After years of vacationing in Mexico, I decided I was no longer interested in traveling there. Not that I had encountered a bad experience. On the contrary, Mexico had always been the affordable destination with a guaranteed perfect climate and incredibly gracious people.
However, over the years, there was something about the awkward commingling of our cultures I no longer enjoyed. The time-share salesmen, the Hard Rock cafes and the constant flow of vendors on the beach served to remind me that I was no longer a stranger in an adventurous land. I was just another tourist on a rather ordinary vacation. Much of the adventure and romance of Mexico had disappeared for me.
Ah, but then I discovered Yelapa.
Yelapa is a small fishing village just south of Puerto Vallarta. It is accessible only by boat. Several boat taxis depart from Puerto Vallarta daily, and the two-hour ride is an adventure in itself. The small, open taxi boat follows the rugged coastline of mainland Mexico, and civilization soon gives way to the unspoiled natural beauty of the jungle and the sea. This is where the Sierra Madre mountains tumble into the Pacific. The hillsides are lush and brilliant green. There are no signs of habitation. As far as the eye can see, the jungle is impenetrable.
As we traveled along the wild coastline, I felt as though I had stumbled into a Joseph Conrad novel -- and entered the heart of darkness. It occurred to me that I was a woman, traveling alone, and there were probably tigers in those hills. I was exhilarated and, at the same time, a bit nervous.
I watched the porpoises playing off the bow of the boat. I dipped my hand over the side and played with the water. The ocean was wonderfully warm.
We eventually rounded a jagged rock peninsula and entered a sheltered emerald bay with a brilliant white sand beach. We had arrived at Yelapa. It was painfully beautiful.
The village of Yelapa has no phones, no electricity, no cars and in fact, no streets -- only burro paths. When night falls, the people of Yelapa light candles. It is a journey to old Mexico.
While the women wash clothes in the river, and fresh fish is prepared over open fires, it is not "untouched" Mexican culture. Yelapa enjoys a healthy tourist trade and readily accommodates visitors from Puerto Vallarta. What's interesting about Yelapa is that its tourist activity basically takes place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Two large excursion boats ferry tourists to Yelapa and deposit them on the beach for three hours, where there are a number of activities available. Many visitors choose to take a burro ride or simply hike to the waterfalls above the village. It is a short and comfortable trek through the village to an ultimately spectacular setting.
Others are content to lie on the beach, snorkel, sunbathe and enjoy the local cuisine. Several restaurants on the beach offer fresh seafood and Mexican dishes at affordable prices. The average lunch (without drinks) is around $5.
A few of the local women wander through the restaurants and sell slices of their freshly baked pies for dessert. One can choose from cheese pies, custard, pecan, lemon meringue and banana cream. During my stay in Yelapa, I sampled all of them, and I must say they are the best pies I've ever had.
After the ferry boats gather their passengers and the tourists depart, Yelapa becomes incredibly quiet. The beach empties and the village settles down for siesta. Most tourists do not stay in Yelapa. Yet one can rent comfortable palapas, thatched little houses with palm-frond roofs and bamboo walls, and there is a small hotel as well. It is surprising how few tourists avail themselves of the opportunity to stay.
For those who do remain, there are more adventures to enjoy. Most who visit Yelapa are unaware of a river bed located behind the beach. The Tuito river appears from the beach to be a sandy bed of a dead river gone dry. However, two trails alongside the river bed wind up into the jungle and the mountains. (The south side is the better trail.)
Within 30 minutes of hiking, the river begins to come alive. The water flows slowly at first, and giant boulders appear with small ponds of water formed around them. After another 30 minutes of hiking, the river is full blown. It cascades through tropical jungle adorned with bird life. Snowy egrets grace the banks. There are monkeys and parrots in their natural settings. They send out their calls, wild and strange.
The trail remains well marked and involves a steady but gentle incline. There is a waterfall about two hours up the rocky trail, and many perfect swimming holes along the way. The water is delightful. However, it is not suitable for drinking. It is best to take bottled water with you.
In the evening, the local yacht club serves a variety of fresh fish, by candlelight, of course. They also serve several wonderful Mexican dishes. The average entree costs around $7. The restaurant is in the village and sits right on the water. I am not certain why it is called the yacht club, as there are no docks or boats tied there. However, the food is superb, the view is spectacular and it is the recommended restaurant for dinner.
After dinner, the locals fire up the generator, which powers blinking Christmas lights and a stereo. The rock and roll begins, and everyone dances on a smooth cement slab. The walk home is a bit tricky, as there are no lights. I ventured back to the beach with a few other tourists I had met at dinner. We stumbled along the windy paths to our palapas, wondering why no one had brought a flashlight. Somehow we managed under the light of a quarter moon and bid each other good night.
I fell into bed and listened to the frogs. As I drifted off to sleep, I was already planning my next trip to Mexico. Perhaps to some other village like Yelapa, to explore another river in a tropical jungle, quietly in search of tigers.
Yelapa is easily accessible from Puerto Vallarta. One cannot make reservations for Yelapa. One simply has to go there.
If you go . . .
How to get there: Taxi boats leave from the public dock located on the Playa de los Muertos (in front of the Los Muertos Hotel in central Puerto Vallarta). There are several departures each day. The taxi fare is approximately $12 round trip. Two large excursion boats also depart in the mornings from the marina dock downtown.
Accommodations: One can stay in the local hotel or rent a palapa on the beach. There is also Isabel's bed and breakfast in the village. The palapas cost $30 a night and are quite comfortable.
Best time to visit: The rainy season in Yelapa is in September and October. November through May is the best time to visit.
Other helpful hints: Bring a pair of walking shoes, as the pathways can be precarious in a pair of sandals. Also bring a flashlight for negotiating the paths at night.
Packages and tours: Travel packages offered for Puerto Vallarta may include non-stop service from many U.S. cities. Several major airlines service Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta offers luxury hotel accommodations on Mexico's largest bay.
The town has cobblestone streets and traditional architecture. It is a world-class resort offering the finest dining and an exciting night life. A three- or four-day stay in Puerto Vallarta together with a night or two in Yelapa presents the best of both worlds.