by Nick Gallo
Nick Gallo is a travel writer from Seattle and a long-time contributor to Mexico File.
Like a jaguar on the prowl, the morning sun creeps out from a thicket of clouds and stretches itself across the sky. I hardly care, huddled in the sand under two blankets, shivering with headache, fever, and chills. First day on vacation and I’ve brought a respiratory virus from home.
“Better to be sick on a Mexican beach than at work at home,” my wife, Laurie, says, trying to console me. I’m miserable and churlish, unashamed to complain about barking dogs, a fat guy in Speedos, and the noise of the pounding surf. “Doesn’t the sea ever shut up?” I rail.
We are staying at Mar de Jade (“Sea of Jade”), a hotel in a jungle by an ocean. Hotel isn’t quite the right word because this isn’t a resort or high-rise. The lodge consists of several two-story buildings with guest rooms and a red-tile-roofed, Mediterranean-style house.
Brightened by bougainvillea and banana trees, Mar de Jade is postcard-pretty, but I’m more intrigued by its hidden-in-the-tropics mood of sanctuary reminiscent of the Costa Verde, the jungle outpost in John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana. The lodge’s owner, Laura del Valle, reminds me of Maxine, the film’s hotelkeeper played by Ava Gardner who exuded earth-mothering, middle-aged sexiness. Instead of pouring booze, however, del Valle is plying me with hot tea, herbs, and homeopathic remedies. “People come here to recuperate from the modern world,” she murmurs in a soothing, throaty voice. As I say, I’m fevered and possibly delusional.
Years ago, I heard about Mar de Jade, set on the Pacific coastline north of Puerto Vallarta. Laurie and I finally decided to see it for ourselves, setting out from the Vallarta airport in a rented car. Driving north on Highway 200, a curvy, two-lane highway, we arrived almost two hours later in Chacala (pop. 300), a tiny beach town flaunting the messiness of small-town Mexico that has always appealed to me – dirt roads, taco stands, corrugated-tin roofs, debris in the streets, dogs on the loose, kids on every corner, and a friendliness that can’t be faked. When I go to buy an ice cream and discover I have no money on me, the vendor shrugs: “Págame mañana.” Pay me tomorrow.
The village sits at the northern end of the beach, a half-mile sweep of palm-fringed sand. At the southern tip is Mar de Jade, so close to the water that it looks as if a strong wind might blow it out to sea. Arriving just before sunset, we’re greeted by a fiery, red sky, flamboyant as a drag queen in a Carnivale celebration. In contrast, the mighty Pacific is a pussycat, its calm waves tiptoeing along the coastline.
Fatigued, we check in quickly and head straight for our room, one of 25 tucked into hillside. About half have marvelous ocean views overlooking tropical gardens, and there is a touch of elegance in the lodge’s stonework and brick-arched ceilings, but the overall theme is comfort and simplicity – clean, spacious rooms, pleasant interiors, plain furnishings. No TV, no pillow concierge, no pampering. As del Valle tells me later, “We’re not about fluffy white towels.”
For the first few days, I feel too wiped out to have much interest in people or goings-on, but I make it to the main house for meals, mostly Mexican dishes and fresh salads safe to eat, a rarity in rural Mexico. These are served at set times in an outdoor dining room that fronts the sea. Guests are free to eat by themselves or dine with other visitors, family-style, at large tables.
Laurie mingles, but I’m content to stay off in a corner on the veranda in the healing air.
From my perch, I observe del Valle, a woman of American-Mexican descent. Chatty, charismatic and constantly in motion, she is a whirl of long, brown hair, one moment dashing to the kitchen to fetch more empanadas for lunch, the next overseeing workers patching the swimming pool.
Fluent in English and Spanish, she’s besieged with entreaties in both languages. A California guest wants to discuss a videotaping project. A Mexican mask maker appears, hoping to sell crafts. Then a barefoot villager approaches carrying a sick two-year-old. “Tetracyclina,” says del Valle, reassuring the mother and rushing off to find antibiotics. Finally, my curiosity piqued, I join the line of beseechers: “So, Laura,” I ask, “what’s your story?”
Thus, del Valle launches into her experiences at Chacala. A family physician who grew up in Chicago and Mexico City, she was traveling on vacation in the early ‘80s when she discovered Chacala, then an isolated settlement of fishermen who lived on ejido, or communal, land. A one-acre plot was for sale, which Del Valle snapped up.
Eager to practice community medicine, she used a blend of Western medicine and holistic methods to treat villagers out of a palapa shack. Local farmers believed she possessed the powers of a curandera, a healer who can cast spells. Del Valle didn’t dissuade them, approving of traditional healing rituals, such as boiling herbs by the light of the moon.
To earn a living, del Valle traveled to San Francisco several months every year to work in a health clinic. There, she hit on the idea of a work-study program, bringing U.S. medical residents to Chacala. “We had to dodge scorpions and sleep in rain-soaked huts,” she recalls. “I didn’t think anyone would last a week.”
Instead, students loved it. The experience encouraged del Valle to open a medical clinic in Las Varas, a neighboring town, and staff it with visiting medical personnel. “It was eye-opening for all of us because in these poor communities you realize how rural medicine intersects with so many other issues,” she says. “You’re really doing social work and community development.”
The teaching wasn’t all one-way. Del Valle, who has a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, looked to villagers to convey passed-down knowledge about the land and seasons. She met shamans with a keen intuitive sense about people’s needs. “In the little towns, you get a different perspective on life and death,” she explains. “I learned a lot from farmers who can’t read.”
In the early ‘90s, del Valle began to modernize Mar de Jade, putting in a well, electricity, and the first modern guesthouse. Additions followed every few years. A lifelong Zen Buddhist, del Valle built a meditation hall in 1994 and found Zen teachers such as Norman Fischer of the San Francisco Zen Center to conduct group retreats.
Passionate and visionary, del Valle was creating something new in the wilderness – a combination vacation spot, spiritual retreat, and community-immersion experience. Soon, alternative-minded travelers were arriving for yoga workshops and human-potential sessions.
Guests volunteered at the health clinic, founded a library in the village, and pioneered “Techos de Mexico,” a program that helps villagers generate income by renting out rooms to tourists. “We’ve had a lot of really good-hearted people stay here – people who want to make a difference,” says del Valle.
Today, many travelers continue along that path, joining community projects or contributing to a college scholarship fund. But things are evolving.
“So, what’s the next step?” I ask.
“We need to get more people like you.”
“People who don’t want to make a difference,” I joke nervously.
“No, no,” she laughs, but my wife and I represent a broader niche of travelers Mar de Jade hopes to attract – middle-class tourists on vacation. Seekers of rest, relaxation, and suntans. Beach a must, ocean view preferred, life-changing epiphanies not required.
“We’ve always tried to strike a balance between learning and serving with relaxing and enjoying,” del Valle says, breaking into a smile. “Self-renewal takes different forms.”
The next morning, I awake clear-headed and fever-free, ready to re-join the human race. Or at least take a dip. I play by the swimming pool, a naturalistic tableau of boulders, flowering hibiscus, and bright-colored butterflies. Later, I relax in the Jacuzzi and indulge in a massage. The following day, I join a yoga class in a room with a floor-to-ceiling view of the Pacific. There are a handful of us, our bodies at first anchored like harbor boats, but then stretched and extended and re-made until, one by one, we all seem to float away.
As my energy returns, I socialize with other travelers, joining guests that night to dance in the dining room. Michael and Myra, a Berkeley couple with a two-year-old, remark on the cozy atmosphere. “There’s an extended-family feeling here,” Michael says. “It’s like this is Laura’s house and we have the run of it.”
Soon after, it’s time to return home. I haven’t had a chance to explore Chacala, nor have I gotten to enjoy the area’s recreational activities, which include jungle hikes, horseback riding, and fishing.
But before departing, I hike up the hillside above the hotel with del Valle. She wants to show me her spa under construction. It is set in an enchanting Shangri-La forest with glorious ocean vistas. Locals have unearthed pre-Columbian petroglyphs nearby, suggesting it was once sacred ground.
“For most of my life, I’ve been occupied healing people’s bodies,” del Valle reflects. “Now, I’m more interested in healing hearts, helping people rest and recuperate and re-discover what a gift it is to be alive.”
Healthy again, I am ready to go forth.
Just a few years ago, Chacala was an isolated beach spot along a dirt road. Since then, the road has been paved, and the area is poised for development. The closest international airport is in Puerto Vallarta. Rental cars are available for the 90-minute drive north. Taxis cost $80 for up to four people. Northbound buses ($7) leave the Puerto Vallarta bus station, one mile north of the airport, and stop at Las Varas. Grab a taxi ($10) in Las Varas for the 15-minute ride to Chacala.
In Chacala, Mar de Jade offers spacious suites and guest rooms that start at $200/night for two people, which includes three meals per day per person. Contact www.mardejade.com ; toll-free, 1-800-257-0532. Inexpensive bungalows are for rent through the “Techos de Mexico” program in Chacala ( www.playachacala.com ).