The year was 1970, and I was about to turn 21. The Chicago Seven Trial was winding down, the Vietnam War was in full rage, Nixon had lowered the voting age to 18, and the Beatles had released their final album, “Let It Be.” The message to my generation was “Keep on Truckin’.” So naturally, I figured it was a good time to take a Mexico road trip.
I called an old boyhood friend, regaling him about a place in the jungle called Puerto Vallarta. The first paved road there from Tepic had just been completed. Using advanced calculus, with gas costing 15 cents a gallon and sleeping on the beach costing nothing, I estimated we could do a two-week trip from San Diego for about $100 each. So off we went in my 1966 VW van with no jack, a case of beer, and four bald tires. I had no idea then that this trip would come to define my life.
This was long before all of the freeway-like toll roads in Mexico, so we drove through every town and village along Highway 15 heading south. The term hadn’t been invented yet, but this was “rural tourism.”
Beyond Puerto Vallarta: Cabo Corrientes
That first trip I took to Puerto Vallarta spurred a life-long fascination with Mexico that endures today. I recently went back to Puerto Vallarta for about the hundredth time, exploring an area a short distance south of town called Cabo Corrientes. You may know it as home to the town of Yelapa, which was once primarily accessible only by boat. Today, the entire region can be reached by auto, although most of the roads are dirt.
I hooked up with Brad Wollman, who lives in Yelapa and has a tour business specializing in exploring this backcountry. Cabo Corrientes has over 50 villages in total, from the mountainous jungle surrounding Chacala to the pristine beaches of Tehuamixtle and Pisota. It is hard to fathom that you are just an hour or two from Vallarta, as few tourists venture this far out of the city. This is Mexico as it was and is, away from the big cities, the politics, the cartels. You notice more burros than cars, more smiles than scowls. Indiana Jones and Jane Goodall would feel right at home, although probably not together.
The gateway town to Cabo Corrientes is El Tuito. It has a few hotels, and some of the interior villages have very rustic accommodations (a cot in a room) if you ask around. Otherwise, it is close enough to Puerto Vallarta that you can be back to your hotel there by sundown if you get an early morning start. The other small villages of Corrientes are quaint, pristine and amazingly self-sufficient. They raise farm animals and grow produce and tropical fruits, as well as the maguey cactus, which is harvested to make the notorious tequila-like alcohol, raicilla. Many migrating birds can be seen, as well as macaws and parrots. The locals can direct you to hot springs and ancient petroglyphs. The beaches are empty, except for a few fishermen working the crystal-clear waters where you can snorkel or scuba, or simply walk for miles, undisturbed by anyone. Paradise is an over-used word, but this comes pretty close.
Deep into the jungle
We spent another day driving deep into the jungle-covered mountains behind Puerto Vallarta. From town the hills look uninhabited, but a large network of dirt roads eventually leads all the way to Guadalajara (about six hours, except in rainy season, when the many rivers that cross the road tend to rise), or to the colonial mountain towns of Mascota, San Sebastián and Talpa de Allende.
The road into the hills, heading east, begins flanking the Rio Cuale near the tunnel, bordering the Romantic Zone of PV (ask anyone for directions). Within a few minutes of leaving town you are climbing jungle terrain, seemingly 1,000 miles away from anything. The jungle is Amazon-dense, jade-green, and noticeably cooler as you gain elevation. You see an occasional rancho and a few small villages. It is quiet and stunning.
Contact Wollman, mentioned above, for this trip, as well. Or if you feel comfortable enough, rent a Jeep in town for around $40.00 – $60.00 a day. I have driven tens of thousands of miles in Mexico without losing any limbs or my mind (although that’s debatable). So can you.
The wide world of rural tourism
These are just two of many examples of rural tourism around Vallarta. You can find similar options anywhere in Mexico. Within an hour’s drive of Cancún, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Ixtapa or Oaxaca City, you can find a way of life unfamiliar to most gringos. Mexico is a huge country, two-thirds the size of the United States; its 31 states boast terrains and cultures of every category. The state of Oaxaca alone has 16 indigenous groups, each with their own language. It produces some of the world’s finest textiles and folk art, primarily in small, rural villages. Every region of Mexico has its own art, music and food on display in the everyday life of rural Mexico. Grab a map and you will see the blue roads snaking throughout the country, dotted with names like Zempoala, Jacalito and Tejocote. There are thousands of them — fascinating places a world removed from the metropolises of Mexico City, Monterrey and Puebla.
Economic stimulus package
Today, tourism is the No. 1 money generator in third-world countries, getting money to people who need it the most in areas where age-old agricultural practices can no longer sustain a village. In these hard economic times, tourism is more important than ever for Mexico. And nothing could spur the industry better than the growth of rural tourism, because the-yet-to-be-discovered destinations are endless.
For example, Mexico has around 6,000 miles of coastline, but relatively few towns have become tourist centers. Have you ever wondered what the other 5,800 miles are like? Well, I’ve seen most of them, and you can too. It’s safe, fascinating and cheap — not a bad combination. If you don’t relish the thought of driving, Mexico’s buses run everywhere. From third-class beaters to first-class luxury liners that put Greyhound to shame, the country gets around on buses. It’s easy to find scheduling information from any town you fly in to.
For the best information on the web concerning rural tourism in Mexico, go to Ron Mader’s award-winning Planeta site. Ron, who lives in Oaxaca City has been a long-time leader of responsible travel and ecotourism in Latin America. Oaxaca and Ron will be hosting the 10th annual Rural Tourism Fair in Oaxaca January 17- 30, 2010.