After the heat and humidity of Cabo and Matzatlan, we were a little tired and actually wishing that we hadn’t signed up for the last excursion. For one thing, we had to be up early and waiting on the pier by 9:30 AM. Since we were still operating on Pacific Time, which was an hour earlier, I was even more tired. The weather was expected to be the same – hot and humid, with a 50% probability of rain. We weren’t even sure what the excursion was about – the description had been a little vague: a community tour of local artisans.
At least we had hats this time and I wisely packed the sunscreen.
We met up with our guide, Marcel – a smiling young man of about 25 or so – and waited for everyone in our party to show up. There was only one other person: a young woman from Oakland who came by herself because, “…Everyone in my group wanted to stay on the ship.”
Once aboard our van, we started down a main thoroughfare dotted with fast food restaurants, strip clubs and various businesses you might find on any main drag in the states – Carls Junior, Starbucks, a Volkswagen dealership, etc . After a few minutes, Marcel’s perpetual grin widened. “Mi familia, Do you know what we are doing today?”
We all looked blankly at him. “Haven’t a clue,” Mark chimed in. He’s direct like that.
If Marcel was taken aback at all, he did a pretty good hiding it. “Well, mi familia, let me tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to have lots of fun, mi familia.” He continued to explain (punctuating every other sentence with “mi familia”) that we would be traveling outside the city and in fact, into another state. The Puerto Vallerta metro area straddles two states in Mexico – Jalisco to the south and Nayarit to the north. Our journey would take us going to be traveling into Nayarit and beyond Puerto Vallerta – visiting two small towns nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains.
The first, San Pancho, was home to Entré Amigos, a special community center for kids that used recycled materials to both fund the center as well as provide raw materials for the artisans to work with. The center was closed for the season, but nevertheless, Marcel would be able to get us inside. A portion of our ticket price went to help fund the center.
On the trip up the mountain, Marcel told us about the different indigenous populations as well as the local flora and fauna and what local industries supported the towns we passed. Our first stop was at a roadside fruit stand where we sampled several types of homemade coconut and fruit candies as well as pieces of jackfruit.
Jackfruit is an enormous fruit from a tree that looks like a spiny watermelon in both size and shape, and tastes like a combination of six or seven tropical fruits including mango, pineapple, guava, banana, papaya. The flesh looked a little like mango with the same slippery smooth texture, but I thought it tasted most like banana. My Darling thought it tasted more like mango and guava.
Marcel chuckled. “Mi Familia, The jackfruit has a lot of medicinal properties as well. It’s an antioxidant and has lots of vitamins.” It’s also known as…” He paused, searching for words. “How do you say… like natural Viagra,” he finally admitted, looking a bit embarrassed.
We trundled back to the van and continued up the busy mountain road, passing cars and tour buses. One town had put in speed bumps to slow down the steady stream of traffic. Marcel told us that this highway, Highway 200, travelled the entire length of Mexico, from the southern border all the way up to the U.S. border where it turns into Interstate 5 and continues up into Canada. Eventually we saw signs for San Francisco and pulled onto a small cobblestone road.
“Welcome to San Pancho, mi familia.” He paused for effect, almost waiting for someone to ask the obvious question, then quickly added. “It’s really called San Fransisco, mi familia. Do you know why we call this town San Pancho?” Seeing our blank expressions, Marcel continued. “‘Pancho‘ is the affectionate name for Francisco… kind of like a nickname.” He pointed to a small wooden footbridge spanning a mostly dry creek. “Look, mi familia! Here’s our Mexican version of the Golden Gate bridge!”
Sure enough, someone had tacked a wooden sign on the bridge that stated just as much. It was even in English, obviously meant to draw a chuckle from American tourists.
We travelled along bumpy cobblestone streets, passing a decidedly non-local-looking pilates studio and a couple of artsy boutique stores, and soon found ourselves parked in front of Entré Amigos, our first destination.
Entré Amigos means “between friends” and started after an expatriate from the states started teaching arts and crafts to the local children in San Pancho under a mango tree. Over time, the program expanded and moved into an old abandoned mango processing facility. Using recycled materials and volunteers, Entré Amigos refurbished the building into a bilingual library, classrooms, a nursery and a computer center, in addition to the recycling center and art spaces that provide the necessary revenue streams to keep the center running.
When we first walked into the building, we were greeting by a full-sized sculpture of a mango tree made out of scrap metal. Marcel explained that this was a nod to the center’s humble roots. Beneath the mango tree was a large milk can to collect donations. The place was quiet – at any other time it would be buzzing with activity. Our guide walked us through the various areas – a gallery that was empty of artwork at the moment, classrooms devoid of children and an empty computer lab. The shelves of the two libraries (English and Spanish) were wrapped in plastic sheeting to protest against moisture. We could easily imagine to bustle of this center when the program was in session.
After we left the center, we stopped in a chocolate hop, where we sampled chocolate made in ways close to how the indigenous Mexican people had prepared chocolate for thousands of years. Unlike American chocolate, this chocolate didn’t have added sugar or milk. It was raw, pure and slightly bitter. We were given a drink called agua de chocolat (chocolate water) that tasted a bit like a watery unsweetened chocolate milk (minus the milk). Strangely enough, it was really refreshing and energizing. We also bought some truffles to take with us. These, we were assured, could sit in the car without melting since they didn’t contain any dairy that would melt.
Our next stop was Casa de Tortuga, the home of a sea turtle rescue operation and research center. One of the volunteers explained that they comb the beaches at night, looking for sea turtle nests, which they then dig up and collect the eggs and bring back to the center. The eggs are then counted and cataloged and then put in styrofoam bins and left until they hatch. Then the baby turtles are released into the sea. My darling eyed the dozens of styrofoam containers resting in long rows of shelving and estimated that there were approximately 130,000 turtle eggs waiting to hatch. Apparently this program has been very successful and the survival rate for turtles at this particular beach has increased a hundredfold.
It was time to say goodbye to San Pancho, for now – although my Darling and I agreed we would be back before too long.
We drove back through the narrow cobblestone streets and colorful casitas until we reached Highway 200. From there we travelled on until the next turnoff, Sayulita, named a pueblo magico (magic city) in 2015. Marcel said it was given this special because it has become a magnet for people from all over the world and truly is a blending of cultures. He said it’s not unusual to find residents speaking German, Italian, Russian and French in addition to the more common English and Spanish speakers. It’s a popular surfing spot, so there are a lot of tourists. Despite the heat and humidity, which by now was getting a bit unbearable for My Darling and I, we found the place to be absolutely charming and Mark added it to his short list of places he’d like to stay in for an extended period of time.
Lunch was a cooking demonstration, led by the ever cheerful Marcel. He showed us how to make a simple molé (the more complex ones can have up to 70 ingredients) as well as guacamole and a vegetable dish of shredded carrots and onions marinaded in a salsa made from hibiscus flowers. Once again we used a molcajete to mash ingredients together, but this time it was a larger one made of volcanic rock. Our culinary masterpieces were accompanied by chicken and beef fajitas and homemade corn tortillas.
Marcel picked up a tortilla and turned it over, pointing out that one side had rack marks while the other did not. “The secret to making a taco, mi familia,” he explained very seriously, “is to know which side is up. Otherwise it gets wet and falls apart.” Rolling up some vegetables, a bit of molé and a spoonful of guacamole in a soft corn tortilla, he proudly announced, “Now this is how we eat tacos in Mexico.”
We finished lunch with cervesas and margaritas and spent some time wandering on the beach before heading into the town center to explore and do some shopping. Along the way, Marcel paused on a bridge in front of a tree with low-hanging branches.
“Mi familia,” he called out, pointing at the branches. “Look. Tree lizards.”
Sure enough we could make out several large green iguanas sunning themselves among the foliage. They ranged from juveniles who were only about ten or twelve inches long, to a couple of full grown adults that looked like they were more than four feet long. I took a few pictures to send along to Rowan, my favorite lizard fan.
The next few hours were spent exploring the village and doing a bit of shopping. My Darling picked up a beaded pouch to hang in the Raza and we walked down to the beach. One thing we noticed about the beach is that despite the large amount of people, the beach was remarkably clean, compared to U.S. beaches. No trash to be seen whatsoever. The other thing we noticed right away is that the beaches were gold. The sand has a large amount of mica in its make up, causing the beaches to gleam as if they were gilded.
As with Matzatlan and Cabo, the heat finally started to take its toll on us and we finally had to retreat to the cool interior of the van. Marcel entertained everyone with anecdotes, local legends and more history of the area. By the time we returned to Puerto Vallerta in the late afternoon, showers had come and gone, cooling the air to really comfortable temperatures. We almost didn’t want to get back on the ship, except that our next adventure would be starting in two short hours. So my Darling and I said goodbye to Puerto Vallerta and retired to our cabin to dress for dinner.
Next up: The Chef’s Table Dining Experience