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Pacific Mexico's Playa Chacala: Sun, sand and something more
Sure, there's a great beach here, fresh fish, tall palms and only about 400 locals to share them with. But let's start with the treachery and deception.
"You wouldn't believe the snakes. Snakes as big as your head," says Ben Laird, a Wisconsonite who bought a vacation home here last year.
"People are poisoned in Chacala every day," deadpans Richard Laskin of Hornby Island, Canada, who has been coming here for 10 years.
"Are you sure that was a whale?" asks Laskin's friend Stu Reid, gazing offshore. "Could have been drums of toxic material."
Then — having done their best to deter the reading public from invading their winter haven — these good-natured liars go back to their tropical idylls. Laskin and Reid tuck into their breakfast at the Mauna Kea Café, one of about 10 restaurants in Chacala, as they gaze down upon a canopy of green, a deep blue sea, a deep blue sky and a few dozen pelicans, swoop-commuting between the two.
Sometimes, a lie is really just an invitation. And the truth about Chacala is just as intriguing, especially for a traveler who wants to actually meet Mexicans while vacationing in Mexico, who likes his coconuts straight from the tree, who doesn't need the bright lights of Los Cabos or Cancún.
Chacala, a village 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast, is built around the beach, a handsome half-mile crescent of jungle-adjacent sand. At the southern end of the beach, black volcanic rocks murmur in gentle surf. In the middle of the crescent, half a dozen palm-shaded restaurants serve fresh fish and shrimp (and keep a machete on hand for those new-fallen coconuts). To the north, two dozen battered little fishing boats are tied up at a modest dock.
In town, several lodgings have popped up in the last few years, most offering ocean views, modest amenities and nightly rates from $50 to $90. A little farther north, more than two-dozen luxury vacation homes, some of which rent by the night, have gone up in a gated compound called Marina Chacala.
But what sets Chacala apart from so many other modest but growing Mexican beach destinations is this: Thanks to the arrival of three hippie siblings here at the end of the 1970s, the town is awash in social experiments, many of them built around the idea that locals and tourists need to meet and learn from one another.
Under one 11-year-old program, called Techos de México (Roofs of Mexico), half a dozen villagers have added upstairs rooms and terraces, most with ocean views, none more than a five-minute stroll from the beach. When not snapped up for the season by wintering Canadians, most of these rooms rent for $22.50 to $60 a night.
Other tourists can volunteer on community projects, attend yoga or meditation seminars or learn Spanish as guests at a 24-year-old beachfront retreat called Mar de Jade (pronounced Hah-day), which in winter is usually priced at $120 to $135 per person per night, double occupancy, meals included.
But you don't have to volunteer. Instead, you can spend $50 a night on a hotel room with an ocean view and lie around. Or spend $625 a night on a mansion that sleeps 10 and lie around in splendor.
You can take a $10-per-person boat trip to snorkel by the rocks off Chacalilla beach. You can fish for dorado or sierra or surf at La Caleta Point. You can kayak between rock formations and secluded beaches, go birding in a mangrove swamp to the north or drive half an hour east to the petroglyphs at Alta Vista. You can ride a horse through jungle to a secluded beach or drive about two hours into the hills and see Lake Santa María, its waters collected in the caldera of an ancient volcano. Or you can stroll back and forth, with refreshment breaks, on that grand crescent of sand.
Until the first paved road connected the village to Highway 200 seven years ago, the only way into Chacala was by dirt road or boat. Now, business is picking up and the occasional RV, rental car and taxi has joined the local traffic, including the cab that delivered me to my lodgings at dusk one day.
It had been a three-hour flight from LAX to Puerto Vallarta, then a 90-minute ride, and my first thought, rolling into town, was, "Uh oh." Two blocks of dirt roads, sleeping dogs and ramshackle storefronts. That was the commercial district.
Ahhh, but then I stepped out to the beach. It was nearly empty, a slight breeze blowing. The tall palms, the quiet, the loop of the beach between the rocky points at either end — this was a landscape to banish worry. In the restaurants along the sand, a small band of Canadian snowbirds nursed seafood and cervezas. A little way up the beach, 20 RVs were parked in the palm grove next to the beach, their owners paying $5 a night for the privilege.
Looking for a meal one night at about 7:30, I found nearly every restaurant closed. They've had electricity here for years, but from the look and sound of the beachfront after sunset, you'd think they were still waiting for it.
Intrigued by the gated luxury homes of Marina Chacala, I greeted one homeowner from Seattle and soon was getting a tour of his nearly completed villa, the onyx spiral staircase as well as the 400-square-foot bathroom in the upstairs master bedroom.
Remember, however, that the nearest ATM is six miles up the road in Las Varas. Dozens of residents still live in dirt-floor houses, roosters greet each dawn, and the dominant architectural style is brick box, not Spanish Colonial. Outside of Las Brisas restaurant, the gated grounds of Marina Chacala and the lodgings Mar de Jade and Majahua (where I stayed), little English is spoken.
But in four days, I never met anybody from Southern California, saw only one jet-powered ski in use and was never invited to go parasailing or purchase a time share.
"It's still real Mexico down there," said Ben Laird, he of the imaginary snakes, gazing out at the town one afternoon from his hilltop home in Marina Chacala. "Chickens at your feet. And everybody knows everybody."