The Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas) are located off of the coast of the state of Nayarit on Mexico‘s west coast, just above Puerto Vallarta. The islands are uninhabited and flush with marine life since hunting and fishing is forbidden on the islands. While staying at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit over the weekend, the manager of the resort’s restaurant, Lucca, relayed his appreciation for the hidden beach located on one of the islands to me. A quick Google image search left me jaw-dropped and eager to get over to the Marietas Islands at the next possible opportunity.
The travel agent at the hotel would have been able to assist me in getting to the island if my schedule had allowed, but I unfortunately didn’t have enough hours left on my trip to make the island visit dreams come to fruition. I’ll go back to Riviera Nayarit, though –- even if for the sole purpose of spending some time on this hidden beach.Originally formed by volcanic activity, the islands are entirely uninhabited. The Mexican government began military testing on these islands in 1900 and continued testing for more than half a century. Large explosions and bombings of different kinds took place on the Marietas Islands and as a result, many unusual cave and rock formations decorate the already innately dramatic landscape. The hidden beach looks particularly peculiar with a giant hole seemingly cut out from the earth, revealing a sandy beach and lapping turquoise waters below.
The footage of the island is like nothing I’ve ever seen and I look forward to one day seeing this hidden beach in real life.
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.
At the northern end of Riviera Nayarit is the town of San Blas, a picturesque, authentic Mexican community with a fascinating history and a beautiful fort. Visitors love San Blas for its quiet and surf-ready beaches, La Tovara Wildlife Refuge (which you can boat through on a panga to see crocodiles, turtles and endless birds and mangroves), birdwatching, lychee season, exceptional street food and, last but not least, Chef Betty.
Chef Betty runs El Delphin, the restaurant at Hotel Garza Canela, which her family owns. However, her story is not as simple as you might think.
Chef Betty Vazquez was born in nearby Nayarit capital Tepic, and when she was little, her family would come to San Blas on the weekends to relax and enjoy themselves. They liked it so much that while Betty was still a kid, they purchased their favorite hotel property and turned it into what is now Hotel Garza Canela, one of the two four-star hotels in San Blas (there are no five-stars). “It was easy to fall in love with it,” says Betty, “because we always came here for fun.”
After completing school, Betty knew she wanted to be a chef. It isn’t hard to understand her culinary fascination, having grown up in San Blas, where even the tacos from vendors on the street can be the finest you’ve had in your life. While firmly believing that the food in Riviera Nayarit has always been excellent, she opted to travel to Le Cordon Bleu in France to train. She followed her graduation with stints in different countries and different kitchens around the world before making the move that shocked her contemporaries: she moved back home.
This is Betty’s 29th year at Garza Canela, where she has free reign over her kitchen at El Delphin. The hotel is run by her sisters, making for a comfortable, creative atmosphere, where she can experiment with French cooking and traditional Mexican cuisine, resulting in travel-worthy, mouth-watering international fusions like the Olive Oil Poached Fish with Chipotle Sauce over Risotto above. “People tell me, ‘Why don’t you go move to Puerto Vallarta? You could make so much more money.’ But I don’t want to live in Puerto Vallarta. I like the life here. I can walk to the market. I can walk home if I need anything. The lifestyle here is at a slower pace,” says Betty.
Beyond cooking the finest gourmet food in San Blas, Chef Betty also likes to teach. She calls her kitchen at El Delphin an “open kitchen,” and encourages students and even curious hotel guests to come in and watch her cook. “If I see their faces peeking in the window, I invite them in. Anyone can come in.” She’s happy to dish out tips and help visitors improve their own cooking techniques, happily teaching them the traditional process of taking the seeds out of the chiles and soaking them with piquillo for sweetness. “The mistake people make in Mexican cooking is that they assume everything has to be spicy. It’s all about balancing the sweet, the spicy, the seeds, the nuts, and whatever else you’re using. Teaching people to balance is the first lesson of Mexican cooking,” Betty explains.
Chef Betty’s story is the kind that any traveler can appreciate. You can go around the world and learn magnificent things, but perhaps the most important part of travel is bringing that knowledge back home with you to strengthen your family and community.
[Photos by Annie Scott.]
My trip to Riviera Nayarit was sponsored by the Riviera Nayarit CVB, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.
When you think of The Four Seasons, you probably think of class, elegance, and fabulous upholstery. One of the last things you might expect? A Lazy River.
The Four Seasons in Punta Mita, Mexico has a Lazy River which tunnels (lazily) through masses of greens. The Lazy River is a complimentary perk for guests, as are the big, squashy inner tubes. One loop around takes about seven minutes, and you’ll see everyone from the cute couple in the room next door and parents with kids to the General Manager, who has confessed to me he heads there with a book or paper to hide his face when he needs a break.
The best time to go is around 3pm, when free mini frappuccinos are passed out to all the floaters. When you check in, ask the concierge about the other special hours; there’s a Haagen-Dazs hour and I’ve heard rumors of a forthcoming taco truck.
Honestly, upon reading this, why would you vacation anywhere else? You’ve worked hard. You’ve earned a float around the Lazy River at the Four Seasons.
Want more? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.
[Photo credit: Annie Scott]
My trip to Punta Mita and all of Riviera Nayarit was sponsored by the Riviera Nayarit CVB, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.