Mexico: A dream takes root in Chacala, near Puerto Vallarta

By Christopher Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
February 24, 2007

By many measures, this modern history of Chacala began 27 years ago, when Laura, Om and José Enrique del Valle arrived in this village 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta 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 medical professionals and students staying at Mar de Jade. Laura del Valle, a physician raised in Chicago and Mexico City, owns Mar de Jade and runs it with her daughter, Angelica.

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

Meanwhile, Laura’s half brother, José 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. Pronounced “Mah-hawa” 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, José Enrique del Valle is best known as the coordinator of Techos de México. Born in 1996, inspired by the work of Habitat for Humanity and largely bankrolled by donations from the north, it’s basically 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, splitting revenues between landlords and the loan fund. Three landlords have already paid off their loans, including Concha Velázquez, 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 José 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 Playa Chacala demonstrate, more activists have arrived in the Del Valles’ wake. One is Susana Escobido, who runs the Mauna Kea Café 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 (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. These kids, because they’ll have an education, are going to think like businesspersons.”

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.

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

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