Last Monday Mary and I decided to take a vacation in the Mexican coastal town of Puerto Vallarta. Two years ago, shortly after Mary and I first met, Mary had flown to Vallarta to vacation with her longtime friend Barbara. After a week there, the two of them invited me to join them. I still remember Barb’s friendly invitation: “Get your ass down here!”
We’d all had a great time there. Barb and Mary were traveling companions from way back, and they enjoyed showing me around Vallarta. We had rented a jeep and seen some of the countryside, went on a cruise, and enjoyed eating at some of the restaurants. There were plenty of good memories, so Mary and I decided to do it again this time, alas, without Barbara.
Mary’s tour director instincts kicked in like always, and she had the suitcases, food, and soda all packed by Monday morning. We took the cuota towards Tepic, both for speed and safety. We noticed that there were the frequent signs indicating that an “S.O.S.” was a short distance ahead. We finally figured out that an “S.O.S.” was a roadside telephone (an SOS is a call for help). These telephones are powered by solar panels at the top of a pole that the telephones are mounted on.
We noticed that where the highway cut through a hill, there were often plastic PVC pipes sticking out of the sides of the cut. My guess is that these are “weeper” pipes to drain water out of the hill during rainy season and thus stabilize the hill.
Speaking of hills, I noticed that the upper part of some of the taller hills were noticeably greener than the bottom. February is a pretty dry month in central Mexico. Perhaps the coolness of the higher elevations keeps moisture from evaporating so quickly. The division between the green tops and the brown bottoms is so well defined that it almost seems like a line has been drawn around the hills.
We passed several stone fences. Up north, near Zacatecas, these fences are very common. They are built using small stones, which are carefully balanced on each other. These fences can go on for miles. The stoop labor it took to build these must have been awesome. Mexicans are not a lazy people.
Somewhere along the way we passed through two lava flows that the cuota cut through. The flow consists of rock so black that it looks like coal.
Well before reaching Tepic, we finally reached the turnoff toward Vallarta. Our Guia Roji map shows a toll road for part of the distance to Vallarta, and they do indeed collect a toll, but it’s only a winding two-lane asphalt road not the four-lane highway we were expecting. The government seems to be collecting tolls in order to build the road later. That seems pretty unique.
The road to Vallarta has four very twisty sections. One is on the real cuota to Tepic. The others are on the two-lane road. It’s fun zipping around the curves, but sooner or later you will come upon a long line of cars stuck behind some long double-trailered semi creeping along at five miles an hour as it tries to climb a hill. The road is so tightly curved that it is impossible to safely pass, so you do it unsafely. Even I have gotten so impatient that I have taken chances that I would never do in the US. Part of this is that you see others doing it. The other part is that the roads are just substandard.
As we crossed through the mountains, we suddenly realized that the air was more humid. The vegetation got much more lush. Plants covered every square inch of ground. It was like being in a jungle. There were small coconut and banana plantations along the road, and roadside stands were selling fruit.
Four and a half hours after starting our journey, we passed an open-pit mine of some sort and burst out of the jungle onto a four lane divided highway. Ten miles further on we entered Vallarta and made our way to the timeshare studio apartment that Mary bought fifteen years ago.
We signed in, dumped off our luggage, and headed for El Coleguita, a marisco (seafood) restaurant in the town of Ixtapa that we had enjoyed on our previous visit. We each had a cup of a really delicious seafood broth free of charge while we ordered. The meals, when they came, were huge. We had entered the restaurant five minutes before closing time, and being the last customers let in, we got everything that was left over. We ate shrimp and lobster until we were ready to burst.
As we were finishing up, Mary and I started chatting with Mauricio, one of the waiters. Turns out that he had lived all over the US including working on a fishing boat up in Alaska. Two of the crew had been washed overboard and were never seen again. Mauricio’s uncle had tried to get him to come back to Alaska to fish again, but Mauricio told him the money wasn’t worth dying for.
On our way back to Mary’s timeshare our car was hit from behind at a stoplight. I got out to inspect the damage. My car was fine, but the other guy’s car was damaged by our trailer hitch. I pointed it out to the other guy, but he just stayed in his car and waved it off, so we started up again and went to spend the night in the timeshare.
We got up the next morning and drove downtown to a restaurant on the malecon (boardwalk) called Las Palomas (the doves). Mary had trouble guiding me into a parking spot, so a Mexican guy standing on the sidewalk took over. He started rapidly tapping on the car’s trunk while I backed up, giving a much louder tap when I had gone back as far as possible. With his help I was quickly able to park the car.
Mary was wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a parrot on it that morning. As we were walking to the restaurant one of the other pedestrians said to her, “That’s a big parrot!” Mary is well endowed in the chest area, and the comment made her happy all morning.
After breakfast we drove to a nearby mall to cash a traveler’s check and do some shopping. While I was cashing the check, Mary fell into a conversation with a couple of timeshare sales people. Their pitch was that we would get a free cruise (worth about $80 US) in exchange for listening to a ninety-minute sales pitch the next day. We signed a paper stating that we were between 28 and 70, had a $40,000 income, etc. Then we had to give them a 200-peso deposit to ensure that we would show up.
While we were all chatting we learned that one of the sales people had a grandfather from Ireland. Mexicans have a double last name. The first part is composed of the father’s family name and the second part is composed of the mother’s family name. So this Mexican guy was named something like “Luis Reynosa Murphy”.
After leaving the two sales people we wandered over to an Internet café and sent email to a few people. Then we entered a Gigante supermarket. I decided to use the restroom while we were there and found that the toilets were in the same shape as I had last seen them two years ago sans toilet seats. I still can’t get over that a multimillion-dollar operation that can’t afford toilet seats.
After reading and watching television for a few hours Mary and I decided to splurge and went to a fancy restaurant named Bogart’s. When we got out of the taxi, we were met at the curb by a lady who escorted us past two flaming torches and into the building. There, another lady escorted us to a table in a waiting area. Almost immediately we were escorted by a young man wearing a fez into a dining room.
Bogart’s is by far the fanciest restaurant I have ever been in. Mary says she has been in far better ones, but she has led a much more active life than I have.
The room had a Moroccan motif. It consisted of two concentric circles of arches sort of like one Stonehenge inside another. Green lights shone upward from the floor softly illuminating plants placed along the outer perimeter. There was a multilevel fountain in the center of the room. The ceiling was cloth. Huge sheets hung from a center point and swung downward to the sides of the room. The tables had high backed bamboo papasan chairs. When Mary sat in one, I was immediately reminded of a turkey with its tail feathers spread.
The menu had no prices. Mary said she must have gotten the woman’s menu. I told her mine didn’t have prices either. Apparently, if you had to ask, you couldn’t afford it. So we didn’t ask.
We started our meal with lobster ravioli. That was followed by a delicious bouillabaisse. After the heavy bouillabaisse we were served a small amount of sherbet to clean our pallets. Then Mary and I took different paths. She had flounder, while I took on a rack of lamb. A piano in an adjoining room softly played “As Time Goes By”, the theme song from the movie Casablanca. Everything was perfect.
In Mexico, you are never presented with a restaurant bill ( la cuenta) until you ask for it. To present a bill without being asked is considered extremely rude. You can ask for the bill either orally or by holding one hand flat and pretending to use the other hand to write on your palm.
We finally asked for the bill. I put my credit card on the table. Mary told me to be sure to check the bill before signing it, and then realized how foolish that was since the menu had had no prices.
When the bill came, the waiter had to use a small flashlight to show it to me because the room was so dark. Our little snack was going to cost us $90 US. I left a $10 US tip. The meal was my treat because Mary was providing our accommodations.
As we were leaving, our curbside greeter made us a proposition that we could not refuse. We would get our money back if we went to a timeshare sales pitch. We agreed and left the standard $20 US deposit. It was such a nice night that we walked back to our apartment.
The next day we got up early to meet with Luis who would take us to Paradise Village in nearby Nuevo Vallarta. Luis however got into a car accident on his way over. He called to tell us to take a taxi to the resort. The staff would pay the fare.
After a twenty-minute ride, we came to the resort. It was huge. With the attached golf course, the total area could be measured in square miles.
A tall thin Mexican woman with perfect teeth and small boobs met us. I guess the teeth were more important. She escorted us to a cafeteria for breakfast.
We learned that she had had her sales job for five years. I figured she must be good at it.
The resort was financed and built by a Canadian citizen who had built three previous resorts including the one that Mary’s timeshare was located in. By this time the guy was so rich that he had the money to build this monstrous resort without a mortgage.
After a bunch of small talk the sales lady took us on a tour of the grounds. Palm trees were everywhere. Everything was immaculate. Peacocks strolled around on the ground while pelicans soared through the sky. Being a Midwesterner I immediately dubbed them pterodactyls, which cracked Mary up.
The woman took Mary into an exercise room and directed me to check out the men’s side. I wandered around a bit, but I wasn’t very interested in exercise. I did notice that the restroom had a sign directing people to throw used toilet paper into a wastebasket instead of flushing it down the toilet. This is quite common in Mexico, supposedly because of low water pressure, but what was such a sign doing in a multimillion-dollar development like this?
We entered what looked like a huge hotel lobby to tour several model apartments. An elevator took us to the top floor, eight stories up. The view from a hall window was magnificent a sea of palms with buildings rising through the green canopy like rocky outposts.
The apartments were each more gorgeous than the previous one. They all had balconies facing toward the ocean. Directly below us was a swimming pool with two water slides in the shape of dragons. Kids shot out of the mouths into the pool. Mary and I were both quite impressed.
We went back to the cafeteria and then outside onto a balcony were the woman made her pitch. She told us how desirable the resort was, how we could trade slots in our timeshare for timeshares in other parts of the world, how we would get airline, cruise, and car rental discounts, how we would be largely immune to inflation by locking in our room. The list went on and on. Finally she came to the prices. For a middle of the road timeshare purchase it would cost us $40,000 US.
She tried to continue on listing more advantages to their program, but I said no way. I told her that I figured I could make at least ten percent interest a year on my money. She was asking us to forfeit $4,000 in interest, plus pay $400 in maintenance fees, in exchange for a one-week stay at their resort! She wanted us to lock ourselves into that agreement for 33 years! And then at the end of that time, if we lived that long, we wouldn’t even get our money back! The deal was ridiculous and I told her so. In return she handed me her calculator, laughed, and told me to play with it while she talked with her boss.
The contemptuous way she had mocked me by handing me the calculator really angered me off. After she left I stood up and told Mary to do the same. I wanted to make it very clear that we were leaving.
When the woman got back she sat down and told us her boss had agreed to a nine-year deal because of my health. She told Mary to sit down, and damn if Mary didn’t start moving toward the table. I grabbed her arm to keep her from doing it and told the woman we were leaving and we would like our cruise tickets. When she realized that I meant what I said she left to get someone to escort us to where the tickets were.
While she was gone I moved Mary and I off the balcony and back into the cafeteria. I looked around and saw an enclosed area, a bullpen, hidden in a corner of the room. Desks were located inside this area. The first thing that came to my mind was the whole setup was like a used car office and we were the lambs being led to the slaughter.
The sales woman returned with a man who led us into another room. He debriefed us on how the sales presentation had gone. Then he tried to sign us up on a two-year deal. I refused his offer. Finally he signed a paper, took us outside, gave us two dollars for bus fare, and pointed to the “gift shop” no more escorts for us. I was glad to get away from him. He reminded me of a potentially abusive bill collector. There was meanness under the surface.
Mary and I walked over to the gift shop and entered a hot grubby room. A young man gave us a gift certificate and told us where to catch the bus. As we walked there we saw the bus take off for Vallarta. I said to heck with the bus and we took a taxi back to town.
Mary and I talked about our experience and agreed on several things. Other than the kids in the pool, no one had smiled or even looked like they were having fun. The place was beautiful and depressing. It was very isolated. It was a gringo ghetto. The place was like a bubble. You weren’t in Mexico. You were in a cocoon. What a yucky place.
The next day we went to our second timeshare presentation at a resort called the Krystal. After breakfast we went on a walking tour of the grounds. Everything was nice, but not up to the standard of Paradise Village. We sat down in a small cafeteria to let the young man make his pitch. Mary asked me if I was all right because I was so pale. I told her I wasn’t. I was dizzy, my ears were ringing, and I couldn’t get enough air. I felt like I was ready to pass out. We went outside where I laid down. One older man asked if I wanted a doctor, which was decent, but I said no.
After a while I felt a little better and said I was willing to continue with the sales pitch, so we walked to a nearby table. I still didn’t feel well, though, so I called it quits. I even asked for a doctor because I figured I was having trouble with a blood clot they often form in congestive heart failure cases because of poor blood flow.
Someone told us it would take twenty minutes for a doctor to get there. I decided I just wanted to go back to our apartment. Mary tried to get our gift, pointing out that we had already been there the required 90 minutes, but the young jerk wouldn’t do it. I told Mary to just forget it, so - alone - we walked to a taxi stand with me leaning on Mary.
After a couple of hours of bed rest I started getting antsy. With back-to-back timeshare presentations the vacation was more work than recreation. I wanted to do something, so I talked Mary into taking a drive south of Vallarta on highway 200. I had read somewhere on the Internet that the Mexican or US government had issued a travel advisory about highway 200 because of bandit roadblocks. I wanted to see for myself.
Highway 200 winds along the coast south of Vallarta for miles passing houses of the rich and famous like Rod Stewart. Then it drives inland crossing the base of a peninsula until it reaches the coast again. We followed the road for quite a ways inland as it rose up and up from one hairpin turn to another. I was glad to see a steady trickle of cars coming from the south. It showed cars were getting through. The one thing I did not want to see was another car in back of me, and a roadblock up ahead.
After a while, the constant curves actually grew tiring. I turned the car around and we retraced our route until we got back to Chico’s Paradise. Chico’s is an outdoor restaurant that Mary and I had previously visited with Barbara. It’s located in a ravine below the road’s surface, so you have to look sharp to find it. There’s a sign, but it’s dusty and half hidden by a bush.
You drive down a short dirt road to a parking lot where an attendant watches your car. Then you walk down some stone steps and onto a wooden platform surrounded by rails. You sit in equipale chairs overlooking a series of waterfalls. Two enormous rocks are in the water. There is a footbridge to the top of one of the rocks. There are no guardrails on the rock. You will never find such a setup in the US because the first person to fall from the rock would sue you out of business.
Young boys frolic in the water below you, holding their hands out with their fingers spread whenever they can catch your eye they want you to throw a ten-peso coin into the water so they can retrieve and keep it.
When we had come with Barbara, a parrot had sidled up to her. Barb hates parrots. Her mother had once had one, an ill-tempered creature named Corky. Barb had been holding Corky one time when it bit her. She instinctively reacted by throwing the animal away from her. The bird sailed through the air, hit the wall, and thudded to the floor unconscious. Her mother had finally sold the bird. I would have made parrot soup out of it. I bought Mary some earrings in memory of Barbara.
As we ate our meal we watched a boy playing in the water with a dog. The kid threw the dog in the water. He forced the dog head first over a waterfall. The dog didn’t seem to be particularly fond of this attention, but everywhere the boy went, the dog was sure to follow kind of like Bo Peep and her sheep.
The food was tasty, the scenery was good, the breeze was refreshing, but I was still surprised at the $34 bill. We went back to the apartment for the night.
The next day was to be our last in Puerto Vallarta. We were going on our free “booze cruise”.
We got to the marina by 9:00 am, paid the $1 entrance fee, and stood in line waiting for the ticket agent. We exchanged our certificate for two tickets and waited for the boat to show up. After a half hour or so it did and we boarded it.
Our boat, the Santamaria, was a two-story, three hulled, pontoon style vessel. Everybody seemed to want to stay downstairs because of the sun, so that’s what we did as well.
The music system was already blaring away as we hoisted anchor and headed out on the good old Oceano Pacifico. The crew started out with a few oldies like “Rock Around The Clock”, shifted gears and went into disco drive. And that’s where they stayed. It was the same beat, song after song and I detest disco. The beat was as relentless as a bill collector’s knock. After a while I fashioned some earplugs from a wadded up napkin, but the music was so loud it vibrated my chest. I could feel the furniture shake. I was miserable.
We stopped for a half hour so people could snorkel. Those who didn’t want to snorkel stared at things. Then we stopped at some beach to admire nature or some fool thing more staring at things.
The music was continuous, only broken now and then by the deejay whose favorite expression was “Ay Carumba!” Anyone who’s IQ was higher than room temperature or who had normal hearing was miserable. I finally went upstairs to discover there was only one loud speaker up there. I got behind it and as far away from it as possible. It was bearable.
The deejay announced we would soon be stopping at a village named Quimixto for two and a half hours for lunch. After lunch we could go see a waterfall, but it was a long way and we would be sure to want to rent a horse. There were only 25 horses available and there were more people in our group than that, so we should be sure to reserve a horse as soon as possible. It was pathetically transparent how he was trying to manipulate people. The worst part was that it probably worked.
Having already seen Niagara Falls I wasn’t the least bit interested in some two-bit waterfall especially if it involved a horse. I’ll reconsider my position when horses come with a steering wheel.
When we got there, we had to transfer into a smaller boat. Fortunately nobody fell into the ocean and drowned during this fun maneuver. The boat was grounded by running it onto the beach. Then we had the fun time of trying to get ashore without getting our shoes wet. I mostly managed it by jumping as far on shore as I could.
Before having lunch I thought I’d check out the restroom. I found four toilets in stalls built side by side, and yes, they did have running water. I went into the first stall and found the light switch was missing. I went into the second stall and saw there was a switch, but the bulb was broken only the filament remained. I was ready to close the door when I noticed there was no toilet paper - on to the third stall. Yes, this one had paper, but the toilet seat was missing. Ok, grab the paper and back to the second stall. Success at last!
The food was good. After lunch almost everybody went to look at the waterfall I swear, some people should be put on exhibit in a sheep museum. Mary and I stayed in the shade and watched the pterodactyls dive into the water. They folded their wings back just before hitting the water. They’re so light they barely go under the surface. This got boring so I started watching the waves. Mary noticed the tide was going out so I picked out a certain rock to see how long the water would keep washing over it. I was desperate.
Finally the waterfall people came back and one of the crew blew a whistle to signal us the boat was leaving. I took my shoes and socks off. We lined up and boarded our glorified rowboat. But a problem developed. The crewmember holding the boat had allowed a big wave to wash the boat too far on shore. We were stuck. A bunch of passengers still on land tried to push the boat free, but to no avail until a big passenger joined in then we got free. Transferring back onto the pontoon boat was fun too.
We settled in to enjoy more disco. The boozing down on the first floor got more serious. Some of the crew went around from passenger to passenger. They would put a big sombrero on a passenger’s head, squirt tequila sunrise into the passenger’s mouth for as long as he could stand it, grab the passenger’s hear in a headlock, shake the head as hard as possible, whip the sombrero off, and another crew member would hit the passenger on the head with a plastic baseball bat - then on to the next one.
They had some kind of contest downstairs involving balloons. Then they really cranked up the music. Even sitting behind the speaker I had to use my earplugs again.
As we approached the marina the deejay announced that the crew would be coming around for tips. When two guys came around with an empty liquor bottle crammed with money I was amazed at how elegantly they had solved a series of problems:
A no cost solution
- the bottle was free
- It would be hard to cheat by fishing money out some would be sure to be torn
- It encouraged paper tips coins wouldn’t fit
- Two guys collecting meant that money would go into the bottle instead of a pocket
- The long neck of the bottle made transactions very visible no palming of money
- A big bottle of money encourages larger donations
Brilliant improvisation seems to be a very Mexican characteristic. I really had to admire such creativity.
We caught a taxi back to the apartment. I was so glad to get off that boat. We ordered a pizza from Tarantino’s, which was the best pizza I’ve had in Mexico. Other Mexican pizza is pretty dismal they use a sausage called Chorizo, which just doesn’t taste right ( chorizo is apparently the only sausage that Mexicans make). An even worse abomination is pizza made with pineapple. Yuck. A good pizza chain is badly needed in Mexico.
The ride back to Guadalajara the next day was pretty much like going to Vallarta in reverse. We were glad to get home.