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Post Puerto Vallarta trip: a lengthy post on my thoughts, experiences, tips, & comparisons to the U.S.

As promised, here is a summary of what I noticed while in Puerto Vallarta. 

 The first thing I noticed in Puerto Vallarta was a bunch of hotels. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I was a little freaked out by this because it wasn’t what I’d expected from the pictures I saw, or what I was looking for on this vacation (or HW). It just looked like any major North American city – a long boulevard with stores, a few restaurants (some that are in the states). There’s even a Wal-mart – you get the picture. I didn’t want to grab my camera and capture anything.  Of course, I must say that I could not see the beaches in the “hotel zone” – as I found out later it is referred to as – if I could have, I would have seen the beauty and all the people having a great time I’m sure!

Once through the hotel zone, we quickly arrived in Puerto Vallarta’s Old Town and eventually to our neighborhood, Zona Romantica. I haven’t mentioned before that we stayed in Zona Romantica, which is partially known for being a great gay destination in Mexico, because there is more to the story. First let it be noted, we are not gay (HW is married actually). But I chose this place for three reasons. One, I fell in love with the pictures I saw of the condo and the view. Two, the owner was responsive right away, nice, and gave me a discount. And three.. I could think of nothing better for a relaxing vacation then to be inside a gayer area, where drunk men from the U.S. would not try to hit on us (my worst fear, ok it may not happen, but just being cautious). This turned out to be a great decision I think – and Sarah agreed. We met really cool people near where we were staying and we even heard about some other women doing the same thing. We never met them, but we did see them from afar one day. And just to paint the full picture, there were some straight people around in this neighborhood too. Also, Puerto Vallarta (and PV Old Town) is much bigger than any one neighborhood and Old Town is technically across a river anyway from Zona Romantica, if I understand correctly. In my humble opinion as I’ve only been to PV once, Old Town is a big part of what makes Puerto Vallarta Puerto Vallarta –  it’s a must-see! You can get a good idea of what Old Town and Puerto Vallarta in general is like via my video “Puerto Vallarta in pictures” – the link is in the next post below. There is also a helpful newspaper which is available free online. A recent issue covered Zona Romantica, so I found it particularly helpful to read prior to getting to PV. I would imagine it’s also good to get to keep apprised of what is going on in PV.

Anyway – sure enough, we weren’t bothered by drunk men from the states. We’d routinely get treated as a couple and mostly we let that slide as it generally worked in our favor. But often when meeting people around PV, I’d say we’re staying in Zona Romantica but we’re not gay. If I didn’t offer that information, it was usually the first or second question. What is your relationship, are you sisters? Friends? Partners? Even though sure it’s no one’s business really, I actually appreciated the frank honesty and curious questions. Oddly enough a lot of men asked us this even though they didn’t know where we were staying. 

Puerto Vallarta is made up of old and young souls who are doing life together in an unhurried manner. People don’t seem to be hooked on schedules and there aren’t extremely organized systematic ways of doing things, such as catching buses at a certain time and at certain places. This is probably because Mexico is more of a high-context culture (whereas the U.S. is low-context). There is a good explanation of this, and how our two cultures view time and how that affects our interactions, here, and also at this site. Anyway – for example, you can just get on a bus as it slows down in PV (from what I saw). The bus itself is an adventure, and will give you an eye in to how part of the local community gets around. Plus, it costs only 6 pesos (for both tourists and Mexicans – this is roughly 60 cents US). The whole time I wondered (with some excitement) if it the bus was going to break down. I loved it! At first we weren’t sure about going on the bus with all the swine flu drama, but as we were down there and time passed we really were able to see how it really was safe. Nevertheless, I still cleaned up with hand sanitizer after getting off the bus, which was more just because it was kind of dirty. I still marvel at the talent of the bus driver. He grinds the bus to a halt in front of speed bumps on the coastal road to Mismaloya, and then speeds up, and stops again, and speeds up… the bus is a stick shift, and he picks up passengers, changes their money, and drives all at the same time. No specific rules for stopping and waiting and flags for buses in PV! It’s just cool, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

Most of the older people I spoke with have grown up there and stayed – they love it. Pride in our communities is contagious, right (I read that at a fundraiser once and it stuck with me). I think that same pride and love comes through and grabs or welcomes travelers if they’re open to it. I first noticed this at the taxi stand. Once we made it through the lines of timeshare people, the real taxi stand people were waving us over with a strange look on their faces, that even in my tired state I noticed – it was a combination of embarrassment and relief (that we’d made it through, I’m assuming). It was the oddest thing to experience upon just arriving in Mexico – I felt somehow violated and really stupid at the same time. The guy who owns my condo had specifically warned me of this, clearly, and I had warned HW, clearly, and even re-read his warning just before departing the plane. But I was tired, and I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt that they will be honest, and the timeshare people actually lied and said they were the taxi stand. Grr, I was so mad (at them and myself!) as we finally exited that scene. HW will attest to this. On a more positive note, I’ve since met several people who have timeshares in PV for years and they are very happy, which makes it better somehow.

Throughout the week I often saw generations of families gathered together around the back of a truck grilling along a side street. I tried to get a picture a couple times but the moment just didn’t happen for a photo, I felt it would be too intrusive. And for me to say that is a lot, I will usually take a picture of just about anything.

One thing I’d really love to do when we go back is eat at one of the food trailers – these little trailers were everywhere. You’ll see one in the night picture of a restaurant on a corner where the lights shine really bright. On the right side of that photo is one of these trailers. They look similar to what we’d see at a circus here in the U.S., except they’re cooking (what smelled like) really good Mexican food.

Some other things I noticed… PV has great water! I was also told this by the condo owner, and I read it online too. But I tried it, and HW and I drank it all week. I’m not saying if you drink the water you’ll be fine, obviously I can’t make promises like that. But our experience was fine. More on the water (and lots of other things) here.

Puerto Vallartans really really love it when you speak their language. I’d highly recommend learning some of it, it’s pretty easy to do and won’t take that much time. Fortunately my years of taking Spanish (my name was “Julia”) in high school came back to me, and with a little brushing up, I did just fine and learned more as the week wore on. One of the guidebooks had phrases which was great, and HW also had a really good phrase book. My favorite phrase to use was excuse me – con permiso. I actually purposefully walked really close to people, or  I’d move around someone’s table, just so I could use it at least five times a day. 

The last night we were wandering around looking for a good last meal. We’d gotten off the bus back from Mismaloya downtown and wanted to go to this place the condo owner had told us about, but realized we’d not written the name of it down, thinking we’d head home before dinner. But our day didn’t work out like that. Right when we were not sure where to go… I ran in to an old coworker of mine!! Isn’t that crazy? She and her husband have been traveling to PV for 15 years (they have a timeshare). They love it in PV, and they commented that normally the streets would be packed, and it wouldn’t be so quiet like it has been. But they actually enjoyed it because they never wanted to do the touristy things such as the pirate ship, and they decided to do that now while not a lot of people were down there. That is a huge advantage of traveling during the swine flu happenings. On their recommendation, we ate at Roberto’s, which was wonderful. I ended up eating seafood stew almost every dinner we had out, it was just so good… and Roberto’s had the best seafood stew. Los Arbolitos was just as good, the only difference was Roberto’s also had king crab, which is a favorite food of mine. I had both in garlic sauce. Yum… I can sort of taste it, just imagining it right now.

One day Mexican Bill from the resort below us told us where the locals go to swim. After that, we went to the locals’ beaches for the next couple days. Our first day we hung out on a mostly empty beach, and we met a lifeguard, Gustavo. He told us there are 22 lifeguards that patrol the beach. I think this is so good, I kept seeing them everywhere and had wondered.. Gustavo was very flirtatious.. cute too, but I was a little put off (and also fascinated) by his video and pictures he pulled out to show us on his cell phone of a drowning victim he’d pulled out the day before. It was horrible but also like a train wreck, we had to look. Over the next couple of days I would randomly see this dead guy’s face and that just was not great. I feel horrible for his family and friends. Later on that week I googled trying to find information about the drowning victim and there wasn’t anything that I could find. Gustavo said the guy was drinking and went swimming and got caught up in a current. We didn’t swim that day at that beach, based on his warning. Locals swam, but only a few. Gustavo invited us to a party Sunday night at 9 with all the lifeguards, but we didn’t go. I think we were hiking that night until close to 10 anyway. The next day we went to the next beach, just past that first one. You’ll see in my photos a picture of a policeman on a rocky staircase going up along the ocean, and the next picture is looking back down it, towards the main beach where we were. The pictures following are from the locals’ beaches. I think these pictures are in the second half of our trip video (all videos here).

There was the time that HW bought sour cream and thought it was plain yogurt. She mixed it with the cereal one morning. I approached it cautiously because I don’t like plain yogurt, but I also wanted to be adventurous in a new place you know, so I was open to trying it. I asked her about it and she made a face. It’s a little sour, she said. But it’s ok. But she could hardly eat it. So I went in to the kitchen and smelled it. I walked back in to her. It really smells like sour cream… no, it’s not, it’s just a more tart plain yogurt, it doesn’t taste like sour cream. So I went in to the kitchen and tasted it.. it was definitely sour cream! Ha, ha. I went back in and said as much. By this time she’d also realized it actually was sour cream, and stopped eating it. But we had sour cream for the amazing meal she made the next night! 

I on the other hand, woozy one morning, made a great cup of locally brewed coffee and added the milk and sugar, and sat down to watch the ocean and people and sip my coffee. Sounds idyllic, right? I took a huge gulp of coffee – I put so much cream in it that it cools down right away. Except I’d accidentally put salt in it, not sugar. YUCK. I had no excuse either, it was very obvious that bag was salt, it said as much in Spanish. I just didn’t pay attention.

The streets in Puerto Vallarta often have cars parked both ways. I liked this because it wasn’t so organized. And if there is traffic both ways, it makes sense to me. Of course in a busy city it would probably get a little crazy. But it fits, in PV. We had to watch traffic and crossing streets pretty closely. I’m from Ann Arbor, the capital of jay-walking. Jay-walking is not only allowed, it’s encouraged, with all the U of M students walking everywhere all the time. The campus is beautiful though, great for walking around on. I notice when I’m walking in Ann Arbor, I exercise my pedestrian’s rights (pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico) and walk wherever, not right in front of cars, but if it’s me or a car, often I will just go. When I’m driving, this irritates me to run across. This is a great example of being a hypocrite isn’t it? I’ve almost gotten myself killed in Cincinnati and NYC because of my propensity to wander in to a street – now I am more careful. A lot of streets in Old Town PV did not have traffic lights or stop signs (some did though), but traffic still flowed smoothly. Basically it seemed like small gave way to big. Cars would stop for buses. Trucks would stop for buses. Trucks would not stop for cars. Taxis and car drivers had some kind of nonverbal communication and one of them would just go, and the other was fine waiting. I mused one evening that I bet there is a lot less road rage because there is somewhat of a pecking order; everyone does not try to be first or drive the fastest.

One of the things that caused me a little heartache in Puerto Vallarta was the trash everywhere and lack of recycling. It’s such a beautiful town, so to happen upon a random pile of trash just thrown there (but somehow organized in to piles at the same time) was disconcerting. I told HW I would love to organize 100 people or more (tourists + townies, let’s all step up here) and spend the day splitting up and walking up from the coast and collecting trash that’s lying everywhere. That’s a big dream right. But hey, if free food (and drinks?) was offered at the end it could be a real community-tourist event! Too bad I was only there for a week. I don’t want you to think trash is everywhere, it’s not. Maybe one out of every six or seven streets have some litter. I didn’t notice recycling anywhere either (although keep in mind I was not around the hotel zone) – but I’ve since found out more on recycling in Puerto Vallarta and reasons why this may be the case, on a helpful PV blog I came across, here.

Also, there is dog poop here and there, so watch out, and if you see it, hold your nose. It takes up to a week (in April/May at least) to totally disintegrate, and the smell wafts to your nose every time. I know this because I tracked a pile of it that I saw on day one – and on day five, it was the same size and still wafting. Days six and seven I couldn’t see it that well, and it didn’t smell. Odd, the things I notice. There isn’t a lot of grass in this area of Puerto Vallarta (especially down near the coast), so dogs have to do their business right? 

Speaking of being earth conscious, I was so happy to see a CFL light bulb at the condo I stayed in because of not seeing any signs of recycling or being earth-conscious in PV. This is just one simple way that we can all help the cause of our earth out, so it was neat to see this attitude somewhere in PV. I realize I am very limited because I just have my experience there, I really have no idea what the waste infrastructure is like there and how much money the town has for these things, what their limitations are – and who knows if anyone has been asking about this, there might not be a perceived demand. Locals probably are more concerned with other things, like the economy and paying their rent.

Finally, I noticed the poor. I notice the poor everywhere – this is partially because of the large lifestyle gulf I observe between the poor and the not poor, and also because I’ve done some work with the homeless in the Ann Arbor area in the last couple of years. In fact, eight years ago I was homeless (but by choice) for a summer. It was just around Ann Arbor, where I knew a lot of people and could just stay with them at any time. Well, I was also homeless in Cincinnati for a couple weeks. I attempted to suddenly move to New Orleans, but the transmission fell out of my van there. Now that was an adventure. I had $14 on me when I left, and I don’t think my friend Jeremiah had any money really. We just had a lot of cooked spaghetti. This was years ago. My poor parents, right? They used to have an 800# they’d keep just because one of their kids might just do this, and they wanted us to be able to call for free. Anyway, back to the Ann Arbor stint – I did the whole church meal thing and hung out with the homeless in their communities and was one of them for a moment in time, and I think this gave me a small idea of what it’s like, and the deep understanding that we are all human, and I could be just a few steps away from being in their shoes anyway if it wasn’t for the cards I’ve been dealt (and what I did with them). The difference between the very rich visiting and living in PV, and the poor just struck me as sad – in PV there are SO many empty homes that are worth millions, and there less than a mile or two below them are the homeless, struggling to eat. It was just kind of sad. In my PV in pictures video, this is one story I was telling in photos. At least they are homeless in PV, it has to be a great place to be homeless in! 

One of my favorite days was the last day in Puerto Vallarta, when we actually left PV by bus and went to Mismaloya (other favorite days were hiking all over PV). There we sat on the beach for hours; the ocean is quite a bit calmer there due to this being on a bay, and watched boats going out with snorkelers to Los Arcos. Los Arcos is beautiful, and here is a very interesting history on the rocks and the name – there is also a picture below. Next time we go back we’d like to go in to the jungle. We met some people who said they’d be there still, and they’d be more than willing to take us to see everything in the jungle, without doing the actual official tours. So that is a possibility – we can camp in the jungle! We hung out with these new friends all day. 

A trip highlight for me was meeting Felipe, the amazing massage therapist. I did not end up getting a massage from him, but when we first met I told him how I’d hurt my wrist a couple months ago and nothing was helping it get better. It was just a strain, and I am starting massage school on May 14th (that is, if it suddenly healed). He said, oh, no, give me your wrist. And he started stretching it, pulling it, massaging it, twisting it, and doing wave-like pulling motions with my wrist and arm. He did this to both sides, to “be even.” This actually hurt quite a lot, but something in me told me to just trust him. The next morning I woke up and it was 75% better!! Since then it’s been getting better and better, and although it’s not 100% healed, I’m feeling fine about entering massage school at this point. Another highlight was the full-body massage I had on the ocean in Mismaloya. Talk about heaven on earth. I don’t really have words for it, the sea breeze and feel of the massage made it one of the top experiences in my life!

Finally, I’d just like to mention the people I met while traveling. I’m a fan of keeping my eyes open for interesting folks to meet along the way while traveling (in airports, hotels, planes, etc.). For example, I met another Sarah who is from China originally and living in D.C., on the plane from San Francisco to Chicago. We talked about writing for some time and her desire to become a writer someday; she also had questions for me about Detroit. She was interested in knowing if her perception of Detroit as informed by the news media is accurate – is it really all empty and falling apart? I was able to give her my perspective – yes, it has problems and there are empty places and old empty buildings (not to mention other problems). But there is also beauty amidst – a growing community of urban farmers using the land, and artists moving in from all over the world. There are even people dedicated to the rebuilding of it, and lots of CS’ers (couchsurfers, couchsurfing.com is another site you’ll find me a part of) in Detroit who are very passionate about the city and willing to give anyone great information and things to do to anyone. I think you get my point – while traveling, we also are naturally ambassadors of the community we come from. I once spent 6 weeks in Sweden (at the age of 15) alone, living with a host family, and the purpose of my trip was to learn about the culture, and to represent the United States to the Swedish people. I suppose this is a responsibility we all share as we visit other places.

On that note, happy travels!