Puerto Vallarta Fan Club

I’ve joined the Puerto Vallarta fan club pretty late. I know this former Mexican fishing village with the romantic Liz Taylor-Richard Burton connection has long been a favourite of my Okanagan neighbours, but I didn’t get the attraction. Labouring under the belief that PV is just another beach lined with high-rise hotels, I wasn’t interested. My idea of purgatory is a full week stuck in a beach resort. Call me crazy (and many of you will), but although I like a poolside Margarita as much as the next winter-weary Canadian, I can only down so much tequila and after I’ve ploughed through my second trashy e-novel, I just have to get up and do something—preferably involving a new experience and an excuse to haul out my long lens.

So I was less than enthusiastic about PV as the location for a conference I recently attended. Boy, how wrong could I be? I admit to considerable pleasure in walking up to the lobby bar for a hibiscus martini any time I liked, but the prices at my all-inclusive were so reasonable that I didn’t feel chained to on-site food choices and when I ventured into the broader PV dining scene, what a shock. Like the Okanagan, the PV lifestyle has attracted outstanding chefs from around the world. I had some of the best meals of my life at  Kaiser Maximilian and Café des Artistes. Both are located in the historic Old Town, where I found unexpectedly fine colonial architecture and whimsical sculpture lining the waterfront Malecon. The riverside market yielded some cute gifts for my grandkids, but I was just as interested in the iguanas sunning in the trees.

I got another surprise when I realized that I could make a day trip to the mountains (blissfully cooler than the coast in hyper-humid October) to take in more history at San Sebastián, a former silver mining town and UNESCO site where I got some lessons in Mexican cuisine from a guy cooking chicharrón in the street and a woman pressing fresh tortillas. We sipped home brew: rich, dark coffee at a tiny organic plantation and, at a roadside family distillery, raicilla, the local agave-based brew I prefer to tequila.

One sweltering afternoon I escaped the meetings for a horseback ride through the forest into the foothills near Hacienda Doña Engracia, where the highlight was a blissful cool-down swimming the horses in the river. Who needs a pool?

And besides, I did get in some beach time. At dusk I joined a bouncing-off-the-walls gaggle of school kids to help send over 200 baby Olive Ridley turtles flippering across the sand to their destiny. I can’t tell you how I bonded with my wee turtle, pliable in my hand as its shell hadn’t yet hardened and wriggling like mad. Together we all stood behind a literal line in the sand (to avoid stepping on any of our charges) and cheered our tiny turtles in their race to the sea. Mine took a scary sideways detour, but it got back on track and there were tears when it finally disappeared into the froth of a gentle wave. It was a little hard to hear the biologist’s talk over the excited chatter, but I didn’t mind, because the kids’ enthusiasm is the best hope for these and other endangered creatures.

I was so impressed with the sense of eco-stewardship from the municipality and beachfront hotels that I shouldn’t have been surprised by another discovery not five minutes from my swim-up bar.

Bordering the busy main thoroughfare in the heart of the hotel zone is the Estero El Salado sanctuary. While research in this mangrove ecosystem has been ongoing for 12 years, El Salado only opened to the public in April 2012. With an expert guide we boarded a spanking new boat to negotiate the narrow mangrove-lined channel that threads through the reserve. My long lens got a real workout and I came away with keeper shots of at least 11 different bird species, an iguana and myriad little red crabs. I got just a little closer than expected to a couple of lazy boas and our guide searched hard until we hit the jackpot with two crocodile sightings. I couldn’t have been happier—and not an umbrella drink in sight.

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