Descending a steep, jagged set of stairs to the beach, a gringo offers a helpful arm to an abuela, a grandmother, as she navigates the knee-grinding steps. She smiles a mostly toothless grin, burbles in Spanish and waves him away. She’s been making this trek down to the sandy beach of Yelapa, a tiny fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, for decades.
Despite my comparative youthfulness, I want to yell to this polite American, “Hey, what about me?” My calves are certainly complaining. You see, in Yelapa there are two modes of transportation: burro or foot. Wherever you go in this hilly town – to a bodega, restaurant, or just to the beach and back – you get there on your own steam, trudging over rough dirt or concrete pathways requiring mountain-goat abilities.
I learn, after collapsing on Yelapa’s long stretch of sand, that the abuela has come to the beach for spiritual commerce: She earns a few pesos by giving blessings to tourists. About all I understand of her rambling, rhyming prayer to me is “May the veil of Our Lady protect you from hardship and death.”
Though I could bemoan the hardship of Yelapa’s rough roads, instead I’m grateful to spend a week in this sleepy Mexican village, which is accessible only by boat from Puerto Vallarta. I’ve come to participate in a yoga retreat and to dance in the moonlight with both locals and ex-patriot American artists at the Full Moon beach party. I’ve come to absorb Yelapa’s rich beauty and harsh contrasts – where women wash laundry in the river, where electricity is just a year old, where the jungle and sea collide in a place once sacred to long-vanished native peoples. And every night when I climb into the suspended bed under a cloud of mosquito netting in my palapa, an open-sided thatched roof structure, I remember the old woman and feel blessed.
Yelapa is but one of Mexico’s colorful coastal spots where you can do more than soak up rays. Most people dream of sandy, sun-drenched playas shaded by softly swaying palms, especially at this time of year. But lolling on a towel gets boring, and it doesn’t scratch the surface of the rich culture, natural habitats and adventures: exploring Mayan ruins, snorkeling or diving coral reefs, paragliding over a bay, biking to quaint mountain towns, or horseback riding through the jungle. Within a short distance of two easily accessible tourist meccas – Puerto Vallarta and Cancún – lie plenty of off-the-beaten-path opportunities. And, after some adrenaline-pumping experiences, you have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve earned a beach-side siesta.
To me, Yelapa is a place to feel at home in Mexico, where locals greet everyone with a friendly “hola” as you pass on the street, and you haven’t tasted pie until you’ve succumbed to the homemade delights – lemon meringue, pecan and chocolate – peddled by The Pie Ladies along the beach. In this get-away-from-it-all town with only three telephones, there are two waterfalls to hike to, swimming, and paragliding over the bay from cliff-top launch spots. And there’s always a yoga instructor available to coach you into some surf-side poses. For good snorkeling at a nearby cove, hop a water taxi to picture-perfect Posota beach and scan the waves for the wings of jumping giant manta rays.
As remote as Yelapa is, you can take yourself even farther off the tourist map, as did Steve O’Halloran, a poet and bookseller from Northampton, Mass., and two friends. On a backcountry horseback safari guided by Canadian equestrian coach Pamela Arthur, O’Halloran had a “36-hour whirlwind adventure” into a world few non-Mexicans experience. He made the rough, five-hour journey up the steep, wild terrain above Yelapa on the back of El Guapo, “the handsome one,” who, he learned while fording a boulder-strewn stream, was nicknamed “The Stumbler.”
His group stayed the night in Chacala, a plateau-land village where they encountered a rodeo. “We were the only foreigners there among about a thousand people from all over the region,” O’Halloran says. “The bull-riding was amusing, since some bulls really got into it, but others refused to buck and ran directly to the corral’s exit gate. Between rodeo events, people danced, drank beer and passed around raicilla, the local moonshine. After the rodeo, there was a big dance in the corral, so we got out there and danced for hours with dust billowing around us,” he laughs. “For saddle-soreness, I highly recommend dancing – it really loosens tight muscles.”
If you’re exploring Yelapa or the region around Puerto Vallarta, you’ll need to spend a night or two in the “gringo-fied” city, which fortunately still has a few quiet beaches. It’s also the departure point for excellent cycling treks into remote areas. For starters, BikeMex Adventures gives advanced riders two-wheeled transportation to Yelapa, a four-to-five-hour cycle culminating in a steep downhill single-track to the beach. The trip includes a boat ride back to Vallarta, or you can opt to stay overnight in the village (see sidebar below). Less arduous excursions go to hidden beaches along the way to Punta Mita, north of Puerto Vallarta.
BikeMex tours include all mountain-biking gear and a trained guide who informs visitors about local flora and fauna, history, and culture, says BikeMex guide Oscar de Diós. “Bikers who come in good shape love our tours and learn a lot,” he says. One popular overnight trek into the mountains flies bikers in a small plane to the 6,000-foot, old-world town of San Sebastián, where de Diós teaches about the area’s silver-mining history. Bikers climb La Bufa mountain and spend the night in a restored hacienda, then make the steep descent the next day.
“We take bikers across rivers and suspension bridges, past donkeys and turkeys, and help them talk with locals,” says de Diós. “This is a way to discover the real Mexico.”
Following the Maya Trail
Prefer to travel on foot? A pair of Nikes can carry you to the same hidden coves and jungles where ancient, sandaled Mayans trod a thousand years ago. The white sands and turquoise water of the Caribbean coast south of Cancún, known today as the Riviera Maya, will expand both your sense of history and your physical horizons. By skirting the tourist zones, you can stay in rustic cabaña hotels and explore ancient ruins but still enjoy world-class activities such as windsurfing and scuba diving. The Yucatán peninsula offers an experience you can get nowhere else: swimming or diving in a cool freshwater cenote, or sinkhole. To the Maya, cenotes were a sacred source of fresh water. They’re formed when part of the roof of an underwater river collapses, resulting in a steep-walled pool that can be hundreds of feet deep and accessible only by ladder. “You can jump right in, and the water goes down forever,” says Hudson, Wis., writer Cynthia Whyte, who visits Mexico each winter. “I’ve never been in water so magical,” she adds. “Coming from the frozen Wisconsin tundra, I can’t spend enough time in pure cenote water, which makes my skin feel so young and smooth. I believe cenotes are the source of the Fountain of Youth mythology.”
To really explore the crystal-clear, mysterious waters, enlist the help of a local guide and don a mask and snorkel. Cenote diving is spectacular and becoming popular, although you must be an experienced cave diver and have a guide to help you explore the underground tunnels, deep caverns and underwater stalactites and stalagmites.
For good proximity to cenote swimming, stay in or around Tulum, 81 miles south of Cancún. Here you’ll find a picturesque Mayan ruin perched right on the ocean. It’s invaded daily by tourist hordes, but if you stay at Maya Tulum retreat center (a rustic beach-side spa known for Mayan body treatments and an extensive yoga program), or at Dos Ceibas (the lovely and romantic little eco-resort just a mile or so down the beach) you’re just a short drive from the ruins, which means you can have them almost to yourself in the early morning and late afternoon. Early risers won’t regret bicycling to the ruins to watch the sun’s first rays illuminate the form of the upside-down “Diving God” carved on a temple wall.
The ancient Maya city of Cobá – only 45 minutes inland from Tulum – is a world away from the beach crowds and offers a one- or two-day, physically challenging archaeological quest. Here, temples and pyramids rise from the dense jungle, though many of the 20,000 structures have yet to be excavated. “Cobá is a magical place,” says Nicole Cornick, Maya Tulum’s manager. “Exploring the site makes you feel like an archaeologist discovering the ruins yourself.”
Because Cobá is so massive, extensive hiking through tall, shady jungle is involved. Cornick recommends that visitors hire a guide at the entrance for a 45-minute orientation, then rent a mountain bike and pedal along forest-canopied trails and 1,200-year-old limestone-cobbled ceremonial roads called sacbés. The paths lead to pyramids, temples, painted murals and elaborately carved stelae. You can scale the steep, 140-foot-high Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, for a magnificent jungle panorama. To really absorb the ancient world, spend the night at Villa Arqueológica Cobá, a jungle lodge with an extensive library on all things Mayan.
Call of the Wild
Dos Ceibas co-owner Elivira Biasin suggest that nature enthusiasts explore another Tulum-area treasure, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3-million-acre area that conserves tropical forests, savannas, mangrove swamps, and coastal and marine environments, including part of the world’s second-largest barrier reef.
Sian Ka’an is ideal for bird-watching, as there are 336 species including parrots, toucans, ibis, roseate spoonbill, flamingo and herons. It is also home to jaguars, pumas, ocelots, spider and howler monkeys, tapirs, manatees, peccaries, crocodiles, and four species of endangered marine turtles. Human access is limited so that it remains pristine, but you can enter the biosphere with a naturalist who will explain conservation efforts and take visitors on a boat journey through the canal system, where you can spot crocodiles, stop at a small Mayan ruin, and swim or snorkel (in a croc-free zone).
After a few days of Mexico’s tropical Caribbean- or Pacific-area adventures, you’ll have earned a few hours getting re-acquainted with your beach towel. But don’t get too comfy. Soon it’ll be time for that late-afternoon trek to the Mayan temple to watch the sun set. Or maybe you’ll be suiting up for the night dive and star watching. Either way, once you’ve gone beyond beach basking to savor the real south-of-the-border flavor of Mexico, you’ll find there is no going back.