Sunday, March 22, 2015

Puerto Vallarta (Day 5) - Coming home

Oh, the last day of vacation!  You wake up in the morning and even though you know your flight isn't until 4pm, you know that basically everything is over -- which of course means that every little decision takes on cosmic importance.  Do I go running, or do I have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace?  Do I go to the beach, or go shopping, or sunbathe on the roof?  Do I pack my toothbrush now or wait until after I've had lunch?

In the end, I let the weather and laziness decide for me:  It was just way too gorgeous to spend the morning walking through shops, and the thought of waiting for the elevator and walking 50 yards to the beach (where I would battle sand and pan-flute musicians) just seemed like too much, so I sunscreened up and installed myself in a lounge chair on the deck.  Justin joined, and we spent the morning alternating between tanning and the pool.

Everyone else still wanted to go shopping, so Justin and I ended up on our own for lunch.  We skipped the taco stands and went to La Palapa, one of the nicer restaurants on the waterfront. 
Fresh salad with peaches and pistachios
Chicken fajitas with grilled peppers, mushrooms and pineapple
Justin got the fish tacos
The food was the best I had in Puerto Vallarta -- but the service was outrageously slow.  We thought we'd have enough time to finish lunch and get back for me to change into airplane clothes (unfortunately not the same thing as vacation clothes, when one's destination is Seattle) and pack up the last few things.  Instead, I ended up snarfing my fajitas, leaving Justin to pay the bill, and then running through the crowds back to the condo to change sweatily into my jeans and rush to the car. 

I got to the airport about 45 minutes later than I'd hoped but still had no trouble getting on the plane.  It's amazing how effortless air travel can be when you're not in the US with all the ridiculous TSA procedures!

Adios, Mexico!
A few hours later, I landed in San Francisco.  Although my flight continued on to Seattle, I still had to deplane, go through immigration and customs, and then recheck my bags, redo security screening (where I was "randomly" selected for an additional patdown by a super-incompetent man who filled me with rage), squeeze past the women who didn't understand why I gave them the stink-eye for standing in the middle of the moving walkway with their 47 bags, and reboard the exact same plane, in the exact same seat.  Fortunately, I did have enough time to grab a bite to eat before the flight, so that made everything a lot better for everyone.

It's amazing how far a bite of pizza and some Diet Coke will go toward
soothing TSA/passenger-induced orneriness!
A few hours later I landed in Seattle.  I walked out into the chilly, rainy night and instantly missed  the sunny beach and my friends (who all stayed through the following Wednesday).  A half-week vacation is certainly better than nothing, but it also whets my appetite for more!  Fortunately I do have a few more trips on the horizon:  First an Easter trip to Idaho, followed by a couple of weekends in Portland and Vancouver, BC.  Then it's off to China! 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Puerto Vallarta (Day 4) - Botanical Gardens and Ocean Grill

Saturday morning dawned bright and gloriously sunny.  I went for a nice long run along the waterfront -- the first half with Justin, then by myself to tackle some hills.  When I got back, I discovered a condo full of people and terrific spread of delicious breakfast!  It's hard to beat fresh fruit and an omelet on a deck with views like this.

After breakfast, Justin and I left the rest of the group lounging on the roof and hopped in a taxi to visit the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens.  They were about 30 minutes south of town, straddling a jungly ravine with streams at the bottom.  We bought our tickets and set out to explore -- and by "explore", I mean "take close-up pictures with our fancy cameras."

There were enough free range air plants
to blow a Portland hipster's mind.
I loved these delicate little irises. I hadn't expected to see them.
Wings looking a little worse for wear, but still kind of cool.
Anyone know what kind of plant this is?  These
weirdly alien flowers dangled from a thick vine.
Purple pompoms everywhere!
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to make it all the way through the gardens before we needed to regroup with our driver and head to the beach.  We had reservations, you see, for a late afternoon dinner at Ocean Grill, a secluded restaurant perched on a cliff at the mouth of a private cove with a lovely white sand beach.  It's accessible only by boat, and there are only three departure times per day.  We wanted to be on the midday boat so that we could enjoy the private beach before dinner.

Water taxis and a strangely empty beach at the Boca de Tomatlan
The taxi took the folks with the early dinner reservations first, then came back to pick us up.
Too windy on the boat to wear hats!
I had kind of hoped that the boat trip would be longer, but in about 10 minutes we'd been ushered onto a narrow platform and out to the beach.  We set up camp and began some serious beach lounging.

Wait a minute -- SINCE WHEN HAVE I HAD ABS?!
We selfishly wished the yacht hadn't invaded -- we could have had the beach all to ourselves.
Three o'clock rolled around all to quickly -- we reluctantly struck camp and clambered gingerly over hot rocks to the restaurant.


Once seated under the shady thatched roof, we placed our orders and sat back to enjoy the views. 

Virgian pina colada
Grilled octopus with olive tapenade, paprika potatoes and mango salsa
Key lime pie.  Seemed appropriate for the location.
We initially draped our towels to dry on the railing. Our scandalized server immediately
whisked them off out of sight.  Probably the right call.
Justin, Jon, Todd, Jed, Randall,
Vince (the third Seattleite, who arrived late the night before), and then moi
The food was good, though not as good as the views.  And once we'd finished our meal, we moved to the casual seating area to take in those views from a more recumbent position until the boat came to take us back to the car.


We got back to town a little before sunset, so we went straight upstairs to our infinity pool to talk and watch the sunset until it got dark and was time for bed.  It was a quiet, simple evening, but also really great.  After three full days together, we'd gotten to know each other and a fun group dynamic was starting to emerge.  People were more relaxed and easy with each other -- that lovely moment when acquaintance shifts to friendship.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Puerto Vallarta (Day 3) - Marietas Islands

A couple weeks before this trip, Justin and I had the following conversation:
JDK:  How are you when you travel?
JJD:  Awesome.  I'm awesome when I travel.
JDK:  Okay, so what does that mean?
JJD:  [gleefully] Well, for one thing, it means that I'm going to be okay with sitting on the beach for approximately one day.  And then I'm going to want to get up at the crack of dawn to go bird-and-whale-watching, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle-boarding and cave-swimming, and then come back in time to grab dinner and see a play.  All in the same day.  Doesn't that sound awesome to you?
Because this whole "travel with people you hardly know" thing goes both ways:  Sure, I didn't really know what I was getting into when I signed up to go to Mexico with a bunch of guys I didn't know.  But did those poor souls have any idea what they were getting into when they agreed to have me along?  Ha!  Lucky them!
Fortunately, Justin was totally game for an adventure.  We did the planning legwork, and invited the others to join us.  They all made the right choice, which meant that early on Friday morning (some of them brightly sunburned from the day before), we squeezed into Randall's little rental car . . .
Six people in a four-person car?  We asked the parking attendant in the condo building if
he thought the police would pull us over.  He said we'd be fine and seemed to wonder why
there would even be any doubt about that... oh, Mexico!
. . . and drove over to the Maritime Marina in search of the Vallarta Adventures office.  I had found Vallarta Adventures through Tripadvisor.  They're by far the highest rated tour agency in Puerto Vallarta, and we'd signed up for their Marietas Eco Discover Tour

The line for departures was easy to find.  It was the one next to the giant sea lion that was posing for photos.
The animal had an uncanny ability to know just when the picture would be taken, and it would
stick out its tongue at that precise moment.
After that endearing encounter with Nature, we collected our tickets and found the boat that would be our home for the rest of the day.


We were one of the last ones to board, which was totally a good thing because it meant we got to sit out on the deck instead of under the awning.  We had plenty of room for group photos . . .

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Randall, Jon, Justin, me, Jed, Todd
. . . even though the breeze was chilly enough that some of us broke out our jackets.


The islands were about two hours away, but the crew did a good job helping the time pass quickly.  There was a breakfast buffet when we arrived, and when that was cleaned up, the crew came out and started busting out some dance moves.  They were all super entertaining, but this guy's break-dance moves were by far the biggest crowd-pleaser . . . .

Jed and Justin had both been on the BYU folk dance team in college, so Randall had the great idea of telling the captain that Justin was a dancer and should be invited to give a little solo performance, as well.  The captain delightedly obliged and Justin, who had been minding his own business in the back of the audience, suddenly found himself in the spotlight.  Mortified but still a good sport, he got down with his bad self . . . .

Eventually the Marietas Islands came into view.  They were a collection of rocky mounds rising out of the water.   


The islands are protected as a bird refuge, so there were no people on them, and we didn't land.  We did, however, do a tour of one of them to appreciate the rocky formations, appreciate the vast quantities of bird poo that essentially whitewashed the cliffs, and watch the hundreds of birds that perched there and produced said poo.  We also saw a dolphin and a giant sea turtle, but the sightings were to fleeting to get any good photos; sadly, there were no whales.

Hard to tell in this picture, but this was a stone archway into a sheltered cove.
Most of the birds were blue-footed or yellow-footed Boobies. 
Looks like these are all yellow-footed.
Along the way to the islands, the crew had handed out wetsuits and snorkel gear.  We suited up and, once we were within range of the islands, jumped into the water to explore.  The water was chilly and not super clear, and there really weren't that many fish.  We saw a handful of brightly colored angelfish and others that I didn't recognize, but otherwise it was just a lot of rocks.  Definitely nothing like what I saw in the reefs off the coast of Belize.  Still, snorkeling is fun, and the wetsuits kept the chill at bay.

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Once we tired of snorkeling, we headed back to the boat and Justin and I exchanged our flippers for a kayak and paddles; others opted for paddle boards.  We cruised around the islands for a while, sometimes harassing our friends on the paddle boards, sometimes racing the crew-members who were trying to keep people away from the rocks.

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He definitely beat us.
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A rare moment of synchrony. 
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The kayak was unlike others that I've been in.  The shape of the seat and foot placement
made it feel like we were doing one eternal ab crunch, so by the end we just lay back and relaxed.
After everyone on the boat had had a chance to kayak and/or paddleboard, the crew gathered all the people and gear back on board and took us to a neighboring island. 

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Candid shot from the boat's onboard photographer with the island in the background.
Pretty soon we pulled up to the mouth of a little inlet where we could see a bunch of heads and life jackets bobbing in the waves. 

"See that cave?" asked the captain.  "That's the gate to a magical hidden beach, and you can only get there by swimming.  So, all our strong swimmers, off you go!  Just be back here in about half an hour or we'll leave you here to live with the birds." 

So back into the water we went.  We had our wetsuits, flippers and life preservers, and it's a good thing, too.  The water was just as chilly as before, the distance much longer, and the currents stronger (all that sucking through the tunnel).  I quickly discovered that swimming forward is quite a workout for the hamstrings!  Within minutes mine were pretty much shot.  Fortunately, all I had to do was turn over on my back and backstroke it the rest of the way.  I couldn't see where I was going, but at least my legs weren't on fire (and I only ran over one person).


The hidden beach really was amazing.  It was like something you'd see in a movie -- a perfect circle of cliffs surrounding a beautiful white sand beach.  If there hadn't been so many other people, it would have been a perfect little paradise. 

But of course there were tons of people, so the only thing to do was strip off our wetsuits and pose for photos.  The photographers from the boat had come onshore with us, so they put us through the paces:

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First, stand in the cave like a normal person.
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Now flex!
(Definitely the first time I've ever posed for a shirtless flexing photo.)
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Now come over here into the sun and EVERYBODY JUMP!!
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Look cute!
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Okay, now look even cuter!
And on that note, they ordered us back into our wetsuits and into the water.  Time to head back to the mainland!

We got back to the boat and discovered that lunch had been set up:  Sandwiches, various salads, some chips with delicious salsa.  We peeled out of our wetsuits and loaded up our plates.  Fortunately by this time the sun had broken out, so we broke out the hats and sunglasses and got some sun on the deck.


Next thing we knew, a dance party had broken out all around us!  Lunch and a few beers will do that to people.  Of course none of the Mormon boys were drinking, but that didn't stop us from joining in.


Before long we were back on solid ground and the masses began to disperse -- but not before we snagged one of them to take a picture of our post-adventure crew.


Of course, that was only the first part of the day -- we still had so much left to do!  First, showers and a fresh change of clothes at the condo.  Then off to Pancho's for another round of tacos.

Fortunately that hibiscus punch did not turn out to be
a pink frothy drink of doom.
After dinner we walked over to the Palm Cabaret to see the local production of Greater Tuna, a two-man play that satirizes small-town life in Texas. 

It was a decent production, certainly better than I'd expected in a little Mexican resort town.  The energy flagged a couple of times, particularly in the second act, which takes a decidedly darker turn than the first act, and I missed some of the outrageous characterizations that I've seen in productions in the US.  But still it was fun to see the play and to watch the reactions of people who were seeing it for the first time.  There's something special about seeing a piece of American culture in a foreign context that gives a different perspective.  I would have loved to hear what the non-Americans in the audience (or even the Mexican tech team) thought about it.  (Unfortunately, the others in the group didn't share my enthusiasm.  I'm pretty sure they all hated it!  Apparently some of them were hoping for more of a traditional narrative arc and more of a feel-good ending.  Oh well.  At least they all liked the Marietas tour, so the day was still an overall success.)