I arrived at my hotel in Puerto Vallarta one evening earlier this month, just as the "Mexican Fiesta" was ending. The obligatory guitarists in sombreros and fancy waist jackets were playing their last ballad. Soon, sunburned tourists headed past my chair on the pool deck carrying wads of pink cotton candy. A middle-aged woman shouted, "Let's party!" in a tone of forced gaiety, and I began to worry I'd made a bad choice of destinations.
Cancun, after all, is much closer for Washingtonians, as are many Caribbean islands. Why travel across the country to visit a foreign place that is indistinguishable from any number of high-rise resort areas nearer to home?
On Playa Las Tortugas, visitors help rescue baby turtles on the beach, then release them.
The answer came the next morning as I drove north, through volcanic highlands and coastal plains.
About 25 miles outside Puerto Vallarta, the road begins to meander through the Sierra Vallejo Mountains. Strangler figs arch across the road, forming leafy tunnels that frame vistas of mountains and sea. At roadside stands, bananas and huge jackfruit hang above artfully displayed mounds of papaya and pineapple.
An experienced Mexico traveler has promised that I will find authenticity in what he describes as the magical town of Santa Cruz. The town isn't mentioned in guidebooks, and I haven't booked a room for the night. I feel as if I'm on a true adventure, into the unknown.
Excitement mounts when I check the map and notice that the town of Ibarra sits just north of Santa Cruz. The novel "Stones for Ibarra" by Harriet Doerr, about a widow who settles in an old Mexican silver-mining town, is one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps I'll have time to run up the coast to see firsthand what she describes so poetically.
I repeatedly fight the temptation to turn onto dirt roads that presumably lead on the left to the beach, on the right to the mountains. But I have high expectations for the promised magical village and push on, delighted by what I see from my rental car windows along the road to Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz and Beyond
I'm too old to cry when faced with disappointment. Instead, I feel my blood pressure spike when I finally reach the dusty, broken cobblestone streets of Santa Cruz. I've been envisioning a lovely square surrounded by colonial buildings, perhaps a gazebo, definitely a fine old church. There is a town square: a flat slab of concrete with peeling paint. I drive every street looking for the promised magic, with frequent stops to avoid hitting lethargic dogs. This is way more authentic than anticipated.
I'd been told that surfers and hippies flocked here in the 1960s and taught the local women to make banana bread, and that they'd be selling it on the beach. But there is not a soul in sight.
On the outskirts of town I find the one Santa Cruz hotel up to Western standards, the Casa Manana. At about $40 a night, it's a find. Other guests sitting in beach chairs overlooking the ocean are chatty, reminding me that single travelers should seek out small hotels in out-of-the-way places.