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Barefoot on the Pacific

It seems everybody's talking about ecotourism these days, but what is it, really?Some hotels change your sheets every third day, do a little recycling, offer a nature walk or two— and proclaim themselves ecoresorts. At the other end of the spectrum are places that push the ecology envelope so far (tents, composting toilets, experimental generators and ventilators, energy-use questionnaires), you feel as if you're on a MIR space station mission. So I was intrigued when I heard that Mexico's 30-room Hotelito Desconocido (the name means "little unknown hotel") was trying to prove that luxury and serious ecology are not mutually exclusive. Was this just another marketing ploy to attract politically correct travelers?Or was new ground actually being broken?To find out, I booked a cottage and made sure to pack a battery-powered reading light— the hotel has no electricity.

Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, Hotelito Desconocido enjoys a stunning palm-studded setting on a big blue lagoon, with a white-sand beach on an adjoining peninsula. At first glance, the compound of thatched huts (palafitos) looks Polynesian. Upon closer inspection, it's thoroughly Mexican: wild murals, log canopy beds, hammocks, and bamboo-walled open-air showers lined with plants. Besides the nine private palafitos on log stilts, there are 21 lagoon- and beach-front guest rooms. All are named after Mexico's lotería, a form of bingo based on images rather than numbers.

Inside my palafito I find several dozen lanterns and candlesticks. The only switch is for the solar-powered ceiling fan, which I never need to turn on, thanks to the steady sea breezes. Next to the gauze-draped bed, I spy a pamphlet that describes the lay of the land and do's and don'ts: Use only the natural shampoos, conditioners, and moisturizers provided in earthenware pots; do not throw trash— even tissues— in the toilets; think twice before requesting a change of sheets; and take care— great care— with the candles.

Exhausted from a day of traveling, all I care about is a hot shower. Happily, I find plenty of solar-heated water. I dry off on the deck while watching the sky turn a magnificent blood-orange. It's almost dark by the time I go inside and start fumbling around for matches. Just then the housekeeper arrives to light the candles and turn down the bed. When she finishes, the room is so inviting that I am tempted not to leave. But I'm ravenous, and I wouldn't say no to a margarita.

Getting to the Hotelito's restaurant involves a walk along pebbled paths and over arched footbridges; flaming torches and candles in paper bags light the way. Still more candles illuminate the dining room (the Hotelito sometimes has close to 1,000 safely positioned candles burning on a single evening). It is a larger version of my cottage, with a huge thatched roof, all sorts of decks and walkways, and a large octagonal cocktail lounge that juts out into the lagoon. A few people are having drinks and catching the last of the sunset. One of them is the hotel's creator and owner, Marcello Murzilli, the Italian fashion designer who founded Charro jeans in the 1970's.

"I think people are tired of traditional luxury," the tanned Murzilli tells me. He wears white pants, a white collarless shirt, and a black bandanna tied artfully around his head. "I sailed the world for two years, but I never saw a site quite like this. I fell in love with it and decided to try something here that didn't exist. Something for the new millennium, which is about change and harmony and taking care of nature."

It took Murzilli four years to build the Hotelito Desconocido. "Banks thought I was crazy when I told them I wanted to make a hotel out of bamboo and mud, with no electricity," he said. Insurance companies were wary of the bizarre project, as was the Mexican government, which at one point shut down construction to make sure no harm was being done to the protected sea turtle nesting grounds or to the lagoon, which is home to more than 150 species of birds. The designer even had to build a 21/2-mile dirt road between the hotel and the village of Cruz de Loreto, where the main freezer for the hotel's restaurant is located. "Maybe I am crazy," he says with a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, "but I think there's a market for this kind of resort."

The jury is still out. On one hand, guests can feel sanctimonious about staying at a hotel where everything is biodegradable, most of the produce is organically grown on the property, and virtually everything— from wastewater to unused candle wax— is fastidiously recycled. But in an age where many of us take our work on vacation, are we willing to pay more than $300 a night to do without phones, modems, and electrical outlets to recharge our laptops?And as romantic as candlelight is, it can turn a small ritual such as shaving or taking out contact lenses into a major operation.

Tonight Murzilli is staging a birthday bash for a friend from Rome, who has flown over with a large entourage. Everyone staying at the Hotelito is invited to the party. Italian is the language of the evening, but I wind up chatting with a Swedish couple, Hans and Ursula. We eat salsa-smothered baked fish and sweet spareribs as the Gipsy Kings blast from the solar-powered CD player. A cake arrives at the same time that fireworks crackle above the lagoon. An off-key band from Cruz de Loreto marches in, to the wild applause of the Italians. More fireworks. Dancing. Around midnight, I say good-bye and head to my palafito, almost too tired to blow out my candles. It's the only time I miss having a light switch.

The next day I have breakfast with Hans and Ursula, who were supposed to leave for Puerto Vallarta but decided to stay an extra day. "The beach is just so beautiful," Ursula exclaims, and invites me to join them there. We hail a boatman to row us from the dock in front of the restaurant. At the end of a 37-mile peninsula, the Hotelito beach is virtually a separate resort, with a saltwater pool and a thatched-roof restaurant. The sea, deep blue, with crashing waves, is dangerous (even strong swimmers are warned about the huge breakers). On the other hand, sitting under a palapa and looking at the powerful Pacific is one of my greatest pleasures. From time to time, a waiter passes by to take drink orders and offer fresh fruit.

At about three, he announces lunch, a feast of seviche, grilled chicken, and mango ice cream. I am impressed by the quality of the food— especially considering the challenges of cooking when the main fridge is 21/2 miles away. Head chef Danilo Pantovich is a master of improvisation, using whatever is fresh from the garden— squash, tomatoes, arugula, mangoes— as well as the best local produce. As for hygiene, the Hotelito prides itself on its natural methods of disinfecting fruits and vegetables, using an organic iodine product derived from grapefruit seeds. Not only can you eat the salads here; they are delicious.

Over lunch, we discuss tonight's temescal, an indigenous Mexican sauna and ceremony, one of the hotel's few organized activities. Aimed at helping guests get even more in tune with nature, temescal is held every week or so inside a rounded tent erected beside a circle of stones on the beach. The food-and-beverage manager, Alberto Alvo, doubles as a shaman. We assemble at the site just before sunset. Alberto instructs Hans and me to gather more beach stones to put into the bonfire he and another staff member and shaman, Primo, are building in the center of the stone circle. As the sun sets, the fire is lit and a drum is passed around for each of us to beat. Soon we enter the tent and sit on banana leaves around an empty pit into which Primo shovels red-hot stones from the bonfire. Alberto then orders Primo to close the flaps and we are alone with the glowing stones and rising heat. Again we beat the drum; some of us chant. I enter a new realm of consciousness. After 45 minutes or so, we start leaving the tent, one by one.

Outside, I lie on the sand, wrapped in a beach towel. The sky is thick with stars. I am now as far away from my life in New York as the satellites we spot skipping across the heavens. Silently, we make our way back to the mainland. When the rowboat oars touch the lagoon's black water, it turns an electric gold. I dip my hand to leave a sparkling trail; when Hans dives in, he becomes a neon sea creature. The phenomenon is caused by bioluminescent plankton, but in my present frame of mind, I am sure some ancient magic is behind it.

The golden lagoon is a very different place when i row out alone the next morning. I'm no birder, but I find myself captivated by the egrets and herons and spoonbills. And I get really excited when I recognize a couple of cormorants and frigate birds.

One of the concerns voiced by Mexico's National Institute of Ecology when Murzilli proposed building his hotel was the protection of this fragile lagoon, which harbors some 150 species of birds. Thus far, under the eye of the staff biologist and National Institute watchdogs, the lagoon is thriving— thanks to the resort's sophisticated natural sewage-treatment system as well as its refusal to allow powerboats in these waters.

At the same time, working with biologists and students from the University of Guadalajara, the hotel has been instrumental in documenting bird and wildlife populations. It also promotes the breeding and hatching of the endangered sea turtle, whose numbers have increased dramatically. Hotelito guests can take an active part in these projects, but just a ride in a rowboat is enough to raise anyone's consciousness about the importance of protecting pristine areas such as this. The Mexican government has come to the same conclusion: it's negotiating with Murzilli to develop self-sustaining resorts in other parts of the country.

After an hour or so, I return to my palafito, tie the dinghy at my private dock, and order room service breakfast by raising a red bandanna up a flagpole. This immediately summons a rowboat piloted by a waiter bearing a tray of fruit, fresh muffins, banana-nut bread, croissants, coffee, and orange juice.

After breakfast, Hans and Ursula tell me they're putting off Puerto Vallarta one more day. They invite me on a late-afternoon horseback ride into Cruz de Loreto, led by an Italian stockbroker named Gianni, who is on a six-month sabbatical from the Roman rat race. Along the way, we pass papaya orchards, palmy fields, and white Brahman cattle standing like statues. When we gallop into town, it feels like a scene from a western, only the saloon is open-air, with a thatched roof. The men are decked out in cowboy shirts and boots, the women in designer jeans and white embroidered tops. A monster jukebox plays country music. Beers are followed by tequila shots, and by the time we get back in the saddle, it's dark.

The next day, I recover at the tiny open-air spa run by Sheila Aphia, who has decorated it with driftwood, bunches of herbs, and hanging boats and baskets that hold towels. Bougainvillea blossoms float in the hot tub; the steam room is painted with tiny turtles; a primitive wooden table is used for massages. In her "spa rústica," Sheila uses only natural products— oils from Oaxaca, aloe from local plants, honey soaps, peppermint masks.

Since the day before was my first time on a horse in two years, my body welcomes Sheila's firm hands. After an hour, I am a blissful mass of relaxed muscles and aloe-coated skin. Ten minutes in the steam bath, a shower, a cup of herbal tea— and it's as though yesterday's ride never happened.

It's my last day at the Hotelito. i consider an excursion to a nearby fishing village, but I've become so hooked on my quiet afternoons at the beach that I see no reason to deviate from this ritual. I'm a little sad, though, because when I pass Hans and Ursula's palafito, I can't find them. They're not in the restaurant either. I guess they've finally left for Puerto Vallarta.

The beach on this last afternoon is more beautiful than ever, having just been raked so that it resembles a gigantic Zen garden by the sea. Also, the water is the calmest I've seen it. I am tempted to swim, but wading in just a few feet, I feel the strength of the current and return to my chair and my novel.

"Hey, Richard— how about lunch?" a voice calls from the restaurant. I look up and see Hans and Ursula waving at me. "We've decided to put off Puerto Vallarta," Ursula says.

"Again?"

"It's just too beautiful here," she replies. We have a lovely lunch— and don't leave the beach until sunset.

Can I possibly feel this happy?Can life really be this simple?And to top things off, am I actually playing some small role in saving the planet by being here?This may be as good as it gets.

Hotelito Desconocido Cruz de Loreto, Jalisco; 877/486-3372 or 52-3/616-8933, fax 310/385-1908; doubles from $200. (The required meal plan, $55 per person, covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

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