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Guide to Little Known Getaways on Mexico's Tropical West Coast
by Allan Hardman

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Ahh, Mexico. Land of romance and adventure . . . Land of luxurious beaches and tropical breezes . . . of wonderfully warm people and rich traditions. Oh, but wait! Maybe Mexico makes you think of malaria and Monteczuma's revenge, or revolutions and bandidos, and of phones that never work. Well, you might be partly right, but let me share with you some of the Mexico that I love. If you know Mexico, you might know some of these places, and if you have never been, well, let me encourage you.

"Vallarta" is probably the easiest gateway to the tropical Pacific Coast of Mexico, and one of the best destinations for a first trip. You can fly direct from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta in 3 1/2 hours. When you step out of the plane, juicy tropical air embraces you like you wish your lover did. Exquisite. Mariachi music drifts to you from somewhere. Palm trees sway in the breeze. You are in a different world.

Puerto Vallarta still has its cobblestone Mexican charm and small town warmth (along with its big American hotels and parasailing on the beach if you must), and English is spoken in most places. Stay in the old part of town (El Centro) and avoid the hotel strip. Hotel Posada Roger is clean and comfortable and costs under $20 a night. In addition to its beaches, there are lots of shops with beautiful silver jewelry and endless possibilities for shopping at reasonable prices, and a wonderful malecon (Mexican boardwalk) for strolling in the evening.

For do-ers, Vallarta offers activities like horseback rides to waterfalls, snorkeling, jeep tours, boat trips to secluded coves and to nearby Yelapa, the roadless, phoneless hideout of many an American. The food in Vallarta is great. You'll find everything from street vendor mystery meat tacos to nice restaurants serving some of the finest seafood you may ever eat.

If you are a seasoned traveler that speaks some Spanish, or a willing adventurer, grab a bus going north from Puerto Vallarta and get off after about 1.5 hours in Las Varas. Take a cheap taxi for an amazing half hour ride to Chacala and Mar de Jade. Chacala is a small fishing village on the sweetest little cove and beach you ever saw.

Mar de Jade (Sea of Jade) is a modest American/Mexican project, part hotel and part social project. You can stay as a tourist, as Spanish student, do work exchange, hold your workshop there, be a doctor volunteer in their free medical clinic in Las Varas, or any combination thereof. Tourist prices are about $45 per day, including 3 great meals served on a patio overlooking the beach, and also including all the beautiful beach and tanning sun you could possibly want. It's a place to get very involved, or a place to go and be, to just hide out.

For the more adventurous, in Las Varas change buses for the rattling chicken-on-board ride up the beautiful jungle coast road to Santa Cruz, Nayarit (about 90 minutes, depending). The small village of Santa Cruz is set comfortably behind it's rocky beach, surrounded by tropical mountains covered with rambling jungle and banana plants. It is pure Mexico: cobblestone and adobe, and some of the friendliest people I have ever known.

Except for the very comfortable motel Brisas Marina, which sprang up recently like a mushroom, accommodations are limited to rustic thatched palapas, or simple bare rooms. Restaurants are vague, mostly limited to tacos or ceviche on a card table, curbside (depending on the season). There's always fresh fruit, good beans and tortillas, and fresh fish and shrimp. (Note: there is no parasailing available in Santa Cruz!)

One more possibility worth suggesting for your perfect beach holiday is Barra de Navidad. I would recommend Barra for beginners or for seasoned travelers. (I've been sworn to secrecy about Barra by the aficionados that already love it, so keep this to yourself!)

You fly direct to Manzanillo (south of Puerto Vallarta) and take the Volkswagen shuttle bus north to Barra. Another quiet cobblestone village, this one is big enough to have several pleasant, low-key hotels and some very good restaurants. Some English is spoken. There is a nice beach for swimming and sunning, and a huge lagoon with little restaurants standing on stilts over the water. Romantic, warm and luscious!

There are two seasons in coastal Mexico: wonderfully warm and very hot. Winter in the U.S. is a perfect time there (late October to early April). Summer in the U.S. is really summer there: very hot plus rain and mosquitoes. Consider visiting higher elevations in the summer, such as Guadalajara and its circle of colonial cities, or Oaxaca.

Mexico's reputation for being a cheap vacation place is still true, although it is no longer nearly free, like it once was. With the devaluation of the peso, the value of the tourist dollar went up considerably. Hurry, go before prices go up again. It's simple and hassle-free to travel to and in Mexico. Of course, a little Spanish helps, but take a phrase book and an open heart, and you'll find that your needs will be met, and then some.

Allan Hardman, CHT is an Alchemist and Hypnotherapist in private practice in Sonoma County, California. He recommends The Pacific Coast of Mexico by Memo Barroso for further reading. You can reach him at (707) 528-1271 or visit


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