Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Puerto Vallarta - Other Highlights

As I look back through the pictures and write my belated travel journal, I have to admit that the good outweighed the bad of Puerto Vallarta, which again makes me a little sad, because we've decided we will not return.  So I will enjoy these additional highlights.

The grounds of the resort were beautifully planted and spotlessly maintained, and the plants even had signage.

The "Boy on the Seahorse" is an icon of Puerto Vallarta.  It's smaller than I expected, but perhaps there is another larger one we didn't see, as my post trip research has revealed a fascinating story.

There was often some kind of fiesta or entertainment in progress, particularly on the Malecon.  I loved this local color.

In the nicest parts of downtown, the streets were lined with bougainvillea which looked particularly lovely against the often blue skies.

As part of the dreaded timeshare presentation rewards, I got a massage and facial, with this being the massage location and view.

We enjoyed two shows at the resort, a Thursday night fiesta that included great food, open bar of course and wonderful entertainment, and a Friday night fire show with amazing feats of acrobatics with fire.

There is no lack of people watching, an opportunity to really think about how other people travel and how other cultures reciprocate.

Adios, Puerto Vallarta, it was real!

Touring Puerto Vallarta - Marietas Islands

Just offshore at the north end of Banderas Bay rests a group of small, volcanic islands known as the Marietas Islands. These islands were made famous by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and are now a protected national park, or the Mexican equivalent.  Because of this protected status, no one is allowed to land on the islands (and there doesn't appear to be many places where one could do that anyway), but tons of boats stop offshore, allowing people to experience the natural beauty, bird and marine life.

There is one cinder-cone island where the roof has collapsedand there is a little beach inside.  They call this the hole in the ocean or hidden beach, and it was one of the main reasons I chose this tour.

Unfortunately, it was not completely clear to me that the only way to reach this island and little beach was by snorkeling or swimming, neither of which I do well. There were some pictures showing paddleboards, so I thought perhaps I could paddle there, but no.  And the length of the swim required differed.  Some said 75 feet, or perhaps 75 meters.  When we got there, the tide was high, so no snorkeling was allowed since the entrance to the cave was very high compared to the top of the arch one had to swim through (one guy spent the rest of the day with an ice bag on his head from misjudging the opening and a wave).  And the distance was more like ...well, too far for me.  This was the melee of people swimming toward some indistinguishable cave opening.

The other unfortunate aspect is that I didn't realize this was the hole in the ocean part of the trip.  I thought people were just going snorkeling, which I don't like.  Even if it had been clear, I probably would have been too afraid to do this.  The ocean was a little rough and quite cold, and even with life vest and fins, I might have been too scared.  There were life boats patrolling, but anyway, I didn't do it. Tod was brave (although he admitted it probably would have been too much for me) and was rewarded with goofy pictures inside the cave.

While most of the people did make this swim to the hole, there were about a dozen of us left on board, some too sea sick to do anything but hold plastic bags in their laps. Although it was not "smooth sailing", it was not a bad ride for me, so I rather enjoyed the quiet.  I did decide to lay off the alc for this trip.  Meanwhile, the captain tooled around a little so we could get a closer glimpse of the islands and the birds, particularly the blue-footed boobies.

This is a photo from the internet, as I didn't have a camera to get a shot like this, but this is exactly what they looked like, and there were hundreds of them on the islands, along with brown pelicans, frigate birds and of course sea gulls.

After the "hole" we drove to another island where we went kayaking and paddleboarding.  Since we couldn't land anywhere, the boards and kayaks had to be unloaded from the boat (once again, hats off to the crew who worked like dogs to unload the gear and make sure people had what they needed, and help people into the water from the back of the boat).  This was a little tedious, but finally I got out onto the water.  It was once again rougher than the water I like to paddle in, but manageable.

Of course, there was the challenge of maneuvering around a lot of other people.

On the way back to port, we were rewarded with dolphin sightings...

and a ridiculously entertaining show by the fabulous crew.

While this was not my favorite tour, it was a nice sail with beautiful scenery and perfect for those a little more adventurous than I.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Touring Puerto Vallarta - Hidden Mexico

Our second tour with Vallarta Adventures was entitled Hidden Mexico and included six activities plus the bumpy adventure of riding Mexico's rough roads in this crazy vehicle, called an open-air Mercedes Benz Unimog, driven by Nary, who I hope was completely familiar with the capabilities of these vehicles, because he seemed like he was taking the turns on the narrow roads pretty fast.  Anyway...

The first stop was the Botanical Gardens.  We had read about these and thought about going on our own, taking city busses.  We actually walked out to the gas station at the edge of town where one could supposedly get the bus.  The busses were somewhat labeled but not clearly.  We decided to leave it to the professionals.
Robert Price and his mother Betty founded the Vallarta Botanical Gardens in 2004 after realizing the need for conservation and environmental awareness in the area. Bob was specifically concerned with the numbers of orchids that poachers were taking from the nearby jungles to sell commercially.
He envisioned a place where orchids could be propagated and displayed without depleting the local populations. The Garden opened to the public in 2005 and has been flourishing ever since.

The garden specialized in orchids, but the most amazing plant was the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), hanging in huge clusters of unique green flowers.

They used the flowers to decorate our glasses of jasmine iced tea.

The gardens weren't very large, or perhaps they were larger and we just didn't have time to visit them long enough.  They were filled with wonderful tropical plants and a nice building with a lovely view down the mountain to a river valley.

Oh before the Botanical Gardens we visited some petroglyphs, but rocks in a field don't do that much for me.  The best part of this little adventure was the exchange between Ari and her mother Marian the librarian over the lack of bug spray.  ("MOM, it's OK!)"  We had bug spray, which we leant to them, but I still got bit about 10 times.

The next stop was at a roadside stone-oven bakery, a family-run business producing these wonderful loaves of filled bread.  There were all kinds of jam-like flavored fillings, plus some ham, cheese and jalapeno.  They were delicious and I regret not buying a whole bag of them, at only 5 pesos each.  Apparently local families all buy bread from this roadside in addition to the tourists.  I hope so, as this seems like a tough way to make a living.


And then there was El Tuito. 
El Tuito was founded in the 16th Century at about the same time as the mining towns and Talpa de Allende. However there are no mines or Virgins (at least the religious kind) in El Tuito.  What it does have is grazing land and water and it was on a major Spanish road that ran from Barra de Navidad to EL Cuale and Mascota. The famous Manila ship that came once a year from the Philippines would unload some of its cargo at Barra before continuing on to Acapulco. El Tuito could supply fresh pack animals, food and water to the travelers.

It's hard to describe El Tuito.  Despite the higher elevation, it was HOT.  The roads were somewhat paved.  Aside from the church, the buildings were nondescript. As a 16th century village I expected old stone houses like we've seen in Italy and France.  It was not like that.  It could be that the primary building material was adobe, which is not a long-lasting material.  Our first stop in El Tuito was the home of a family of artisans.  The family had some cows and made cheese, and they served us tortillas, fresh cheese and salsa.  They were so friendly and gracious, serving their freshly-made food in the back yard, with their little cow just on the other side of the fence.  That's our guide Abraham showing us how it's done.

Then we visited the workshop where the husband and father made things from rosewood, like vases and mortar and pestles.  I would have like to buy something from this hard-working family, but I really don't want to acquire stuff at this point. 

Marian the librarian did buy something, which was nice, and thus we got to try some raicilla.
Raicilla is a distilled spirit, originating in the south western portion of the Mexican state of Jalisco, and pre-dates the arrival of Hispanic people in the country. It is similar to Tequila and Mezcal as it is also a product of the agave plant.
Like tequila and mezcal, it pretty much tasted like alcoholic cactus.  Next we visited the town hall, which was mostly for the purpose of using the bathrooms.  They did have flushing toilets and running water, but just barely.  Along the way we passed several civic offices.  Everything was dark and plain.  That's what struck me the most.  There was hardly any color or decoration anywhere, just hot stone, cinderblocks, wires, some trees.  This restaurant did have a colorful awning and tablecloths.

The church was very colorful, and in fact looked like it had just received a fresh coat of stucco and paint.

Inside it was a little plainer, but still colorful and very familiar as a catholic church.

The most colorful part of town, by far, was the cemetery.  We drove there as it was a little ways down the road and up a hill.  I meant to ask why the graveyeard was not collocated with the church as I would expect, but it could be there wasn't the available land.

Many of the grave sites were  quite elaborate.

I wish we had more time in El Tuito, the place was fascinating.  I would have like to discreetly walk up and down the streets and try to get a better glimpse at life in this town.  As we were leaving town we did see children getting out of school.  It was early but evidently the day ends early, about 12:30, for school children here.  They were being picked up by waiting moms and walked home just like anywhere.

Finally, it was time for lunch.  The tour really outdid itself on this aspect.  We had lunch at the Villa Azalea Inn & Organic Farm, a luxury hotel about a half hour outside Puerto Vallarta.  They served the fresh and delicious lunch in the river behind the property, of course accompanied by an open bar, with fruit mojitos being the specialty of the day.

This was such a unique experience.  The river was mostly less than knee-deep and very clear, with little fishes swimming by.  This freaked out some people.  I found it delightful.

Once again the time was too short, but there was so much jammed into this tour.  The final stop was at a tequila distillery.  The Don Chendo distillery had the distinction of being the only distillery on the hill. 

After tasting seven different tequilas (I tool small quarter shots, as the amount of alcohol being consumed was beginning to be alarming) we were free to buy (we didn't, we can get tequila in the US) and left pretty quickly for our ride back to town, but not before I had a chance to play with Anjelica the burro.

The truck was able to drop us off downtown instead of at our starting point way north near the port and airport, which was convenient for getting dinner.  We went back to the Margarita Grill because it was so good, and once again got the molcajete-prepared salsa.  I didn't mention this before, but there is live music at the Margarita Grill and it was good, if a bit non-traditional.

This tour was amazing.  I cannot say enough good things about Vallarta Adventures, our guide Abraham and our driver Nary.  I wish we could have spent more time in the gardens and in El Tuito, and lingering in that river with more drinks would have been fun, but as it was, we were gone all day.  But I'm so glad we did this and really did get a glimpse into a part of Mexico one would never know existed if you just hung at the resort.