I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yelapa, Mexico - Part One

Originally emailed March 23, 2005,  it was followed by part two, two days later.

I have been back to work for a couple weeks and have finally gotten all the sand out from between my toes. My tan has started to fade in a couple places, but not too badly. I have had a chance to collect my thoughts and sort my pictures, so I will send you some of each.

For anyone who might not know, I have been working at the London embassy since September '04, doing the same kind of work that I did in Beijing and Athens. On 22 Feb '05 I took a two week break from this job and traveled to Yelapa, Mexico to spend some time with Joann before she took off on a sailing trip across the Pacific.

Puerto Vallarta is at the center of the coast of the Bay of Banderas, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Yelapa is a small village on the southern tip of the bay, a 45 minute water taxi ride from the pier in Puerto Vallarta. Although there is a road connecting the two places, it is so bad that the water taxi is the only feasible route. This has the advantage of keeping Yelapa remote and devoid of cars (although there is a four-wheel ATV in the village for those who need an object to curse).

The warm, tropical breeze that greeted me when I got off the plane in PV was a welcome contrast to the daily snow flurries that had started in London a couple days before I left. I passed through customs and found myself standing in a sea of cab drivers eager to take me for a ride. Suddenly, I saw Joann standing by the door holding up a sign with "Juanito" scrawled on it. She had arrived in Mexico the week before, but I hadn't expected to see her until I got to Yelapa the next morning. She showed me where to catch the right bus.

The old blue and white bus, it's windshield personalized with rodeo trinkets, pictures of the young driver's family, and devotionals to the virgin Mary, ground it's gears and belched smoke as it took us on it's roundabout way to an ocean-front hotel in the old-town section of Puerto Vallarta. From there we would catch the water taxi the next morning.

By 11 am we were traveling the length of the Bay of Banderas in a "ponga," an open-topped fiberglass boat with rows of bench seats and a large outboard motor. The twenty or so passengers and their baggage would endure the whump-whump of the boat pounding through the chop and the occasional spray of seawater. Joann, having already experience a couple of trips, warned me that we should sit as close as possible to the rear where both the pounding and the spray were less intense.

Yelapa itself climbs out of the bay and up through the palms and fruit trees like a scene from an old movie. The stone and brick dwellings with red clay tile roofs alternate with open, palm-thatched palapas. Riders on burros and horses share the narrow rock-paved lanes with villagers and tourists on foot. Small cafes and casas perch on the rocks and line the arc of the beach.

The water taxi pulled right up to the north end of the beach, where some of the passengers disembarked, wading through the surf with their belongings. It then swung south, to the other end of the beach where we got off on a pier jutting out from the center of town. Joann led me up the rabbit-warren of pathways that wound between (and sometimes it seemed, through) the buildings. Soon we were climbing the stone-stepped path (182 steps - I counted!) that led up to Casa Milagros, the place that would be our home for the next two weeks.

The view from Casa Milagros was one thing that set it apart from most of the other casas. Climbing all those steps did have its advantages. Our room was on the top floor of the three story casa (add 17 more steps for a total of 201) and the roof of the second floor was our patio. To the west we could see far out into the sea. To the east we could see the entire town and beach. One other advantage of those steps was the feeling that the hike justified a big dinner at the cafe!

Antonia and Joann in the kitchen

View from the kitchen window

Casa Milagros is fairly typical of places to stay in Yelapa. While a couple of the rooms have private baths, most are simple rooms with screened windows (no glass) and mosquito nets over the beds. The large kitchen is shared and all guests can shop in town and cook their own meals.

Lunch on the patio.  Let's eat!

Joann and I took turns making each other breakfast burritos and sometimes lunch, but most dinners we ate in one of the many wonderful cafes in the village. Electricity is fairly new to Yelapa and the most prevalent form of lighting is still the "Yelapa Lantern", a candle stuck into a sand-filled tin can, over which is placed the chimney from an oil lamp. We were encouraged to bring a flashlight or two to negotiate the walk back to the casa after an evening's dinner and dancing.

Joann introduced me to Hugo and Antonia, our hosts at Casa Milagros.
 Hugo is a transplanted Texan who, though he has lived in Mexico for the last ten years still prefers to speak in English with his broad Texas drawl. Antonia (shown here making her wonderful ceviche) is native to the area, prefers Spanish and is very patient with those trying to learn the language. She is famous, perhaps mostly to Hugo, as the most beautiful girl from the village. Her first husband, now deceased, was an American pipeline worker who built the village's water supply piping from springs in the hills, or so the story goes.

Yelapa, Mexico - Part Two

Originally emailed March 25, 2005,

Yelapa is a hangout for artists and writers, among others. Casa Milagros, where we stayed, hosted a weekly writers meeting. One of the other guests there, Jari, was a published writer from Boston and had been there for several months working on her first novel.

Jari and Joann discuss writing (?)

By the time I got there, Joann and Jari had already become good friends. The literary air that drifted through the place could account for my desire to return to the travelogs I began when I first started working overseas. We'll see how long that lasts...

Jean and Joann at YESI

We spent three hours every weekday morning at YESI, the Yelapa English-Spanish Institute, an intensive language program, http://www.talkadventures.com/spanish/index.html 
YESI is run by Jean Hnytka, a Canadian lady who spent six months of every year in Yelapa. She has become known to some of the locals as "Jessie", the Y taking on a J sound when they read the sign in front of the path to her school. She was a fun teacher and her class was anywhere from 2 to 6 students. We sat out on the patio in front of her palapa and tried to pay attention to things like irregular preterit verb conjugations while macaws and parrots, frigate birds and vultures, hummingbirds and woodpeckers squawked, swooped, and pecked overhead. After school we walked back to our casa or down to 'la playa' (the beach), stopping along the way to pick up a few groceries at 'la tienda' (store) or checking emails at Mimi's Cafe, where, if we had to wait until the computer was free, we would be forced pass the time with a 'cervesa con limon' (beer with lime) and a bowl of chips and salsa.

Waiting for the internet

Internet cafe - Yelapa style
Notice the "Yelapa Lanterns" on the green bookcase between the arches.

Paragliding in Yelapa
The steep hills, favorable winds and thermals have made Yelapa a favorite spot for paragliders. From the time we arrived we watched a daily show of colorful wings launch, circle back and forth and land softly and gracefully on the beach. Some of the flights lasted an hour or more and the paragliders would ride the thermals up and up until they were mere specks. We watched them for several days, talked to a few of them, and learned that some of them had tandem rigs and took passengers for rides. With each other for courage, Joann and I decided we wanted to take a ride before we left.

Climbing to the launch site

Our last Saturday in Yelapa we met the paragliders at the bottom of the path up to the launch site, finalized who was riding with whom (there were three pilots and three passengers) and hiked up the hill. The parasail packs weigh about 60 pounds each and the trail is steep. The pilots have their work cut out for them just getting to the launch site.
 Once we got there we went through a short training session so everyone knew what was expected of them. The wind wasn't perfect that day so we knew it wouldn't be a long flight, but it did need to be steady enough and from the right direction long enough to get a good launch.

Spreading the wing, John on the left, Daryl, Jeff and Ross center.

The pilots determined the order of launch. Joann was to go second and myself last. The first wing was stretched out on the ground and the lines were checked and straightened. I was surprised at just how thin the lines were. They seemed much smaller than the parachute cord I was expecting to see, more like thread! Were these threads really strong enough? I went through a bit of mental calculation, trying to figure the foot/pounds of pull needed on each line to support two people, divided by the number of lines and adding a safety ratio... hmm... It occurred to me that someone must have already thought about all that, right? OK, then. I was ready! I still had plenty of time to think about it, though...

Jeff and Daryl, the first pilot and passenger, instructions and preparations completed, stood in their rigging, the sail spread out carefully on the ground behind them, looking a bit like a pair of horses in traces waiting for the slap of reins. Jeff looked around, gauging the wind by studying the colored ribbons tied to sticks at the corners of the clearing as they fluttered fitfully in the light breeze. After about fifteen minutes, they both sat down to wait for better wind. Sometimes, this is what paragliding is like, I guess. Another breeze and they were back on their feet, rigging rechecked and straightened. Now, the ribbons are streaming directly uphill. Jeff counts. For six seconds the breeze holds steady. This is it! Jeff shouts, "Run, run, run...!" They take a couple steps forward and the parasail fills with air and rises overhead. "Run, run, run...!" and they are moving down the clearing, heading straight for the bay far below. Having been warned not to stop running until told to, Daryl's legs are still pumping after they are airborne. With twenty feet of air under them, Jeff tells him to take his seat and they arc away to the right, passing behind the treeline below, returning to view after a few seconds, farther away, moving left.

Well, that went well enough. It actually does work...! Now, it is time for Ross and Joann. The steps are repeated. The sail is spread, the lines checked and straightened, the harness adjusted and checked. The last minute instructions. The lines checked again. The ribbons watched. The lines... the sail... the ribbons...waiting... Suddenly it is time. "Run, run, run..!"

Ross and Joann take off

The launch is a repeat of the previous one with one difference. As Joann settles into her seat and they make the first sweeping turn, Joann lets out one long scream, not of terror, but exhilaration.


I was the last to go, and I stood in the harness so long, while behind me my pilot, Aldo, waited for the right moment to take off, that the others would have had enough time to climb back up the hill to see what was keeping us. After half an hour of standing there ready I looked at my watch. The best wind was usually between one and three in the afternoon. It was now after four and what wind there was came from the left, not straight up the hill.

Aldo and I wait for the wind

 Finally the wind swung to our front and held. Aldo yelled, "Run, run, run, run..." we moved forward and the wing filled with air behind us. When a wing inflates, but has yet to rise up overhead, there is a moment when it "walls". It became a tremendous force pulling backwards, threatening to pull us back with it. Aldo was still yelling, "Run, run, run..." and as the chute rose overhead, the backward pull lessened and we moved forward faster. Within a few steps my feet were no longer touching anything and as the ground fell away, Aldo told me to take my seat, which he pushed under me with his knee...

Everything became very peaceful after that. I took a couple pictures, but then I sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Yelapa from a parasail

Our flight, like the other two, was what the pilots describe as an elevator run. The lift wasn't strong enough to gain altitude, or even maintain it. It was a gradual, ten to fifteen minute downhill ride, zigzagging in graceful turns to a soft, stand-up landing on the beach. Then we were walking forward, the wing still inflated overhead until we had enough clear space behind us, then quickly back a couple steps as the red nylon collapsed onto the sand. I climbed out of the harness as Joann walked up and handed me a beer. We toasted our success and wished we could stay longer to do it again.

The next day was Sunday and the weather was worse for paragliding. Since we were leaving on Monday we knew we weren't going to get to fly again, so we stuck to our original plan, a 40 minute boat ride out to the Islas Marietas, to snorkel and explore the island's caves.

Snorkelling at Islas Marietas

Now, Joann is in the Galapagos, the first stop on her Pacific crossing. I am back in London. The weather here has improved remarkably. Spring is in the air and the sun has been shining. I will be here until mid-June, it looks like. Then who knows what's next? It's a big world...