Nervous Nellie vs. Mr. Wing-It

One couple, two conflicting approaches to travel: Can this Mexican vacation be saved?

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 25, 2007; Page P01

I never thought of myself as a travel wuss, but there I was, busted, browsing for rentals at an Internet cafe in the little Mexican tourist town of Rincon de Guayabitos.

“Get off!” said my road partner, Bob, the man who loves nothing better than tooling down a Mexican highway on a local bus, prepared for nothing but the next big adventure. No itinerary, no plans, no reservations. That’s travel heaven for Mr. Wing-It.

For me, it’s travel hell. I’m a need-to-know girl.

We cut a deal. We had two weeks in Mexico to tour the sweet little beach towns north of Puerto Vallarta. The first week, we did it my way, staying at a multi-story villa in the surfing town of Sayulita with three other couples. Our friend Jay — an uber-organizer who actually logs the contents of his freezer on a computer spreadsheet — booked the stuccoed manse a year in advance. By Day 2, we were already planning breakfasts and dinners for the rest of the week. We had grocery lists, a book to tally expenses and Jay to work them out to the peso.

It was safe, comfy, predictable, right down to 5 o’clock happy hour. Guacamole, chips, margaritas, every night. The only variable was peanuts.

Everything was under control, including me. I’d taken precautionary antibiotics — all I have to do is look at a map of Mexico to get turista — and had an extra-large bottle of spray-on sunscreen. I arose every morning at 9 a.m. to watch the surf heave, crest and break below, then stretched, sipped coffee and lost myself in a novel.

Ahhh. The beauty of routine.

On Day 7, I kissed it all goodbye. It was Bob’s turn.

* * *
Our friends taxied south to the Puerto Vallarta airport, dropping us off on the side of coastal Highway 200 to catch a bus north to . . . “Where exactly are we going, Bob?”

I believe, as we stood by the road, dusty, sweating in the midday heat, he said, “Trust me.”

Maybe it was “Don’t worry, be happy.”

When the bus finally came, I bumbled on with my duffel and backpack. Old men reached up to help me with the bags. Young girls smiled, patting the seats next to them. “Hola.” “Gracias.” It was a bath of Mexican goodwill. I tried to relax, but questions niggled the Nervous Nellie inside me as we rattled up the highway on a Saturday afternoon toward Rincon de Guayabitos. It would be weekend, high season, in a hopping tourist beach town. Would there be room at the inn? Or would we end up in some cockroach-infested room with sagging mattresses, stained sheets and a view of the town dump?

Couldn’t we just, like, call ahead?

I love planning trips. Browsing online on a gray winter day, I picture myself swinging in a hammock in the exotic Mexican garden spa found on Hotels.com, or catching the warmth of first morning sun through the arched windows of the cliffside condo on Vacation Rentals by Owner.

That’s fantasyland to Bob. He likes his investigations on-site, eyeball to keyhole, and that’s what we did after we stepped off the bus in Rincon, into the hotel zone. Boy, was I wrong. “Si Vacantes” signs were everywhere along the oceanfront. Nellie had a home for the night.

Our unit at Bungalows Anai, recommended in the guide, wasn’t cheap for Mexico — about $75 a night — and it wasn’t fancy. The light fixtures were crooked, the refrigerator rusted, the faucets oxidized and the glasses chipped. But the place was clean, with air conditioning and fans, and we had a nice view across a manicured garden and a pool to the busy beach, where vendors pedaled bicycle carts full of inflatable water toys and skewered shrimp, and volleyball players set and spiked. Water-bike hot-doggers made roostertails in the surf, the machine whine mingling with the tinkle of ice cream carts and the distant buh-boom of rap blasting from trucks cruising the main drag.

If Sayulita was Laguna Beach, this was Coney Island. We were soon longing for seclusion, peace and quiet.

Bob pulled out his Lonely Planet guide, and his finger drifted north to Chacala, a fishing town on a cup of a bay surrounded by jungle. It was tiny, a speck, a guidebook paragraph — so remote it didn’t even merit a turn-off sign on the main highway. I was convinced we didn’t have a chance at finding an empty room. And that’s when I sneaked onto the computer in a Rincon Internet cafe and got busted.

Bob looked at me with a mix of sympathy and disgust. He may have used the word “cheater.”

Contrite, I clocked off the computer, waved down a taxi and away we rumbled, leaving behind the buh-boom and blow-up beach toys and heading north into the lush groves of mango and jackfruit that crawled up the sides of an ancient boulder-strewn volcano overlooking remote Chacala Bay.

Six miles off the main highway, the taxi dropped us off on the dirt road serving as Chacala’s main drag, in front of a deeply tanned couple who looked bemused when I asked them, a bit anxiously, if there was anywhere to stay in the town.

They pointed at the cobbled side streets above us, to a hotel, condo rentals, the half-dozen Mexican homes that take in tourists. They pointed down the beach to a holistic retreat center called Mar de Jade. “There, and there, and there.” Then they pointed to a place about 20 steps away. “And here.”

“Here” turned out to be a sweet beachside hotel called Las Brisas. “A hole diferent Vacations”(sic) read the hotel’s brochure, in English translation.

For about $55 a night, we had a humble but pleasant little room with air conditioning, a DVD player and free movies, and two comfy queen-size beds. Downstairs, under the thatched roof, was a full bar, with good selection and generous pours, and a restaurant that served huevos rancheros for breakfast; fish, shrimp and lobster fresh off the boats for dinner. We ate barefoot, toes curling in the sand.

Las Brisas drew a crew of regulars from Canada and the States who set up every day on the loungers out front, deep-tanning, working crosswords, splashing in the gentle surf — one called it a “kiddie pool” — and spending long hours staring across the fine golden beach and out to sea. Looking at what?

Maybe big waves, ships, whales. Maybe, after the second cerveza, marlin and mermaids. Maybe, after three, old loves and lost lives.

I soon unfolded onto a lounger in this unexpected paradise and joined them in the Long Watch, eyes glued, mind unglued. As hours turned into days, and days melted away, I found myself mulling the nature of travel. I thought about all the great wanderers through time: Odysseus, Marco Polo, Kerouac, Frodo. I thought about the thrill of discovery that attends the adventurer, about the differences between trips and journeys, between tourists and travelers, between those who need to know and those who let it go.

* * *

I finally put niggling Nellie to rest on Day 5 of Week 2 during a crazy side trip that started with an early-afternoon taxi-dash to nearby Las Varas for a look around. Once there, we spotted the big bus station across the main highway. We wandered inside and, for the heck of it, plopped down 50 pesos each to bus it to the inland colonial capital city of Tepic.

We thought the trip might take a half-hour. It took almost two. I started worrying: We’d have to return in the dark, the buses wouldn’t be running, we’d never find a cab back to Chacala from the station.

I was alternately chewing on my fingernails and gazing at my watch when I suddenly stopped and actually looked out the window at the beauty passing by. There were lush jungles, fields of sugar cane, rugged volcanic peaks. I saw pretty little towns with walls painted bus yellow and rose red. I saw bullrings and cemeteries with giant white crosses and pink memorial wreaths still wrapped in plastic. There were big blue birds with long tails and lush green trees fruited with tangerines.

There was a world going by, begging my attention.

And it didn’t require advance booking.

I took a deep breath and settled in. Finally, I got it. I wasn’t a hundred miles down the highway heading home; I was here, on a bus, off the clock, going nowhere in particular.

In all my fretting over the future, I’d been missing out on the romance of the moment.

We arrived in Tepic about 3 p.m. and quickly caught a taxi to the Plaza Principal, a town square surrounded by stately stucco buildings from the 1800s and a large neo-Gothic cathedral, dedicated in 1750. At one end of the plaza, we found shy Huichol artists, down from the mountains, selling intricate beaded masks and shamanistic yarn paintings at prices half those in Sayulita galleries. On recommendation of a government guard, we climbed up to the roof of a 200-year-old hotel to dine on velvety filet mignon in an excellent open-air restaurant, La Gloria, overlooking the town square.

Down below, as the sun set and the old wrought-iron lamps went on, couples gathered, a mariachi band began to play and dancers in big ruffled skirts and hand-tooled cowboy boots high-stepped and twirled in the fading light. We wandered down, and I, too, found myself dancing in the dark, not giving a thought to when, or if, we would ever get back.

We did, easily enough. The buses ran. The taxis were waiting at the station. I arrived back in little Chacala feeling light, liberated, ready for more adventure.

Mr. Wing-It caught my smile and couldn’t help putting in the last word.

“See?” he said. “It all works out.”

M.L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about La Manzanilla, Mexico.

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