Tales from the Pacific
As found in the Wall Street Journal
A writer journeys to Riviera Nayarit and discovers treasures in the Sierra Madre, art-filled streets — even a Bear or two
As we ventured out into Banderas Bay, the horseshoe-shaped cove just north of in the resort area of Riviera Nayarit, a whale and its baby came up to the surface of the Pacific-blue waters. I was on an observer’s boat going to watch La Regata Copa México, part of the Mexican bicentennial celebration (this year marks the 200th anniversary of the country’s independence and the 100th anniversary of its revolution). With five participating classes — Oceanic MEXORC, J24, Optimist, Kitesurf and Windsurf — I was told it would be one of the most competitive events in the sailing world, on par with America’s Cup, Copa del Rey and Rolex Cup Racing.
The races began. Watching a kite-surfer fluttering along the dazzling coastline, sipping a Red Sky (a popular beach drink like a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka), I couldn’t help but think how much sailing was like ballet. I was mesmerized by how elegantly and quickly the crews moved around their vessels in synchronized motion.
The victor of the MEXORC was a craft I had written off: the Akela (USA). It left early and was required to restart the race. However, it deftly maneuvered the oscillating winds, hoisting a different sail than the vessels on either side of it —- a jib — to overtake the competition to everyone’s surprise. It was a thrill to watch.
After returning to shore I joined the flow of spectators drifting toward the covered grandstands for a presentation. There was some commotion as a distinguished-looking man walked toward me, who seemed to be shaking hands with everyone.
Suddenly, I realized who he was. I stuttered, “Hola, Mr. President!”
On my first day in Riviera Nayarit, I had simply stumbled into Felipe Calderón, the president of the country. Something told me it was just going to be that sort of trip.
In the evening I ate on the outdoor patio of thein , a long stretch of white-sand beaches and coves sprinkled with exclusive resorts. I dined on avocado with mango sorbet, lobster with crawfish from local rivers and a smooth local wine, a 2005 Malbec. I discovered the restaurant’s chef, Geraldo Sandoval, was just named one of the eight finalists for Mexican chef of the year. I found it hard to believe there were seven other people in the country who could cook like this.
Outside the restaurant, I spied a little placard that read: “Do you embrace the beauty of nature? Do you have a whimsical and adventurous spirit?”
In Riviera Nayarit, I decided it’s best to follow the signs and go with the flow. So the next day, I took a tour with Vallarta Adventures, first speed-boating across the bay and then taking a 25-minute jeep ride up the winding roads of the cloud-dipped . The next leg was a burro ride up a thin path framed by vibrant trees and bushes. From there, I zip-lined, an exhilarating sport where I whizzed along cables strung from trees in the jungle, and then rappelled down the cliffs alongside a tropical waterfall.
At the end of the journey, my exuberant tour guide Gibran warmly shook my hand and surprised me by saying, “We must meet for a drink after I get off from work!”
Delighted, I agreed to catch up with him at his favorite bar, Yo Yo Mo’s, and upon arrival, bravely tried to order my first drink of the day in the local language.
“I’m sorry,” the young Canadian waitress replied pleasantly. “I don’t speak Spanish.” She saw my baffled expression and laughed.
“A lot of people in Riviera Nayarit speak English,” she told me. “If they don’t, we manage to figure it out.” She was right. It struck me how everyone I encountered — taxi drivers, shop owners, waiters, even people on the street — patiently engaged me in English and coached me to improve my high-school Spanish pronunciation.
Gibran arrived, slapping the backs of everyone in the place. Over the next two hours, we drank tequila, ate delectable Mexican pizza (best pizza I’ve ever had), and chatted and laughed with the Mexican nationals, Canadians and American ex-pats who stopped by our table. It felt like I met half of Riviera Nayaritin one night.
We ended up at a place called the Shamrock and spent time with the owner, Belfast native Sharon Maeve Bell. I ordered a shot of tequila and, in deference to her homeland, chased it with a Guinness.
Sharon downed a shot as well. “I visitedand fell in love with it, especially the people,” she said. “Where we are, it’s like living in a small town — I can let my nine-year-old go to the store without worrying.”
The following morning, I decided to enjoy the pleasures of the hotel I was staying at: the spectacular Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita. I came to understand why mita means “Gateway to Paradise” in theancient Aztec language. I relaxed in the Jacuzzi then took a walk to see the amazing golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, where the “Whale of a Tail” hole 3B requires players to take an amphibious golf cart out to tee off from a rocky offshore atoll.
From there, I headed to the town of, known for its laid-back atmosphere and fine art scene with 17 galleries along a three-block stretch of cobblestone streets. With a little time on my hands, I took a mosaic-making class at a gallery called A Broken Art.
As I toiled on my masterpiece, an older man, who was walking his dog, craned his neck to examine my tile project. I asked what he thought of my effort.
“It reminds me of a piece of sculpture,” he said diplomatically.
I didn’t fully appreciate the compliment until I learned the passerby was the renowned sculptor George Pratt, who designed the massive jade centerpiece for the Canadian pavilion at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. George told me he vacations in this area every year, during which time he relaxes by painting watercolors — mostly Mexican street scenes.
Working contently on my mosaic in the open courtyard, shaded by a majestic palm tree as a dog slept on the cobblestones nearby, I realized I was living just the kind of scene George would paint.
Dinner was the toughest decision of the day. At every turn, the food was incredible — from the hand-pressed corn tacos made by a local woman in her own home to scintillating Latin-Asian cuisine at the Four Seasons’ Aramara restaurant. I settled on Claudio’s, a Bucerias seaside restaurant with great coconut shrimp and topped it off with a quick trip to the Pie in the Sky Café and Bakery to sample a decadent local treat: besos (kisses), a brownie-like dessert with a molten fudge center and light sprinkling of pecans.
I spent the final days of my trip at the Hotel RIU Palace Pacifico, a large, lush resort located on Playa de Flamingos beach just a couple of miles from . While debating whether to go to the Renova Spa, kayak or just wade up to the bar inside the pool for a piña colada, a friendly, uniformed woman came up to my lounge chair and inquired, “Do you want to play fútbol with the Chicago Bears?”
I thought she was joking, but a few minutes later, I stood on the beach between two wide receivers for the Chicago Bears,and . The event was a kind of Survivor-like challenge that any hotel guest or vacationer strolling by on the beach could take part in. The players were chatting with and high-fiving all the guests. We were playing a game where we tossed a balloon full of water to a partner. My balloon burst in the sand five feet in front me. “Yup, knew you wouldn’t make that one,” teased Earl.
Devin, who returned the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown, and Earl caught their balloons like they were feathers floating gently from the sky.
By this point, it didn’t even seem strange to find myself partying by chance with NFL players. Something about Riviera Nayarit made me anticipate the extraordinary.
Joe Mullich has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Reader’s Digest, Men’s Health, The Onion and 150 other publications.