This article is from the October 1995 The Mexico File
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There Are Two Sides To Puerto Vallarta
bv David Simmonds
Theyve tned to ruin it. Chain hotels line the beaches north of town. The jungle line creeps higher and higher up the hills Stoplights! Oh yeah, they've tried to screw up my first destination, 25 years ago, into the interior of Mexico...but they haven't succeeded. Not if you know where to hang. You see, in my mind there really are two sides (literally) to Puerto Vallarta. There is the north side of the Rio Cuale and there is the south side. And except for motoring to and from the airport, there are very few reasons to ever venture on the north.
I first arrived in PV by dilapidated VW bus in 1971, shortly after completion of the road in from Tepic. 100 miles to the north. I was a 21-year-old college student and thought I had truly found my Valhalla. I never wanted to leave. Unfortunately, my traveling buddy, Tom Dawson, considered his Stanford education to be of slightly more value than mine at San Diego State and insisted we get back for fall classes. One blown engine in the Sonoran Desert later, we did just that. Has anyone ever NOT blown a VW engine?
That first trip I found a camping spot tucked in between the hills and the beach, in the south comer of town. We camped for free, bought fresh fish from the local fishermen and considered an early retirement. Ironically, I have been staying in hotels in this same section of town ever since. My primary abode is not luxurious, but it has more charm than a southern politician: a hotel named La Posada de Roger. Opened in 1970, Roger's, as it is known, has grown from several rooms with shared bath to the present 40 rooms, all with bathrooms. The years have added a second story swimming pool and a restaurant/bar, the Tucan. The beds aren't real comfortable, the beach is three blocks away, and the rooms on the street side can be a little noisy, but you'll love this place. Roger has moved up the coast to Bucerias, and has left the inn in the very capable hands of his brother, Federico Garcia.
The Tucan has become a regular watering hole for the expats and long time travelers to PV. Late afternoon and early evening attract a wide range of interesting characters. Truth and fiction seem interchangeable, but never boring.
You may run into a white haired gentleman of 72 years. Guy. Guy came to town in 1958 and opened a fine, still operating, beach front restaurant, La Palapa. He had been in the restaurant business in Malibu, California. prior to his arrival. He has stories of drinking with John Wayne, carousing with John Huston; well he has plenty of stories. And I do believe them all to be true. Guy is a good man. When asked if he knew any Spanish on his arrival, Guy will reply, "Hell, I didn't even know how to say "adios"; that's why I never left!"
Or certainly look for "Gris" to shuffle in, cane in hand, for a cool libation. Gris (sounds like grease) is short for Griswold. I have heard his age pegged at somewhere between 80 and 90. He'll admit to having first come to town in the late '40's. The daily ritual involves Chenny, the young bartender, needling Gris to the point of Gris trying to brain him with his cane, yelling, "leave me alone," and finally departing mightily angry. It's all fairly horrifying until you see it a few times and come to realize: this is keeping Gris alive. You come down to it, these two, the old gringo and the young Mexican bartender, care deeply for each other. I know for a fact that Chenny would protect the Old Man from anyone.
The daytime barkeep is Juan Carlos, a real bright, charming Lothario who used to wait tables in San Jose, California. He's pretty sure he prefers PV, and has no intention to return to the States. Juan Carlos may rent you his VW bus for $35.00 per day.. .something to consider.
There are several other cantinas in the area.! suggest hoofing it around and seeing what looks entertaining. At some point you'll stumble upon the Andale on Olas Altas, near Hotel Playa los Arcos. This is best described as the "party" bar. Music, shooters, and impromptu dancing kick in usually after 8:00 p.m. Their restaurant upstairs has some surprisingly good food.
Actually, the street where Roger's is located, Basiho Badillo, has some of the best restaurants in town. For beef, try Los Pibes, an Argentine dinner house. I had a Kobe quality filet there that was as good as any I've ever tasted...anywhere. For seafood, you'll eat well at Puerto Nuevo, right up the street. And when you want some true, authentic Mexican, go to Cafe de Olla, attached to the Hotel Yasmin. In the mood for some good street tacos? Hit the cart on the comer of Olas Altas and Francisca Rodriguez, under the big tree. Down Francisca Rodriguez a few doors is Archie's Wok for Criental. Archie was John Huston's personal chef before his death, and unfortunately joined John's journey a few years ago upon his own demise. Archie's wife carnes on and runs a real swell place.
Another word on street tacos.. they are everywhere, some stands not opening until 9:00 p.m. or so. The best advice as to which ones are good and clean.. look for the locals. If they like it, go for it. If they offer what seems to be a dairy based sauce (usually white), politely decline. Otherwise, you should be O.K. And you have only spent a couple of bucks for a filling, authentic meal. Two tacos right before bed after a night on the town is a personal, highly recommended ritual. The later, the better.
Most of the things to do and see in PV are easily discovered from the travel books (Frommer's,
Let's Go, etc.) and the tourist office. But you are presumably reading this for some
more obscure information. OK...let's get out of town!
Road Trip to Tehuamixtie
This trip should be by Jeep. The rental pnces are constantly changing, but you should spend approximately $45.00 US per day, including insurance and 200 km free. A list of rental agencies and phone numbers will follow at the end of this article. Pick up your Jeep as early as you can in the morning. I like to buy a styrofoam ice chest in town ($5.00). Load it with ice and drinks and take plenty of drinking water. Also, if you haven't brou~ht a mask and snorkel with you to Mexico, rent what you will need from one of the small dive shops near the beach.
You'll head south out of town on Mexico 200 (the only road in that direction). After seven miles you will hit Mismaloya, one of the truly bone-headed projects I have witnessed. Mismaloya was once a quaint, serene village, occupying one of the prettiest little coves I've seen. Camping was free, fish were abundant. life was awesome. You be the judge as to what it has become as you drive by in lament. The next cove area is Boca de Toinatlan. This is still fairly unspoiled and worth a stop. Forty-five minutes further south, at K 170 is the small town of El Tui to. Turn right into town and head west. You now have I - 112 to 2 hours on a dirt road to get back to the coast and the beautiful, prutected bay at Tehuamixtle. Along the way you will pass through three or four small settlements. Always ask someone "Tehuamixtle?" while pointing down the road you are on to make sure you're on track.
There are two palapa restaurants to choose from. I have always gone to the one on the right, farther out on the point. I hope you like oysters...absolutely the best and freshest I've ever had. The owner, Candelario, will fetch them from a sack in the water, while his daughter, Gabriela, brings the cold well-deserved cervezas. The oysters are prepared in a variety of ways. I prefer breaded and fried in garlic. If oysters aren't in your dining vocabulary, try the fresh huachinango (red snapper). On my last visit we asked for lobster. They suggested waiting until the last panga was due back to see if they had any. They did, and after the feast there were hammocks awaiting in the shade for a siesta. This bacchanal won't lighten your wallet by much. Saying it's cheap would demean the event, but it is quite a deal.
The ocean waters here are absolute crystal, the diving superb. Try the rocky areas around the cove, or better yet, ask Candelario about the Spanish anchor nearby. He will take you in his panga and show you where to dive in the water, right on top of this 400-year-old relic. This west coast of Mexico was part of Spain's sailing route from the Philippines. The brutal Pacific storms and unsavory pirates were frequent risks for the Spanish fleet.
Candelario is really an amazing man. At one point we were in 60 feet of water to see a second anchor he was to show us, when one of us (OK. it was me) dropped his mask...to the bottom. Candelaijo, smiling says, "No problema." Then this man of probably 55 years free dives, looks the size of an ant by the time he quits descending, and arises...breathing a little hard, but firmly clutching the mask.
The price for the boat trip has never been discussed with this proud fisherman. But please, be generous. If it takes an hour of his time, plus gas, I think $10 to $15 is a good deal for everyone.
It will be hard to admit that it's time to leave this oasis, so you have two choices.
One is to work out a deal to sleep in a hammock, or hit the road in plenty of time to
return to PV before dark. Not driving at night cannot be stressed enough. So give yourself
three hours for the return.
What's Up North?
Everyone will suggest you go to Punta Mita, and indeed that is where the hoards venture. If all those people weren't enough reason not to fall in line. the fact that it's just not that special is. Unlike the tropical terrain of most of the region, Pu nta Mita is fairly arid and brown. I suggest continuing north, past the Pu nta Mita turnoff to the quaint village of Sayulita. Find your way to the street that leads to the beach and you're looking at a gorgeous protected bay. About 75 feet from the waterfront you will see a three story house owned by Adrienne Adams, an ex-realtor from Southern California. She is known to the locals as Tia Adriana. Having built this house for retirement over a period of years, she now rents rooms. This is a very comfortable and serene inn. ..a good choice for a couple of days (or months) away from Puerto Vallarta. Adrienne is a great host and a wealth of information, but beware: no smoking is allowed on the premises. At least that was what I last heard, so you might want to check if that is an issue.
Another truly unique alternative is located about 50 yards north of Adrienne's. Mark Rubio has opened a fascinating compound named Papa's Palapas. Each unit has a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette. This place is not about luxury but more attuned to ecology and nature. They offer a variety of adventure tours. I would recommend a trip to Sayulita and choose the accommodations most suited to your needs. You'll find a couple of good eateries here as well; ask around.
The next village north of Sayulita is San Francisco. where I recently visited a refurbished hotel, Costa Azul. A subscriber to The Mexico File, Mardi Wetmore, first told me about it, as she and her husband were headed there for a week. She has offered to write an article for the next issu~ (November) and tell us all about it. My first impression of the property was very favorable, but we'll learn more next month.
All the villages north of PV can be reached by bus for little money. Most of the bus stations in PV are south of the Rio Cuale close to Roger's. Ask for help in finding them if you have trouble. Find the bus going in your direction, the time it leaves, and most importantly, when the last bus of the day returns to town. You don't want to miss the last bus of the day and be unprepared for an overnight stay. Worst case scenario...take a taxi back, but it will cost you.
When you first get to PV, pick up a copy of Val1arta Today, the town's English language daily. Besides having some topical news. it lists many restaurants. provides a basic street map, and introduces you to some of the locals, both expats and natives. Most newsstands and some hotels carry Vallarta Today.
For a convenient grocery store, shop at the one at Aquiles Serdan and Constitucion, one block south of the rio. They offer a good selection of groceries including fresh baked bolillos, fresh fruit and vegetables, meats and cheeses, pretty much all your needs. You can get one of those ice chests upstairs. When you leave town pass the chest on to another traveler or a local.
So friends, enjoy this city for what it has to offer. Sure. parts of it are garish, busy, and overmn with huge hotels. But you can avoid these traps and look for the beauty. And if you're like me, you will return... again and again.