The Highs and Lows of Traveling Off the Beaten Path
A family trip to Mexico has a different impression on everyone
In August, I visited Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico with my wife, Zoraida, and my two sons, Naeem (1) and Marcel (7). We didn’t know much about the place, but the flight required fewer flyer miles than any other tropical location on the American Airlines “Award Map.” Usually, we find our way out of the tourist milieu by day three, this time it took five. Hotel concierges weren’t much help, so I did what I always do; I chatted with the best historians and guides in the world: cab drivers.
We dropped our bags as soon as we got to the hotel, and took a cab to the beach. On the way, the driver explained that Puerto Vallarta was once a sleepy fishing village. It became a tourist destination after Richard Burton’s The Night of the Iguana was filmed in nearby Mismaloya in 1963. Paparazzi often shot him and Elizabeth Taylor dining at the beach we were on our way to — Los Muertos.
Our day at Los Muertos was great. We swam in a lagoon and had limeade, aguachiles, camarones sudados, and a huge slice of chocolate cake at the resort that owned that section of the beach.
Over the next two days, we got our bearings around downtown Zona Romantica where our hotel was. We had seafood burritos and cold Mexican cokes at a sidewalk mariscos stand and bought stuffed animals at artisan markets.
On the third evening, we decided to stroll the ocean boardwalk, El Malecon. Set back, in a colonial plaza between a church and the Pacific Ocean, we found a live DJ playing banda music. Dozens of young and old locals danced through short bursts of rain, dodging a kid’s bouncing ball between steps. Food stalls sold tacos al pastor, shrimp burritos, and salchipapas (sliced hot dogs over french fries). Vendors cut these hot dogs crosswise down the middle, so the sections curled up like octopus tentacles, which Marcel loved. We ate on concrete steps with the ocean breeze on our backs, watching the dancers. I was pleased that we found this unadulterated scene, out of earshot of the men in front of the strip clubs hawking in English and the obnoxious diners coming out of Señor Frogs. But, we weren’t out of the weeds.
Zoraida pointed out a tall thin man in a t-shirt and cargo shorts; his grey hair slicked back with rain water—the man was obviously American. He was dancing with two very young girls. They laughed and ran off eventually, and he approached others. After being rejected a few times he stood alone, leering.
After that, we started noticing more lone creeps, and men marching around the city in groups like it was their lawless playground. We got a sick feeling that we sometimes get in tourist towns — especially in the global south — like we were wading in murky water full of leeches.
In the morning, we skipped town for Bucerias, a beach village in the Nayarit state. Unfortunately, our cab driver, Angel Gabriel, told us we wouldn’t escape the trappings of tourism in Nayarit, either.
He and his brother grew up in a town called Corral Del Risco in one of the most scenic parts of the Nayarit coast. They lived in a modest oceanfront home. Steps from their front door, they used to fish, snorkel and search for crabs. When Angel Gabriel was eight, bulldozers knocked down his house, his grandmother’s house, and the rest of the town to make room for the Four Seasons resort that sits there now. He said, “Some people resisted, but when the military came, there was nothing they could do.” Today, Angel Gabriel’s brother runs a boat charter for tourists, and Angel Gabriel, now 35, has driven a cab since he was 18. They still fish together on Mondays.
He told us that all coastal towns, including Bucerias, survive on tourism. To avoid tourist traps we should go into the mountains, he said, but since we were already there, and since we were interested in local food customs, we should eat pescado zarandeado, a 500-year-old pre-colonial fish dish from Nayarit.
We ate in Bucerias at a table in the sand under dried palm fronds. Zoraida and Marcel played in the surf until the food came, and then we all prepared tacos, spooning the marinade over the fish from little pools that gathered wherever we peeled off chunks of flesh. People ages five to 75 approached us every few seconds, selling woven bracelets, beaded jewelry, and sunglasses. We bought a bracelet, but we’d already splurged on shades at a Sunglass Hut during our layover in Dallas. After a couple of hours, with nothing else to buy, my cheerful, “No, Gracias amigo! Ya tenemos!” faded into a subtle head shake with no eye contact.
We called an Uber to take us back to the hotel and the red Kia Rio arrived half an hour late. The driver, Ricardo, was a husky man with a mustache, a forearm tattoo of the Virgin of Zapopan, and a disarming smile. He said he got lost and asked me to sit in front and help him navigate on the way back. I liked that he didn’t try to hide his ineptitude with the Uber app; he just tossed me the phone, flashed his smile, and drove off.
Ricardo agreed with Angel Gabriel that we should go into the mountains, specifically to a town about three hours away called San Sebastián del Oeste. We arranged for him to take us the next day, an all-day commitment.
Ricardo picked us up at 7:30 a.m. and drove us there in a terrible rainstorm. He plowed through huge black puddles with abandon every fifty yards—the kind of puddles they warn you not to drive through. Sitting in the front seat, I looked back at Zoraida to gauge her reaction each time he went through another one. She was nursing Naeem, and Marcel was asleep. She gave me a pleasant smile each time. One of the things I love about my wife is that she fully commits to a “when in Rome” philosophy of travel.
Muddy water cascaded into the road as we drove and Ricardo kept up conversation, unfazed. We talked mostly about his son. Ricardo was saving money for surgery to correct his lazy eye because he was being bullied. Money was harder to come by since he broke his back working construction in the States and had to switch to driving. He even considered selling his car, but of course, that would leave him jobless.
After three hours, the rain let up, and we entered an agave farm region; fog drifted over fields of giant blue-green spears. Haciendas offered raicilla tastings (an agave-based cousin of tequila). We were all quiet for a while; the way families get quiet for stretches on a road trip. We passed morado, poblano, and serrano chile farms an hour later, and I started getting complaints from the back seat; everyone was hungry.
By this point, the sun had burnt off the remaining fog, and we rolled down the windows, letting in the sweet-smelling air. There were no haciendas in this area, at least none that catered to travelers. I asked Ricardo where we were and he said he didn’t know. The GPS had lost signal about thirty minutes before. He said quietly, “We’re a little bit lost.”
We pulled over at a small house with an A-Frame sign in front that read “Tortillas.”
The front door of the house was open. Ricardo and I got out of the car, and a dog trotted around our ankles and then showed us inside. A woman named Katia, wearing an apron and her black hair in a bun, was behind a counter pulling hunks of masa from a heap under a dishcloth. She patted them, pressed them, and griddled them without lifting her pivot foot. Her husband Vicente — a muscular man in his early 60s with black hair and a mustache — stood behind her at the stove, peering under a pot. Ricardo explained that we’d gotten lost on our way to San Sebastian and needed something to eat. She immediately began making us quesadillas while I got everyone from the car. Back inside, Ricardo asked if they had enough food to feed us a full breakfast, and Katia obliged. She said it would be ready in twenty minutes.
Vicente explained the route to San Sebastián to Ricardo as Katia cooked. Ricardo lamented that he had missed the sign, and Vicente let out a huge laugh and waved for Ricardo and me to come behind the counter and look underneath it. Ricardo didn’t miss the sign. Vicente had recently stolen it to make the countertop.
I relayed this to Marcel and Zoraida, who shared in the loud laughter. Their grandson Osvaldo, about Marcel’s age, heard the commotion and entered the room. He and Marcel ran off to spy on a cow in a field next door.
Katia can cook. The first thing she passed me was a plain tortilla. She had nixtamalized and hand ground the masa. It was so supple you could taste each crisp outer layer and a moist, intense, corn-flavored dough. Next, she made quesadillas, using cheese from a farm down the road. Then tacos with birria that Vicente made. She brought bowls of basil, limes, jalapenos, avocados, cilantro, onion, two salsas, and oregano, to the table. They were fixings for her menduo —a soup of tender tripe that she served in hand-painted clay bowls. It was delicious. When we’d finished that, she handed Zoraida and me each a mug of beef broth and then mugs of coffee. We took the coffee with us as Vicente showed us around the property.
The house was made of adobe; it was over 100 years old. Around the yard's perimeter were lime trees, jalapeno plants, and herb gardens. Out front, there was a large playhouse in an avocado tree. Marcel and Osvaldo were climbing on it. Vicente had made that from an old chicken coop. Underneath was a table and chairs he made from other scrap wood. We spent hours sitting under the 70-year-old avocado tree. Apparently, they thought the tree was kind of magical because it was the only one around that produced avocados year-round.
Katia and Vicente told us a bit about their lives. The house was Katia’s. She grew up working on a large farm that once encompassed the property. When the farm owners sold the land, they included a decree that gave ownership of the small dwellings to former farmers in perpetuity. Katia and Vicente moved there from Puerto Vallarta after spending all their savings on their son-in-law’s cancer treatment. Before that, for 18 years, Vicente worked as a spear fisherman. He fished for medregal in underwater caves at night with no air tank – the only way to do it, according to him.
Listening to them describe their lifestyle, it made sense that they looked ageless. Vicente pointed to an area where there are natural mineral water springs and talked about the food from all of the nearby farms.
They make enough money to live by selling prepared food to farmers and pilgrims. Sometimes, he says, up to twenty people will pass by on religious pilgrimages, and he’ll find somewhere for them to sleep. Ricardo added, “In the country, the whole floor is a bed.”
La Maña (the predominant group of narcos) has a presence in the region, but Vicente said it is between them and the military when problems arise. He said that they alert him when they are patrolling.
After a few hours, Vicente offered the bedroom to us for a nap, but we decided we’d still like to see San Sebastián del Oeste. They were hospitable in a way the hospitality industry could never be. We gave him some money for the food, exchanged big hugs, and climbed back in the car.
On the road to San Sebastián, over forty soldiers, including snipers with automatic weapons, inspected passing cars. Baby Naeem smiled and stretched his hand toward a soldier, and they waved us on. A Chevy Silverado sat in a ditch with its doors and hood open. Ricardo said the soldiers were probably searching for La Maña. The narcos likely deserted the truck and ran. Ricardo reiterated that they don’t ever have problems with civilians in that region. Still, I would have preferred not to have my family within a thousand miles of the narcos.
An hour later, we reached San Sebastián del Oeste. It’s an old gold, silver, and lead mining town, high up in a narrow valley — a weekend destination for people who live in the region. All of the streets are cobblestone. They lead to a central plaza with white iron benches around a gazebo. Pigeons continuously swoop down from the clouds to the gazebo’s peak. Around the plaza, rustic bars serve Micheladas topped with shrimp cocktail. Men in cowboy hats play mus, a card game with Basque origins, on the sidewalks in front. The town’s 56th annual “basquet bool” tournament was the following day, so kids were practicing in a court beside the plaza.
Zoraida and I sat outside one of the bars with the kids and shared a michelada while Ricardo went to look for gifts for his wife. We asked a few people what we should do or see in town, and everyone said the same thing, that we had to go up La Bufa, the highest peak, where you can stand above the clouds.
The night before, we read about San Sebastián and La Bufa, but an article said you needed to go up in ATVs, which we weren’t going to do with the kids. However, the consensus in town was that any vehicle would get you there — that it would be a crime to skip the town’s greatest attraction.
Ricardo agreed to drive us up in the Kia. It was terrifying, dangerous, and unforgettable. At every sharp turn, there were gaping potholes and crosses, demarcating where people had fallen to their death. About halfway up, a sign read, “Dios te Ama. Cuide tu Vida y la Vida de Los Demas.” The Kia was bottoming out in spots, and I knew Ricardo's struts would need some work afterward. I asked him to turn around, but the path was too narrow, and it was safer to continue up and then turn back with more room to maneuver. We stopped a car that was driving in the other direction. Kids stood up in the back seat, and the driver was drinking a Corona. He said, “It’s a little dangerous, but you’ll make it in another five minutes.” Shortly after, we encountered three ATVs stopped on the road, and another flipped over. A man was lying on the ground, bleeding and trembling. He said he was cold. His girlfriend sat next to him with blood on the side of her face. Ricardo and I helped flip the ATV back over and waited until an ambulance arrived to take them to the hospital at the mountain base.
After twenty more scary minutes, we were at the top. We parked in a flat clearing in the foggy pine forest. A man and his daughter had a lean-to set up, where they were making quesadillas over a wood-fired comal. The way the forest looked in the mist, the smell of the pines and the burning wood, and the location so high up in the sky was soothing; even though we’d just passed through a death gauntlet, I felt at peace.
I had to ask the guy in the lean-to, “Do people slide off the edge often?” I thought he’d say no, but he casually said, “Si,” and nodded. I clarified, “So people often die coming up here.” He said, “Not necessarily, some cars get stuck in the trees, and the people climb out.” He told Ricardo, “Don’t ride the brakes on the way down.” I asked, “Do you come up here every day?” He said he makes the trip there from Puerto Vallarta once a week and stays on the mountain for three days at a time, sometimes with his teenage daughter. He showed me a small area with a mattress where he sleeps without much protection from coyotes and other wildlife at night. He told me it’s worth it to come up the mountain for the peace of mind it brings.
We sat at a picnic table next to another family and ordered quesadillas. Zoraida and the kids were calm, happy, and amazed by the surroundings. The father in the family sitting next to us was wearing a polo shirt and a Lakers hat. As if the cap meant anything, I developed the impression that he was from Los Angeles, on break from whatever American job. He wasn’t. They were visiting from Puerto Vallarta. We talked for a while and he told me he sells sunglasses for a living at Los Arcos beach. He said he liked to come to San Sebastián when he wasn’t working.
I bought us each a shot of raicilla and then a second round. Our families ate quesadillas and then hiked over fallen pine needles past wild agave through the forest. Finally, we reached the peak. We were above the clouds and the view was breathtaking.
The family at La Bufa, the father and daughter selling quesadillas, Katia, Vicente, and even Ricardo, who agreed to spend the whole day and ruin his suspension for the equivalent of $150 (we paid him double), all seemed to find respite in this hard to reach place—a place that would be off limits to pedestrians if it were in the U.S.. Perhaps the acute dangers of the countryside are more tolerable than the slow enervation of catering to tourists. I preferred it up there, too, but I didn’t need the escape the way they do. Different ills demand different medicine.
On the flight home, I asked Zoraida and Marcel what their favorite days were. Zoraida’s was the first one, at the beach resort. Marcel’s was the day after our big adventure when we all stayed in the hotel bed, ordered two pizzas, and watched the Back to the Future trilogy.