Monday, February 10, 2014



We came into Puerto Vallarta about mid-day. The marina was a bit confusing, but we followed a work boat to the dock nearest the marina office, checked in, and then moved on over to our assigned slip.

We wandered around the circumference of the harbor, getting our bearings among all the shops and restaurants. We found the lavanderia and carried up several loads of stinky laundry to Irma, the cheerfully chatty laundry lady. She gave us a recommendation for a local taco stand, so later in the evening, after a failed attempt to buy fresh vegetables, we hit up the taco stand for salsa to accompany our boat tacos. Many grocery stores here carry refried beans and pre-cooked, seasoned meat in shelf-stable plastic packets and we stock up whenever we can and pull them out for easy dinner several nights a week. The kind ladies at the taco stand gave us 2 different kinds of salsas, warning us that one was very spicy, the other, not so much. The not-so-much turned out to be what Hannah calls, “full of the spicy!” so we never even tried the other one. Some of our friends in Cabo San Lucas had mentioned wistfully that the food on the mainland had so much more flavor than what they could get on Baja. Now we know what they mean!
The next day, we worked on the boat, washing the salt out of our settee covers (a tricky procedure requiring buckets of water and a willingness to wrestle with foam) and tidying everything in sight. We picked up our laundry late in the afternoon but didn’t have time to put it away before we needed to leave for the airport. Bryan’s mom, Michele, and her sister, Trina, were expecting to connect with us the next day, but when we saw how close the airport was to the marina, we decided to walk over to try to surprise them. We headed off following the directions on our GPS, but soon it became clear they weren’t accurate. We asked for better directions from a local, and got ourselves pointed in the right direction. Eventually, we saw signs for the airport and found our way through the outer maze of parking lots and waiting taxis to the international terminal. Their plane had arrived but there were plenty of people in the receiving area still waiting for the same flight. We relaxed a bit and chatted with a few fellow greeters. One man struck up a conversation with me and proved exceptionally helpful. He had lived in the Portland area for about 15 years, but was born and raised in Mismaloya, where the our visitors would be staying. He gave me great directions for getting there by bus and a couple of restaurant recommendations as well.
Finally we spotted The Traveling Grandmas (aka, The Moms. Or sometimes The Crazy Grandmas). They were very surprised but thankful to see us. We walked back through the crowded area down the street a mile or so to the marina. We stopped by the boat for a few minutes and they pulled out mail and small gifts from home. We took a few minutes to ooh and ahh over the cards and chocolate, tucked away the tea and treats for later, and admired the drawings from the cousins.
We had walked by the taco stand on our way to the boat, but they were closed for the night. So we asked a couple of security guards for a recommendation and they pointed out an authentic restaurant just down the way. As we headed that way, one of the guards ran ahead of us to let the proprietor know we were coming. We found spots around an outdoor table just as a warm rain began to fall. Waiters rushed around adjusting umbrellas and moving uncomfortable patrons, but we stayed put and the heavy raindrops tapered off almost immediately. We teased our Oregon guests about even the weather conspiring to make them feel at home.
Dinner was lovely. The patio sparkled in the evening light and conversation flowed freely around the full table. The waiters were just the right amount of helpful and Victor, the owner, was gracious and engaging, bringing each of us a complimentary mystery dessert we finally identified as Kahlua, bananas, and cream.
After dinner, we sent the girls back to the boat and walked the moms and all their bags to a waiting taxi. They were willing to navigate the public transit system, but we weren’t sure how late the buses ran and didn’t want to take any chances this late at night.
The next morning, we knew we’d made the right choice. It took the 4 of us almost 2 hours on 2 different buses to get to the hotel in Mismaloya.
Walking to the bus stop

Waiting at the bus stop

More waiting...

We got a great tour of the town and collected dozens of Slugbug points on the back streets of Puerto Vallarta. It was fun to watch the directions we’d gotten at the airport—get off 5 blocks after the second tunnel, walk toward the Oxxo, ask anyone for the bus stop to Mismaloya—come to life as we rode and walked through town. We finally found our way to the moms’ hotel. We walked through the gate at the entrance, past a pool full of sunning turtles, and rounded a corner into a beautiful courtyard. Mom and Trina were waiting there for us, and we went up to their room and shared the pasta salad we’d packed for lunch.
Several times along the way, we’d been told about the Vallarta Zoo. With phrases like “must see” and “you get to feed the animals” ringing in our ears, we decided to take the 10 minute walk up the road to see it for ourselves.

The shady, green zoo was the perfect place to spend a humid afternoon. The gatekeeper passed us a couple of bags of animal treats with instructions on who likes what. The animals got up close and personal for their share of the snacks.
Photo credit: Meira and a goofy horse


The monkeys got a little too personal!


These little guys really liked my necklace and the straps on Hannah’s backpack. They reached through the bars with their tails and tried to pull us in closer to their grasping hands.

One pale tigress stared me down and vocalized—purring? growling?—at me for several minutes, finally standing up against the fence and breathing down into my face.

We scratched baboons behind the ears, fed the greedy ostriches, and came face to face with a bowing giraffe.


The animals seemed relaxed and happy, though any zoo brings with it the reminder that these creatures are made to live in the wild and some of them are so endangered this is the only way to preserve their existence. The whole time, we were aware of the difference between seeing these animals in a zoo and the animals we’d seen in the wild. There’s just nothing like watching an animal be exactly who it was made to be, whether that’s regal or ridiculous, to remind me to try to do the same.

We decided to stay in for dinner. Bryan and I walked to the nearby market for ingredients. The stove in the kitchenette didn’t work, but the hotel staff brought us a portable hotplate and we heated up a simple family dinner and sat around the coffee table eating and looking at pictures from the moms’ September trip to Africa and Amsterdam. (Between that trip and their spring trip to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos, in the course of a year, they will have been in each of the 4 hemispheres. After waiting a lifetime to fulfill their dreams of travel, they are certainly wasting no time!) Not knowing how the kitchenette would be stocked, we had brought our own dishes from the boat, hand-me-downs from Michele and Trina’s mom, Thelma. “She would have loved this,” they said. “She loved adventure, and she would have been so happy to know that her daughters, her grandson and granddaughter-in-law, and her great-granddaughters were sharing food and travel stories over her plates in a little town in Mexico.” Grandma Kettlehake has been gone for years now, long enough that thoughts of her have lost the bitterness of immediate grief and become only sweet reminders of the gift she was to all of us.
We dragged ourselves away a few minutes before 10, hoping to catch the 10 o’clock bus back to Puerto Vallarta. The hotel staff had warned us that the last bus ran at 10:30, and we didn’t want to push our luck. We ran into a bunch of end-of-shift travelers and, when a hotel shuttle driver offered to take all of us in for 10 pesos each, we followed the crowd across the street and all piled in together. We were running low on pesos, so Bryan handed the driver a 50 peso bill hoping for 10 pesos in change. Instead he got a hearty, “Muchas gracias, amigo!” Thankfully, we still had enough to catch the second bus back to the marina. We found our stop and walked the 1/2 mile or so back to the boat. Bryan and I we tired, but wanted just a few minutes to decompress. We walked up to the nearby Oxxo convenience store for a couple of drinks and sat on the wharf in the warm evening breeze, grateful for our day.
The next day, we did it again. This time, the buses were quite a bit more crowded and we’d brought not only our backpacks with lunch and water, but all our snorkeling equipment and an unwieldy bundle of lifejackets as well.

We’d promised the moms we’d take them snorkeling and they’d come prepared with rashguard suits and prescription snorkel masks.
By the time we got off the standing-room-only bus, we were ready for a dip in the ocean. Unfortunately, the swell was up on the beach in Mismaloya and we weren’t sure we could get the moms through it to the calmer water on the other side. We talked with the panga drivers who offered to take us out to Los Arcos, a pair of nearby islets known for their good snorkeling. But they wanted a lot of money to take us there, and we thought the moms would find it easier to snorkel for the first time from a beach instead of over the side of a boat. We walked down the beach a ways and found a rocky cove where the swell seemed lighter. It was still more challenging to get out into the ocean than we’d expected and the swell kicked up enough sand, the visibility wasn’t very good at all.

Michele and Trina were troopers though, and took the opportunity to get acquainted with their equipment in hopes of better snorkeling another time, either on this trip or their trip to the Galapagos. Trina and I laughed and laughed as we watched Bryan pull his mom back through the surf, bouncing backwards until she hit the sand. We sobered up right away when we remembered we had to make the same bumpy journey. Eventually, we all made it out of the water. We sat on the rocks drying off, counting our battle wounds, and congratulating the moms on making it through in the hardest place we’d snorkeled yet.

After showers and a little break, we walked back down for dinner on the beach. (While waiting for everyone to get ready, the girls and I cooed over the 11-day-old turtles in a tupperware container near the turtle pond. They were noticeably bigger than they’d been the day before, and almost big enough to join the big turtles in the pond. We were told that the big turtles wouldn’t hurt them; the babies just needed their food ground up for the first little while.)


As dusk fell at the beachside palapa, the waiter brought out candles nestled into sand-filled margarita glasses. He pointed over his shoulder at the almost-full moon, as if he’d hung it there just for us. The rising tide came close enough to touch the legs of our table, but not close enough to make us move. Pelicans dove for their dinner in the breakers and a young fisherman stood silhouetted on the shore, tossing out a hand line to see if he could catch something too. We ate, paid, and then just sat, basking in the beauty of the evening, until it started to get chilly and we remembered the long journey back to the boat. We headed back with all our gear, the first bus empty, but loud—bright lights and party music blaring. The second bus fuller but quiet, the bus driver slow and careful to the point of danger in the law-defying traffic of downtown Puerto Vallarta. Again, we found our stop and walked back to the boat. Again, Bryan and I found a second wind for a quiet evening stroll.
The next day, I spent a morning at a nearby coffee shop writing, sipping tea, and staring out the window—the kind of quiet, solitary morning that comes so rarely in these full days. About the time I wandered back to the boat, Michele and Trina showed up, bags in hand, for their water transport to their next location. We spent a beautiful afternoon sailing across the bay to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and dropped our anchor in the twilight. The dinghy dock was a long ways off, through the breakwater in the dark, but Bryan found his way. He and the Crazy Grandmas walked all over the little town looking for their hotel, but they finally found it—a lovely little place with a peaceful outdoor sitting area/kitchenette—and got the moms settled for the night. I kept an eye out for him and finally, an hour and a half after he left, I heard the quiet sound of his oars in the water and spotted his light—a head-lamp worn backwards, to keep his night vision clear.
The next morning, Bryan woke up sick. None of the rest of us ever picked it up; we think it was just one of those 24-hour things. An east wind kicked up a chop in the anchorage and made his attempt at rest an unsuccessful one. We decided to move into the marina for a stable place to recuperate. Hannah pulled up the anchor while Meira gathered in the excess anchor rode and I drove. We called ahead and got instructions (Dock 9, Side B, Slip 15, north side, starboard tie) which turned out to be wildly inaccurate (Dock 9, Side B, yes, but south side, port tie). The girls switched our fenders and dock lines in a hurry and Bryan roused just long enough to handle the tricky last few feet into the slip (though I’d scouted out some easier places to land the boat in case I needed to do it myself.)
The girls and I walked up to the Grandmas’ inn and, aside from a quick outing for delicious pizza, spent the day in the shade of their courtyard. We splurged and bought our first ice since San Diego and iced some 7up for the sickie. By evening, he felt much better.
The next morning, we took advantage of the moms’ outdoor kitchen and cooked up a big breakfast for everyone. Pancakes, bacon, eggs, juice—it was a pleasure to have more than a few feet of galley space and a larger group to cook for. In the afternoon, I started to wonder if I was getting sick too, so the moms and the girls went on an adventure to Bucerias, the next town up, for some groceries. They all got a little more practice with their Spanish since I wasn’t along to bail them out. And they picked up plenty of food for the next few days. Meanwhile, Bryan and I sat in the shady courtyard with other guests at the inn, chatting and saying yes to another piƱa colada.
By the next day, Bryan was back to 100% and ready to take the moms on another snorkeling adventure. We’d passed up the opportunity to snorkel at Los Arcos that first day at Mismaloya, but now we wanted to try going there ourselves.

The trip over was beautiful, with perfect wind for sailing.

Mom and son...precious moments



Michele and Trina both ended up on the bow of the boat, enjoying the gentle motion and the shade of the big drifter.

When it was time to drop the sails, Hannah gave them instructions on how to help.

A few minutes later, we spotted something shiny in the sea. We slowed down, circled around, and found ourselves face to face with a giant sea turtle. He (Or she. It’s hard to tell) stayed above the surface while we all got a good look. And we saw several more that day as well. Many of our cruising friends had spotted sea turtles much farther north, but we hadn’t spotted any until now.

We neared the island, careful to miss the tour boats and snorkelers already in the water, and found a place to anchor. Everybody jumped in, but, despite what the water-taxi-drivers in Mismaloya had said, the visibility was terrible. We could only see a foot or 2 in front of our faces and there was no way to get into water shallow enough to see any fish. We finally gave up and decided to explore the sea caves by dinghy. Trina and the girls stayed behind, but Bryan, Michele, and I rowed through a cave that went all the way through the small island. As we entered, we wondered aloud why none of the pangas take their tours through here. About halfway through, we started to figure out why. The ocean floor shoals quickly from one end of the cave to another and out the other side, breakers frothed white on an extended reef. A steep swell caught our stern and surfed us forward toward the reef. The next wave was even higher and the cave echoed with our shouts. I still can’t believe we made it through without swamping the dinghy or ending up in the ocean.

We motored back in calm seas and no wind and got in just before sunset. I’d seen somewhere that the local German restaurant had live flamenco and gypsy music on Friday nights so we quickly changed out of snorkeling clothes, left the girls to fend for themselves, and walked up into town. Michele and Trina decided to stay in for the evening and we found ourselves on a bit of an unplanned date. Back home, “date night” is code for “rolling the garbage carts up the hill.” On this trip, a date is usually parallel internet surfing and frantic podcast downloading at a nearby coffee shop. This was an honest-to-goodness, fancy-dress, nice-dinner date!
We arrived just a few minutes before the music started and snagged one of the very last tables. The waitress greeted us in Spanish, no surprise, and brought us a Spanish menu. We’ve gotten pretty good at reading menus in Spanish if we’re eating at a restaurant with Mexican food. But translating the German menu through Spanish into English was more than my language skills could handle. Soon the server was back with a flurry of Spanish beyond my grasp. When I apologized, in Spanish, for my poor grasp of the language, she offered, “What language would you like?” We teased her, asking for Mandarin Chinese, but settled on English, thank you very much. (The waiter who brought our dessert menu covered all his bases, bringing me an English menu and Bryan a Spanish one. Bryan held his up studiously, but glanced over at mine like a cheating 3rd-grader looking for the right answers.)
The schnitzel and spaetzle was absolute perfection, Bryan’s stroganoff a rare delight (it’s one of the few dishes I really don’t like, and I’m the menu planner at our house, so he doesn’t get it very often). To meet the per-person minimum for the night of music, I even ordered a salad—also a rare treat, since crisp lettuce is a futile endeavor on our refrigerator-less boat. We sat through the entire evening’s entertainment and  beyond, ending the magical evening with a visit to the moms and a quiet walk back down the docks to our boat.

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