20 January, 2005

Coastal Adventure

This is the story of a mountain to coast adventure taken by seven men from the Company of Gentlemen of St. Andrews church in Ajijic, Mexico. The participants were Al Borchardt, Lu Catching, Ted Conover, Dick Crabtree, Guy Hubbard, Norm Tihor and Gerry Green who has been leading mountain hikes and “bare bones” adventure tours in Mexico for years.

I had been intrigued by rumours of a little known back road to Puerto Vallarta. So this January we left Lakeside from the church in two SUVs for the coast by way of San Sebastian, a gold and silver mining town that centuries ago had 30,000 people, but now only 600. The trip was designed to be a low cost, three-day adventure. It surpassed everybody’s expectations.

Our first stop was Ameca for camarones at a roadside restaurant. Camaraderie ran high and we all had fun and good laughs, a good omen for the trip. The landscape had been basically flat but after Ameca it became hilly. Just before Mascota the mountains became captivating with giant cliffs and massive stone pillars hundreds of feet high. After Mascota we came into mountain road construction of enormous proportions. We were diverted onto a detour that was most challenging. Three vans coming towards us flagged us down to say that the road ahead was mucho peligroso (dangerous). Naturally, that raised our interest and we pushed on, fording well over a dozen streams with various rock obstacles and holes to avoid. The narrow one-lane dirt road then climbed high and hung to the sides of the canyons. Overall, the road was very rough and it took us almost two hours to get through it. We had to back up and pull over many times to allow oncoming traffic to get by, but fortunately, on a Sunday there was no construction traffic. We saw dozens of parked bulldozers, and could easily imagine the delays if it was a work day.

Finally we dropped out of the mountains and saw an almost insignificant hand-made sign for San Sebastian off to the right as the town is not on the main road to PV. We were really out in the back country at this point with grass growing in the middle of the road. About ten kilometers later as we drove the narrow, twisty side road, we saw ahead a paved super highway marked beautifully with centre line, sloped up the hillside. Soon we realized that this was indeed a new airport runway built to fly in well-heeled tourists taking a break from their week long vacation in PV. A few kilometers further, the road became cobblestone and we happily arrived in San Sebastian.

Our first impression was that it looked like a medieval European village. The streets were like alleys, barely wide enough for our SUVs. We found ourselves having to back up to let traffic by. Soon we found our Hotel del Puente, a block past the plaza. It appeared to have been built centuries ago and probably was. To our surprise, the rooms around the lovely interior courtyard were beautifully appointed and spotless for 110 pesos each. What a bargain! Just down the road, we knew the fly-in tourists were paying US$120 per night.

Now to explore the village – we washed up, changed for dinner and headed out to find a good restaurant to spend our savings. However, all the obvious restaurants were closed! The locals said that the only place to eat was in the dress shop on the southwest corner of the plaza. Perhaps our understanding of Spanish was not so good. We did feel a little foolish sitting around a table in the dress shop but a local insisted we were in the right place. He told us what our choices were and when the owner appeared, we jumped at hamburgers and fries all round. I had never tasted such a wonderful drink as their rice tea with chamomile and cinnamon. Total price 22 pesos each. Our ice cream addict then led the way across the plaza for our desert followed by a beer at the local cantina before bed.

In the morning of our second day, we went to Cristy’s restaurant, half a block toward the plaza from our hotel, for their breakfast of shredded beef, eggs, refried beans and lots of locally grown coffee. Then off to Hacienda Jalisco. We expected a well-organized commercial operation as people stay overnight (without electricity) and pay Hilton prices. The driveway entrance across an old arched stone bridge was very picturesque. We had the full tour of this restored colonial hacienda museum as well as the grounds out the front door where ore was once smeltered into gold, silver and lead. It all was fascinating even without fully understanding our unilingual Spanish-speaking guide. What the place was like before it was partially restored is hard to envision because there is so much more work required to bring it back to its original glory. However, one has to appreciate the thirty-five years of restoration that has occurred.

Eventually, we had had enough history and felt that we had a good appreciation of San Sebastian, a back roads jewel. We were now ready for the beach, so we headed west for PV, expecting a reasonable road down the five thousand foot drop to the coast. Nevertheless, we were shortly into new road construction, river crossings and incredible, cliff-hugging, single-lane, rough dirt roads. These are bypass roads carved into the cliff face for temporary use while the new road is being built. The loose, unguarded edge of the road fell many hundreds of feet down into precipitous canyons. In addition, it was now Monday so there was active construction work using giant D11 and D8 bulldozers as well as other traffic. We could hardly believe the sight when we caught up to an old truck, piled fifteen feet high with sacks of produce, swaying wildly back and forth as it negotiated the freshly bulldozed track. Eventually, after about two hours of construction driving, we hit pavement and shortly afterward started up the coast road north away from the PV tourist mecca.

I had read Bob Howell’s stories about a jungle trail for 4X4s to a wilderness point called Punta Raza. We first went straight through Monteon and then right, through a creek, over a hill and through the jungle to arrive at the ocean. There we found our little hostel with several bungalows and a lovely palapa dining area above the beach, where we planned to spend the night. Unfortunately, for such rustic accommodation the owner wanted far more than our no-star hotel budget. So we continued along through the jungle as it closed in on our vehicles. Then, finally, we came out near Punta Raza. We thoroughly enjoyed hiking the beach to the point, checking out the tide pools and lava flows, and body surfing in a perfect sandy cove. As retirees, we sure knew how to have fun in the sun.

Having given up on our overnight plans and as it was now approaching 6 PM, we decided to take the next closest accommodation we could find. On advice of a Mexican friend, we drove on to Los Ayala, a very Mexican beach resort. It is similar to Rincon de Guayabitos where North Americans love to spend their vacation money. After considerable bartering, we happily moved into our superb, spotless accommodation for 143 pesos each. Los Ayala seems almost deserted between weekends when Mexicans flood into the place. Near dark, we drove off to comparatively upscale Guayabitos for a wonderful fish dinner, washed down with multiple cerveza - a perfect second day’s end. Early to bed and early to rise for the next adventure.

I had heard of sea caves near a point west of El Devisadero so off we went the next morning, bumping along a single lane dirt road over boulders and roots to the point, then down the cliff by hand and foot to the sea. There we found a blowhole where surging waves would spray a funnel of water high into the sky. However, it was fairly calm and we never did find the caves. But we still enjoyed exploring the rugged lava coastline with its 270 degree view.

Chacala was directly across the bay from us so we decided that it would be a great place to have a final seafood lunch. Off we went bouncing over boulders and then around the bay to Chacala. The fishing pier off to the north end of the age was a delight with pelicans sitting on every possible perch. The people were especially friendly, everybody seemed so laidback, and the beach was clean and beautiful. We had a marvelous seafood lunch at a beachfront palapa. The senior group of men took over the rocking chairs and soaked up the ambiance. We all felt we had found paradise - a perfect end to a multifaceted adventure before our four-hour Cuota trip back to Chapala.