No Crowds? No Rush? In Mexico, No Problemo

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 3, 2006; Page P01

It takes a day or two in La Manzanilla to spot the symptoms. There’s the flat tire on the rental
car that has gone nowhere in seven days, the book buried in the sand facedown, the gringo who
can’t remember what day it is, the old local waving hola from his hammock.

Expats call the phenomenon “the great sand suck.”

Extreme cases become the stuff of legend, like the Oregon tourist plopped in a beach chair who couldn’t decide whether to go barefoot or wear sandals. He started mulling the question in the morning. At 5 p.m. he was still in the same spot. Same chair, one sandal on, one off. “I meant to go someplace,” he said with a shrug.

Even the roosters seem afflicted in this dusty little Mexican fishing village, a hushed-up spot
that’s still off the clock and, for a while yet, off the tourist track. The scrawny birds go off
at all hours — midnight, 2 a.m., breakfast time, lunchtime, margarita time — their hoarse,
halfhearted cock-a-doodle-doos signifying nothing in particular.

“Nothing” may have a bad name north of the border, but down here on Mexico’s west coast, some four hours south of Puerto Vallarta along the Costa Alegre (the Happy Coast), finding the dada of nada is a fine pastime. “I’m listening to the space between the waves,” a music-teacher friend told me, planted in her chair on Day 4 of vacation, eyes closed, face to the sea, listening to the gentle surf that rises, sighs and foams across a long, low-slope beach.

La Manzanilla isn’t fancy, not even close, despite a growing number of handsome architect-designed rentals and a smattering of new galerias. There are no resorts, no sports bars, no souvenir shops, no time-share pitches, no prepackaged special deals. Regulars, who urge others to keep this pretty hideout secret, pack pesos: There are no banks, no bank machines, no plastic, no traveler’s checks.

What you get for those pesos — and you won’t need many — are friendly townsfolk used to mingling with gringos, a dreamy sweep of beach backed up to tropical jungle, and time, the kind of soak-in time that untangles thoughts, unknots muscles and transforms foot-tapping Type A’s into Type Z’s,
full on empty.

Angling for Nothing

Laid-back La Manzanilla is often confused with the busy port of Manzanillo, less than an hour to
the south. That “a” at the end makes all the difference. Big Manzanillo has a population of more
than 100,000. Little “La Manz” may have 3,500 in peak season, including winter residents, native locals and the Mexicans who come from inland, their trucks packed with inflatable water toys, kids and grandparents riding overstuffed chairs in the pickup bed.

The town lies cupped in the protected southeastern reach of the Bay of Tenacatita, and even water-sissies like me can spend hours boogie-boarding the soft, rolling wavelets, riding right up onto the beach, with a bathing suit full of sand and the kind of silly grin you see on a 6-year-old, sure of her safe delivery to shore.

I’ve been coming to La Manzanilla three years running, staying in beautiful beachfront suites for less than $100 a night in high season. Get off the beach and you can easily halve that. If you hit
the street taquerios for $1.50 tacos or cook up a nice pot of refrieds with serrano chilis to put
inside the fresh tortillas made steps down the street, you can enjoy slacker paradise on a comfy
budget.

Pencil in at least a couple nights out, though. The town has a good, eclectic mix of restaurants
serving traditional Mexican dishes, super-fresh seafood and chef creations such as shrimp and
spinach crepes, Thai curries and octopus salad.

The first year, I came to La Manzanilla because I’d heard about the fishing. The waters offshore
teem with tuna, marlin, sailfish, snapper and dorado, gorgeous pescado that leap neon yellow and green and blue from the warm Pacific. Fishermen cast small, weighted seine nets, or pole-fish with line and jig to bring in roosterfish right off the beach. Locals also offer guided fishing trips in open boats.

That first year, I didn’t catch anything. Then I caught nothing, the Big Nothing. I’ve been coming back for it ever since.

It won’t last. It can’t. Regulars who’ve been snowbirding here for years predict that, within a decade, La Manzanilla will be another international tourist destination like Puerto Vallarta. “But it will take 10 years at least,” said one baked Canadian, a week into his stay.

Foreigners are moving in, importing the norte americano ideas that have transformed town after town along a mellow coast some developers now call “the Mexican Riviera.”

Already, a new cyber cafe is up and running. Bulletin boards advertise personal growth workshops and wellness spas, and Web sites describe the village where La Manzanillan men still bond while mending nets in an old fishing cooperative as “an artist colony.” Indeed, expats have built a new nonprofit multicultural center where locals and visitors take classes in pottery, painting, language, dance, yoga.

Even at siesta, real estate offices are buzzing with gringos, and new construction is crawling and sprawling up the jungled hill behind the town. “It’s just gone crazy,” says Jane Gorby, a rental agent and columnist who writes for the Guadalajara Reporter about the town.

When she first visited, in 1995, the typical truck cruising the main drag had no roof, no hood and a plastic jug of gasoline in the back with a tube going into the manifold. Now locals drive spiffy cars and big trucks. Gorby’s not bemoaning the changes. “The charm of this town is that it combines Old Mexico with modern conveniences.”

Some in town urge caution, however. A hand-painted sign placed conspicuously in the center of town several years ago bears an old American Indian warning, admonishing, in part, that only after the last tree has been cut, only after the last hill is sold, only after the last fish caught, will
people realize that “money cannot be eaten.”

Still, the old and new seem to coexist comfortably in a slow seven-minute stroll down the main dirt drag — hosed down each noontime for dust control.

At the village plaza, giggling Mexican girls stroll arm in arm past awkward town boys, while gringos watch from an outdoor bistro, sipping shade-grown organic coffee. Down the street from local mom-and-pop groceries, past the new galerias, a white-haired Mexican woman falls deep asleep in her plastic chair at noon, her big legs held in the timeless spread of a flowered housedress.
Ready for Action?

Walk a minute more, and you come to the town’s end — and its unexpected edge: a mosquito-humming mangrove lagoon that’s home to an estimated 75 to 100 American crocodiles, Crocodylus acutus, some 12 feet in length. The species is said to eat almost anything that moves, and over the years the crocs have developed a taste for mongrel perro — dead dogs, tossed into the lagoon by locals, and live ones that wander into the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve spent hours swatting skeeters at the viewing platform above this ecological preserve, watching crocs snake through the swampy water with their horny hides and prehistoric scales, cold
Godfather eyes half-shuttered, terrible jaws opening to reveal jagged rows of razor teeth.
It’s one of my preferred breaks from nothing.

I’ve also spent hours snorkeling in the rock reefs at beach end, seeing turtles and wrasses, baby stingrays and schools of silver-sided needlefish. And I always take the long hike down the smooth, curving beach to Boca de Iguanas (Mouth of the Iguanas), past campsites with embedded hippie buses, a sand cemetery with plastic-flower wreaths on gravestones, and the crumbling remains of a luxury hotel, never completed, that was reportedly blown up in a mysterious propane explosion tied to shady drug dealings.

If I’m really ready for some action, I call on Davison Collins, a high-energy nature guru,
professional whitewater kayaker and dedicated conservationist who guides birding and snorkeling eco-tours, whipping out a juice-swollen pineapple and an umbrella to sit under midday as he tells tales of shooting Class V rapids or kayaking the croc lagoon in the dark of night.

On the open kayaks he calls “sit-on Cadillacs,” I’ve followed him down a river that ran to the
Pacific, navigating rapids and sandbars as we tracked birds — white ibis, gray hawks, wood
storks, roseate spoonbills, ringed kingfishers. We listened to the girly screeches of yellow
kiskadees and the prehistoric squawks of herons, and saw vultures gather in dense black packs,
holding their wings out for airing, like dark angels.

I’ve also kayak-surfed with Collins into a lagoon choked with red mangrove. The vegetation was so thick, the gnarled roots so entwined, that only solitary sun rays peeked through to light the
milk-chocolate water. It was spooky-silent, a desperate, decomposing, dreamy waterscape that
suggested the beginnings of time.

Whatever that was.

I’ve lost track of it after every one of these mad exertions, returning to La Manzanilla to settle
back in my beachside chair and stare for hours at the mini-curl of surf, ice cubes melting in my
Cuba Libre, skin glowing, mind blank, system on zero.

“Nice,” I said to my musician friend at day’s end. She nodded. We’d gone from complex sentence structures to simple, one-syllable words. In front of us, the sun went yellow to orange, and bloated as it touched the horizon. Fishermen waded chest-deep into the water with their nets, teens rolled soccer balls up their legs and off their heads, and sailing dinghies came in on a shush of swell. Near us, a girl spread her arms and kicked at the water, throwing orange diamonds in the air. A thick woman — her mother? — sat at the tide line, her wet dress frilling and unfrilling around her in the surge of sea foam. Her face was blank, not a muscle stirring.
I knew that feeling. It was the feeling of doing absolutely nothing.

Nothing never looked so good.

“A toast?” I asked my friend as the sun finally slid beneath the blue divide. We air-clinked our
glasses in salute. It was simply too much effort to get up and reach across the table. We were two grown girls in slo-mo, going nowhere, totally sand-sucked.

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