The day we landed in paraíso

It was hot when we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Puerto Vallarta airport. A warm breeze blew across us, and despite my tetchy stomach, I smiled at Ben.

Immigration, customs, time-share hawkers, rental car shuttle, rental car, Walmart (for water and forgotten sunscreen), a lively drive through the city and then down a windy coastal road to the resort: Barcelo Mismaloya, a.k.a. “Paraíso”. We were given gold wristbands which we would wear for the duration of our stay. It was an all-inclusive package and that meant we had very few additional costs. Only the massages we’d have later in the week weren’t included.

You know that expression, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven”?  Well, we lived that as we walked into our suite. It was bigger than our apartment. A dining room, a living room, two bathrooms, a large bedroom and an enormous L-shaped balcony that overlooked both the beach and the pools.

Waiting for us was a bottle of (good) tequila, a bottle of champagne and a fruit platter.  We changed into our swimsuits and headed down to the pool. As the sun got lower in the sky, we went upstairs to change for dinner. Dinner was at the buffet, which is where we would also be having breakfast for the next 7 mornings. The food was fresh, delicious and a good sampling of authentic Mexican food.  After dinner we retired to our balcony where we watched wedding festivities and let it soak in that we were here for a whole week. In paraíso!

The day we did nada

Day two of our stay we did something we rarely do when we’re traveling: nothing.  We ate, we lounged, we read, we chatted, we played table tennis (Ben retained his champion status), we drank cocktails and we walked down onto the beach at the front of the resort.  Relaxed? Oh yeah.

The day I fed a giraffe and fell down in the dirt

After doing ‘nothing’ for a whole day, we were ready to venture further afield. We planned a hike up to a waterfall about 6km from the resort. On the way (or as we opted, the way back) we could visit the Puerto Vallarta Zoo and the place where they make tequila (the good stuff).

They day was hot and dry, and we slathered ourselves in sunscreen before the big hike up the canyon. The road we followed wound through the tiny town of Mismaloya, not surprisingly a stark contrast from the resort.  We passed the tequila place, we passed the zoo and still the road continued.

We started to see signs for visiting the set of Predator, the 80s film with Schwarzenegger.  After more than an hour we reached gates that told us we were in Predator country, even though they looked more like the gates to Jurassic Park. This was apparently where the waterfall was too, and our visions of finding a secluded spot to swim under a waterfall disappeared. This place was geared completely towards tourists. There was the restaurant that looked like a giant hut Gilligan might have built and a zipline course. We sat for a little while, drank a couple of cold drinks and then decided to head back down the canyon. We didn’t swim, because the waterhole was set in the middle of all these activities and we would have had an audience.

As we left Jurassic Park/the Predator set/the zipline course and restaurant, buses full of tourists started arriving. We had decided to leave at the right time. And not long after that I fell on the gravel and scraped my shin. It stung – and would continue to sting for the next few days. My wound, I dubbed it.

We got to the zoo and at the entrance I debated about paying to hold one of their tiger cubs. $10 bought 5 minutes, $20 – 10 minutes and so on. I decided against it, because I felt funny about holding a baby animal that I felt should be with its mother and not sitting in an enclosure all day with other cubs waiting for someone to pay to hold them. We saw the cubs at the end of the zoo tour. There were 2 tigers, and 2 jaguars. They were super cute, but I still didn’t want to hold one.

We saw a lot of animals very close up. The lion enclosure for example, had thick wire mesh between us and the lions. The lioness was stalking up and down at the front of the cage and had I been stupid enough to, I could have scratched her on the nose.

Other animals were within touching distance too. Such an odd zoo. We saw the masturbating tortoise, the hippo lying in a pool of its own excrement and while looking at babies in the nursery a camel bit my hat.In this zoo they encouraged you to feed the animals, but only the stuff you bought from the zoo. I was naughty and fed an apple to the giraffe. I love giraffes and he had a sweet face.

Leaving the zoo, we headed straight for the tequila ‘factory’. I put that word in inverted commas because they still do everything by hand. It was there that I learned tequila is made from the agave plant (truly, I never knew this) and an assortment of other interesting facts about tequila. Most interesting to me is that the stuff I was drinking at the age of 20, the stuff that turned me off tequila for a couple of decades, the cheap stuff is made very differently to the authentic and good stuff. Needless to say after tasting the good stuff we bought some to bring home.

The rest of the day we spent recovering from our outing and sampling some more of the good stuff.

The day we held an iguana

Our 4th day in Mexico was focused on a day trip to Yelapa, a small seaside town that is only accessible by horse (or ATV) and boat. We opted for the latter, so drove about 15 minutes down the road to Bocca de Tomatlin where we hopped what he hoped was the water taxi to Yelapa. We had paid a man on the street for return tickets, yet no one on the boat asked to see them and we were not entirely convinced for the whole hour we were on the boat that it was actually going to stop at Yelapa. It stopped many times along the way, dropping off and picking one or two people and each time we wondered, “Is this Yelapa?” Finally, we pulled into a bay that looked like it could be Yelapa and I asked one of the locals, “What place is this?” She looked at me like I was an idiot, and replied curtly, “Yelapa!”

We got off the water taxi – and still no one asked to see our tickets.

We wandered up the beach and stopped at the first cafe we found. Ben for a beer and me for a coffee.  A man approached us with an iguana, “You want a picture with my iguana?” I did, but not before we bargained him down in price. We took the pics and off he went. He would ask us about 5 more times throughout the day if we wanted a picture with his iguana. I guess he had a short memory, despite the fact that there were less than 50 tourists on the beach that day.

We wandered further down the beach and took up on two sun-loungers in front of a very basic cafe. We got to talking with an older gentleman who worked at the cafe, and he offered to show us the way to the river. We promised to come back for lunch – mainly because I liked him. He had a good outlook on life, but also because lunch sounded delicious.

He led us through the back ‘streets’ of the town and apparently offered Ben some ganja, which he politely refused. Our path led us through front gardens of homes and eventually to the one bridge that crossed the river. The path on the other side of the river was much the same, more houses, some small shops and cafes, and very much a place of the locals who eyed us warily.

We made it back to the beach, only we were now on the other side of the river, and the way to cross was to pay the ferryman. Apparently I overpaid him, but I thought 20 pesos (about $1.80) was a reasonable rpice to avoid having to walk all the way back to the bridge.

We found our friend again and settled in for lunch: camarones (like small crayfish), salad, salsa, guacamole and beers. Fabulous. Also one of the pricier meals we would have in Mexico at about $40.

We were told that the water taxi would be back around 2:30, and we moved to the middle of the beach where it seemed people were gathering. They weren’t, they were just chatting, but one of the locals came down to the water’s edge and asked us if we wanted the water taxi. He said it would be a few more minutes, and when a boat did show up, cruising across the bay, our local whistled loudly and signaled to the boat to come and get us. Had he not been there, we would have been left standing on the beach.

This was a slightly nicer boat than the one that delivered us and when we got back to Tomatlin, one of the crew asked to see the ticket – finally.

We had another lovely and relaxed dinner at the resort and decided we would watch one of the shows that played nightly.

It was 10 dancers, who each had about 15 costume changes as they ‘danced around the world’. While we could see how hard they were working, nothing could make up for cheesy costumes and choreography.  When they asked for volunteers to get onstage for the final dance, we thought ‘what the hell’. It ended up that there were more people onstage than off, and we had a good time learning the dance. We didn’t go to any of the other shows that week.

The day that Ben did not go to jail

We wanted to head up into the mountains, so set a course for San Sebastian. It is a small town nestled in rocky mountains, that was once a bustling hub filled with thousands of gold miners and their families.  It was 60 km away and took us 2 and a half hours to get there. Firstly, it took us an hour to get out of the city because traffic is crazy. Then, once out of the city the roads were potted and we were wary of speed bumps, which are placed (seemingly) randomly along roads where the speed limit is otherwise 760-80 k.p.h. This means that unless you are following someone and can see where they sloe down for speedbumps, you have to drive slowly and very cautiously, so that you don’t go flying off the road.

When we were close, we calculated the time back to the city. We were doing an excursion that night and would have to be back in time to get on a boat.  We nearly turned back. We didn’t know how long it would take to get from where we were to the town, and the roads had turned into cobblestones.  We decided to proceed.

We were rewarded with the welcome to San Sebastian signs not long afterwards, and parked our car at the town square.  We saw a cafe that was open and climbed the steps where we were met with a smile. The patron offered us coffee, but I asked for beer. We sat and sipped and ate salsa, chips and guacamole (our now-standard snack), while we looked out over the very slow town life.

After lunch, we walked around the town – which took about 15 minutes – and then headed back to the car.  Had we wanted, we could have stayed the night and done one of various tours on horseback further into the mountains and to see some of the mines. We had no plans to do this, however, but were pleased to see such a quintessentially Mexican place during our stay.

Our drive back to the city was more eventful than it should have been. As we came to the main highway, there was no signage and we ended up heading away from Puerto Vallarta rather than towards it. That would have been okay, but we had to cross a causeway, negotiate major roadworks and then head several kilometers up the road before we could turn around. We then had to go back through that same traffic.  Once on the other side of Puerto Vallarta, we apparently did the wrong thing through a military checkpoint (on direction of the bored, young soldier at the start of the checkpoint) and about a kilometer down the road were pulled over by the police.

Then the shakedown began.  He had been speeding. He had done the wrong thing at the checkpoint. He seemed drunk. All of this was bullshit. He had gone the way directed at the checkpoint, and we were doing the same speed as the local traffic who all ignored the 40 k.p.h. signs. And Ben was not drunk. He’d had a light beer three hours before.

The officer pretended not to speak much English and then he took Ben’s licence and said that the fine was 15 times 60 pesos and that we had to drive out of town the next day to collect the licence from police headquarters. Ben handled it well. He asked – innocently – if he could please pay the fine then and there so that he could get his licence back.  They wold him to get out of the car and I begged him not to. I was terribly afraid by this time – and very angry. I had visions of having to contact the U.S. embassy to get him out of jail. Amazingly, the fine ended up being the exact amount of pesos he had in his pocket. he got his licence back, and we drove away at 40 k.p.h.  Cars passed us, many of the drivers angry at us,. the whole way back to the resort.

Our evening plans were suddenly  far from what I wanted to do. We were actually due at the marina an hour from then, and that meant driving back to town and through the same checkpoint. No thank you. We stayed in.

The day were we tourists

The next day we planned a whole day of touristy things. We drove into Puerto Vallarta late morning, parked up and walked through the markets, picking up a few presents for family.  We bargained with the local vendors and managed to avoid buying any of the hundreds of cheap trinkets that each stall seems to sell. The markets are situated on the long island that sits in the middle of the river that bisects the town. It is achingly pretty, and we chose one of the waterfront cafes for lunch.

Quesadillas were the choice of the day – with mojitos. It was a delicious meal in a perfect location.

We left there and headed to the beackfront. This was a whole different side of the city. The beach is fronted by building after building of condos. The locals are outnumbered by the North Americans who vacation there. We were on a mission, though, to find parasailing, so were indifferent to the unappealing culture.

We saw the giant, colorful parachute just down the beach and after a quick negotiation, Ben was in the air. I have been parasailing before and it is a truly glorious experience. I was really glad that Ben finally go to do it. He has some great shots from the air.

Our day wound up with a cruise to one of the resorts south of ours, where we would have dinner on the beach and then see a show called “Rhythms of the Night”. This would be sort of like attending a luau in Hawaii – local food and local artists.

The boat was filled with retirees and I could tell that the crew was used to a more lively bunch. They could barely give away the included drinks.

The sun was setting as we sailed south – so beautiful – and then the boat docked at one of the places we’d seen and admired from the water taxi. It is a resort without electric lights, lit solely by torches, fire pits and candles. We were directed along a walkway to a group of beachside tables. A buffet was waiting for us and we were offered drinks by the staff who attended us. It was so peaceful and the food delicious. The sound of a conch shell called us from dinner to the show. It was a huge step up from the show at the resort, with highly skilled dancers performing traditionally-themed dances. Their work was athletic and artistic, and the show on the whole was a spectacular sight. It included live musicians, acrobats, dancers, singers and animals – the most striking of which was the albino python. The ride back to the marina was a little anti-climatic with the crew doing some odd drag/mime numbers that we could have done without, but all in all a very fun night out.

The day I saved a turtle (and Ben’s birthday)

The resort had a nursery for turtles. Essentially, every time they see a turtle lay its eggs on the beach, they retrieve the eggs and bury them in an enclosure until they hatch. When the turtles hatch, they are kept safe until that night when they are released into the sea.

That morning at breakfast I looked over the balcony of the restaurant and into the turtle nursery. There was a turtle! And he was nearly at the edge of the enclosure and about to crawl through the fence onto the beach. I alerted the waiter, who called security (oddly, the staff tasked with turtle rescue), and ran down to the beach. The security guard had retrieved the turtle and let me hold it. I was over the moon. How cool!

We headed out as we had planned a day full of adventure to celebrate Ben’s birthday. Our adventure started with a ride on an ATV up into the mountains. It was extremely dusty, because their wet season was very short this year, so our gear included a bandanna to wear over our mouths and noses. The ride was fun, and took us to some spectacular views.

When we got back to home base, we swapped the ATV for harnesses because we were then going to zipline down into the canyon we had just seen from on high.  The zipline course was incredible and far more exhilarating than the first time we did it in Hawaii last year.  The lines are long and fast, and a couple took us through the treetops. Ben even opted to do one run upside down (no, thank you!).

The last line was a very short one across a creek bed. I could have done that one upside down, as I was only a few feet off the ground, but chickened out of that one too. I had been thrilled enough and was looking forward to lunch.

Our way out of the canyon was by burro.

Mine was small and white. I called her “Eidelweiss”, but she didn’t get it. “Ben, does my ass look big on this ass?”  It was slow, but steady going and I felt for the donkey, even though she was very naughty and would randomly stop to snack. Then she decided that she wanted to overtake the big one in front of us, only the path was very narrow and I had to work hard to convince her not to do that.

Back at home base again, we opted to stay for lunch, which as it was 7 hours since we’d eaten breakfast we devoured. There was just enough time to swing about in a hammock before our ride took us back to town.

We had booked a couple’s massage on our balcony – nice – and as the sun set we enjoyed a bottle of champagne – also on our balcony before we enjoyed another lovely dinner.

Happy birthday, my darling.

The day we packed and headed home

We were not flying out until that night, so we decided to squeeze as much resortness out of the resort as possible. After breakfast we headed poolside, and soaked up some more rays. We needed to check out by 12, and Ben was keen to go snorkeling, which we hadn’t done the whole time there. He headed down to the beach and managed to find a boat captain who was about to head out to a good spot and would have him back before checkout.

We had already packed up most of our stuff, so I spent that time reading by the pool, a thing I have decided I enjoy very much.

After checkout, they let us hang around for a few hours more, which included lunch, another drink and some more poolside time. Then it was time to head to the airport. We repeated all of our first day actions, but in reverse, and before we knew it, we were in Arizona where it took me over an hour to get through immigration.

It was a wonderful trip. I would highly recommend the Barcelo resorts, and also opting for the premium packages which as I said, include almost everything.

It was my second trip to Mexico, but the first in 20 years, and we definitely would love to go back.