A monster mojito at Margarita Grill

Diary: Looking for the best and trying to avoid the awful in Puerto Vallarta.

The online version of the National Post reaches me as I sit poolside in the hot Mexican sun, baking away the icy memories of the Canadian winter I’ve happily left behind for a few weeks.

Bert Archer writes: ‘I’ll write about Puerto Vallarta someday, about how very, very awful it is.’ OK, Bert, some parts of it may be awful, but there’s no need to slag the whole place just because you’ve found your dream escape a boat ride away in an isolated hell-hole suitable only for cliff dwellers. Bert, Yelapa may be for you, but if you’d read my past blogs about Puerto Vallarta, you would have discovered the less awful places, the quite good places and even some really outstanding places.

We’re back in Puerto Vallarta for the third time in three years and it’s like a third date, the one where you are either going to get serious or break it off altogether. We’ve found all sort of reasons to like PV, but sometimes we ask ourselves whether the list of things we don’t like is getting significant.

Sunbeds in the sky at Grand Miramar

Sunbeds in the sky at Grand Miramar

The airport arrival experience is awful, I’ll give Bert that. Condominium hustlers create an almost impenetrable barrier outside the arrivals hall. Experienced travellers look straight ahead and push their way through to the pre-paid taxi booths, the best way to get to your final destination. Close by the airport is the marina area, which has cruise ships, hotels and rentals and a few good restaurants, but is isolated. Give it a miss. Then there’s the awful hotel strip, a series of modern American-style all-inclusive hotels, built like Miami Beach. For those who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing they like.

Then there’s the awful cobblestoned kidney-shaking roads through the old town, where there are some very good art galleries and restaurants and an interesting cathedral, but where few people have lived since the days of John Huston and Liz and Dick (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, if you have to ask).

Latcho emotes at The Palm Cabaret

Latcho emotes at The Palm Cabaret

Finally, you get to the awfully named Zona Romantica, which I suppose is better than its old name of Playa Los Muertos, or Beach of the Dead. Knowledgeable travellers ask around and find perfect condos to rent for a week or a month, either here, or up the hill in Conchas Chinas or Amapas. Once you’ve found your ideal spot, typically rented from an ex-pat Canadian or American, you can relax and put away all the awful thoughts. We’ve settled into a small complex at the top of a hill just back from the beach, where the procession of beach pedlars and musicians is awful.  It has an infinity pool looking out over the bay where we can occasionally see whales breaching. Our one-bedroom unit is fully equipped with a kitchen, so we shop at the Saturday farmers’ market for fresh bread, home-made jams and pies and fresh fruits, veggies, flowers and brown eggs. Once a week we trek further uphill to the green market for a better selection of fruits, veggies and cheeses.

Another sunset in paradise

End of another perfect day

Other than breakfast and light salad and fruit lunches, we mostly eat out, usually spending about $40 for a nice dinner. The sunny days are spent lazing by the pool reading an endless supply of beach paperbacks from a coffee shop by the market, A Page in the Sun, which has an enormous lending library.  We pay a small rental fee and turn in the books and magazines we brought down on the plane for a credit. The coffee is excellent and there’s always someone to chat with as we while away an hour or so at a sidewalk table, feeling quite like boulevardiers. Back at the pool for another hour or so of sun and swimming, we admire the jungle of flowers and trees that surround the half dozen or so four-storey buildings in our complex, none interrupting the view, in our aptly named Selva Romantica.

Community boat launching in Mismaloya

Community boat launching in Mismaloya

If we can stir ourselves from our delicious lethargy, we rent a car and take day trips to one of the little colonial hill towns an hour or so away, like San Sebastián de Oeste or Mascota. They’re charming, but really once you’ve walked round the square and stuck your nose into the inevitable church, they’re pretty much all the same. South down the coast are more resorts. First, the little fishing village of Mismaloya, where Huston filmed Night of the Iguanas all those years ago. For a while the sets were an attraction, but the lot has been closed for the past few years. El Tuito is about an hour further. The rock formation known as Los Arcos can be seen from the road, but is better visited by boat, if you can stand the awful company of your fellow tourists. Avoid the days the cruise ships comes to town, the dates published in the local free English language rag, the Mirror. North in the other direction is the once sleepy, now bustling, surfer town of Sayulita, where there’s always a standing wave at the mouth of the river.

If you want to avoid all this awfulness, by all means take a pango water taxi to Yelapa and ask for Bert.

Outstanding 2 for 1 mojitos at Joe Jack's

Outstanding 2 for 1 mojitos at Joe Jack’s

First on our list of favourite restaurants is the always reliable Joe Jack’s Fish Shack, where co-owner Greg hails from Blighty, and usually manages to squeeze us into the rooftop bistro without a reservation. The grub is good: we like their Friday fish and chips with a side of mushy peas, and surprises like the bistro salad made with warm Brussels sprouts, lardons and a soft boiled egg. The mojitos are excellent and come with fluorescent mermaids. Collect and return 10 and Greg will give you a freebie. The mermaids are expensive and come from Germany, he tells me. Across the road, the Margarita Grill is a lively bar and outdoor restaurant, where they make killer mojitos with 4oz of rum. Two and I’m on the floor. Down the street the Twisted Palms Bar and Lounge is hidden away on a rooftop. Owner Al hails from Vancouver, serves a mean cocktail and there’re always new folk to meet at the horseshoe shaped bar, or old movies to watch from comfy chairs in the open air.

Night vista from the Vista Grill

Night vista from the Vista Grill

If we’re looking for a view we can go to the Vista Grill, where there is a pretty vista over the old town at night, or La Mar Restaurant at the Grand Miramar Resort, where the view reaches down to Los Arcos and right round the bay and lithe girls lie in sun beds hanging in the sky. Behind the Cathedral, Hacienda San Angel offers a spectacular sunset view, outstanding food and a fine mariachi orchestra. We’ve learned not to sit too close to the musicians. I especially like the dress code which keeps away the awful beach crowd.

At night there’s always something to do. The Palm Cabaret has some truly awful drag acts, but amongst the dross are great performers like the Blond Gypsies, Latcho and Andrea, German wanderers who met in the circus in southern Spain and have not been married for more than 30 years. Latcho calls one of his albums Flamingo Guitar, because that’s what the awful American tourists think he’s playing. I’m listening to their music on my IPod as I write. On Wednesdays the galleries in the old town get together for the Art Walk. We’ve enjoyed meeting sculptor Jim de Meteo, whose charming works adorn public spaces. Last year we watched ‘Andale Bernado’ being unveiled in the market square, a tribute to the hard working burros who hauled the rocks that built the town.

Michael Whitlow and Diane

Michael Whitlow and Diane

Our favourite artist is Michael Whitlow, who paints in the super realistic style. We have giclées of two of his works hanging in our little cottage in England.  He welcomes us back to his gallery. Most evenings we take a late afternoon stroll along the Malécon, catch the setting sun in a beachside bar and enjoy the crowds and the street entertainment. Twice a month the shops, galleries and restaurants along Basilio Badillo put on the South Side Shuffle, free entertainment and delights for a couple of blocks on the busiest street in the area.

Occasionally, we get into the homes of the upper crust. The Garden Club, which plants trees and flowering bushes on all the main drags in the Zona Romantica, holds a fund raiser during the height of the season and some daring ex-pat with a big enough house invites a couple of hundred of his nearest friends for cocktails, finger food and entertainment. This year we dress up and travel by taxi, as instructed, to our destination. The beachside monster mansion is reached across a foot bridge. Down in the rocky gully a little stream gurgles and fierce native folk in costume beat drums and do some sort of dance. On the private beach, rush mats have been laid to prevent the ladies’ heels sinking into the sand. Torches flame and drinks flow with abandon. The house is guarded by uniformed staff, but we are escorted through several rooms to the loo, by a butler. The house looks to be several thousand square feet, but sadly the owner has not been well served by his decorator. I’d call the awful mess Mexican Chuck-Up … buy a bunch of hideous local crafts, chuck them up at the walls and see what sticks.

All too soon, our time in the sun is over and we’re not looking forward to going back to something truly awful … winter in Canada.

Please check out my Puerto Vallarta reviews on Trip Advisor, under Gentleman’s Portion, of course, where 59,948 people have read my comments, I am advised.

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