Day 6: The Loooooooooooove Boat

I realized today that the word for “pulp” in Spanish is “pulpa,” not “pulpo.” Thus, I’m pretty sure that yesterday I ordered a glass of orange juice “with extra octopus.” Delicious.

Today was tour day, specifically the Outdoor Adventure Tour from Vallarta Adventures. Ziplining! Boating! Rapelling! Getting really wet! What’s not to love? I signed up immediately.

At 8:30 a.m. I caught a taxi to the marine terminal, paid the 20 peso entry tax, and proceeded to have my backpack searched more thoroughly than at any airport I’ve ever been through in Mexico. Apparently there is a bigger dinner cruise hijacking problem than I was aware of (“Meet our demands immediately or we start throwing chicken kiev platters overboard one by one!”).

There was also a large sign warning against the kind of dangerous contraband you cannot bring into the marine terminal, including drugs, guns and Welsh Corgis:

Just before our tour was to begin, a giant (and I mean GIANT) cruise ship pulled into the harbor. I guess I knew intellectually that cruise ships were big, but actually watching one pull into a tiny harbor is awe-inspiring. Somehow they managed to nose into the harbor (that’s the “bow,” for those who are nautically inclined), rotate 90 degrees backwards so the rear of the ship (nautical term: “the butt”) was facing us, and slide sideways up agains the dock. Then Julie did a line of coke and Isaac flirted with Melba Moore.

We were met by the first of an estimated 7,400 tour guides assisting us on today’s tour. Vallarta Adventures is very well staffed and efficient. The guide told us we were going to have the best tour in Mexico and encouraged us to go around and say hi to people we didn’t know. I introduced myself to various other people on the tour, which included:

  • Three women and a man from Holland, who spoke loud Dutch and smoked cigarettes before the tour began.
  • A family of four from Canada, including two teen daughters who had the “slightly-put-out-by-being-in-Mexico-instead-of-home-in-Calgary-at-the-mall” look.
  • Another couple from Canada.
  • Yet another couple from Canada.
  • Various American couples.
  • Two college girls from Loyola.

As is my custom on boat tours, I made a quick survey of the group to decide who I would eat first if we ended up stranded on a deserted island. I decided not to make a firm call right away.

We all piled into an inflatable speedboat with twin 200 horsepower engines and off we went. The boat flew across the ocean, offering a nice view of Puerto Vallarta. After about half an hour we arrived at the tiny village of Boca de Tomatlán (Spanish translation: “Nyah nyah, tomato face!”), a place that features about three houses and two pelicans. One of the Canadian girls pointed at a pelican and said “Look, a stork!”

We piled off the boat and our next welcoming guide informed us that his name was “Tomás Cruzero” (get it?) and he did a little comedy routine before dividing us into Team Awesome and Team Great and piling us into trucks for the next leg of our journey. I was on Team Great, along with the Dutch, the college girls, two of the less-annoying Canadians (by a hair) and a doughy couple from Ohio.

The trucks are converted 1968 military 4×4 Unimogs, with a raised chassis and what they describe as “extra cushioning.” They enjoy the smooth ride you’d expect of, say, a Volkswagen tumbling down an embankment, with the kind of quiet, emissions-free operation you’d expect from a 747 crashing into Chernobyl. Needless to say, the 30 minute ride up to base camp was nothing short of terrifying, especially once the Unimog turned onto a narrow dirt road that could only charitably be described as “a road.”

Reaching base camp, we stowed all of our personal belongings in a locker and were fitted with climbing harnesses and helmets. A team of six tour guides had us in very good hands, cracking jokes such as “The helmets aren’t for you — they’re to protect the trees,” and “Your harness is a Mexican diaper.” Five of the tour guides were Mexican, and one was from Canada. They all spoke English, and apparently I was a huge outlier by actually speaking Spanish. They asked me where I was from and I said “Portland, Octopus.”

For the first leg of our adventure, we walked over to the mule area (there is probably a name for a mule area) and were given quick instructions on how to operate a mule. I mounted my mule (so to speak) and away we went. It had approximately 399-1/2 fewer horsepowers than the boat that had delivered us to Boca de Tomatlán, but it gamely scampered up the trail thanks to (or more likely, despite) my expert mulemanship. One of the college girls was in front of me, but her mule-riding skills were clearly inferior to mine and eventually I passed her and led the mule train up the hill. I can report that my mule was sure-footed, even-tempered, able-bodied and did not throw me to my death into a ravine. Those are really all the qualities I am looking for in a mule.

After 30 minutes we reached the end of the mule trail, and I bid my mule a fond farewell. It was time for ziplining. I am not super-awesome with heights, but when I saw how much redundant safety equipment was being used, I decided to temporarily suspend my terror. The first zip line was 800 feet, and I’m proud to say that I did not scream like Dakota Fanning, or suffer the ultimate fail of not making it to the end of the zip line.

The key to ziplining is to keep one hand gently on the rope, which you use to prevent yourself from spinning around (unless you’re into such things). You can also use this hand to brake by pulling down on the rope, but brake too soon before the finish and you end up coming to a halt and having to suffer the embarrassment of hauling yourself hand-over-hand backwards to the finish platform. One of the college girls experienced zipline fail twice, as did Dutch Mom.

With six tour guides in our party, several would go ahead and several would stay behind to make sure that everyone got through all of the ziplines. They were very efficient, and at certain points in the tour they would just clip you into something while you were standing around to ensure that you didn’t misstep and take the seven second vertical tour of the canyon.

After four or five ziplines, it was time for the rapelling portion of the adventure. Following a quick demonstration, we stepped up one at a time to rappel down a large waterfall. It was wet, slippery and challenging. Being cat-like in my dislike for getting wet, I managed to only get soaked up to the knees in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

Any lingering thoughts of staying dry went out the window, however, because the next zipline was a steep and direct plunge directly into a natural pool in the river. No steering. No braking, just a near free-fall into three feet of water. We all ended up completely submerged on the landing, and I got water up my nose, in my ears, and probably in other places. I am not a good swimmer, or even a good cannonballer.

We then had a free-fall rappel (straight down off a platform), a few rope bridges to cross, and then a final zipline and a short hike through the river back to base camp.

Back at the camp I changed into dry clothing, decided not to purchase a photo package showing me making “mule riding and zipline face” and piled back into the Unimog for the ride back down the mountain. On the way, we stopped at a tequila factory for a tequila tasting, in which everybody took shots of five different tequilas and then looted a 7-Eleven and overturned a burning car. No, I made up that last part, but it was enough tequila that if I’d sampled it I would have been rendered deceased. I am not a drinker, so only me and the Canadian teens (“Tastes like stork!”) abstained. The two college girls bought bottles to take home and a serious discussion broke out amongst the Canadians as to how much tequila they could take home without being subject to tax.

The boat ride back to Puerto Vallarta was very bumpy, as the afternoon ocean swells were in full swell, and between that, the mule ride, the Unimog, the Mexican diaper and the wet chafing I have to say that my butt (nautical term: “my stern”) is a little bit sore.

I caught a bus back home from the marine terminal and enjoyed watching the sunset while trying to guess how many days it will take my shoes to dry. I’m guessing “all of them.”

Day 5: It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Navidad

Someone turned on Christmas overnight. I woke up to lights and displays hung over the streets in the heart of Old Town, a giant Christmas tree-esque monstrosity near the main plaza, and today was apparently schoolchildren singing day, because I stumbled onto not one, but two school concerts on the malecón. Or possibly the same concert for 12 hours. That is not out of the question.

I also woke up to a surprise visitor — a wookie-sized, dying cockroach on the floor in the living room of my apartment. I though it was dead, as it was lying on its back in the manner favored by deceased insects and recently-passed Soviet heads of state, but every once in a while it would wave its legs or its antennae in a manner that suggested it was only waking up groggily from a very intense nap. (I would experience a similar sensation around 4:30 p.m., only with slightly less antennae-waving.)

Eventually I believe the cockroach fully expired, although I have not yet had the wherewithal to actually attempt to pick it up and throw it off the balcony. For all I know it’s playing possum and will eat my lungs if I get too close to it.

Not to scale, unless you are reading this on an IMAX screen:

After my Morning Cockroach Encounter I went out for a run, which lasted all of 13 minutes before the gentle call of the ocean and a profound laziness had me sitting on the malecón and enjoying the morning breezes. I eventually wandered over to the main plaza, where a group of schoolchildren were singing Christmas songs for peace. The songs were all recorded, with vocals, and the kids were singing along and adding backup. It had a slight Milli Vanilli quality to it, but the kids get a pass because they all wear school uniforms here which makes them 700% more adorable.

My favorite weird sculpture on the malecón:

On my way back home I discovered a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand just blocks from the apartment. (Note to grammar sticklers: “Fresh-squeezed” modifies orange juice in this context, not the stand.) The woman who worked there told me it was the best orange juice in Puerto Vallarta. I asked her if she would be there again tomorrow, and she told me yes, in fact she had been in that same spot for 20 years. It’s the best orange juice I’ve ever had. Fifteen pesos for a tall glass. I’ve got a new morning routine, and it’s spelled O-J!

I spent the rest of the day working, and then went out before sunset for a long dusky walk on the beach. I started by heading south to the gayest of the gay part of the beach (I spent a summer in San Francisco, and this makes the Castro District look like a Michele Bachmann rally), then winding my way north along the shoreline. The waves crash hard on that part of the beach, and it was a spectacular sunset walk with my toes in the sand, dodging the surf.

At the north end of the beach I sat for a while enjoying people watching and people-with-dogs watching, before wandering into town for a longer stroll.

Everyone seems to have a dog here, and of those dogs, approximately 99.99% are chihuahuas with sweaters. Many people have multiple chihuahuas (which still does not equal one normal dog). I have easily seen more chihuahuas in the last four days than the rest of my life combined. I think they must have a chihuahua vending machine at the airport. I don’t mean to speak ill of people’s four-legged companions, but if your dog requires a sweater in MEXICO you might want to rethink your choice in pets.

There was another (or perhaps the same) schoolchildren concert back at the main plaza tonight. I got to enjoy a particularly screechy rendition of “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” (in English), as well as whatever the translation of “Jingle Bells” is in Spanish. (It may be ”Tiny dogs, tiny dogs, let’s all have them spayed…”). 

The other highlight of my day (and this should give you an idea about how languid a Mexican vacation can be) was taking my laundry to the lavanderia down the hill to have it washed. It felt like a delightful splurge to spend $4 to have my laundry washed, neatly folded and returned to me in a bag. Considering that I packed three days worth of clothing and reached day five before doing laundry, that may account for why my apartment is attracting enormous, rapidly-dying insects.

Day 4: The Tortilla Queue

I learned today that the proper way to buy tortillas is by the kilo. My previous forays into tortilla purchasing had always revolved around requesting a certain number of tortillas, but apparently waltzing into the tortilleria and ordering 10 tortillas is akin to walking into a McDonalds and ordering one McNugget.

So today I bought a full kilo of tortillas ($1). I can safely report that tortillas can also be eaten by the kilo.

They had to change out the dough in the tortilla machine while I was there, so I got some extra time to observe the magic that is the tortilla maker. They plop about 100 pounds of tortilla dough in the top, and out the bottom come perfectly stamped tortillas which ride on a conveyor belt through a flaming oven and out into two neat, hot stacks. The woman in front of me was buying tortillas by the metric ton, so I had a good 10 minutes to watch the machine work.

I walked to the grocery store around noon today, which was very hot, but it gave me a chance to take photos of some of the sculptures on the malecón. I also saw a huge flock of magnificent frigatebirds soaring over a local fish restaurant. That’s the actual name: “magnificent frigatebird” — apparently it’s a bird with one helluva public relations department.

The grocery store was smaller than the MEGA, but still had everything I needed, if by “everything I needed” I were to need octopus, frozen whole pig heads and a world-class selection of sugar cereals. I picked up a few odds and ends and caught the bus back to Zona Romantica.

I spent the rest of the day working, then went out for a walk around the neighborhood at night (first burro sighting!). I also cooked up a batch of pollo con random spices found en el apartamento. It was surprisingly delicioso.

A sand sculpture:

The cacophony of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival.

Day 3: I Love the Nightlife

I got a good night’s sleep despite the presence of a chirping gecko on the wall of my bedroom (I think it was trying to sell me car insurance). I woke up, had a breakfast of bananas, tortillas and 14 kilos of sugar, and set out for a morning run along the malecón. There were a few other runners out in the morning, and I did about 25 minutes before running out of smooth concrete. The cobblestone streets here are seriously, aggressively cobblestoned. I tried running a half block on the street and found it more dangerous than trampoline dodgeball.

Returning home back up the hill (I have a habit of staying in places on hills — I like views), I took a shower in the condo’s semi-open-air shower (i.e. it has windows, so you can choose between privacy and “Hey, Mexico, meet my penis!”) and then put in a good day’s work. Once again I’m taking a working vacation, and thanks to the magic of the Internet and Skype I’m fairly sure that half people in my morning phone conference were unaware that I was calling from south of the border. Technology is grand.

After work (and the requisite siesta) I went out to explore the malecón at night. It was jam-packed with people. Some tourists, yes, but mostly Mexicans, both locals and tourists. Thousands of people stretched out over the mile and a half, plus food vendors at every stretch, children playing tag, lovers sitting on the benches overlooking the ocean and large bats swooping down occasionally for bugs.

After about a 10 minute walk I reached the main square near downtown. Here there were many street performers, mimes, human statues, hawkers, ice cream carts and locals selling artwork. It’s a giant carnival atmosphere. The downtown main plaza is filled with booths selling food and jewelry, crafts booths for kids and sugar as far as the eye can see.

This was also the last night of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival, which Puerto Vallarta celebrates every year from December 1-12, so downtown was extra-packed with people in a lengthy parade to the Our Lady of Guadalupe cathedral. There is singing and floats and tubas and every time a new group reaches the cathedral the bells ring. It’s a quite the hootenanny.

Directly across from the cathedral, there’s an amphitheater where each night a different cultural act performs. I saw a mime who used an audience volunteer in an hilarious motorcycle riding act, a fantastic mariachi band and a group of traditional dancers. I’m pretty sure if I go back every night I will see something new every time. Awesome!

I finished the evening by eating five tacos from a street vendor. They have a giant chunk of meat on a vertical spit, and a pineapple above that, all roasting on coals. When you place your order they heat tortillas on a grill, then slice off meat and pineapple onto the tortillas. If you order them “con todo” you get onion and cilantro, and then you can add hot sauce, radish, cucumber and lime to taste. Total price for five tacos: $3.61.

So morning walks, evening arts and taco time, and daytimes with warm ocean breezes, sitting on the patio overlooking the ocean. I could get used to this. I leave you for tonight with a giant sand sculpture, one of many alone the malecón.

Day 2: Pour Some Sugar on Me

Mexicans love their sugar. It’s everywhere. From the street vendors selling pastries and deep fried doughy confections, to the ingredient list of every food in the grocery store. Lunch meat? Check. Plain yogurt? Check. The word “Natural” in Spanish apparently means “Naturally, this food contains sugar.” This is not the place to visit if you are following a low-sugar diet.

I woke up today to discover the beautiful view from my condo, overlooking Banderas Bay. It’s always an adventure to fly into a new city at night and then discover what it looks like the next morning. Today did not disappoint. Puerto Vallarta is at the same time beautiful and quaint, crazy and crowded, cobblestoned and touristy. After visiting Guanajuato last year it feels familiar and different all at the same time.

It’s also WARM! Delightfully mid-80s in mid-day, with pleasant ocean breezes so it never feels too hot. Mornings and evenings are in the high 60s and low 70s. You really can’t get any nicer than this. 

Puerto Vallarta is very, very gay friendly. It’s apparently the gay-friendliest place in Mexico, and the area I’m staying in (Zona Romantica — the renamed “old town”) is gay ground zero. There are many, many, many gay couples wandering around, old and young, clubs and shops specifically catering to gays, and a distinct lack of Rick Perry 2012 bumper stickers. It’s a great vibe.

The condo I’m renting is owned by (I presume) a gay couple from New York, and there there are helpful touches here like the Gay Guide to Puerto Vallarta booklet, stacks of GQ and Details magazines, and lovely decorative touches. I’m a straight guy on a gaycation!

Waking up this morning I went for a walk down the hill from the condo to the water, and then took the long walk along the malecón (boardwalk, though it’s concrete) into downtown. The malecón is one of the prime features of Puerto Vallarta, and it’s fantastic. It runs about a mile and a half from Zona Romantica, into the heart of downtown. It’s wide and filled with sculptures and benches and palm trees and giant pelicans.

First thing Sunday morning it was fairly empty, and I enjoyed a leisurely walk to the end of the boardwalk, and then doubled back home along the city streets getting the lay of the land.

By the time I got back to my neighborhood I was very hungry, and I finally stumbled onto the neighborhood tortilleria and took care of that problem with a purchase of 20 tortillas. I then ducked into the neighborhood grocery store, which has a big sign on the window that says “Despite what you may have heard, we are not going out of business.” All evidence on the inside pointed to the contrary. There was a distinct lack of actual food. I bought a funny-looking purple thing that might have been a sweet potato, but realized that I was probably going to have to search for food elsewhere.

After a lengthy siesta, it was time to go on a quest for groceries. The new, modern Mega grocery store is not within walking distance, so I strolled a few blocks to catch a bus. The bus system in Puerto Vallarta could best be described as “ad hoc.” There are apparently two bus lines (blue and green), and each has dozens of ramshackle, loud, smelly buses that run on routes around the city with destinations hand-painted on the windshield. Luckily, a bus comes along about every 30 seconds, and for the most part they all run down the main drag between town and the area where the grocery store is, so I hopped on a bus that looked plausible and paid the 6 – 1/2 peso fare (50 cents). The bus driver makes change.

It took about 20 minutes or so to wind through town to the Mega. It’s a modern grocery store along the lines of a Fred Meyer, only with slightly more chicken feet for sale and way more sugar in everything. The meat section was expansive. The vegetable section, less so. I still need to figure out where to get good fresh fruits and vegetables around here.

I caught the bus back home and took siesta #2, followed by an evening exploring the malecón at night, but I will save that for the next blog.

Back to Mexico

Well, here I am back in Mexico again. I’d sort of planned to go somewhere else this year, but the wanderlusties struck about two weeks ago and I found out that it was cheap to fly to Puerto Vallarta, so I grabbed a plane ticket and here I am.

For those just joining this blog, last year I spent two-plus weeks in Guanajuato, a lovely colonial town in the highlands of Mexico. It was small, quaint, artsy, friendly and butt-freezing cold at night. This year I decided I did not want to be cold, so I chose the beach — I’m ready to kick back and be warm. Portland obliged by being freezing this week. I could not be happier about sitting here with the doors wide open to the veranda, at midnight, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

Today was an easy travel day. All the flights ran on time, there was free wi-fi in the Phoenix airport during my layover and I breezed through Mexican customs. I packed super-light this year, so I have one bag that isn’t even very full. Expect multiple blogs about doing laundry “soon.”

Upon landing at the Puerto Vallarta airport, we left the plane via a stairway and were ushered onto a bus which shuttled us (I’m not kidding), maybe 500 feet to the terminal. It was about 1/20th of the distance I had to walk between gates in the Phoenix airport. It took longer to herd people onto the bus than it would have taken to walk to the terminal.

Upon passing through customs, you walk through a surreal “timeshare room” where you are assaulted by timeshare salespeople offering a “taxi” (and presumably a lengthy sales pitch). The entire room is done up in stark whites, and the salespeople wear white as well, so the effect is similar to what I imagine it must be like to alight in heaven (assuming heaven offers timeshares and everyone speaks English with a Mexican accent). After skirting TimeShare Zone, I was assaulted by slightly-less-officious taxi drivers, and I arranged for a cab to my apartment.

The taxi driver was chatty, in Spanish and English. We made a stop so he could buy peanuts for his wife and then took a detour because he wasn’t paying attention to where he was going and we needed to avoid a large festival. I think this is what he said. My Spanish is still rusty. I might have been kidnapped.

It was a bit of a challenge to find the apartment, as addresses in Mexico are often just expressed based on cross streets, and he didn’t, technically, know where either of the cross streets were. Eventually we found the apartment and I got myself situated. The apartment is nice. It’s night, but I have a lovely view out the window of a lighted display of someone riding a seahorse.

Tomorrow I will go find food and get the lay of the land, and hope I can find my way back here.