Enjoy small-town charm on Mexico’s Pacific coast

Monique Polak
CanWest News Service
Tasty treats: Luis Erasmo Rangel prepares grilled chicken in La Penita.
CREDIT: Michael Shenker/special to the BURNABY NOW
Tasty treats: Luis Erasmo Rangel prepares grilled chicken in La Penita.

Along the Pacific Coast north of Puerto Vallarta, visitors argue about which beach town is best. Is it one of the more developed towns within shouting distance of Puerto Vallarta, or do you have to head up the coast and farther away from the major resorts, to a place like Rincon de Guayabitos? Or maybe the perfect beach town is somewhere else altogether.

Our goal was to find out. We weren’t looking for a lot: a sandy beach, fresh seafood, a laid-back atmosphere and a genuine taste of Mexico.

We travelled by bus from Guadalajara. We planned to get off at a little town called La Penita and then take a collectivo (a local van or small bus) to Guayabitos – a popular beach destination we’d read about in our guidebook.

But we hadn’t counted on the winding coastal highway. My motion sickness was so bad, I felt too woozy to leave La Penita right away. That turned out to be just as well. Our brief stopover turned into an eight-day love affair.

La Penita gets only a paragraph in our guidebook. The hardworking neighbour to Guayabitos, it has the bank and post office. At first glance, La Penita is a dusty, unimpressive town. The main street, Emiliano Zapata, is lined with grocery stores, clothing and gift shops, and small restaurants, none of them chic. Some buildings are in disrepair, others are under construction; some of the dirt roads are rutted and look, well, dirty. This isn’t Cape Cod.

But slowly, the place grew on us. As La Penita worked its charms – a friendly chat with one shopkeeper, a smile from a passerby and an exchange of e-mail addresses with a fellow Canadian visitor – we began to relax and feel at home. Could there be a better beach town? Day after day, we decided to put off the search for just one more day.

And there was, of course, the beach. Most days, there are more pelicans than people on the shore. The beach at the point where Emiliano Zapata Street meets the sand is small, but there’s a wider stretch if you walk north for about 10 minutes. We checked into Bungalows Don Jose, one of several small hotels offering apartments with a bedroom, living room and kitchenette. When we told the manager we might stay a few days, he reduced the nightly rate to $35 US.

If La Penita feels too sleepy, Rincon de Guayabitos is just a 15-minute walk south along the beach. Guayabitos has dozens of hotels and restaurants geared for tourists. It’s also a place to come for happy hour or to sunbathe on a bigger beach.

But if you want even more quiet, head in the other direction. The village of Chacala is 30 kilometres north of La Penita. The beach is the star attraction, its water perfect for swimming. So we decided to pack up our bags and hang out there for a few days.

Susana and Poncie Escobido run Casa Pacifica, a pretty B&B about a 10-minute walk from the beach.

“Chacala is what Hawaii was like 100 years ago – before the highrises,” said Poncie, who was born in Hawaii.

Some visitors stay at one of the seven Techos de Mexico – modest lodgings inside local homes. The initiative began in 1997 and allows villagers to improve their homes and create a new source of revenue. Rentals of rooms or more cost between $25 and $45 a night.

Towns like Chacala are found up and down the Pacific coast of Mexico. Travellers learn through word-of-mouth about little beach paradises found off the beaten path. We were reminded of Playa Azul, north of Ixtapa. Or Puerto Angel, on the southern reaches of the Pacific coast.

But once you’re off the beach, there might be little to do and few conveniences of home. While we had first-class digs at Casa Pacifica, including a room decorated in antiques ripped from the pages of House & Garden, that’s not the norm in the more remote towns.

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From Puerto Vallarta it’s a one-hour bus trip to La Penita. The bus trip from Guadalajara takes four hours. Primero Plus buses leave several times a day from both cities and make stops at La Penita. To get to Chacala, you’ll need to take a collectivo or taxi from La Penita.

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