Meet Chef Betty, the best cook in San Blas

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.

Where on Earth: Week 30 – San Blas Islands, Panama

Well done to Beverly Blass for identifying these kids as coming from the Kuna people who inhabit the San Blas Islands off the northern coast of Panama. This shot was taken on Achutupu Island, just a short boat ride from a great eco-friendly place called Dolphin Lodge. The fabric is a mola, one of the finely appliqued textiles which the Kuna are renowned for.