Doing good by having fun – Chacala’s social experiments link locals, tourists for a better world

CHACALA, Mexico — Sure, there’s a great beach here, fresh fish, tall palms and only about 400 locals to share them withChacala - La Punta Realty. 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, British Columbia, 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 Cafe, one of about 10 restaurants in Chacala, as they gaze down upon a canopy of green, a deep blue sea, and a few dozen pelicans swoop-commuting.

The truth about Chacala is indeed intriguing, especially for a traveler who wants to 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 Cancun.

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, gentle surf murmurs over black volcanic rocks. In the middle of the crescent, a half-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 fishing boats are tied to a modest dock.

In town, several lodgings have popped up in the past 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.

Social experiments

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 Mexico (Roofs of Mexico), a half-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.

Still other visitors and expatriates have bankrolled a community library, paid for improvements at the elementary school and developed a scholarship program that underwrites the transportation, books, uniforms and other education costs of more than two dozen local youths. (The public schools in Chacala stop at secondary school, and high school diplomas are as rare as air conditioning.)

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 among 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 Maria, its waters collected in the caldera of an ancient volcano. Or you can stroll back and forth on that grand crescent of sand.

Chacala - La Punta Realty

“Some nights, the sunsets just tear your heart out,” says Andee Carlsson, who moved here permanently three years ago from Washington state. Carlsson, who rents a room in one of the Techos houses, said she came because it was affordable and the gardening was year-round. She stays because “the people here make me feel good,” she says. “People just help you out, and you get to help people out.”

Paved road a turning point

Until the first paved road connected the village to Mexico 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 have 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 Los Angeles 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 lingered over seafood and cervezas. A little way up the beach, 20 RVs were parked in the palm grove next to the sand, their owners paying $5 a night for the privilege.

I know, I know. In your daydreams of tropical paradise, there are no RVs, except perhaps your own. But Chacala is fetching and comfortable, not fancy and immaculate.

“It’s still real Mexico down there,” said 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.”

Yet it’s growing by the day, and there’s all this experimentation.

By many measures, Chacala’s modern history began 27 years ago, when Laura, Om and Jose Enrique del Valle arrived from Mexico City in pursuit of an implausible dream: On a patch of land at the southern end of the beach, they would build a retreat for foreigners that would boost cultural understanding and support a rural medical clinic.

Operating out of an old school bus, they put up eight rooms with shared bathrooms, light provided by candles and lamps, refrigeration by ice blocks. They called it Mar de Jade.

The partnership didn’t last. But the business has. These days, Mar de Jade could pass for a rich man’s vacation compound. Surrounded by gardens, it has 30 rooms, a spa, a couple of big meeting rooms, a shaded patio that seats 50 or so, a palm-shaded pool, a prime spot on the beach – and a medical clinic in nearby Las Varas that often draws volunteers from the numbers of medical professionals and students staying at Mar de Jade. Laura del Valle, a 56-year- old physician raised in Chicago and Mexico City, owns Mar de Jade and runs it with her 21-year-old daughter, Angelica.

These days, they house mostly med students and other volunteers in summer and mostly vacationing couples, families and groups in winter.

Laura’s half-brother, Jose Enrique, has carved out his own niche on 2 1/2 acres next to Mar de Jade.

Boutique hotel

Drawing on his background as a builder, civil engineer and former tour guide, he and his wife, Carmen, built and opened Majahua, a four- room boutique hotel, spa and restaurant on a jungle slope, in 1996. Pronounced “Mah-HAW-a” and named for a jungle tree, it’s the only lodging in town where you’re likely to hear American jazz on the stereo, order a Mediterranean salad or wash your hands in one of those stone-bowl sinks you see in design magazines.

But it remains a jungle enterprise: Indoors or out, you may spy a spider or two. You spend a fair amount of time navigating the footpaths that connect the guest rooms to the dining area, and the dining area to the beach, and the parking lot to everything else. And if the hot water runs out during your shower, that’ll be because the propane tank has run out and it’s time for somebody to lug a full one up the hill.

To many in town, Jose Enrique del Valle is best known as the coordinator of Techos de Mexico. Started in 1996, inspired by the work of Habitat for Humanity and largely bankrolled by donations from the north, it’s a construction- loan program to connect villagers with tourists and their dollars.

Chacala - La Punta RealtySo far, the program has built four houses and expanded three others, spending $4,000 to $9,800 on each project, splitting revenues between landlords and the loan fund. Three landlords have already paid off their loans, including Concha Velazquez, who told me in Spanish that her family had been dependent on her husband’s uncertain income as a fish merchant. They opened Casa Concha in 2001, paid off their loan three years later and have expanded to three rental rooms.

The only real downside, says Jose Enrique del Valle, now 50, is that “it’s a lot of work. I’m exhausted.”

But as the renovated schools and the library near the middle of town demonstrate, more activists have arrived in the Del Valles’ wake. One is Susana Escobido, who runs the Mauna Kea Cafe with her husband, Poncie, rents out a few rooms by the month, sells homes in the Marina Chacala development and is co-founder of Cambiando

Vidas (Changing Lives;, which spends about $40,000 yearly (much of it raised among U.S. Rotarians) to boost local schools, underwrite a learning center and fund scholarships. Twenty- seven local youths are studying on scholarships right now, from eighth-graders to college students.

“The Nayarit coast is just exploding, whether we’re ready for it or not,” Escobido says. “We want to make Chacala a community of entrepreneurs.”

A boom in visitors might well boost local living standards. But many repeat visitors and locals say that if the wider world learns more about this place, the wider world will elbow its way in, change it beyond recognition and cut the locals out of the action.

So, plenty of eyes are watching the state-owned RV park at the edge of the beach – where a would-be buyer has proposed condos – and Marina Chacala, where unbuilt lots are priced at $200,000 and up. The developers there already have made enemies by blocking locals’ access to a small beach that had been public.

Still, Escobido contends that some of those homebuyers could be the village’s next philanthropists. “They don’t know it yet,” she said, “but they’re all going to be participating.”

My last morning here, I hiked up the old volcano slope behind Majahua, watching the town shrink below and marveling at the thickening jungle.

The foliage around Chacala is thick partly because of a tree known as the strangling fig. It begins as a parasitic seed lodged in the trunk of a host tree, then sends tendrils down, hits dirt and starts growing like mad, first embracing then enveloping its host, zooming to 50 feet or more. The figs love palm trees. And because Chacala is full of palms, it’s also full of these tree couples in towering embrace. Reference books say the host trees usually die first, but locals say the entangled pair can grow and prosper together for years.

I’m glad to hear that, because when you take your beachfront seat to laze away another Chacala afternoon, you want to believe these palms and this place will last.

Insider’s Guide

Get there: From DIA, connecting service to Puerto Vallarta is offered on Aeromexico, Mexicana, Delta, US Airways, American and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $299. Chacala lies on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, about 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta and 6 miles off Mexico 200. From the Puerto Vallarta airport, visitors can rent a car (most major agencies are represented) or take a taxi, which costs about $90 for the 90-minute ride.

Good to know: Although Puerto Vallarta and Jalisco state are an hour ahead of Denver, Chacala is just across the line in Nayarit state, which is in the same time zone as Denver. Local businesses typically take dollars and presume an exchange rate of 10 pesos per dollar. Also, because Chacala is so small, beachfront properties have no conventional addresses. Properties off the beach are identified by their street (most are on Golfo de México, Islas Marías, Océano Atlántico or Avenida Chacalilla) but rarely by number.

Telephones: To call the numbers below from the United States, dial 011 (the international dialing code), then 52 (the country code for Mexico), then 327 (the Mexican area code that includes Chacala) and the local number.

Where to eat: Majahua, 219-4055, has a pebble floor and no roof, but it’s the fanciest restaurant in town, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Call by 4 p.m. to reserve a table for dinner. Its breakfasts, lunches and dinners (Mediterranean salad and lemon pie are house specialties) are offered on a shaded hillside patio that overlooks the sea. Main courses $6-$13.

Las Brisas, beachfront, is a favorite with English speakers. Main dishes $5.50-$18.

Mauna Kea Café, on Los Corchos, just off Islas Marías; 219-4067, is a breakfast spot (8-10 a.m.) on the roof of the Casa Pacífica, a former bed and breakfast (now monthly rental) just outside the gates of Marina Chacala. Specialties include Belgian waffles, French toast and smoothies. Prices $4.50-$7.

Chacala vacation rentals: The place: 011-52-327-219-4067 or 1-760-300-3908, The flavor: Several luxurious houses in the gated Marina Chacala development are available for short-term rental, from $150 (for a one-bedroom unit) to $625 per night (for Villa Tesseri, which includes a house and guest house, sleeps 10 to 12 and features a swimming pool and a commanding view).

Majahua: The place: On the beachfront; 011-52-327-219-4055, The flavor: Four “suite” units (one has two bedrooms and two bathrooms) in a pair of buildings on a jungle slope down to the beach. Uneven paths make it risky for children and anyone with mobility problems, but the secluded setting and spa attract yoga groups and other escapists. Breakfast included. $110-$300 per suite nightly.

Mar de Jade: The place: On the beachfront; 219-4060, or toll-free 800-257-0532; The flavor: Thirty units, neighbored by garden, pool and beach. Units have no phones or TVs, and most are fan-cooled, although air conditioning will be added to a few rooms this year. Family-friendly. Spa facilities. Three kayaks. Meals included in rates. Winter rates from $110-$135 per person per day, based on double occupancy, or $135-$180 per day for singles.

Casa Chacala: The place: It’s on Golfo de México street; 219-4057; The flavor: Opened three years ago with six units and a pool. Has air conditioning (a rarity), and word is that televisions are coming. Doubles begin at $50. Several other hotels fall into this general class, the largest and newest of them being the 18-room Hotel Paraiso Escondido (also on Golfo de México; 219-4098, Doubles begin at $70.

Techos de México: The place: or The flavor: Among the houses in the Techos de México program, rooms are priced at $22.50-$60 nightly. Most include kitchenettes and terraces with ocean views; all are within five minutes’ walk to the beach, but housekeeping, telephone access and billing practices vary. Not much English is spoken. I saw and liked Casa Aurora and Casa Concha, a.k.a. Casa Guanahani.

Activities: Chacala Escapes (on Islas Marías, 219-4018) arranges snorkeling, surfing, fishing, whale watching and other trips at $10-$35 per person.

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