travelog 48

Eclipse sunset on June, 10 2002

What's happened to the beaches?

Finally the longed for first cool breeze, the coconut palms, banana, mango, and papaya plantations! One might almost think to smell the Pacific, but we only just crossed the last low passes that still separated us from the sea. It's getting too hot in the interior that's why we decide to relax a little bit at the beaches of Jalisco and Nayarit.

Coming from Guadalajara, we reach the Pacific coast at Melaque. It's a small, run-down place with a few hotels and motels, bungalow complexes in the third row, and umpteen shops that all sell sun tan lotion, beach wear, hats, "refrescos", and of course ice-cold beer. A hotel ruin decays at the beach, old men sit and chat in the shade of some trees, Mexican tourists, mostly middle class families, enjoy the beach with their offspring. That's nothing for us, so we drive a little bit further north.

The Mexican highway Mex-200 leads all along the Pacific coast, sometimes through the rolling hills of the interior, sometimes directly along the steep coastal mountains which raise above the yellow sand beaches. We drive through thick jungle, through practically tropical forests on both sides of the road. Huge palm trees, plumerias with little white and fragrant flowers, big red bromelias in the undergrowth, epiphytic orchids of all kinds, lianas and other vines line the road. A strangler fig wrapped its roots around a palm tree of which only the dead straight trunk can still be seen. The land is extremely fertile. If the jungle once is cleared (the forests are burning everywhere to make room for more fields or pastures), the farmers cultivate chiles, tomatos, cucumbers and pumpkins under the coconut palms. Especially in Nayarit you can buy the products of the fruit plantations on fruit stands along the road: freshly picked mangos, bananas on the stem, coconuts, papayas, pineapples, guanabana (sour soap), and other exotic fruits we don't know. The small villages we drive through consist of airy little houses, wooden sheds which are mostly thatched with palm fronds. Colorful flowers bloom in the gardens, chickens peck in the sand, a pig stretches in the shade, barking dogs chase our truck (and pee on the tires as soon as we stop), flamboyant trees are adorned with huge bright red-orange flowers.

Our first beach is near Tenacatita. There's not much going on on a Sunday afternoon, the only thing we have to do is cleaning our part of the beach and a palapa (a palm frond thatched shelter that gives shade) from the garbage the Mexican families left here. Particularly disgusting are the diapers full of baby poop (excuse us...), but apart from that it's the usual: straws, plastic plates and forks, beer cans, cola bottles, chips bags. The rest of the week we have the beach practically for ourselves, only sometimes comes a family from the nearby village with a crowd of children. Agave colimana grows in the rocks, so we even have something to do botanically. Fat mosquitos swarm from the nearby jungle in the mornings and evenings. It's impossible to enjoy the sunset in piece and quiet without a good repellent. Every morning we can buy fresh fish in the nearby village. The Pacific is very refreshing, there are even some rocks where we can snorkel.

Other beaches, highly recommended by our travel guide "Pacific Mexico" (Moon Handbooks, 2000 edition), are built over with hotels, fine resorts, or simply with private vacation houses or palapa-restaurants. The isolation, the camping for free, the sleepy fishing villages are all long gone and made room for the tourist business. The search for a lonely beach where we can park for free in the first row, where nobody wants to palm you off every few minutes on jewelry, towels, a boat tour, even fish kebabs or fresh (?) oysters, turns out to be difficult. Of course, places like that still exist, but only at the end of bad and dusty roads, known only by the locals. We find such a beach. Huge breakers attracted a Mexican surfer, but apart from a needy dog we're the only human beings here. We can even swim in a protected little cove, a very welcome cooling off from the very summery temperatures that let the clothes stick to the body. At night we toast with a glass of white wine to our find, but soon we learn otherwise. Shortly after sunset when we turn on the lights in our truck, thousands of beetles swarm around us. They are determined to visit us in our comfortable little house. The food is getting cold and the wine warm until we bump all the beetles off. We have to close our windows and "enjoy" our dinner now by the sweat of our brow. Naturally, we're looking again for another beach the next day...

Where the Mex-200 turns inland, we follow dirt roads along the coast. Here there are lonely beaches too, sometimes stretching for miles, sometimes bounded by beautiful rock formations that remind us of the round rocks on the Seychelles. If you look a little closer you can even discover Melocactus curvispinus ssp. dawsonii with tiny pink flowers between the short beach vegetation. The roaring Pacific surf accompanies us day and night. Sometimes we feel the thundering and rushing waves that break on the beach like noise. Here too, Mexican families arrive for the weekend. They stay overnight and make themselves at home in the few palapas. "Pánfilo", a young curious coati came with one of them as a pet, playing with the childern if he doesn't play other pranks. Overnight, he had stolen the cigarettes of his master out of his pockets and chewed them up with relish! Far away from the next paved road we discover a little paradise. Tehualmixtle, simply called Tehua, is a small fishing place with 10 houses and 3 beach restaurants, though the restaurants are not above the beach but at the little harbour. Colorful fishing boats pitch and toss in the totally protected little bay with its quite beautiful sand beach. Every morning a part of the "fleet" disappears and comes back after a few hours with huachinango (red snapper), mojarra (type of sea bream), cazón (shark), but also pulpo (octopus) and langosta (spiny lobster). The oyster-divers bring huge bags of fresh oysters which are immediately opened at the harbour and served to oyster-lovers (to whom we don't count ourselves) in the restaurants. We prefer grilled fish, lukewarm octopus salad or, as a culmination, spiny lobster prepared in our own little house. The little kids find out very quickly that we have a rich fund of sweets with us. The locals greet us very friendly, by now we're part of the little village camping at the harbour mole. There are corals, ferns, sea anemones, and of course many different tropical fish to see around a sunken ship and some rocks. Swarms of little yellow-blue striped fish, practically transparent long pikes, huge swarms of silvery sparkling fish, but also orange ones, dark blue ones with a white bordered feather-like tail fin, and a especially colorful one with blue head, yellow trunk, purple middle section and light blue tail fin, and many, many more colorful fish.

As soon as you get close to Puerto Vallarta, the coast is completely developed. The few remaining sand beaches are over-crowded with mostly red- to dark red-burned tourists from the USA or Canada who want to reach a dark vacation sun-tan in a few days which they can proudly show off afterwards at their office somewhere in the north. Here, the coast is extremely steep. The cliffs and mountains raise just besides the road so the hotel architects did not have much room for building. If there is a small sand beach such as Mismaloya, it's sure enough completely built over with a huge hotel place. The pitiful rest is monopolized by palapa-restaurants. Villas of American people cling to the steep rocks, most of them are for sale. Of course there are also the usual hotel ruins, but they even construct new hotels as if there weren't enough of them! Puerto Vallarta itself is a little place (although it just got its own WalMart and a Sam's Club, huge American supermarket chains) that can easily explored by foot. At the malecón (the promenade) one restaurant follows the other. Loud music booms from all of them. There is also a touting for customers; a nice guy/lady announces the advantages of his place, especially the beer prices. We decide on a no-name pizzeria, primarily because we get the most beer for the least price. In a small bucket filled with ice cubes so that the beer stays nice and cold, we get 5 1/2 bottles for 50 pesos. No other place was able to beat this offer. It can even happen that you pay 50 pesos for 2 bottles of beer, that's outrageous, but there must be enough dummies who pay such a price. We have a perfect view on the malecón from our restaurant and can admire the many beauties who stroll around half-naked. Most of them must have a good deal of self-confidence strolling through a city in the very catholic Mexico in such shapes only half-dressed or in too tight dresses!

Further north along the coast it looks terrifying too. If the access isn't totally closed off because the area was bought up for villas or expensive resorts, motels, bungalow complexes or restaurants block the access to the sea. The only way is to drive over dusty dirt roads, for example through the fruit plantations in Nayarit, to reach a miles long white sand beach bordered by coconut palms and thick jungle. In the brackish water at the edge of the tropical forest gather oyster catchers, little blue herons, ducks, white ibisses, and roseate spoonbills. Pelicans, different seagulls and frigate birds fish in the Pacific. Egrets and yellow-crowned night herons lie in wait of little fish and crabs. Huge primeval iguanas live in the rocks and bask in the sun. At the weekends, families come, sometimes from as far away as Guadalajara, to enjoy the beach. Some locals from the nearby village open their small palapas where they serve grilled chicken and fish. The weekend pleasure is the same at every beach the Mexicans come to: loud music, food from the cooler, beer already in the morning, distribute the garbage generously at the beach, and then as a culmination bury the car in the sand and ask us for help.

The most fantastic experience at a beach with a little fishing village is the 80% solar eclipse that we can witness here. The fishermen send us to a nice spot where we have a perfect view of the sunset. As soon as we make ourselves at home and have the cameras ready, the first men from the village arrive. They also want to see the exciting event of which they learned from us. Our glasses for the solar eclipse that we still have with us from the complete eclipse in Stuttgart in 1999 circulate and everybody murmurs that he can really see how the moon pushes in front of the sun. Soon the setting sun changes into a huge orangered ball, one part still covered by the moon. Slowly it sinks behind a little island, first as a crescent sun, finally as a shark-fin until the last tip disappears. Even the Mexicans are taken and moved by this spectacle mother nature presented us!

May 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen