No Crowds? No Rush? In Mexico, No Problemo
Sunday, December 3, 2006
It takes a day or two in La Manzanilla to spot the symptoms. There's the flat tire on the rental car that has gone nowhere in seven days, the book buried in the sand facedown, the gringo who can't remember what day it is, the old local waving hola from his hammock.
Expats call the phenomenon "the great sand suck."
Extreme cases become the stuff of legend, like the Oregon tourist plopped in a beach chair who couldn't decide whether to go barefoot or wear sandals. He started mulling the question in the morning. At 5 p.m. he was still in the same spot. Same chair, one sandal on, one off. "I meant to go someplace," he said with a shrug.
Even the roosters seem afflicted in this dusty little Mexican fishing village, a hushed-up spot that's still off the clock and, for a while yet, off the tourist track. The scrawny birds go off at all hours -- midnight, 2 a.m., breakfast time, lunchtime, margarita time -- their hoarse, halfhearted cock-a-doodle-doos signifying nothing in particular.
"Nothing" may have a bad name north of the border, but down here on Mexico's west coast, some four hours south of Puerto Vallarta along the Costa Alegre (the Happy Coast), finding the dada of nada is a fine pastime. "I'm listening to the space between the waves," a music-teacher friend told me, planted in her chair on Day 4 of vacation, eyes closed, face to the sea, listening to the gentle surf that rises, sighs and foams across a long, low-slope beach.
La Manzanilla isn't fancy, not even close, despite a growing number of handsome architect-designed rentals and a smattering of new galerias. There are no resorts, no sports bars, no souvenir shops, no time-share pitches, no prepackaged special deals. Regulars, who urge others to keep this pretty hideout secret, pack pesos: There are no banks, no bank machines, no plastic, no traveler's checks.
What you get for those pesos -- and you won't need many -- are friendly townsfolk used to mingling with gringos, a dreamy sweep of beach backed up to tropical jungle, and time, the kind of soak-in time that untangles thoughts, unknots muscles and transforms foot-tapping Type A's into Type Z's, full on empty.
Angling for Nothing
Laid-back La Manzanilla is often confused with the busy port of Manzanillo, less than an hour to the south. That "a" at the end makes all the difference. Big Manzanillo has a population of more than 100,000. Little "La Manz" may have 3,500 in peak season, including winter residents, native locals and the Mexicans who come from inland, their trucks packed with inflatable water toys, kids and grandparents riding overstuffed chairs in the pickup bed.
The town lies cupped in the protected southeastern reach of the Bay of Tenacatita, and even water-sissies like me can spend hours boogie-boarding the soft, rolling wavelets, riding right up onto the beach, with a bathing suit full of sand and the kind of silly grin you see on a 6-year-old, sure of her safe delivery to shore.
I've been coming to La Manzanilla three years running, staying in beautiful beachfront suites for less than $100 a night in high season. Get off the beach and you can easily halve that. If you hit the street taquerios for $1.50 tacos or cook up a nice pot of refrieds with serrano chilis to put inside the fresh tortillas made steps down the street, you can enjoy slacker paradise on a comfy budget.
Pencil in at least a couple nights out, though. The town has a good, eclectic mix of restaurants serving traditional Mexican dishes, super-fresh seafood and chef creations such as shrimp and spinach crepes, Thai curries and octopus salad.
The first year, I came to La Manzanilla because I'd heard about the fishing. The waters offshore teem with tuna, marlin, sailfish, snapper and dorado, gorgeous pescado that leap neon yellow and green and blue from the warm Pacific. Fishermen cast small, weighted seine nets, or pole-fish with line and jig to bring in roosterfish right off the beach. Locals also offer guided fishing trips in open boats.