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.