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Escape From Paradise

The bus seemed to read each bump along the road like a blind man reading Braille as we rolled north up the highway, past tiny towns and cemeteries with decorated tombstones that climbed up hillsides in whites, magentas and azures. At Anclote, we checked with the driver to see what time the last bus left, then settled into beach chairs at a palapa, one of the thatched-roof beach restaurants where tourists plop for the day to down cerveza, lunch on ceviche and chips, read, sun and snooze. We smiled at the first beach peddler to arrive, a round woman with a gold tooth selling Indonesian batik cover-ups in screaming blood-orange, pink and turquoise.

The temperature was 80, the calm water warm as a bath. Soon we were moving as slowly as the open fishing boats that rocked at anchor nearby, pelicans perched on their bows.

Little Sayulita, gringo surfer's mecca, was our next bus venture. We deboarded and walked down the dirt roads of this sleepy town, a place that has retained a slow, dusty charm even as northern ex-pats and second-homers have swelled its population. Settling at the beach, we dined on spicy pollo mole and watched surfers cut waves next to Mexican fishermen spearing dinner.

After lunch, we wandered the tiny downtown, where horses were tied up in front of a freshly whitewashed storefront, near a new-age spa offering cellulite treatments and therapeutic facials. Dozens of scrawny, curly-tailed dogs with no leashes, no collars, no tags, no apparent neutering and seemingly no owners flopped over sideways on the main drag, seemingly dead. We caught the late-afternoon bus home and flopped over sideways ourselves on the resort's lounge chairs, to lazily contemplate the next day-tripping adventure.

I was ready for some serious foliage and, after a margarita or two, talked two friends into a bus trip to El Eden, the tropical highland jungle site where the pre-guv Schwarzenegger action movie "Predator" was filmed.

The next day, we made the eight-mile trip from El Centro (the center of PV) to the bus stop at Mismaloya, the pretty cove where "Night of the Iguana" was filmed. El Eden sits several miles above it, hidden in green. Our bus fare was only 45 cents. But the several-mile cab ride up the hill to El Eden was $20.

It was cab fare well spent. This was no happy little day hike. The ride up was as jerky as a carnival Mighty Mouse ride, with craters for potholes. The cabbie white-knuckled it, dodging pitiful-looking horses struggling uphill with sweating tourists atop them. After a 15-minute drive, we arrived at El Eden's huge, multilevel riverside palapa, where buff waiters in camo "Predator" T-shirts served beer and tacos, water schussing over rocks below them, and a sign warned: "Swim and Swining is on your own risk." The local kids beneath who were "swining" out on a rope into a deep-hole jungle pool paid no mind. I watched as they slid over rocks and down a waterfall, thinking about the resort's simulated, chlorinated version of this scene.

We decided we needed a less public immersion and hiked up a half-hour through the jungle to our own little pool, a sweet lush spot with water headed every which way and warm, flat rocks for lounging. The caw of birds and white noise of rushing water were like auditory perfume as we took turns climbing up rocks, grabbing a rope and swinging Tarzan-like out into the mountain-chilled water. I felt like a kid on a summer outing to a blood-swear, never-tell, top-secret swimming haunt. The spell lasted until we climbed back in the cab for our pricey Mighty Mouse trip back down the hillside, the bumpy beginning to our route home to the resort.

Our final bus adventure -- and our most remote -- was to Yelapa, a time-tumbled settlement accessible only by ocean or some serious mountain hiking. Until recently, it didn't even have electricity. The bus took us south to the country village of Boca de Tomatlan, where we caught a $12 water taxi to Yelapa, arriving about an hour after we set out from Puerto Vallarta. Twenty-two tourists crawled through surf and slipped over the gunwale into an open panga (motorboat), and we were off. Swells humped high and our overloaded boat took waves over the bow as we headed south. On our port side, the overgrown jungle seemed to crawl down rocks right into the ocean.

The deep-blue Pacific turned turquoise as we entered the pretty bay of Yelapa. We picked a palapa, ordered sea salads of fish and squid and octopus, and washed down the food with Pacifico beers. After a slice of heavenly still-warm coconut pie sold by a local beach vendor, it was time for a sweet afternoon's siesta.

I watched the frigate birds do slow wheels overhead and tried to be at one with my lounge chair. But my eyes kept wandering to the hillside town above our beach. It looked funky and old and inviting.

I roused a companion and we headed up, navigating steep, uneven steps onto narrow old cobblestone streets. Dodging waste from the local form of transportation -- burros and horses -- we wound past small, simple stucco homes and shops to the river, where women were washing clothes and hanging them on ropes strung from trees. They looked like the flags of all nations, red and green, blue and yellow.

A half-hour's hike took us to the town's famed waterfall, a 50-foot cascade that tumbled white over jumbled geologic layers into a shallow pool where village women and children splashed. The owner of a tiny palapa adjoining the falls invited us to take a seat and sample his raicilla, the local moonshine made in stills in the mountains above the village.

Creators take great pride in individual brews, which are said to have hallucinogenic possibilities. This one went down warm with a snappy back-bite and, for a second, I could have sworn I was in a different century, afloat on the rush of falling white water and the laughter of children.

The pangas leave Yelapa around 4 p.m. It seemed wrong to have to obey a clock in a place so timeless, but off we went, pouring onto the boat and pounding over humping seas to the bus stop at Boca de Tomatlan.

I knew the bus ride back would be our last, so I savored the journey, drinking in the shy smiles of Mexican kids peaking over bus seats, the sexy seƱoritas clanking aboard on stilettos, the murmur of surround-sound Spanish and the lurch of shifting gears as we leaned left and right around winding curves above the blue Pacific.

I closed my eyes and patted my torn vinyl seat with gratitude.

M.L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about Washington state wineries.

Details: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

GETTING THERE: Continental, American and Northwest airlines offer connecting service from Washington to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with round-trip fares starting at $620. You can easily catch a taxi, van or bus at the airport, four miles from downtown.

GETTING AROUND: Buses to downtown and outlying areas arrive often and come cheap. It's about 40 cents to go anywhere downtown, about $3.50 to $4 for an hour's journey north or south. Ask the concierge at your hotel for bus stops, routes and schedules.

WHERE TO STAY: Puerto Vallarta offers abundant luxury getaways in the north-end hotel zone, including a Sheraton, Westin, Camino Real and the popular themed Mayan Palace (Paseo de la Marina Sur 220, 800-292-9446, www.mayanpalace.com), with standard doubles starting at $165 a night. But travelers who want an authentic taste of local culture may prefer to head downtown, to a humbler hotel, such as the charming Hotel Molino De Agua (Ignacio L. Vallarta 130, 011-52-322-22219-57), with its lush gardens and rustic bungalows. Nightly rates start at about $100. Outlying areas also have beach sites for trailer and tent camping.

WHERE TO EAT: Eating is its own adventure in Puerto Vallarta, a city that wins international awards for its fine cuisine. Dining fare includes Italian, Thai, Austrian, French, Argentinean and, of course, Mexican at its freshest. A good place to start is Restaurant Row, on Basilio Badillo Street in central downtown. We kept returning to the venerable Roberto's (No. 283), for delicately whole fried snapper, and to Asaderos Grill (No. 223), for a cheap, all-you-can-eat Mexican meat barbecue.

INFORMATION: Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board, 888-384-6822, www.visitpuertovallarta.com.

-- M.L. Lyke


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