Mexico: Puerto Vallarta’s two faces

O VALLARTA, Mexico – Two states of mind coexist in this resort area on Mexico’s warm Pacific Coast. And they couldn’t be more different, as my sister and I discovered.To the north of the airport lies spanking new Nuevo Vallarta in Nayarit state. To the south, old Vallarta in Jalisco.

My sister and her husband stayed at the new jewel of Nayarit’s tourism industry – the Four Seasons Resort at Punta Mita – and even weeks of planning weren’t enough for them to get the digs they wanted.

They ended up slumming, relatively speaking, in the cheapest room at just over $600 per night with twin beds and no ocean view.

I, on the other hand, was actually slumming, picking the best bargain I could find on a couple of weeks’ notice in the heart of old Puerto Vallarta.

My entire package – three days, two nights in a two-star hotel and round-trip airfare from Mexico City – was still $200 shy of their nightly room rate. And their six-day holiday cost thousands of dollars.

Vallarta, to use the generic term that covers both old and new areas, is unique among Mexican resorts in the variety of what it offers along more than 50 miles of beautiful coastline.

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It ranges from cobblestone streets bordered by outdoor cafes popular among the locals, to absolute seclusion where English is the official language and the only other people you will see are fellow guests and the hosts.

Americans are flocking to buy multimillion-dollar beach lots in Nayarit as well as hillside condos in the so-called “romantic zone” in the extreme south of the port.

I was determined to enjoy my vacation on the cheap and not allow it to pale in comparison to my relatives’ just because of the thousands of dollars that marked the gap between our budgets.

But let’s start this journey in the lap of luxury.

I tracked down my sister and brother-in-law in the bustling airport on a Saturday. They were easy enough to find since their driver was waiting for them with a prominent sign.

We were whisked into a nearby Suburban and offered moist towels and refreshments.

About 45 minutes later, the Four Seasons guard tower appeared, and we were waved in to smiling greeters.

Minutes later, an English-language tour of the extensive grounds commenced aboard an electric golf cart. Soon, we were noshing on the chips, guacamole and salsa spread out before our arrival.
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On our first walkabout, a peacefulness filled the junglelike grounds where the ocean ebbed far below, birds chirped and only the occasional passing of a golf cart momentarily broke the spell of being on a deserted island.

More than a hotel, the Four Seasons at Punta Mita is a paradisiacal compound, with gourmet restaurants, a full-service spa, and acres and acres dotted with the agave plants used to make tequila.

The setting is striking, set on a hillside overlooking a remarkable chunk of sandy, wild real estate.
Live guitar music wafts through the lobby, voices are kept to a murmur, the stars are brighter because of the seclusion, and the ocean provides the soundtrack.

Diesel buses and music blaring from overtaxed radios at taco stands were the first sounds I heard after venturing a half block from my hotel, El Pescador.

But inside, the hotel was quiet and clean. I passed up the $16 per night charge for an ocean view and even turned down the $5 per night mini-fridge.

With two convenience stores and a supermarket within two blocks, cold drinks and cheap food were five minutes away.

So was the bus stop. As I waited for my room to be readied, I ventured toward the seawall area, or malecón, which took about 10 minutes by bus. Cost: 45 cents.
The seawall is dotted with sculptures, some whimsical (aliens walking up a ladder on their way back to outer space) and some with a local feel (a Mexican couple dancing in traditional dress).

On the other side of the street, early afternoon party-types were buying drinks along the seemingly endless line of restaurants, bars and clubs that face the ocean, my favorite being the Cuban haunt Bodeguita del Medio.

As the seawall ends, the Zona Romántica begins. It’s dominated by older hotels, some remodeled, others in just passable shape. But most are inexpensive, and nearly everything is within walking distance.

The area has outdoor cafes, sandwich shops and retro bars.

After taking the bus back to the hotel, I found my room tidy if a little dark. My window looked onto a hallway. Only a sliver of ocean was visible.

The pool was simple but nice, and there was free Internet service in the lobby (or a computer with Internet that could be rented).

During my weekend stay, the beach was packed near the restaurants and bars, but not so much in other areas.

Drinks were cheap, about $2.50, and included an umbrella for shade and a couple of chairs.

Malecón night life was lively, with different musical styles pouring from both gringo-ish and very chic Mexican clubs, and the Zona Romántica was hopping well past midnight.

My sister and her husband were probably already asleep. The Four Seasons lobby-bar had closed, and the place probably was dead quiet.

But that was the beauty of slumming. With $20 in my pocket, I could stay out late and have enough for a $4 dollar taxi ride back to my hotel and drinks on the beach the next day.

There, I would close my eyes and hear the same ocean that was crashing onto sands at Punta Mita, and the same seagulls, interrupted, to be sure, by murmuring voices.

All in all, it’s still the beach, still Vallarta, and definitely worth every cent.

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