When Frank Smith, a retired forest ranger from California, first came to San Pancho, an idyllic beach community on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, more than twenty years ago, turtle meat was all the rage.
It was on offer in the sleepy town’s four restaurants, their flippers were used to make cowboy boots and the eggs were sold to bars, which offered them to randy patrons. Turtle eggs can be a valuable commodity south of the border- many Mexicans believe that eating them gives men a Viagra-like boost in the bedroom.
Smith decided to move to San Pancho (formally known as San Francisco) because he wanted to do something to help what he calls “the most passive creatures in the world,” but local restaurants organized a smear campaign against Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde- a conservation group he founded to help protect the turtles and their eggs.
But Smith persevered and began to win over local people with the help of a public information campaign produced by the Mexican government. “They started putting up posters of beautiful women in bikinis, which said, ‘real men don’t eat turtle eggs,'” Smith recalled in an interview.
Over the years, Smith’s group has helped put numerous turtle poachers in prison, and today, none of the 22 restaurants in San Pancho serve turtle meat, although the eggs still need to be protected. Under Smith’s stewardship, San Pancho’s population of turtles has grown from 90 in 1991 to about 450 today.
During the mid June-mid November nesting season, Smith and his volunteers spend all night on the beach safeguarding the turtles as they lay their eggs, and between August and mid March, Smith can often be found on the beach in his dune buggy, releasing baby turtle hatchlings into the Pacific. (see photo above)
Would they survive? Most would not. Would they return to San Pancho? According to Smith, perhaps 3 out of 1,000 would come back to lay eggs on the same beach. But not for 11-16 years.
As the population of turtles has grown over the years, so too has the self-described “gringo community” of North Americans in San Pancho. If you’re looking to escape the winter doldrums but aren’t a fan of big, all-inclusive beach resorts, look no further than San Pancho. The town has a huge, sloping beach, affordable accommodation, and a nice variety of good restaurants, including some of the best shrimp tacos and flan you’ve ever tasted. It’s also a great place to study Spanish, volunteer at a non-profit, and surf.
A Populist with an 87,836 Square Foot Palace
The village was an impoverished backwater until it was embraced in the early 1970’s by Luis Echeverría, who was then the President of Mexico. Echeverría wanted to build a community which could serve as a model for Third World development. He brought electricity to the town, built homes, schools, a state of the art hospital, and a paved main street, which he named Tercer Mundo, (“Third World.”)
In fact, he named all of the town’s streets after third world countries, but saw no irony in landing his helicopter on the beach each week, as he oversaw construction of a magnificent 87,836 square foot beachfront palace just outside of town. He abandoned the property just before it was completed, and was chased out of office in 1976, amidst corruption allegations. His 11 bedroom estate can now be yours for a cool $54,000 per week.
The first time I attempted to visit San Pancho, I nearly lost heart and did not make it. The main road into town was under construction, and the alternate route was the kind of rutted disaster that keeps out-of-the-way auto repair shops in business.
As we bounced our way over one crater and then the next, not knowing how far we were from our destination or what we’d find once there, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in leading our caravan, which included my wife, our two young children, and my parents, out of Puerto Vallarta in search of a seaside arcadia.
When Elizabeth Taylor, who was married at the time, followed her lover, Richard Burton, to Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana in 1964, American paparazzi descended in droves on what was then a sleepy seaside resort. The resulting buzz turned Puerto Vallarta into a fashionable destination for American travelers, but today, the quiet, rustic appeal of old Vallarta can be elusive.
At any of the beaches close to the center of town, you’re likely to spend the bulk of your day fending off vendors offering t-shirts with slogans like: “Puerto Vallarta K-9 Police- Doggy Style Unit,” and “Puerto Vallarta CIA- Central Intoxication Agency.”
Your nose could be in a book, but lurking just above the boundaries of the page was someone calling out to you, “hey amigo- good price.” This was why we found ourselves on the rutted road, bouncing towards San Pancho one morning last winter.
I motored ahead, across the rocky road, despite dissent emanating from three generations, and two rows worth of minivan, and eventually arrived at a tiny parking lot by the town beach. As I stepped out of the van, I could hear the ocean- a loud roar of waves we could not yet see in the distance. We walked onto the beach and looked out at a vast, sloping beach, easily a mile long.
Ahead lay the pleasing crescendo of big waves. On both sides of us were restaurants, offering shade, cold beer and fresh seafood. It was a warm, weekday morning in January and there was nary another person in sight.
I set off, alone, down what looked like a nearly endless stretch of white powder fine sand, and, in the distance, I could see a rocky cliff, a whitewashed church, palm trees, and a solitary man, who appeared like a mirage, walking toward me wearing a white suit and a Panama hat. I had found exactly what I was looking for.
Time to Eat
The dining scene in San Pancho features everything from hole-in-the-wall taco stands to gourmet restaurants, and is hard to beat for a town of just about 1,600 inhabitants. Just a few blocks from the beach on Avenida Tercer Mundo #70, you’ll find Baja Takeria, which features sumptuous shrimp and fish tacos and burritas grilled and seasoned right in front of you.
Just down the street, look for a sign that says “Hay Flan,” in front of Cenaduria Delfin for some of the tastiest homemade flan you could ever hope to eat. San Pancho also has a handful of palapa style restaurants right on the beach where you can sit or lie in the sun or the shade, sip an ice-cold beer for less than $2, and order a plate of heavenly fish or shrimp tacos for less than $10.
Best of all, if you’d like to sit and relax for several hours before or after ordering, you are welcome to do so. And while you might encounter a few vendors, there are few distractions, other than the incessant crashing of waves down the sloping beach in front of you.
On my last evening in San Pancho, I sat on the beach, in the gloriously cool shade of a palapa, watching my sons play tag with a group of local children. And as I looked out at the limitless Pacific and their beaming faces as they chased their new friends up and down the huge beach, it was hard to come to terms with our imminent departure.
As my kids bathed in the extravagant, drowsy, orange glow of sunset, I knew that our odds of returning, newly paved road or not, were much greater than that of the baby turtles we’d sent off to sea.