Idyllic resort, rooted in real life

Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

CHACALA, MEXICO – 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,” says Ben Laird, a Wisconsonite who bought a vacation home here last year. “Snakes as big as your head.”

“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 on 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, and who doesn’t need the bright lights of 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 volcanic rocks. In the middle of the crescent, a half-dozen palm-shaded restaurants serve fresh fish and shrimp. 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.

The big difference

What sets Chacala apart from so many other modest but growing Mexican beach destinations is this: Thanks to the arrival of three hippie siblings at the end of the 1970s, the town is awash in social experiments, many 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. When not snapped up for the season by wintering Canadians, most of the rooms rent for $22.50 to $60 a night.

Tourists can volunteer on community projects, attend yoga or meditation seminars or learn Spanish at a 24-year-old beachfront retreat called Mar de Jade, 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 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 Maria, its waters collected in the caldera of an ancient volcano. Or you can stroll on that grand crescent of sand.

“Some nights, the sunsets just tear your heart out,” says Andee Carlsson, who moved here 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.”

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.

I arrived after 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.

“It’s still real Mexico down there,” said Laird, he of the imaginary snakes, gazing at the town 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.

The implausible dream

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.

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. 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 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.

So far, the program has built four houses and expanded three others, spending $4,000 to $9,800 on each project. Three landlords have already paid off their loans.

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; http://www.chacala.org)/ which spends about $40,000 yearly to boost local schools, underwrite a learning center and fund scholarships.

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 have already made enemies by blocking locals’ access to a small beach that had been public.

My last morning here, I hiked up the old volcano slope behind Majahua, 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 a Chacala afternoon, you want to believe these palms and this place will last.

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