The real Mexico?

Travelling – do we see the ‘real’ country? Well, I guess the answer is obvious; it depends upon how you travel. My backpacking days aren’t as much over as never happened at all. I didn’t travel much in my youth; too busy settling down and working, sadly. When I did travel, I went to city breaks or far away places that interested me; in this way I cultivated an interest in, among other things, renaissance art and ancient Egypt. When work got a hold of me and I needed to use the time to chill, it was resort breaks only, sun and books. Then my daughter came along and all of a sudden it was Disney-which I loved by the way! 

At this point in my life – retired, happily married to someone who shares my interests – I’m interested in learning about new destinations by travel. Whether it’s new countries or different sites in places I’ve been, I long to experience authentic sights, sounds and tastes. Recently we’ve travelled by cruising and by private overland tour. We visited Vietnam and Cambodia on a private tour and being escorted to the main sights in an itinerary which we had chosen gave a wonderful insight into two fascinating countries. The only drawback was the need for relocation every few days, necessitating packing and unpacking and long car journeys. 

I’ve written before about the attractions of cruising as a means to visiting several destinations in a short time, utilising comfortable surroundings. In two cruises I’ve visited over a dozen new countries and seen sights including Petra, the Taj Mahal, the Suez Canal, the Casa Rosada and Cape Horn. I’ve also experienced the flavour of fascinating countries like Jordan, Argentina and Nicaragua. Granted, scratching the surface often leaves one wanting more but there’s always that chance and, besides, a taste of honey is better than none at all, right?

This is a long prelude to a reflection of a visit to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Both our port lecturer on board and our guide on the tour used the term ‘village’ but that doesn’t encompass my take on what we saw today. I appreciate the historical background of how what was essentially a mining town developed into a resort but Vallarta, as the locals know it, has more of the feel of a hybrid between retirement community and tourist resort. I’ll approach it that way because that’s how it felt to me; I don’t think I saw the ‘real’ Mexico today. And that’s fine. 

We were one of three cruise ships crammed into the port so it was pretty hectic docking and getting ashore.

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Vallarta has a population of 350000, some 30% of whom are retired Americans or Canadians. As a result, English and Spanish are interchangeable as is the use of both peso and US dollar. The community applauds itself as being welcoming and nondiscriminatory (‘gays welcome’ we were told). I’m uncertain as to why they feel the need to advertise this fact?

This is a fertile part of the country which claims to feed 1/3 of Mexico with fish and agriculture. Tourism and construction are booming; this is a still-growing city and we saw new building everywhere. There’s no particular form or style to the place however; low level houses sit beside apartment blocks, tourist shops and restaurants mingle with larger, familiar stores like Wallmart, Woolworths, Subway, Costco and McDonalds. It’s not very picturesque to be honest. 

After a few miles in very heavy traffic (locals had that look on their faces that you see in Edinburgh residents in August) we reached the Malecon, which was a pleasant, if very hot, seaside promenade, complete with sculptures, stone piles, sand sculptures and dancing Aztec warriors with buckets for aggressively sought after donations!

From there it was a short walk to the main square with the town’s (literally) crowning glory, the church of Our Lady of Guadaloupe. This eccentric brick construction, topped by a spectacular crown, reconstructed after a previous earthquake, had a surprisingly cool and harmonious interior. 

Much of what followed was the worst of travel tours-shopping in places where you’re a captive audience, pressured to buy things you don’t want or need (at what seem to be inflated prices) and ‘entertained’ by ‘ local performers’ who expect tipping. We had three forgettable visits-a silver factory, an artisans market and (after an interminable drive through run down streets) a tequila tasting. This latter took place in a sort of ranch with a restaurant and some miles and horses. The tequila was tasty but madly priced (up to $100 a bottle) the food mediocre and expensive. 

In between we did get to see some mementoes of the film that apparently put Puerto Vallarta on the map-the 1963 ‘Night of the Iguana’, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. We visited El Set, a house built as a retreat for the stars and also for Elizabeth Taylor, who was having a tempestuous affair with Burton. The views from the terrace were lovely. 

We also saw the homes owned by Taylor (the one with arches) and Burton (the adjacent domed one) but sadly didn’t see the Venice style bridge they built between the two. We did see the memorial statue to director John Huston with its testimonial attributed to Bogart.

 Somehow this aspect clings to Vallarta; it’s more like a movie set than an authentic location. Retirees, tourists, drag queens (there seem to be a huge number of drag shows advertised) play out their lives on a pleasant, sunny set. Enjoy as you will. 

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