Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

This trip was intended to be Ursa's birthday present. Her birthday however is in July, and I thought that Mexico in July would be oppressively hot, so we went in March instead. Happy Early Birthday, Ursa! I love you!
While it is always wonderful to get a chance to thaw out in the tropics, Ursa and I have to be very careful on trips like these. The change in temperature between work in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico was a difference of 109 degrees F (74 F in Puerto Vallarta and -35 F in Prudhoe Bay), so it can be hard on your body to acclimatize, and while in a weakened state, your body can be susceptible to all manner of illnesses. Also, 4 months of Alaska winter will make you a nice shade of pasty white, so sunburns can get nasty, very fast. And lest we forget about the infamous traveller's diarrhea known as "Montezuma's Revenge". An uncomfortable cross section of these is what awaited us on our arrival in paradise.
The view of Banderas Bay from our patio
We took a nice stroll along the beach, and splashed in the waters of Bandaras Bay just long enough to get our sunscreen good and worn off. Then we went back to the resort and sat under a beach umbrella to read our books and drank some sangrias. The next morning when we woke up, we both had ridiculous sunburns (Ursa even had blisters!), as well as a cough, runny nose and a mild fever. So the bad news was that we spent the next 4 days recovering in the condo, but the good news is that we had an outstanding place to recover in. Our room was on the 16th floor of the Holiday Inn Resort, and had a breathtaking view of the whole bay! If you're going to be holed up sick for a few days THIS was the place to do it, with the patio doors open and the ocean breeze blowing on you, and the sounds of the waves lapping on the beach all night.

The Sites

The most notable area of Puerto Vallarta is it's endearing boardwalk, El Malecon. It is home to a unique array of restaurants, clothing shops, street artists, bars, tequila tastings and junk shops; seemingly all of them offering time shares for sale. Ursa and I bought a lovely Catrina Doll for our condo in Anchorage and before we had a chance to even pull out the credit card the guy behind the counter had flopped a book open and was trying to direct us to attend a sales pitch. No gracias.
Amongst the usual charicature artists, singers, and extraordinary living statues the local street artists also have the option of working with another medium, sand. The sand sculptures up and down El Malecon were outstanding. Each of the sculptures had a small donation box in front of it, and I kind of used the rule of thumb that if it's cool enough for me to photograph, then it's cool enough for me to drop it a couple of pesos. That seemed a fair policy to me.
El Malecon is also the heart and soul of Puerto Vallarta's nightlife. The boardwalk is lined with bunches of bars, clubs, and tequila tasting rooms. Great spots for afternoon cocktails or dancing the night away.

As a consequence of having a bunch of down time at the beginning of our trip, all of the activities that we had booked got pushed together during the second half of our vacation. So we had one week of laying about followed by one week of run, run, run. It all worked out though.
To start our activities off, we went swimming with wild dolphins. It was an exhilarating experience to get in the water with these amazing animals. Seeing a shadow pass in front of you through the murky water, so close you can nearly touch it, then in a flash it's gone. When they appear on the surface you realize that they were farther away then you thought, because they were much larger than you understood them to be. These are large and powerful animals, and sharing the water with them has a way of making you feel very small. Sadly, the dolphins were not feeling terribly playful on the day that we were there, though they showed some curiosity towards one of the other people in our group. But even for him, they really never stuck around very long; they mostly would approach the boat, then swim away as soon as we got into the water. Which was a little unfortunate, but we had a wonderful time swimming in the ocean nevertheless. On the way back we got to see a female whale with her calf swimming in the bay which was an awesome bonus to the trip.
Our fun in the water did not end with the dolphins, we also spent an afternoon snorkeling at the Marieta Islands. These islands are best known as a bird sanctuary, and are an important nesting site for more than 90 species of marine birds, in particular the Blue Footed Booby, which is more famously associated with the Galapagos Islands, but is known to nest here as well.
This archipelago is also home to a wide variety of fish. It is this biodiversity that made the Marieta Islands one of the favorite destinations of famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, who was instrumental in helping this refuge be designated as a protected natural zone. The water was frankly much colder and cloudier than other places we've been snorkeling, but it was still a great location. There was a huge array of vibrantly colored fish. However  Ursa was the only one that got a look at the rays which were playing around in the sand, I unfortunately missed them.
The island had the beautiful Playa del Amor (lover's beach), where we had to swim through a volcanic archway and to the hidden beach where we could take a rest and explore a secluded and romantic sea cave. It was a very good trip, which was made better by the wonderful family that were on the tour with us. Good times are always made better by good people.

Our next tour took us away from the ocean and into the scarcely populated areas in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Our guide, Juan, took us via Jeep back to a little pueblo in the hills were we visited a local home with a garden that was unbelievable. The family cooked us the best meal we ate on our entire trip, a lunch of home made blue corn tortillas which were ground by hand and cooked on the back patio.
Aside from a plethora of tropical fruits and vegetables, they also had the strangest looking chickens running all over. The chickens had no feathers on their necks or faces, but did have a little tuft of feathers on the top of their head like Moe, from the Three Stooges. The family also had about a dozen fighting cocks in cages out back, and a little boy training them by holding another rooster in front of the cage to prompt it to attack. The strange thing about the roosters was a box that one of them came in which sat nearby; it read "Fighting Fowl, Best Quality" which was strange not in it's message or it's presence but in the fact that it was written in English. I'm not sure what I make of that.
photo by Ursa Davis

After our experience at the farm, we got back in the Jeep and continued our trek through the jungle. What made our tour so much fun was that Juan was so endearingly obsessed with the local plant life that the tour might have been called a "Botanical Tour". Regardless of whether or not botany is your bag, when someone is that excited about the topic they are talking about, you can't help but be sucked into what their talking about. Juan was just awesome. At one point, while he was explaining the inner workings of a termite mound, he flagged down a passing pickup, and persuaded the passengers to lend him their pet macaw then proceeded to give a full lecture about the breeding habits of the Military Macaw.
Lost in my description of this tour was the most special activity. Juan had made sure that we all picked up a bag of candy to hand out to the local children. Every village that we passed through the kids recognized Juan and came running. It was a wonderful touch for the day.

Masked Tityra photo by Ursa Davis
After all of this running around we were pretty worn out. Even to the point of considering cancelling our final tour. Thank goodness we didn't, bird watching was just the pace we needed. The area around Puerto Vallarta is home to over 350 different species of birds.
Crested Caracara photo by Ursa Davis
I've got to say though that this was one of those rare occasions where I had a serious case of camera envy of Ursa. Her and our guide, Fernando, both had awesome cameras with great lenses and zooming capabilities, well suited for photographing small specimens at a distance. Fortunately, the tour included the use of binoculars for assistance, but my camera was a little outmatched. In one afternoon, Ursa and I managed to see 64 species of birds. It was a fascinating excursion, where we got to take our time and spot large birds like turkey vultures and brown pelicans, and small birds like the vermilion flycatcher and the blue grosbeak, and raptors such as the crested caracara and the collared forest-falcon.
Brown Pelican Photo by Ursa Davis
Every tree seemed to have two or three new species of colorful, tropical birds that we had yet to see. After several stops to view the tropical birds we finished our birding expedition by going to the shore and seeing how many of the sea birds we could identify. The most common in the area were the pelicans and the frigate birds, but I was surprised by the wide variety of herons, seven different species of them. All in all it was the most interesting and relaxing tour that we took on our whole trip.

The Food

One reoccurring theme of our trip to Mexico was that, above all, Puerto Vallarta is a resort town. Every resort is going to have at least a couple of nice, albeit overpriced, restaurants, our favorite of which was a beach restaurant called Si Sinor which featured outstanding traditional Mexican fare.
But for all the glitz of the resorts, we still felt a little underwhelmed by all the places that were supposed to wow us. Far better were the restaurants a little off the beaten path, not associated with the facades of the resorts. Our favorite of these places was Las Adelitas which was a delicious local barbecue restaurant. Delicious BBQ, good drinks and the best chili rellenos we had in Mexico.
blue corn tortillas getting fried up
Honestly though the best meal that we had was, as I said earlier, eating a homemade lunch at a farm on our jeep safari tour. There is simply no high end restaurant anywhere that can compete with authenticity. Grinding corn into maize on the back patio and cooking blue corn tortillas over a wood fire was one of the best culinary experiences that I could have hoped for.
Also, the street vendors have some awesome eats. While we were laid up with sunburns and sickness, we hit a nearby rotisserie chicken vendor that was fabulous.

Destination Libation
I've decided to forgo the "Home Cooking" segment of my blog, in lieu of a "Destination Libation" segment. While I still love to cook, let's face it, I'm a better drinker than I am a cooker. So these will henceforth highlight a wine, beer, or cocktail that reminds me of this particular destination.
So I know that this being a post about Mexico, I should be dropping the ubiquitous margarita recipe but to tell you the truth the margaritas just weren't doing it for me in Puerto Vallarta. I pretty much stuck with sangrias and my new favorite warm weather drink, the Ron Collins. Collins drinks are a pretty simple idea featuring your favorite flavor of alcohol mixed with lemon and soda water. The traditional version of this mix is the Tom Collins which is a gin drink, another common version is the Vodka Collins (betcha can't guess what's in that), but I was feeling rummy and went with the Ron Collins, which uses Ron Bacardi rum. This recipe is courtesy of everyone over at Drunk Man's Guide.

Ron Collins

2 oz light rum
1 oz fresh lime juice
1 Tbl sugar
3 oz club soda
Lime slice
Maraschino cherry

Add the first three ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice. Strain into a tall glass and garnish with the lime slice and the cherry.

To be perfectly honest, what appeals most to me about travel is getting a taste of local culture. Unfortunately we ended up renting a condo at a resort, and resorts by their very nature are designed to insulate people from getting too much local culture. It's nothing against resorts or cruise ships, it's just that we vacation in a different way. The room did have a stellar view though, which we were grateful for.
I don't want to disparage Puerto Vallarta though. The beaches were amazing and the drinks were frequent, the tours were fascinating, the food was good, and overall we had a great trip. Relaxing at first, exciting at the end, and overall a great break from winter in Alaska.
I can't believe that it has taken me this long to bring up our last day. On March 20, 2012, Ursa and I were sitting on our patio on the 16th floor of our building, having some morning coffee and doing some reading on our Kindles. I started getting a strange sensation, almost as if the whole building was swaying. My immediate reaction was to chalk the feeling up to vertigo or perhaps a head rush from too much coffee. Then I looked over at Ursa who was staring at me with a terrified look on her face, and that's when I realized "Oh shit! That wasn't vertigo!" Little did we know that a magnitude 7.4 earthquake had struck to the south of us in Acapulco. Fortunately the epicenter was far enough away from us that the effects were not to bad, other than to give us a little scare.
photo by Ursa Davis