Discovering nature and community in a small seaside Mexican village
This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1998 and the Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Times, all in 1997.
CHACALA, Mexico — There is the kind of Mexico vacation where you sunbathe at poolside, sip pina coladas, then hightail it back to the States without having to utter more than an occasional gracias or por favor.
Then there is Chacala.
Chacala will never be another Acapulco, and that’s just fine with the 200 residents of this sleepy fishing village 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta.
Travelers who have chanced upon it know Chacala (cha-KAH-la) as one of the great undiscovered pleasures of Mexico — a rustic slice of paradise where jungle birds, sand crabs, stingrays and fruit bats all compete for the senses.
A couple of visitors weary of the artificial tourism scene at the usual resort destinations traveled here recently and found a tropical setting that lifted the spirits and fired the imagination. For Chacala offers not only pristine beaches and a thick tropical rain forest but also a cultural voyage into the soul of small-town Mexico.
After a 90-minute ride from the airport in Puerto Vallarta, our taxi turned off the main highway and barreled down the bumpiest, most pockmarked road my wife and I had ever seen. Talk about getting away from it all.
We pulled into Mar de Jade, a combination vacation retreat, medical training facility and Spanish immersion school that rises from the volcanic rocks at the south end of mile-long Chacala Bay.
Dr. Laura del Valle, 48, a former San Franciscan, founded Mar de Jade in 1983 as a place to house American medical students who volunteered their time at a nearby community health clinic as part of a work-study program. Today, Mar de Jade (Spanish for “Sea of Jade”) has grown into a multifaceted tourism center that can house up to 50 guests at a time.
A spirit of community and volunteerism sweeps through daily life here, giving Mar de Jade the air of a bilingual, consciousness-raising commune. Visitors are invited to help out with dish duty once or twice during a stay, longer-staying guests work off their room and board by helping out around the compound, and Spanish is encouraged (though not required) during the three meals a day on the outside veranda.
Visitors can choose the kind of vacation they want. I’ve been there twice now, and on both occasions I’ve encountered weekend vacationers who wanted merely to be left alone to wander Chacala’s empty beaches or steamy jungle trails. Others readily embraced the family spirit of the place, learning the names of staff members and other guests, then joining in for a midnight bonfire on the beach under a velvet canopy of twitching stars.
On the beach
Not everyone who visits Chacala stays at Mar de Jade. Cabin cruisers and yachtsmen who ply the warm waters off the west coast of Mexico discovered the charms of Chacala Bay long ago.
Steve Horne, his wife, Donna, and their 7-year-old daughter, Laura, moored their 30-foot sailboat in the harbor last night after a month-long trip down the coastline from their home in Ventura, Calif.
“We’ve been looking for a place like this,” Steve Horne says. “No amenities, just a back-to-nature experience. The thing I like about Chacala is, it’s not even on the maps.”
There are many people like Steve, looking for the same kind of old-school fun. Yes, today’s ultra-competitive environment tries to make us feel that big city lights and loud music are a must for fun, but the more learned among us still seek the quiet, tranquil atmosphere. Mar de Jade gives us that and more. Here you can enjoy hearty home-cooked meals, relaxing views, and even friendly texas holdem-esque poker games with good friends and family.
Soccer under the coconut trees
On this spring day, two dozen people — Mexicans and a smattering of Americans — are spread about on the beach. Six boys from nearby villages are playing a rough-and-tumble game of soccer under the fronds of coconut trees while two smaller boys and an Anglo girl build a sand castle at the water’s edge. Another local boy, Valentine, lets his friends bury him up to his neck before they ditch him to go boogie-boarding.
Further up the beach, two American girls chase a sandpiper before it flits off. The girls’ parents entreat us to join them for lunch at Las Brisas, one of the half-dozen palapa thatched huts that line the bay. Their names are Paul and Betsy Mead, and they’re visiting Paul’s mother in nearby Guayabitos. We become quick friends.
We order a lobster and cerveza ($7 apiece) and watch their girls, 6-year-old Amanda and 8-year-old Paige, skitter like waterbugs in the warm, silky waves. Then Amanda approaches our table, holding a thin branch to balance her slimy quarry.
“Look,” she says. “It washed up on the beach.”
Betsy Mead sets down her beer and inspects the limp, black-spotted eel. “All right, honey, now put it back.”
Amanda giggles and skips off. I ask whether they worry about their girls’ safety.
The Meads, who live in Sonoma, Calif., look at each other. “We watch them,” Paul says.
Betsy leans forward. “I don’t understand people who shelter their kids from an experience like this. They’re having the adventure of their lives.”
She laces a tortilla chip with cilantro. “Want to know why this is a magical place for kids? Papas fritas, great ketchup, chocolate milkshakes — and all this nature.” High overhead, a flock of 14 pelicans flies in razor-straight I-formation.
“Just be prepared,” she adds. “Don’t leave home without some cortizone cream, an antihistamine, children’s aspirin, sunscreen, some good water shoes, and something to drink and nibble on.”
Paul discloses that he and Paige were bitten by jellyfish yesterday. Lime juice reduced the swelling and Tylenol dampened the pain.
Paige shows the little wound on her back and reports, “It was like two bee stings!”
By late afternoon, after a refreshing swim, we decide to remain in Chacala rather than return to Mar de Jade for dinner. We watch dozens of sand crabs burrow out of the wet sands as the tide recedes.
Finally, after a tangerine sunset, we head back to our adobe-style bungalow. There are few frills here: no TV, no newspapers, no air conditioning (the cool ocean breeze works fine), and no telephones, though there is electricity and running water.
We enter the room and I reach for the light — but the lightswitch moves. I get my flashlight and see what it really is: a small scorpion.
We catch it in a jar and store it outside for the night. A flyer in our room informs that a scorpion bite will cause two days of numbness. It advises: “To avoid scorpion bites, shake out your clothes, shoes, towels, etc. before using them and keep your suitcases closed.”
We climb into bed and fall asleep quickly to the hum of insects in the rain forest that slants down to the edge of our hut.
The next day, a Saturday, we split up. A few guests go horseback riding along a long stretch of white beach to the south, while others go boating through mangrove swamps to the beach town of Guayabitos, still others go snorkeling off the coral beaches of San Blas or Chacalilla, and Del Valle and a handful of students trek to visit a Huichol Indian shaman in the Sierra Madre.
Mary and I set off on foot for Las Cuevas (The Caves), an isolated inlet about 90 minutes’ journey. We pass a boy with a machete at a coconut puesto, or stand, before we find the trail that disappears into the rain forest. The brush thickens and jungle birds whistle and twirrhl in the branches above.
After a time we enter a meadow which is all that remains of an extinct volcanic crater. We make a wrong turn and run into a herd of bulls, but they are grazing and don’t bother with us.
We find Las Cuevas, a serene cove that is now at low tide, letting us swim in the startlingly clear turquoise waters and explore the dark caves that peer out from the rim of the inlet.
There is one other visitor here, one of the medical students who has the day off from her chores at Casa Clinica in the neighboring town of Las Varas. The free, nonprofit clinic, operated by the staff of Mar de Jade, provides medical care to the families of local fishermen or landless farmers who work in the fruit or tobacco fields. All the medical attention is supervised by a doctor.
Beth Riley, 33, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the emergency room of Children’s Hospital in Denver, says of her volunteer work: “It’s an eye-opening experience — a cultural education for both us and the locals. We learn about treating patients in a community setting, and they’re just grateful we’re here.”
She rolls over on her blanket. “But today, I’m just working on my tan.”
Chacala/Mar de Jade travel guidelines
Updated August 2006
When to go: Winter, spring and fall are the best times to visit Chacala. Daytime temperatures run from the 70s to 80s, with evenings in the 60s. Late June to mid-September is the rainy season.
Mar de Jade rates: Please check the Mar de Jade website for nightly rates and promotions. Average nightly rate is $120 per person including all meals buffet style. Three-week volunteer programs at discounted rate.
Health considerations: All fruits and raw vegetables are washed with purified water. Bottled water and sodas are available. There is no need to get special immunizations.
Special event: During Easter week each year, Chacala is crammed with as many as 5,000 campers, music all night long, and a shopping area of makeshift tents with baked goods and novelty items.
Basics: Americans need a passport or birth certificate to obtain a visitor’s pass.
Getting there: American, Continental, Delta, TWA, America West, Mexicana, AeroMexico and Alaskan Airlines are the major carriers flying into Puerto Vallarta. Members of the Mar de Jade staff will arrange transportation from the airport to the complex.
For information: Contact Mar de Jade toll free at 1800-257-0532; mailing address: PMB 078-344 827 Union Pacific Blvd, Laredo, TX 78045.
Nearby: Another resort with a good reputation in the area is Turtle Beach in Nayarit; the proprietor is Rob Hanock. Phone: 888-457-9700 in U.S. or 011-523-294-1477 in Mexico, or www.turtlebeachmex.com.
Chacala Photo Gallery
Click to enlarge