If you've never been to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico you could be missing one of life's better diversions. Situated on the Bay of Banderas, PV is a glorious place to visit, even if it is a little too popular with the tourist trade. I spend most of my time in Viejo Vallarta, the old part of town south of the Rio Cuale, where prices are (at least prior to several years ago) generally much cheaper, the ambience is much more Mexican, and you don't have to look at those godawful crappy tourist hotels that line the marina and north end of town. People are very friendly, the food is to die for, and you can even get a good cup of coffee there now, too. (Seattle java junkies take note.)
HOWEVER...My Winter '99 trip was a bit of a reality check.
The last five years have been boom years for Mexican tourism. People who weren't sure about the peso a few years ago have decided it's still a major bargain. That would be nice if it were true, but it ain't necessarily so. While the peso's value has dropped to 10 to the US dollar (versus 7.1 in January 1996), prices have skyrocketed for many things. And the fact so many tourists are showing up has led to some particularly distasteful price-gouging.
First of all, WAY too many people are picking Puerto Vallarta these days. What used to be a relatively quite resort town with a robust high-season tourist peak has turned into a veritable zoo of humanity. It's frequently so crowded you have trouble walking down the street, and the traffic noise, pollution and congestion have reached insane proportions.
It didn't take long for the hotels to figure out the what the influx meant to them. As a result, prices for hotel rooms have gone ballistic, in some cases doubling overnight. Here are several of the more flagrant examples:
This was pretty typical all over town. I finally managed to find a hotel room just off the beach for $25/night, but the conditions left something to be desired. The hotel itself was fine, but the street noise -- on a dead end street, no less -- was intolerable. You name it: taxis honking at five in the morning, garbage trucks cranking up at 5:30, the girlie bar I didn't know about til it was way too late -- directly across the street -- thumping away til 6 a.m., and by 7:00 the construction crew next to the bar started drilling, pounding and slamming things around. There's nothing quite like the sound of a huge piece of plate steel hitting the concrete to perk you up. Serene, peaceful Mexico? Not Vallarta, kiddies! Not anymore.
Needless to say, after about a week of this overpriced, noisy mess I'd had enough. I hopped a bus and headed south towards Barra de Navidad and Melaque. (See my comments on the buses further down.) These two small towns are normally pretty laid back and peaceful, but you know what? Not anymore!
The October '96 issue of Outside magazine (circulation half a million) cover-featured the Costalegre strip from Sayulita to Barra, and even exposed tidal-wave-devasted La Manzanilla. It raved about one La Manzanilla woman's rental cottages (she only has two) as being "the deal of the century." In the first week of the issue's publication, the woman received 150 faxes from people who'd never even heard of the place before. That would be 150 of the exact type of people I go to Mexico to get away from! I don't want to spend my precious vacation anywhere near morons like that. Call me an asshole if you like, and I will surely do the same for the writers and editors of Outside magazine, not to mention the vacuous dipthongs who constitute their readership. (I promise -- after I get done with this tirade I'll switch to decaf for a couple days, okay?)
You have to understand what La Manzanilla was like in late '96. It was slammed by three successive 20-foot tidal waves in October, 1995, following a 7.3 earthquake. There were two remaining restaurants in the entire town. We ate at one of them and were attacked by a horde of flies so aggressive they acted like they hadn't seen a good cowpie in decades -- they almost lifted an entire red snapper off my plate! The strip of former beachfront shops and eateries is still in near-total ruin, with rebuilding plans sketchy at best. There are only two small hotels in town, and one of them is undergoing extensive remodeling. There is no post office. There were no street lights at night because the mayor neglected to pay the state utility bill. This is what Outside magazine thought was a great place to hang out! Oh sure, my friend's cottages are very nice, but that's because they are high up on a bluff above the beach (with no beach access, btw), and escaped the fury of the quake and tsunamis.
Now, however, much to the chagrin of many locals, La Manzanilla is being bought up by yuppies and speculators from all over the world. New roads are being bulldozed high on the bluffs for exclusive "view" homes, and the character of this once quiet backwater is being irrevocably destroyed. The government has facilitated the land rape by running a newly-paved road into La Manzanilla. Even worse, a similar stretch of fancy blacktop now encourages "easy access" (read: exploitation and over-use) of glorious Tenacatita Beach, just a few miles north. I was horrified to find two new hotels on the beach in January 2000. Unfortunately, it's just a taste of worse things to come.
Btw, I noticed the story in Outside conveniently avoided mentioning the mega-mosquitos which frequent the near-by swamp. These are bugs on steroids, first cousins to the flying meat-eaters of San Blas. They also inhabit the swamp between Melaque and Barra, and the laguna on the back side of Barra. Some of the more insidious members of the clan are known to carry Dengue Fever. Nuthin' but a pawty, eh Outside?
As for the formerly pastoral little town of Sayulita, here's what my pal Brett had to say after his Jan. 2002 trip:
"Back from mexico now. had a great time. I was all over the place. fantastic weather and not all that many people. but still too many gringos for my taste. barra was great - I had more fun there than anywhere else. there are still some cheap places left to stay, although not that great. PV was cool, especially with some of the xmas stuff they had going on. LOTS of little hotties roaming around. I also spent some time in punta de mita. I caught some great waves there and met some really nice people. sayulita was a way too gringo for me. those who weren't gringos wanted to be. nobody spoke spanish. I felt like I was in san diego or something. it was very pretty though."
So, if you really like San Diego and can't habla even a poquito of Espaņol, take yer tourista ass up to Sayulita, and leave the rest of the coastline for people who appreciate it.
Melaque is officially known as San Patricio-Melaque. The 1995 earthquake knocked down the Casa Grande, a coyote-ugly orange-colored hotel complex. They haven't even begun to clear away the rubble yet. That hasn't stopped a massive influx of Canadians, Americans and a smattering of Europeans. I don't know where they're getting all their information, but it's gotta be out of the same book. Case in point: The Santa Maria Hotel.
In past years, the Santa Maria has been a refuge for those of us who disdain ostentatious tourist traps. True, the level of ostentatia in Melaque is relatively low to begin with, especially since the demise of the Casa Grande. But the Santa Maria was kind of like a haven for "travellers," as opposed to tourists. The rooms were always cheap, and there were always plenty to go around. Not any more.
For the first time in the memory of many of the regulars, some of whom have stayed there for 12 years, the Santa Maria is totally booked up! Many of the regulars couldn't even get rooms. And we're not talking luxury rooms here, people. We're talking small, exceedingly basic facilities. Some rooms still exhibit earthquake damage five years later. Meanwhile, room prices last season soared 80% for a single, 150% for a double. The latest report is that the monthly rate has jumped another $50, which is a lot for the Santa Maria. I predicted this, btw. The only communal kitchen sustained major damage in the '96 quake. About two years ago, it was knocked down, along with the two ocean-front bungalows. Now the space is occupied by -- that's right -- a new swimming pool! Fifty feet from the blue Pacific Ocean with water temps in the 80's, and these guys put in a freakin' swimming pool. Give me a break. You want a swimming pool, go to Nuevo Vallarta! Or Pasadena, fer chrissakes.
But hey, let's look at some of the perks you get for those grand higher prices.
Though many of us really treasure our "winter camp" time in Melaque, we have sadly concluded that the area has been "discovered," largely by elements we consider undesirable. To make matters worse, the Mexican military is getting way too frisky for our taste. The Army and Navy were routinely buzzing the beaches of Puerto Vallarta and Melaque with low-flying black helicopters the entire time I was down there in '99. Extremely annoying at best, paranoia-inducing at the other extreme. This, coupled with a new 2000-man army garrison being constructed in Melaque, has given me cause to reconsider future visits to the area. The fact that trucks full of 18-year-old Uzi-toting khakis now circulate through the streets of once-placid Melaque is too reminiscent of Banana Republic power-tripping. When I see a dozen of them trooping up the beach in front of my hotel it's even more unnerving. Drug interdiction? Yeah, right. Like all those drugs down in Chiapas. Too bad...it was a nice place while it lasted.
Your arrival. The cabbies are always scamming at the airport. They tell you it's government regulated pricing, and that they can be fined 10,000 pesos for unauthorized pick-ups at the airport, but that's mostly a load of crap. Anybody who knows Mexico knows you make your own deals. If they try to nick you upwards up 80 pesos for a ride to downtown Vallarta, tell them you'll take the bus for a peso and a half! The bus stop is one block from the airport. If you're travelling light, it's a great time to walk out to the main highway and grab the local. And if you're hungry, there's a dynamite Pollo Rostizado place in the Marina strip mall near the bus stop. (NOTE TO ALASKA AIRLINES PASSENGERS: As you've no doubt recently discovered, Alaska's food has gone way downhill. Of course, pretty much everything related to Alaska Airlines sucks these days. They won't serve you seafood, but if you're not careful they'll make fish bait out of you.) In anticipation of this, I hit the pollo place before my flight home. It was a stroke of genius. For the next 7.5 hours (counting Customs in San Jose) all we got from Alaska was a ham and cheese on a bun and a pack of pretzels!!! I saved them. The bun is still in my freezer, and one of these days I'm going to have it dipped in lucite and sent to Alaska CEO John Kelley for use as a paperweight! Or maybe I'll just throw it at him not copping to his company's dismal maintenance record.
DON'T exchange money at the airport cambio! Though they are now closer to the in-town exchange rate, they sometimes have service fees. Exchange only what you absolutely need, then wait til you're in town. Best rates are at the banks and American Express, and some friendly cabbies will stop at a cambio on the way through town so you can get a better deal than at the airport.
Wanna bring booze back to the U.S.? Kewl. Best places to buy in PV are the La Playa Super stores, which used to be a single warehouse at the north end of the Malecon. Now they're all over town. They've got a great selection of tequilas, as well as other liquors, and they whup on everybody in the price department. You'll be shocked, however, to discover the price of a liter of Herradura Reposado, which was 107 pesos two years ago, is now close to 300p! The Herradura company has "adjusted" to this outrageous inflation by introducing a 750ml bottle, which sells at the same or higher price than the liter used to.(To paraphrase Alaska Airlines, "For the same price you just get less.") I changed brands. ***NOTE: DON'T buy the Herradura "Gold Natural Tequila" 750ml at the airport duty free shop! While it's half the price of what it costs in the States, it's crap. The bottle I brought home in March 2002 tasted *nothing* like the same stuff I've been buying up here for years. In fact, it doesn't even taste like tequila. Somebody's dumping bad booze on an unsuspecting market. (Tequila aficionados may already be aware that high-end producer Porfidio was shut down by the government liquor control in June 2001 for producing sub-standard tequila. Some D'Reyes was also seized.)
*Big Tip! If you spot El Jimador tequila, give it a shot. It's Herradura bottled under a "hidden" label, and sells for substantially less. Outstanding stuff, makes great margaritas..
Now then, about U.S. Customs. Maybe somebody can explain this to me, but there no longer seems to be any regulation or restriction about bringing back booze to the U.S. In '99 I picked up an extra couple of bottles on my way out of PV, and was more than willing to declare them and pay duty when I got into SEA-TAC. But there was absolutely no reference to alcohol on the Customs forms. Remember those old flags about a one-liter limit? Gone. Nothing on the forms, nothing on the airport signs, nada nowhere. It's down to:
That's it. Whazzis, a NAFTA perk? (One of the few, no doubt.) In '97 I flew back through Houston, and the Customs guy asked me how much booze I was bringing back. My couple bottles of mezcal didn't seem to faze him, but this was AFTER the Continental agent told me there was no longer a limit. Go figure.
Some hotel prices in 2002? I listed 'em before, but this year all bets are off. Caveat emptor.
Across the street and around the north corner from Andale on Olas Altas there are several carts. All of them are good, but my favorite is "Peter and Carmen," usually the second cart in the row. For ten pesos you can absolutely pig out; for 20 pesos...well, for 20 pesos you'll need to have a couple friends wheel you home. Ask for extra garlic (ajo) on your chicken quesadillas/burritos, and tell Carmen "El Jefe sent me." It's a groovy kinda garlic thing we got going.
And fer crying out loud, don't be one of those anal-retentive Lysol-packin' gringos who thinks everything you eat in Mexico is going to either kill you or make you upchuck. Puerto Vallarta has a very sophisticated water purification system, and fresh-cooked hot foods are as healthy there as they are anywhere else. I've never gotten sick from food in Mexico. Too much beer and tequila, yes. Food, no. You're probably more likely to hurl from eating the nachos at Safeco Field. In any case, if I catch you in the McDonald's on the Malecon I will bust yer ass all the way back to Peoria.
Some merchants are trying to tack on service charges for people who use plastic. One place was going to add 10% just because I wanted to use my AMEX card. Well, there's an American Express office in PV, just off the Malecon a block up from the Hard Rock. They didn't take kindly to the usury news. They said the merchants are not supposed to upcharge, and AMEX will go after anyone they find doing it. VISA and MC users can get nicked 3-6%.
Looking for the U.S. Consulate? It's moved. It's now on the third floor of a building on the main zocalo. Stand in the zocalo, face south, look for the new Subway sandwich shop (yeah, sorry...for real...and there's a Domino's, too). It's the entry just to the left. If you think security was tight there before, imagine what it must be like post-9-11. In '99 I had to leave just about everything in the outer office. Now, who knows? Plan to be there a while.
More good places to eat cheap:
And by all means, if you like fresh seafood, hit the marlin-on-a-stick guys on Los Muertos beach. Their stands are just south of the Tropicana Hotel's beachfront. I always go to the stand to get my fish, and pick out the one I want. Then I tell him "muy caliente," so I get it good and hot. Hit it with some Salsa Huichol and fresh lime. Mmmmm-mmmmm. (Man, I'm starting to get seriously hungry.) Price? Ah, well, here we go again with the PV Sting. Remember when fish on a stick was 7 pesos? When was that, five years ago? Then four years ago it was 10p. In '99 year it started out at 15, but the day before I left (early March) I ordered up two sticks and got nailed 40 pesos!!! When I looked at Berto in shock and asked what was up with that, he said, "The price of fish goes up during Lent. It costs us more." Yeah? 33%??? I doubt it. Does the fish get a cut of that?
Word of caution: If you're going to "party" in PV, wear your "party hats." Big study published a couple years back asserts that PV has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection. Don't do anything stupid. (See also: Too much tequila, mezcal, and raicilla.) A common saying among the locals (both Mexican and gringo) is, "Don't sleep with anyone who has a tan."
Okay, let's deal with the bus thing. I routinely take the express bus when I head south towards Manzanillo. The Primera Plus bus ride that used to cost 70 pesos is now probably up to 200. But that's not the worst of it. You used to be able to catch the ride in Old Vallarta, right outside the ticketing office. The city decided all those buses were a nuisance, blocking streets and idling for hours without emission controls. So, they built a new bus terminal. Good idea, right? WRONG! They built it all the way back north of town PAST THE AIRPORT! I discovered this in a very rude fashion a couple year back. My hotel was three blocks from the old ticketing office, but I couldn't just do the easy walk anymore. I had to get up an hour early (5 freekin A.M.) to take a taxi back out to the new terminal. You see what's coming here, right? Another 70+ peso hit for a taxi ride on top of a 122 peso hit for the bus ride. Plus an extra hour of travel time, because the taxi takes you half an hour out, then the bus takes half an hour back, RIGHT PAST THE OLD TICKETING OFFICE!!! Why? Because there's only one way out of Vallarta southbound, and the buses have to go that way, too. So, I'm already cranky from being up too early, having to travel an extra hour and getting NO coffee because they don't open the concession stand at the terminal that early! AAARRRGHHHHH!!!!!! Then I'm looking out the bus window as it weaves down the hill from the freeway bypass, and starts to make the turn to head south. Huh? What's this??? THE BUS STOPS AT THE CORNER AND LET'S A BUNCH OF LOCAL PEOPLE ON, MEXICANOS WHO ALREADY KNEW THE THING HAD TO COME BACK THIS WAY!!! D'OH! I tell ya, boyz and girrrlz, I shoulda seen this one a mile away, so to speak. The locals can't afford the gouges with taxis nearly doubling the cost of their bus tickets. That's for stupid gringos with lots of money for tequila shooters. So this year I ain't going to no cockamamie airport bus terminal. In fact, it's less hassle -- and probably cheaper -- to take a 2nd class bus from Old Vallarta to the first express stop south of town. You not only save at least an hour of travel time, but you can rest up and drink a cold cerveza while you wait.
As of January 16, 2000: Got an e-mail from a pal who says the Elite express bus is now picking up people at the Pemex gas station, just before the southbound hiway entrance. Wonder how many people had to bitch before that happened.
Comments, updates and suggestions always welcome. Meanwhile...
Hasta la vista, baby!