Along this captivating stretch of Pacific coast, where the jungle meets the sea, a global village of surfers, cowboys, expats and celebrities gather in a laidback paradise.
By Jordan Heller // Photographs by Kevin J. Miyazaki
TAKE A LEISURELY DRIVE down the lush Mexican Riviera, a stretch of coastline dotted with small fishing villages and surf towns, and anchored by the bustling metropolis of Puerto Vallarta, and you’ll notice some curious sights. Cacti and palm trees share the same ecosystem with crocs, raccoon-like tejons, sea turtles and iguanas; and Mexican ranchers and farmers share pristine beach space and barstools with gringo expats, hippies and surf rats from points near and far northeast. Here, the jungle and the sea coexist in perfect harmony.
Historically, this part of Mexico consisted mostly of remote villages, but after John Huston filmed 1964’s The Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner here, it became a destination. San Francisco bohemians and the Hollywood glitterati began turning up seeking a respite from the rat race, and soon afterward cruise ships started to regularly port in Puerto Vallarta—including the fictitious Pacific Princess from The Love Boat.
Seldom has there been a better time to visit. Great deals abound, the beaches are pristine and uncrowded, and the natives welcome visitors with open arms—or at least a “Jalisco Jiveshake” (see sidebar). In this part of Mexico, where the locals leave their doors unlocked and their hearts open, the blazing sun is all you’ll need protection from. And for that, some sunscreen, a pair of shades and a classic Mexican straw fedora will do just fine.
DAY ONE Headed south from Puerto Vallarta in a rented ragtop Jeep Wrangler, you decide to stop for lunch in Boca de Tomatlán, a small beach town about 30 minutes from the city. As you turn off Route 200 and descend a steep cobblestoned hill, paraiso reveals itself: green, jungled cliffs framing a serene sandy beach and tropical blue waters dotted with skiffs. Streetside, across the cobblestones that led you to this charming cove, a group of boys are singing an impromptu a cappella folk tune.
You park the Jeep in the dead end at the bottom of the hill and take a seat on the outdoor terrace of El Embarcadero (1) restaurant, which offers a great view of the beach and a delicious salad of shrimp, octopus, tomato, cucumber and onion, all washed down with a hot mug of jugo de camarón (shrimp broth served like a cup of tea). For dessert, you walk 30 paces onto the beach and hop a $10 water taxi to Yelapa (2), a small town accessible only by boat. In 20 minutes, after a scenic tour of the coast, you find yourself in a tropical paradise. There you meet a stout woman with a big smile and a bowl of pies balanced on her head. This is Chelly Rodriguez, otherwise known as the “Pie Lady.”
She’s been baking and selling her pies here for more than 20 years. The banana cream is a standout: ripe sliced plantains on a sweet pudding, sitting atop a flaky crust.
You take the water taxi back to Boca de Tomatlán, then drive south through an alternating landscape of jungle and dusty pueblos that smell of sage. In two hours, you arrive at Costa Careyes (3), a luxury resort that draws a glamorous international crowd. Francis Ford Coppola was a regular visitor for 20 years; Heidi Klum and Seal own a villa; and everyone from Henry Kissinger to Giorgio Armani has spent time here.
Though its reputation is for decadence, Careyes is more than a seaside playground for the jetsetting elite. It’s the creation of Gian Franco Brignone, an eccentric 84-year- old Italian financier who dropped out of European high society more than four decades ago to build his Mexican ensueño. To Brignone’s mind, Careyes—comprising several kilometers of coastline and hundreds of hectares of jungle and mangrove swamps—is a living, breathing art project fully integrated with nature. There are no jet skis in the water or umbrellas crowding the beaches. The 56 villas and 38 casitas are alternately painted yellow, green, blue and red, and they appear as if they’ve sprouted naturally from the grounds. When Brignone dies, a specially prepared cliffside cave high above the property will serve as his tomb.
After sunset, you go to find him at Punto.Como, an outdoor restaurant in the plaza where many of Careyes’s regulars gather at night. You order the pizza—thin-crust with fresh pomodoro sauce and mozzarella cheese—and scan the tables of well-heeled but casually dressed people engaged in lively conversation. Brignone is easy to spot. Just look for the man with the wild white beard and the look of mad genius sipping on a special reserve of Partida tequila made just for Costa Careyes. You introduce yourself and the old man pours you a couple on the condition that you don’t bring up business, real estate or any other unpleasantness. The exquisitely smoky aftertaste stays with you as you make your way back to your casita and turn in.