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Exploring the beach villages south of Puerto Vallarta by Pangas

by Jane Ammeson

Majulita Beach, photo by Jane Ammeson There is a slight chop in the blue waters of Bandera Bay as my daughter, Nia, who is 10, and I wade knee deep before climbing into a panga, a small water taxi, one of many anchored here, that carry people to the small beach villages south of Puerto Vallarta that are only accessible by boat.

To get here, we had driven along Carretera a Mismaloya, a coastal road that follows the contours of the bay to Boca de Tomatlan. Boca is a small town where the Tomatlan River runs into a narrow inlet filled with small fishing craft, palapa covered restaurants and pangas. My daughter, reading from a guidebook tells me that Bandera Bay or Bahia de Bandera was named one of the 25 most beautiful bays in the world and is home to dolphin and humpback whales. It is said that there are no sharks in this bahia because the dolphins frighten them away.

The road to Boca de Tomatlan, after following the coast, moves inland so the only way past here, besides hiking in, to reach the villages of Las Animas, Quimixto and Las Caletas is by pangas -small, open aluminum boats with powerful outboard motors.

The price of a pangas is cheap and based on destination. It's cheaper to travel to Las Animas, the first beach hamlet and only 10 minutes away from Boca de Tomatlan, than Quimixto (twenty minutes away) and Las Caletas (a half an hour journey by water). Prices in Mexico are usually negotiable but I didn't dicker since $10 for a round trip seemed very inexpensive. And in Puerto Vallarta as in many Mexican destination spots, the peso and the dollar are interchangeable, pay in dollars, you may get pesos or dollars back or a combination of both.

Jungle Road, photo by Jane Ammeson The three beach villages reached only by pangas are nestled on the white sands of the southern shore of the bay. Behind them soar the mighty Sierra Madres engulfed with rich and dense foliage including banana and palm trees. The sudden rise in elevation produces cascading waterfalls and small pools where hikers and horseback riders can rest and take a swim or go snorkeling.

Each has its own special charm. Yelapa, the largest and furthest away, is frequently disparaged by beach purists who say that the village, which specializes in native arts, has become too commercialized now that the population has soared to 2000 and there is electricity, phone service and several streets albeit they dead-end outside the village. But it still fulfills my definition of small and quaint.

Yelapa, which means the gathering place, attracts not only daily and overnight visitors, but also a gathering each month of visitors from Puerto Vallarta, who come together to celebrate the full moon.

The lack of roads doesn't mean there is no way to explore the thick jungles rambling up the mountainsides. Enterprising villagers in all three hamlets offer horseback riding tours. And there is a path, which follows one of this area's three rivers that leads uphill connecting Quimixto to Majahuitas, a small cove home to a luxurious, if slightly remote resort. All the beaches in Mexico have public access so anyone can anchor in the cove and use the beach, but the resort, also called Majahuitas, the name of a large bush with yellow flowers, is private and does not serve food to non-guests. The walk between the two coves takes about 90 minutes and a guide is needed as the riverbeds merge and then diverge and it would be easy to get lost.

Each of the three towns has an assortment of family run, open-air restaurants serving the catch of the day. Nia loves the tuna fish salad so much different from that at home as all the tuna used is freshly caught. Camarones or giant shrimp are grilled with garlic, butter and spices. Mahi mahi is served with rice and hand made tortillas. In Yalapa, we try the sarandeado--barbecued fish on a stick--one of the local specialties. There are, of course, margaritas and other beach drinks, but for those inclined to a non-alcoholic and refreshing taste, try the lemonada, freshly squeezed lemons mixed with mineral water and sugar which has a pungent sweet and bitter taste.

Whale, photo by Jane Ammeson Having arranged with our panga driver, Juan Hernandez for a return trip, we board the panga in late afternoon. The tide, which is going out now, is gentle, the chop gone. Somewhat lethargic from all the sun, Nia and I are almost dozing when Hernandez points to a not too distant point. We look up to see a humpback whale arching upwards above the water.

"Tres," says Hernandez, explaining that whales jump three times before diving to the bottom. Sure enough, after the third arch, the whale dives to the bottom, its tail suspended briefly in the air before disappearing.

For information about Majahuitas, contact 1-877-278-8018 or visit mexicoboutiquiehotels.com.

...... Jane Ammeson writes about travel, food and personalities. Her work has appeared in Home & Away, Northwest Airlines World Traveler Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Grand Rapids Press, the Courier Journal, Fifty Plus and Chicago Life Magazine.

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