Despite its unfortunate reputation, there will never be a shortage of gringos who love Mexico. Inspired by The People’s Guide to Mexico (still the best travel book ever written!) my family vacationed there throughout my childhood. Contrary to the myth that migration only goes in one direction, Mexico is Plan B, the Canada option for those of us who don’t want to be cold. If this doesn’t work out, I can always go live in Mexico… Freethinkers and misfits from the Carob Generation to Millennials are drawn south to the pretty old cities like San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca, looking for a life less American. Along the coasts are hundreds of beach towns, each its own version of expat paradise. Yelapa is one of those places.
My parents say we happened upon Yelapa when our tour boat stopped there for lunch. It’s become our family Christmas destination. Instead of driving 18 hours to Baja with the kids crammed like too many crayons under the camper shell, we take an equally uncomfortable flight to Puerto Vallarta. My sister and her family fly down from Washington State, my brother from California, my parents and I from wherever we happen to be living at the moment. The water taxi from Los Muertos Pier takes 50 minutes and costs 250 pesos round trip. Yelapa sits hidden at the tip of a peninsula, too rocky and remote for cars. There is a tiny beach at the mouth of the river, winding jungle paths to waterfalls, a small harbor of fishing boats.
For the first time, my cousin and lifelong partner-in-mischief agrees to meet us there. I take her on my favorite walk, which ends up being a different route every time. We explore a cemetery and then follow a creek bed to a dirt road where cars are parked precariously awaiting their owners’ return. From there, we end up on a barely-there jungle path, dodging hammock-sized spider webs.
“Did I tell you I watched Jurassic World on the flight down?” says my cousin as something big flies overhead, screeching hysterically. We both watch the green-layered canopy, ready for pterodactyls to burst through. “Does this path really go anywhere?”
“I’m sure it goes somewhere.”As usual, I’m determined continue forward despite all evidence. This isn’t the first hike we’ve made ridiculous by refusing to backtrack. At a gate, which possibly states that we are entering private property, I tell my cousin, “Try to look like we belong. I think this place costs, like, $1000 a night.”
“No problem,” she says, conjuring up a swanky scarf and humongous sunglasses. I smear the sweat and mud around my face and try not to trip. “Hola!” my cousin says to the bartender with a regal wiggle of her fingers. Our ruse works well enough that no security personnel come to escort us off the premises. Along the coastal path back to town, we fantasize about moving here, opening a cafe together and decorating it with lots of tile.
Yelapa has just enough tourists and resident expats to support a healthy mix of restaurants and bars. I never miss Cafe Bahia for Sunday brunch: Eggs Benedict, the harbor view, and excellent eavesdropping and people-watching opportunities. This year my other favorite was Manguito. It’s a fun walk up the river and my Coconut Pineapple Shrimp was yummy. Judging by the menus I saw posted for New Year’s Eve dinners, the local chefs are hip to experimenting with local seafood and organic ingredients. For dessert, the flan at Pollo Bollo wins my family seal of approval, after many margarita-fueled nights of testing.
The yoga scene in Yelapa is taking off. I think it’s always been a thing, but before you had to be part of the Sky Temple secret society. Now there are classes every morning. The instructors are dedicated professionals. Every class I went to had an interesting mix of people, not just skinny yoga hippies. On New Year’s morning, I even tried something called Neurogenic Yoga, which was way less scary than it sounds.
Since we don’t live in the same state, these Christmas trips are my chance watch my sister’s children changing. A decade ago, my nephews were completely fascinated with two activities in Yelapa: catching lizards at the tiny stream that crossed our path to town, and burning the household trash. Over the years, their focus shifted to the lagoon and beach, where they learned to swim like seals and catch fish with a Yelapa-style plastic bottle fishing rig. Now my nephews are 16 and 14, one lanky and the other tanky. They spend most of their time looking at their electronic devices. (I’m not entirely opposed to this. At that age, I also wanted to simultaneously ignore my parents and piss them off. Back in my day, all we had to sulk behind was books.) Still, the kids did spend hours in the water. They even let a few moments of unguarded joy slip out. On my niece’s birthday we took a boat trip the Marieta Islands. Our boat passed through a pod of dolphin ballet dancers, leaping and twirling with abandon. Even our salty boat guides were charmed. I will never forget hearing my niece yell, “It’s like magic! This is the best day ever!”