There is only one word you need to know when you are driving in Mexico: tope. That's Spanish for "speed bump." Topes pop up on big-city streets and on roads into and out of even the smallest towns. Not the gently sloping bumps we are accustomed to in American suburbs, topes are small mesas, as infinite and various a part of the national landscape as chile peppers are a part of the cuisine: some are relatively mild, others gut-wrenching. On a four-day, 513-mile journey, every single tope I encountered made me wish I were driving a Jeep. Traveling with Spanish-speaking photographers Joaquín Trujillo and Brian Paumier and their equipment, however, rendered a high-rolling ragtop impractical. Instead, we relied on a late-model four-door Dodge Stratus that literally scraped over hundreds of topes on this trip along the country's original zona turística.
Forty years ago, before the resort boom on the Baja and Yucatán peninsulas, the central Pacific coast was Mexico's premier destination. In 1963, Elvis had Fun in Acapulco; the following year, John Huston directed the film version of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana with a jet-set cast, including Ava Gardner and Richard Burton (who brought Elizabeth Taylor), and that put Puerto Vallarta on the map. By the seventies, the coast between the two resort towns had become a playground of cruise ships (ABC's Love Boat sailed these seas) and all-inclusivehotels. I wanted to know what had changed and what remained. With Joaquín and Brian running linguistic interference, I'd be able to see not only the coast's biggest attractions, but also its tiniest villages and miles of untouched beaches. Neither intense heat, the occasional evening showers that mark the rainy season, unfamiliarity with the rules of the Mexican road, nor topes in the dead of night would keep us from our appointed rounds.
At the outer edge of Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags) in Punta Mita, half an hour from Puerto Vallarta, a Four Seasons resort juts out to the west on a lush green peninsula, dominating the town as well as the rocky outcrops of El Anclote, one of two small seaside communities to the south. As we pull into El Anclote, there are a number of men waving their hands as if directing traffic. On closer inspection, they are holding menus for a row of seafood restaurants under thatched-roof palapas on the beach. Soon Joaquín—with an underwater camera—is bobbing in the waves with the children, while the grown-ups enjoy icy beers and fish cocktails in parfait goblets. In the sand nearby there are clusters of reclinadores, beach loungers with wrought-iron frames and brightly colored plastic seats, a symbol of contemporary Mexico itself: rustic authenticity mixed with the glossily artificial.
Puerto Vallarta sprawls from a romantic, terraced Old City, divided by the Río Cuale, to encompass sparkling new suburban enclaves all around the bay. From Punta Mita, an unnumbered state road snakes through tropical forest to join Highway 200, a superhighway that splits Nuevo Vallarta, a city-within-the-city that's like Vegas without the neon. There's a massive shopping mall and a strip of new hotels, none of them more alluring than the recently opened Grand Velas. With 161 ocean-facing suites, it is one of the smallest full-service resorts on the coast; its attentive staffers greet us with a cool towel and a conga (pineapple and orange juices with a splash of grenadine) upon arrival.
If Cabo and Cancún have become favorites for families and the frat pack, Puerto Vallarta itself still retains the mystique of the Rat Pack. We drive off in search of Casa Kimberley, the 1957 villa where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor lived during the filming of Night of the Iguana. Finding it proves difficult. First, I undergo a behind-the-wheel crash course—no pun intended—in Mexican driving etiquette. Besides the usual traffic signals, there's a blinking green light: "prepare to stop." Left turns have to be made from small side roads on the right. Lanes and stop signs are apparently flexible concepts, dependent on the flow of traffic, and city centers are a maze of one-way streets. Consequently, we make several laps until we find a treacherously steep cobblestoned street. Halfway up, I park the car, and we climb another hill, feeling a little winded by the hike and the vertiginous view below. But it's easy to see that we've arrived at our destination—there's the famous pink bridge that Burton had built to an adjoining property, to escape the paparazzi who congregated outside the house. There's also a picture of La Liz, its surface going green with age and humidity, hanging behind the entrance gates. Both a hotel and a museum, Casa Kimberley has the disheveled gentility of a Tennessee Williams heroine. "We haven't changed a thing," says the hostess. The rooms are certainly evidence of that, but she shows us a water bill, addressed to RichardBurton, as further proof.
Back in the car, we drive up a rutted riverside road heading for El Edén, a restaurant that is home to the remains of a helicopter used in that Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, Predator, which was shot on location there. On the way, Joaquín teaches me a little Spanish: "Oye, payaso!" he yells. "Topes!" ("Hey, clown! Watch out for the speed bumps!") After 20 minutes, with El Edén still a few miles of uncertain road ahead, we stop instead at the nearby Chino's Paraíso for a platter of local shrimp and a pitcher of fresh limeade.
Several twists and turns down the highway later, we arrive at Boca de Tomatlán, where it is raining. Parking the car on a road facing the lagoon, we pack our possessions in hastily bought garbage bags and board an open motorboat that ferries us to a beach unreachable by car. The secluded strip of sand is called Majahuitas, after a yellow hibiscus-like flower that grows there; it also holds a rustic solar-powered resort of the same name—eight thatched-roof casitas where tiny crabs skitter through the outdoor showers. After a swim in the ocean, we have a candlelit dinner at a large colonial table with the other guests. They are Jeff and Maryann, a deeply tanned couple from San Francisco who have left the beach only once in a week (to stock up on tequila), and Monte and Michelle, newlyweds from Los Angeles.
The next morning, an ancient schooner arrives in the bay, dropping off tourists for a picnic (in Mexico, all beaches are open to the public). Escaping the interlopers, Brian and I invite Monte and Michelle to take the motorboat with us and our skipper, Chuy, to nearby Yelapa. At the end of the pier, as we disembark, a local man offers Monte a sombrero-wearing iguana named Señor Lizardo. Brian takes a honeymoon souvenir picture of the two. Michelle shrinks back, so it's my turn. Señor Lizardo is strangely cool to the touch, and not exactly snuggly. Brian snaps again. Cost of photo op: 20 pesos (less than $2). Expression on Señor Lizardo's face: priceless.
We walk uphill through the streets of Yelapa past small stores, humble houses, and an open-air church. On the beach, women and children bring trays of beads and crafts for us to inspect, but our hosts at Majahuitas have told us to find the vendor with the banana pies. As if by magic, the Pie Lady appears, carrying banana pies—plus sweet cheese, chocolate, pecan, and coconut—in a huge bowl balanced on her head.
Fortified with pastry, Brian, Joaquín, and I hit the road again, with me driving south through the state of Jalisco. The scenery looks distinctly northern Californian, with pines and tall evergreens along the high, serpentine road. Closer to sea level, near La Cruz de Loreto, we encounter fields of blue agave, and wetlands leading to Hotelito Desconocido. An environmentalist resort, the entire property is a nature preserve; on a brief tour we see armadillos and bright pink spoonbill herons. The bungalows are named for playing cards in the Mexican picture-bingo game, Lotería. There are suites—some with their own rowboat, for crossing the lagoon and reaching the oceanfront beach—appointed accordingly: El Tambor has decorative drums; in La Sandía, the stones in the shower are painted pink and black like a watermelon.
After a few more hours on the road, we arrive at the posh, palm-covered El Careyes resort—but too late for dinner. The hotel has, however, thoughtfully left box lunches in our rooms.
Driving trips, like the roads they traverse, often throw you curves; after you hit an unseen speed bump, you have to readjust and keep rolling. Today, the best-laid plans steer us directly into detours and delays. We are headed to Manzanillo, where we hope to see Casa Arabia, a cliff-top villa overlooking the Moorish-style resort of Las Hadas (where Dudley Moore ogled Bo Derek in 10). After filling the gas tank, however, we are left peso-less.
We go to Barra de Navidad, a breezy town between the ocean and Laguna de Navidad, with a simple agenda: Find an ATM. We do, only to discover Calle Sinaloa, a pedestrian mall lined with bodegas. My compadres' eyes light up; they've traveled much of Mexico and know good buys when they see them. We discover hand-painted wooden toys—such as the smiling burro trimmed with horsehair that I select—colorful string hammocks, belts with a design that resembles sixties Courrèges. Our shopping trip stretches out over several streets and eventually leadsto San Antonio Church, where Cristo del Ciclón (Christ of the Cyclone) stands guard from the crucifix, arms at his sides. Legend has it that when Hurricane Lily hit in 1971, the statue's arms dropped from the cross, stilling the winds and sparing the town.
No such providence delivers us in a timely fashion to Manzanillo. It takes a couple of hours to reach the town, via a semicircular stretch of road that sweeps past beaches reminiscent of 1920's Malibu. We arrive too late to see Casa Arabia and without any hotel reservations; our next stop is at least 10 hours away. Hotel desk clerks confirm certain disturbing facts: the road to our next stop, Zihuatanejo, is challenging even during the day, and there are few gas stations and fewer hotels ahead.
Seeing Mexico not as typical tourists but as where-the-day-takes-us adventurers, we discover, sometimes means having the very experience we had been trying so hard to avoid. Employing the Bedspread Rule of Travel—everything you need to know about a hotel is reflected in the linens—we hunt down the hotel with the least offensive coverlet and head quickly to bed.
On the map, Manzanillo and Zihuatanejo don't look all that far apart. Natives swear they've done the trip in eight hours. Don't believe them. Skipping breakfast before this trek is not a good idea, either. From Manzanillo, it's 30 miles to Tecomán, the next big town. Thinking we have a lot of ground to cover and that we'll find a spot for breakfast along the way, we stop only for La Michoacana agua frescas, a sweet, fruity drink that locals often sip from plastic bags. Unfortunately, we do not stock up on road food in Tecomán. Crankiness ensues. After battling the sudden onset of allergic sneezing, which causes slight swerving, I am banished from the wheel to the back seat.
Although short on amenities, this 155-mile stretch of Highway 200 is long on views. Running almost entirely beside a shoreline of sparsely populated coves and pounding surf to the west, it is lined with tropical fruit trees. I can see the emerald peaks of Sierra Madre del Sur to the east. It takes hours to reach Zihuatanejo, particularly because we drive past the town and wind up reaching the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport a good 36 hours before our scheduled flight home. We pull into a gas station to obtain directions and double back to town. The steep brick road to the Playa Ropa at La Casa Que Canta has one of the most punishing speed bumps yet, but our jangled, road-weary nerves begin to uncoil at El Murmullo (the Murmur), a four-suite oceanfront villa recently opened by the hotel. My garden suite, El Sueño Guajiro (the Impossible Dream), could very well be one of the most stylish casitas in Mexico. The linen top sheet of my bed appears to have the most extraordinary embroidery, but it is actually two extravagantly plumed birds "painted" with evergreen stems and flower petals. I consider napping on the sofa so as not to disturb a single leaf.
No need. Returning from a dinner of gourmet tamales and chicken in an apricot-pine nut mole at the hotel's outdoor dining room, I discover that the birds have flown; the turned-down bedspread is decorated with a heart made of rose petals. I sleep soundly, lulled by the sound and the scent of the ocean outside and the knowledge that there will be only a few more topes on the road to the airport, and my way home.
DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Day 1: 35 miles. From Punta Mita, head south on Nayarit State Road to Highway 200, into Puerto Vallarta's Avenida Morelos. Cross the bridge over the Río Cuale and follow signs to Mismaloya and to Boca de Tomatlán, where water taxis depart for Majahuitas. Day 2: 116 miles. From Boca de Tomatlán, drive south on200 to La Cruz de Loreto, which is off Jalisco 552. Double back to 200 and head south to Playa Careyes. Day 3: 102 miles. Follow 200 from Playa Careyes for 60 miles, and then follow signs to Barra de Navidad. Return to 200; take it into Manzanillo. Day 4: 260 miles. Drive south on 200 from Manzanillo to Zihuatanejo.
WHERE TO STAY
Grand Velas All-Suites & Spa Resort DOUBLES FROM $500. 98 AVDA. COCOTEROS S., NUEVO VALLARTA; 877/398-2784 OR 52-322/226-8000; www.grandvelas.com
Majahuitas CASITAS FROM $301. PLAYA MAJAHUITAS, PUERTO VALLARTA; 877/278-8018 OR 52-322/221-5808; www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/majahuitas
El Careyes DOUBLES FROM $275. KM 53.5 CARRETERA BARRA DE NAVIDAD, PUERTO VALLARTA; 877/278-8018 OR 52-315/351-0000; www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/thecareyes
El Murmullo at La Casa Que Canta CASITAS FROM $575. CAMINO ESCÉNCIO A PLAYA LA ROPA, ZIHUATANEJO; 888/523-5050 OR 52-755/555-7900; www.lacasaquecanta.com
WHERE TO EAT
Café des Artistes A nouvelle French take on classic Mexican dishes. Don't miss the coconut gazpacho. DINNER FOR TWO $100. 740 CALLE GUADALUPE SANCHEZ, PUERTO VALLARTA; 52-322/222-3228
Pancake House Mexican breakfasts; American waffles and hotcakes. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $15. 289 CALLE BASILIO BADILLO, PUERTO VALLARTA; 52-322/222-6272
La Casa Que Canta DINNER FOR TWO $100
Chino's Paraíso LUNCH FOR TWO $25. FOLLOW SIGNS OFF HWY. 200 AT MISMALOYA; NO PHONE
La Sirena Gorda Try the local specialty, tiritas (raw whitefish marinated in vinegar and green chiles). LUNCH FOR TWO $25. 90 PASEO DEL PESCADOR, ZIHUATANEJO; 52-755/554-2687