Troy Hightower

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Puerto Vallarta Getaway

Oh, those sunsets. Fiery orange, salmon, burnt gold, fading to purple and then gone—set against he magnificent enveloping sweep of the Bahia de Banderias and the multi-hued blues of the Pacific. A winter getaway to Puerto Vallarta—El Paraiso del Pacifico—where we haven't been in a dozen years. Troy came first as a child with her family in 1960 when it was still a small fishing village. The simple Casas de Carmencita terracing up the hill behind the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora was the place her family stayed. There were a few taquerias and loncherias in the centro.  La Palapa, on the Playa de los Muertos a hike south, had opened in 1959—a  palm-roofed restaurant on the beach, with sand floor and pig-skin equipales chairs. They went south of the river for the day and swam, sunned and ate.

We first came together in the mid 70's. La Palapa had expanded and El Dorado had opened next door. We housed at the Molino de Aqua—a cluster of one-room cottages with a central restaurant/bar/pool complex set in an enormous grove of dense trees at the edge of the Rio Cuale. The birdsong at both sunrise and sunset was raucous. It was an iconic and amazing place, now sadly gone. Over the years we stayed, with friends, in one of the newer hotels just north of town, at the elegant Garza Blanca casitas miles south, and in one or two rented houses in Gringo Gulch perched over the Rio Cuale.

Time changes all, of course. The entire sweep of the bay is now filled with high-rise hotels from south to north. The airport—then a simple strip and low arrivals building—now feels like Benito Juarez in Mexico City. The old part of the centro around the Catedral is pretty seedy. That fantastic Molino complex is a chic 12-story condo building. The action has moved south of the Rio to what used to be out of town, now dubbed the Zona Romantica.  El Dorado and La Palapa are now beach-front central for the Zona Romantica. And that locale, in the Condominios Dorado overlooking Playa de los Muertos is home base for this short stay.

A day in the life is to wake when you wake, find some coffee and pan dulce at the nearby Panaderia Yarita or splurge and have huevos ranchero, chilequiles or machaca for breakfast on the beach at Mi Pueblito, Si Senor, or Cuates y Cuetes. Change to beach gear and take a walk in the wet sand south to the rocky point and back, then settle into beach chairs under a forest of umbrellas in front of El Dorado. Order beer, margarita or mojito occasionally from the beach waiters, who also re-position the umbrellas in the sand as the sun moves. The sea is almost 80 degrees, and comfortable. If you want excitement you can get towed into the sky parasailing, rent a jet ski, ride an inflatable slug at speed around the bay, try stand up boarding, or take a boat excursion. Or if you're young, female and fit, do yoga on a long board in the bay. We do none. Read, relax, people watch, stare at the sea and get wet occasionally. I swim to a rowboat tied up a hundred yards out—the longest ocean swim I've taken since shoulder surgery a year ago.  At lunch walk a few feet into the restaurant and order ceviche de camarones, fish tacos, grilled octopus on a skewer, or El Dorado's famous ham and cheese crepes. 

Saturday morning is the Ollas Altes farmers market—an interesting blend of locals and expat gringos. Amazing floral displays of ginger and birds of paradise..... flavored nieves—shaved ice……empanadas of chicken, mushroom, chorizo and more..... pozole verde made by and ladled up by ladies who look almost like nuns dressed in white....tamales of pork mole, cheese or chicken in salsa verde.....tacos al pastor.....and from the expats--leek and sausage pie and Cornish pasties from a Brit, lovely homemade breads from a Canadian snowbird.....pies and cookies from an American….. and from other further lands, Thai, Indian, and Spanish foods to take away. One could eat for days from this market.

Dinner choices in the 'hood run the gamut from simple grilled fish and shrimp in a beach hut to very fancy food. El Dorado at night becomes Vista Grill, and the menu runs to elegant preparations such as tuna in Mole, braised pork shoulder, and stuffed giant shrimp. La Palapa's evening menu also transforms to something more elegant, including black squid seafood risotto, and caramelized carnitas in lotus buns.  Serrano's Meat House on Cardenas has a display case full of great looking steaks, but more importantly serves crispy sweetbreads with grilled onions and peppers and tortillas, to be eaten as fajitas. We've eaten in the past at Cafe des Artistes, still reputed to be excellent, and Barcelona tapas is said to be good for tasty small plates. If you want Sicilian style wood-fired pizza, spaghetti carbonara, shrimp paella, even Weiner schnitzel with spaetzle it's all within blocks. And of course, all manner and level of elegance of comida Mexicana. Lastly, with condo living instead of hotel, eating in to take advantage of that view is worthwhile as a switch off. Pollo Feliz one night—half a chicken, tortillas, salsa, rice and quacamole for about 5 bucks. Another we bring back grilled arrachera—the best and most flavorful beef cut in Mexico, and Caesar salad from the Fajita Republic and a bottle of Santo Tomas red blend from Vinos America—the best-stocked wine and liquor shop in town.

The final day of our short getaway dawns cooler and hazy. Palm Sunday, the final Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Semana Santa, is a big deal in Mexico, as in all Catholic countries. Gnarled straw-hatted campesinos and wizened old women cluster in front of the Iglesia de la Santa Cruz selling dried palm fronds folded and woven into intricate shapes. These are bought by worshippers who take them into the Palm Sunday service, where they symbolize the palm fronds that were said to be strewn at Jesus' feet as he rode into Jerusalem in the days before the crucifixion. These palm fronds are blessed, and hence may not be discarded, but are instead burned, with the ash being used in the following year's Ash Wednesday service.

At eleven straight up, three slow sonorous bells, and a procession of Sunday-best clad believers marches up to the Iglesia entrance, shaking tall fronds. The separate into two files, and children clutching flowers or woven offerings snake between them into the church. Then all the bells begin to peal in loud, raucous cacophony—all out of tune with each other, and the rest file in for the next-to-last worship before the most important of the year—Easter, next Sunday.

Our final sunset is a corker. Red sky at night, sailor's delight. And to cap it off, a great fireworks display right from the beach in front of us, courtesy of a large beach wedding dinner next door at La Palapa. The first few shots are low and close, cascading literally into the water just off the beach. Then the larger shots head high into the sky: chrysanthemums, cascading willows, swirling beehives and bright comets exploding and lighting up the bay. Could we ask for a more dramatic end to a relaxing short break of sun and surf?

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