Coastal dream

Couple finds superlatives in every category over 10 days in fabulous Puerto Vallarta

Special to the Star-Telegram

The bells in the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe rang every quarter hour night and day, obliterating the need for a bedside clock. Into a drawer it went, along with my laptop and magazines.

The camera stayed on the balcony, ready for shots of the basilica’s filigreed crown against darkening skies. Binoculars sat close at hand in case a whale spouted in Banderas Bay. There seemed little reason to leave our aerie.

My husband and I were nearing the end of a 10-day vacation in Puerto Vallarta, one of Mexico’s loveliest seaside cities. We’d spent a week by the beach and were ending our journey in the Celestial Suite at Hacienda San Angel, a beautiful boutique hotel in Vallarta Viejo, the heart of old PV (as the locals say). The temptation to do absolutely nothing was nearly overwhelming.

But there was so much to do and see. The shops are irresistible, the art galleries inspirational and the restaurants abundant and superb.

Then there’s the surrounding countryside, with gorgeous blue coves, dense green jungle, and forest and mountain villages mired in history. PV has just about everything a vacationer could possibly need. Our journey was packed with fabulous experiences I’d gladly repeat. Here are just a few of our favorites to get your fantasies flowing.

Into the past

Pablo could have been 90, 75 or 60. It’s hard to tell when a man’s face is creased from the harsh mountain sun, and even harder to know anything for sure when he speaks the language of the Huichol, the peyote people of the high Sierra Madres.

Despite his age and declining health, Pablo wore all his finery, his straw hat covered with feathers befitting an elder shaman wiser than all the rest. He greeted us from a low stool in the village of San Andres Coamihata, eagerly accepting an apple while eyeing his visitors’ cigarettes. He held up hands as creased as his cheeks and told an interpreter that he works hard every day, despite his age.

“How many children do you have?” someone asked. He barked out a laugh and swept his arm in a circle embracing all the rough adobe brick houses in the compound. Everyone in this neighborhood is related, one of our guides explained. It’s hard to tell who’s a brother, a cousin or a son.

Pablo is the elder, for sure, and all gathered beside his stool as if at the feet of the master. He grew silent and pensive as our little group moved on, then beckoned a guest lighting a cigarette. A huge smile brightened his face. Soon the American and the Huichol were sharing a smoke, conversing with gestures and grins.

Similar scenes played throughout our short visit to this tiny village far from paved roads and modern conveniences. We had arrived early that morning on a prop plane from Puerto Vallarta, an hour’s flight to the southwest. Our guide, Martin Aver, distributed fish, fruit and a much-coveted soccer ball to the welcoming committee before we even stepped off the plane. Benito, our Huichol guide, blessed us as we entered the village, where two men played a dirge on handcrafted instruments similar to violins.

For the next three hours we wandered, mesmerized. Although it has only 120 registered residents, San Andres is akin to a capital city for the 16,000 Huichol living in similar remote mountain outposts. It has the region’s only church, established in the 18th century by Franciscan missionaries, and the only water pump around.

The Huichol are among the few indigenous groups in Mexico to retain pre-Columbian traditions, and they have little interest in allowing outsiders to corrupt their lifestyle. Vallarta Adventures is the only company that brings strangers to San Andres; their tours run once weekly from December to April. Aver had to negotiate with the town leaders before we could proceed. When he returned with a signed contract in hand, he practically beamed with relief.

Accompanied by our guides, the musicians and the inevitable band of semi-shy children, we checked out the worn table where shamans determine future events during a peyote-enhanced trance. Inside the circular ceremonial house, Benito explained the petroglyphs covering the walls. In the church, he showed us a hole in the dirt floor representing the womb of the world.

It was difficult to absorb the cultural and historical information dispensed through multiple translations. In the long run, the people had the most intense impact. Bashful women in bright yellow blouses and long blue skirts stood half-hidden behind wooden doors; many covered their faces the moment they sensed a camera pointed their way. We were led to a gathering of artists displaying their handicrafts. Were it not for the gorgeous Huichol beaded masks and figurines sold in fine galleries throughout the world, few outsiders would even know about this ancient tribe. The crafts we saw were simple and primitive but far more desirable than any collector-quality art in Puerto Vallarta’s pricey shops. We bought bracelets and necklaces, beaded iguanas climbing carved branches, and masks with swirling patterns and flowers representing peyote plants.

Treasures in hand, we wandered slowly toward our plane, reluctantly boarding. Nearly the entire village gathered as the aircraft rumbled along the dirt airstrip and ascended.

“The contact with the people is the best thing you could ever experience,” Aver said. Our group was quiet, even sad, sensing the end of a rare and precious experience. Even Aver, who presents his tours with exhausting energy and enthusiasm, was subdued as he led us toward the street and taxicabs of Puerto Vallarta. “We always leave with a great emotion,” he said.

Foodie frenzy

We gave up on dieting in PV. The city has so many superb restaurants and talented chefs that we could barely begin to sample even the best offerings. I’d asked Jane Onstott, the author of Fodor’s Puerto Vallarta, to recommend the ideal meal. She mentioned four restaurants in one breath.

“I’d have the delicate little lobster tacos from Daiquiri Dick’s, sashimi with the locals at Mariscos 8 Tostadas, and warm chocolate cake from Trio,” she said. “For the setting, I’d choose the amazing terraced garden at Cafe des Artistes.”

Then there’s the shrimp posole at El Arrayan, a darling dining room filled with Mexican kitsch. We loved the cheese-filled pastries and yogurt with berries at La Palapa, the best spot on the beach for Sunday brunch, and returned often to Mariscos 8 Tostadas for straight-from-the sea ceviche. For a full-on ’50s-style night on the town, we dined on thick steaks at the retro Vista Grill, where Sinatra crooned in the background as fireworks flashed above the bay.

We didn’t need a fortune to sample PV’s fabulous cuisine (though we did splurge often). Cooks skewer fresh grilled fish on sticks at seafood shacks on the sand and sell their tender morsels for about $5 a stick. I quenched my thirst with a freshly peeled mango carved into a flower — also served on a stick — and glasses of freshly squeezed juice from street stands (for your health’s sake, make sure the fruit is peeled before your eyes).

We had pancakes at Memo’s; crab manicotti at Vitea; and an astonishing progressive feast on the rooftop, in the courtyard and at the bistro-style Wine Bar at Cafe des Artistes. The experience left me longing to attend this year’s Gourmet Festival (running Nov. 8-18). Local chefs have been inviting their international peers to cook at the fest since 1994, and from what I’ve heard, champagne, wine and cheese tastings and gourmet meals are outstanding.

Artistic ambling

PV has long attracted artists, filmmakers and writers inspired by its natural beauty. The best introduction to the thriving art scene is a stroll along the malecon edging the bay downtown. More than a dozen fanciful bronze sculptures line the walkway. Few people can resist plopping into the bronze seats at the Rotunda del Mar, a cluster of high chairs topped by sea creatures. Couples pose before La Nostalgia, a sculpture of two nestled lovers, while kids (and grownups) jump aboard the spiraling wave at Nature as Mother. Reproductions of the artists’ popular pieces fetch hefty prices at local galleries.

The malecon bustles on weekend evenings, when performing artists arrive. One night we stumbled upon sculptors oblivious to rising tides creating whimsical sand castles between the malecon and the bay. Clowns and acrobats performed at the small amphitheater beside Los Arcos, stone arches framing sea views. A salsa band provided a sensuous backbeat in the main plaza, while churchgoersdescended stone stairways from the adjacent basilica. Artists at easels busily sketched caricatures and painted watercolors of the ever-changing scenery.

At least two dozen fine art galleries line the streets of downtown PV. Several open their doors for the weekly Old Town Art Walk, Wednesdays from October through March. Gallery owners offer wine, soft drinks and munchies.

All art lovers stop by Galeria Uno to visit owners Jan Lavender and Martina Goldberg, who’ve long fueled the local art scene and know everybody and everything. Galeria Vallarta is best for lithographs and prints from famed Mexican artists; Galeria 8 y Mas focuses on artists who reside in the state of Jalisco, where PV is located.

The official art walk sticks to galleries north of the Rio Cuale, in Old Vallarta’s pricier neighborhoods. But the galleries south of the river in the Zona Romantica are equally entrancing. Galeria Dante’s enormous space covers several rooms and a sculpture garden — it’s the largest gallery in PV and an unofficial info center for all artistic matters.

Folk art forays

The line between fine and folk art is barely discernible when you wander through PV’s shops.

Talavera etc. displays tiles and tableware by Uriarte, Mexico’s oldest Talavera makers.

At Peyote People, Beatriz and Kevin Simpson have created a museumlike shop filled with fantastical masks and figurines made by Huichol artists living high in the Sierras. The Simpsons gladly explain the meaning behind vivid yellow, orange and blue swirls and flowers decorating beaded bowls and woven bags. The hallucinatory qualities of peyote are in evidence in the intricate art pieces, some with price tags in the thousands. Less expensive beaded iguanas and deer are sold at crafts markets all over town.

Our favorite shopping outing was on a sunny Sunday morning as we ate breakfast at La Palapa on Playa los Muertos. A parade of vendors passed by our table, with colorful baskets, lacy tablecloths and cases of silver jewelry. We resisted it all until a weary seller, arms filled with wooden mermaids, passed by. My husband, a woodcarver, couldn’t resist. A half-hour later we were the proud owners of a 2-foot tall, blue-eyed merman named Pedro and a painted angel called Juanita.

Wild adventures

The jungles and mountains surrounding PV are perfect for all sorts of adventures. Even the easy tour to El Eden, the jungle setting for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Predator, offers heart-pounding thrills. While we lunched beside a rushing river during a bus tour, some of our fellow sightseers opted to try a zip line above the treetops on a canopy tour. The tour’s final stop at a tequila distillery seemed an apt ending.

Our biggest rush came from a plane ride over the mountains to San Sebastian del Oeste, a 16th-century silver-mining town 80 miles northeast of PV. Beneath our plane, a skinny, sinuous road climbed nearly 5,000 feet above the sea, cutting through rocky cliffs. Getting to San Sebastian is quite an adventure, whether you travel by car or private plane. Being there is like flashing to scenes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

San Sebastian was one of Mexico’s wealthiest silver-mining towns in the 1700s. Today, roughly 600 people live in the area in a setting so picturesque it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors are sparse, though a few tour companies bring groups up the twisting highway.

The Sanchez family happily escorts guests through their coffee plantation, where beans ripen on 100-year-old trees. At a cantina straight out of Romancing the Stone, the bartender sets up shots of racilla (the local moonshine).

Men in cowboy boots slouch outside the cantina, horses clomp along rocky streets, and roses blossom in the cool mountain air. Brilliant bougainvillea tumbles over fences and adobe walls. The desire to find a room for the night grows as shadows deepen in the mountains. But our guide made sure we got into the plane and back to the bustling city.

With all these thrills packed into a little more than a week, we didn’t have time for fishing, scuba diving or kayaking. Oh, yeah, did I mention the beach? Miles and miles of coastline stretch north and south of Banderas Bay. Maybe we’ll hang out in a hammock by the sea next time we’re in PV — as long as we leave time for shopping.

If you go

Staying

Hacienda San Angel: Stunning views of rooftop gardens, tiled stairways and the landmark crown atop PV’s basilica entertain guests at this collection of restored villas artfully decorated with fountains, gardens and antiques. The hacienda is a member of Mexico Boutique Hotels (MBH), which represents several extraordinary properties in the area, including secluded beach hideaways. Rates start at $235. 800-728-9098, www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com

Adventures

Vallarta Adventures offers air and land tours to San Andres, San Sebastian and other mountain villages and Huichol communities closer to PV. They also have canopy tours and nearly every other activity you might desire.

Vallarta Adventures. www.vallarta-adventures.com

Galleries/Shops

Galleria Dante

www.galeriadante.com

Galerie des Artistes

www.galeriedesartistes.com.mx

Peyote People

www.peyotepeople.com

Talavera etc.

www.talaveraetc.com

Eating

El Arrayan

Allende 344

Cafe des Artistes

Guadalupe Sanchez 740

Daiquiri Dick’s

Olas Altas 314

Trio–Restaurant–Bar–Cafe

Guerrero 264

trio@triopv.com

Vista Grill

Pulpito 377

Gourmet Festival

www.festivalgourmet.com

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