rains can be pretty intense at times, with the suffocating humidity also a factor for the wimpier souls. But the weather stays warm throughout the year, as does the water temperature.
If you like sportfishing, Barra may be as good as anyplace in Mexico outside of the Cape area of Baja California. Some I have talked to think its better. Wahoo, dorado, marlin, sailfish and tuna are caught year-round and the charter prices are reasonable. A marina has been built and has become home to some nice cruisers. There is always the option of panga fishing for a cheaper fare. Either way, you will catch some fish.
So why would one want to come to a sleepy little town with not a whole lot to do? Well, thats just the point. You come to relax, to see the beautiful countryside, to walk on a beach unlittered with sunblock scent, to meet the people. You come because youve been to Vallarta and Acapulco and you always wondered what those places were like before the Marriott, before brain-thumping discos. And you come because none of your friends have, and you can dazzle them with your sense of adventure.
Although Barra dates back several centuries, there is no apparent evidence of its age. It doesnt possess a colonial past preserved in its buildings and streets as does Mazatlán. There are no nearby pyramids or ruins to rival the Yucatán. It is a flat spit of sand separating the ocean from the Laguna de Navidad. I dont recall seeing any buildings over three-stories and some of the streets are unpaved. It immediately feels like an agreeable place and in a short time you find out that is just what it is. Im sure they must have police, but I never saw one, nor the need for one. Late night walks back to your room are serene and secure and very, very quiet. The sound of waves neednt compete with hot rods and trucks. The town is situated two kilometers down the road from Mexico 200, the coastal highway that stretches from Tepic, in the state of Nayarit, all the way to the Guatemala border.
Due to its location, surrounded by water, Barra doesnt continuously morph in all directions, growing daily to house people that seem to appear from thin air, as has happened in so many other previously "quaint" villages. There are less than 3,000 local folks calling Barra home on a year-round basis, swelling a little during the winter months as a gaggle of wise snowbirds come in from the frozen north.
For years I have heard the prediction that Barra will soon be discovered, and I guess to some degree it has. The Mexicans from Guadalajara and Colima have been coming for years. But the gringo visitors who land here are among the more adventurous Mexico travelers. You know the type...the misfits who actually like exploring new places, staying in hotels without room service, eating great, fresh food in dives devoid of an "A" rating from the health department. Beware of these dangerous, irresponsible throwbacks. Or better yet, become one.
Is The Future Now?
Now for the real news. Rising majestically on the peninsula Isla Navidad just a short distance across the lagoon from town, looking down in disdain on the unwashed, sits the brand new Grand Bay Hotel. I convinced my friends, Chris and Karl, that maybe they could clean up for a day, leave the beer behind, and we would drive around the lagoon to the road that would take us to the guard house that protects the hotel from the rest of us. "Relax, guys, I can talk my way in anywhere. Ill tell them Im writing a piece and want to tell the world about their property." And, in spite of being warned that only paying guests and royalty would be allowed to invade, we were welcomed in and given a tour.
I normally stay in inexpensive hotels in Mexico, but I have spent time at many higher end properties in several countries, not coincidentally because my wife really likes them. So I can comment on this with some authority. The Grand Bay is a beautiful, first class hotel. From the meandering swimming pool to the three international cuisine restaurants, you swing in the lap of luxury. The hillside setting provides constant views of the ocean and the little village across the lagoon, Barra de Navidad.. The rooms we were shown are large and well-appointed right down to the telephoned equipped marble baths. But what really sets this property apart is the 27-hole Robert Von Hagge-designed golf course. Driving into the gated grounds you navigate along several fairways, and I have to tell you, it is as attractive a golf course as I have ever seen, Pebble Beach included. It looked like it could eat you alive as well not for hackers.
The rest of the huge grounds (500 hectares) is being touted as an ecological preserve, and contrarily, a boat marina with tennis courts and home sites. The Grand Bay looks like it will be a huge success, despite the fact there were very few guests when I visited. What all of this portends for Barra, Im not sure. It has been quite a while since one of the seaside villages has been transformed into an international resort destination. Cancún, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas are now all well-established tourist centers and have been for over two decades. Loreto, in Baja, has been predicted to be the next in line for years, but it just hasnt happened, and I dont think it ever will. Its really not warm enough in the winter, and its too hot in the summer. Besides, there is the fresh water problem that you find in the desert. Not enough of it. The fishing there, however, is tremendous. Most serious fisherman I know arent nearly as concerned about their accommodations as they are about the availability of cold beer and hot bait.
The nicest, although not the best value, hotel in Barra is Hotel Cabo Blanco. Rather than being on the beach, it is located on the canals that lead to the lagoon. The sprawling grounds are beautifully landscaped and the tile floored rooms are very comfortable. Two pools and an excellent restaurant make this a good choice if you dont mind spending a hundred bucks for the pleasure. I tried to get a free room from them as a "professional courtesy" but they quickly declined my offer (I have never reviewed a hotel where I havent paid full fare).
The quality of hotel choices declines rapidly in the next tier. They arent bad, but none are memorable for being "real finds." I like the Hotel Sands for its tropical, lagoon-front grounds and the large rooms just make sure your bed is not under a termite infested beam as mine was. Breakfast is included in the room price, although the waitress sadly seemed mentally incapable of taking and delivering an order. My buddies and I are notably non-demanding so it wasnt a problem for us, but there were other diners who were clearly peeved. The general appearance of the hotel is a stark reminder of how rainy tropics can take a rapid toll on the buildings and its environs. It takes constant upkeep to keep the appearance bright and shiny, and most of the hotels in the smaller towns just dont have the resources to do so. But thats OK with me. It adds a quirky, South Seas atmosphere that is a clear reminder that you have drifted off the highway a bit.
Just across the street is the popular Hotel Delfin, although Im not sure why. I kept hearing that it is well run, clean and secure, but the rooms are tiny and the pool doesnt compare with the Sands. Everyone I talked to staying there was satisfied, so it must be very acceptable. I heard that their breakfast is first rate.
On the ocean-front side of the sand spit that is town stand a few other hotel choices. The best among these is the three-story Hotel Barra de Navidad. The rooms facing the sea provide wonderful views and balconies to spend quiet hours in the sun. The hotel is slightly more modern in design and seems much newer than the Sands or Delfin. Of the 60 rooms, half are on the beach, so pay the extra pesos for one if available. It doesnt have a lot of character, but being on the beach is a great incentive to stay here, as long as the lagoon hasnt been recently drained. One look at snakes belly crawling out of the ocean was reason enough for us to choose the other side of town, but next time, once environmental stasis is attained, Ill probably stay there.
Several more hotels, all similar in price and condition, are located on the main beachfront street, Legazpi. After Hotel Barra de Navidad, I would choose the newly renovated Hotel Bogavante, where some of the rooms have kitchens. The once popular Hotel Tropical is no longer in operation, due to some serious earthquake damage, although it looked like they were gearing up for some repair work.
One of the real pleasures in traveling the Pacific coast is all the fresh fish restaurants that sprout up with nothing more than a small kitchen, a few tables, and a palapa covering. Barra is well endowed with this category of eatery and we liked them all. Probably the best was a lagoon front, family run eating house called Veleros. The owner (presumably Velero) waited on us, brought our beers, made good recommendations, and treated us as old amigos. Go to Veleros and have a fine meal for under $5 US.
For some night time action, described here as shooting pool and listening to live music, I enjoyed Pipers and Lovers on Legazpi. Its a real low-key hangout for Barra locals and visitors with a good tequila selection and, one memorable night, some excellent music. A fellow from Texas, who believably claimed to have once been a member of Jerry Jeff Walkers band, picked and sang for a couple of hours and reminded me how much I like that kind of music.
A good happy hour can be had poolside at the Hotel Sands, but only during high season. There is also a disco next to the Sands, but the people who go to Barra seem to have better taste than that. I never saw it being used, although they must get some business to keep the doors open.
Since you can see all of town in a ten minute walk, you might want to explore the outer region at some point. The boatmen at the end of Legazpi can be rented for various water excursions, including fishing, waterskiing, lagoon and ocean sightseeing, diving, and trips to other villages. You might just take a boat ride to the peninsula across the lagoon where the Grand Bay sits, to have lunch at one of the open air restaurants in the little burg of Colimilla which is situated just off the hotel grounds.
Less than two miles up the beach from Barra is another town, Melaque, that has several hotels, though none of them I can recommend. Its kind of a goofy feeling town lacking a central soul, but I talked to a few people who think its just great. The beach is attractive as it extends to Barra and is very popular with surfers when its breaking big. Camping on this beach is generally accepted for those on an extreme budget.
Do you remember the movie "10," where a middle-aged Dudley Moore shamelessly stalks a nubile Bo Derek at a Mexican resort? That is the Las Hadas Resort about twenty miles south of Barra, near Manzanillo. Actually, the coast all the way from Manzanillo to Puerto Vallarta, called the Costa Alegre, has several pricey, five-star properties that are very appealing to those looking for remote and exclusive vacations. Hotel Las Alamandas, Hotel Bel-Air Tamarindo, Hotel Bel-Air Costa Careyes, and the all-inclusive Blue Bay Los Angeles and Club Med Playa Blanca, to name a few, are stretched along this coast. One of these days Ill see if each of these will put me and Felice (my wife) up for a night and do an article on which are the best, but until then Im sticking to the $20 rooms that I really prefer. In the meantime, contact your travel agent about them and be prepared to spend $150-$600 per night, depending on the season.
One last tip is to check out Beer Bobs Books at Av. Mazatlan 61. Its a funky little bookstore but you dont have to pay for the books. You take one, you leave one. I wandered in and found a card game going on in the back room. It looked like this is probably a daily ritual amongst a handful a guys who have found their personal little Valhalla in the, for now anyway, transcendental village of Barra de Navidad.
Hotel Sands: Morelos 24. Tel: 335-5-5018. For thirty years the Sands has held this spot on the lagoon. A little worn, but worth the price for its location and pool area. All 43 rooms have fans. Doubles range from $20-$26 US.
Hotel Delfin: Morelos 24. Tel: 335-5-5068. Across the street from the Sands, the 25 rooms are well-kept and small. Good remarks from its guests, especially concerning the breakfast. Small pool. Doubles: $19-$25 US.
Hotel Cabo Blanco: Pueblo Nuevo, Apdo. Postal 31. Tel: 335-5-5022. Barras nicest hotel, two pools. Air conditioned rooms, nicely furnished. You will pay for the privilege with doubles from $90-$135 US.
Hotel Barra de Navidad: Legazpi 250. Tel: 335-5-5122. On the ocean, this 60 room hotel is a good choice for a view. Modern pool with restaurant and bar. Double is $29-$33 US. Request ocean-front.
Hotel Bogavante: On Legazpi, one block up from the Barra de Navidad. Tel: 335-5-5384. Also on the beach, but not quite as nice. Doubles $19-23 US.
Grand Bay Hotel: On Isla Navidad, across the lagoon. Tel: 335-5-5050. In U.S. 888-804-7263.
First-class in every way. Everything you would expect for the price: Doubles: $225-$325 US. Suites range from $375-$2,000 US.