By: Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Javier A. Pinzón
We have to hold tight to the ATV’s roll bars so as to not bounce around too much as we navigate around obstacles on the road. We go up, we go down, we take a curve and go up again, as branches along the road slap at our shoulders and the creamy ribbon of the Cuale River disappears and reappears at the bottom of the gorge. The high point of the drive —literally— is crossing the world’s longest suspension bridge, which stretches 1,500 feet across at a height of nearly 500 feet above the river.
This is the Jorullo Bridge, a star attraction at Canopy River, a tourism complex managed by a cooperative from the ejido (communal farm) of the same name. In addition to ATV excursions, Canopy offers ziplining, rappelling, horseback riding, and hiking, among other activities. It’s a bit odd to think about mountain activities here, given that the restaurant looks out over the blue waters of Banderas Bay, ringed by the hazy outlines of the buildings of Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Nayarit, quintessential beach paradises of the Mexican Pacific.
But the Puerto Vallarta-Riviera Nayarit circuit is much more than turquoise waters and talcum-powder sands. Panorama of the Americas traveled here in anticipation of the service Copa Airlines will launch in December between this idyllic region and the Hub of the Americas in Panama City. In fact, our story begins near this river, since it was part of history long before Puerto Vallarta itself came to be.
Conquered by the Spanish in 1525, the area was kept quite isolated by the surrounding mountain ranges and jungle, so much so that it was used as a hideout by pirates and marauders who hoped to attack Spanish traders plying the Manila-Acapulco route. Inland, south of the bay, mining towns such as Cuale, San Sebastián, and Mascota sprang up, but they found it very difficult to obtain supplies and transport their products through the mountains to Guadalajara. It was easier to cross Banderas Bay by boat, so Puerto Vallarta, initially called Peñas, was founded in 1851 to centralize these operations.
Life in this area followed the lazy rhythm of a far-flung trade outpost until 1964, when legendary director John Huston and his team filmed Night of the Iguana here; he was accompanied by stars Ava Gardner and Richard Burton, who brought his girlfriend, Elizabeth Taylor. They were shadowed by a legion of paparazzi and society news reporters, who ended up promoting this idyllic region as they chronicled the romance for their readers. The destiny of Puerto Vallarta was decided, and the Riviera Nayarit followed in its footsteps a couple of decades later.
Very little remained of the quiet hamlet Taylor and Burton had visited. The whitewashed, tile-roofed houses were replaced by pleasant hotels on the boardwalk. Despite the transformation, the essence of Puerto Vallarta endures and charms those who come here to lounge on the sand and lose themselves in the murmuring waves, the breeze, and the sun. It also casts its spell over the houses and streets near the shore. We felt the magic during our walk, as we visited iconic sites like the Cathedral, the tower of which is topped by a cupola resembling the crown worn by Elizabeth II, and the string of bronze sculptures by famed Mexican artists that decorate the sea front.
Heading southwest of Puerto Vallarta from Boca de Tomatlán, the coast conceals many coves and small beaches that reinforce the sensation of being in an exclusive and undiscovered paradise. One must-see site stands a few yards off the coast. The waves have carved out two openings in the large offshore promontories, giving the natural monument its name: Los Arcos (The Arches). You might also head for the Majahuitas Beach Club, where you’ll find everything you need to relax and recharge, or you can try Ocean Manía for an excursion that promises an intense adrenaline rush. The journey ends with the magnificent Savia, a light and sound show on Las Caletas beach.
Te have already seen so much, but we still haven’t ventured north of the bay, which lies in the neighboring state of Nayarit and has formed part of this wonderful tourism circuit for twenty years. In contrast with the south side of the bay, the Riviera Nayarit is more open and more expansive. The long coast that runs from Nuevo Vallarta to Bucerías, for example, is lined with enormous luxury hotels. If Puerto Vallarta and its surrounding areas have the intimate feel of a secluded enclave, a bay ensconced among forest greenery, the Riviera Nayarit stuns us with its vast beaches and wide-open skies.
This feeling of spaciousness is precisely what has made the area’s sunrises and sunsets famous. To see the sunrise, we get up early and head for the La Cruz de Huanacaxtle Marina. Even on a cloudy morning, the sun manages to paint a palette that runs from leaden gray to violet, in a spectacle that prompts thousands of birds to sing. We make good use of the morning and go to the nearby fishing dock, where we watch as the bounty of the sea is harvested, to be later sold at an on-site market.
For sunset, we travel to the town of San Francisco (or San Pancho, as it is called here). We pull up a chair at the Las Palmas restaurant to enjoy seafood delicacies and mojitos as the sun slowly sinks. Today’s cloud cover softens the light and we watch the reddish sphere drop, enjoying the relaxed feeling inherent to such a scene. San Pancho is one of a string of colorful traditional towns that skirt the Nayarit coast on the northern side of Banderas Bay. It is a peaceful, cozy town, a haven for artists and couples in search of tranquility.
Neighboring Sayulita is a little different. Some decades ago, it was deemed a sanctuary for hippies who migrated here from the United States, but it has since taken on a more chic atmosphere; it was recently included on the list of México’s “magic towns.” People go to Sayulita to learn to surf, since the shape of the coast creates perfect conditions for tyro surfers. There are also many spaces for traditions and the arts, such as Galería Tanana, which offers pieces of Huichol art produced by an artisans’ collective in town. (Inhabitants of the Nayarit and Jalisco mountains, the Huichol, call themselves Wirrarikas.) If you happen to be in this area near All Souls’ Day (November 2), don’t miss the celebrations, which include a boat pilgrimage to make offerings in honor of fishermen who went to sea and never returned.
The placid, traditional atmosphere of these towns contrasts with the sophistication and luxury of the tourist developments. The ancient fishing village of Punta Mita, for example, now boasts first-class hotels, resorts, and beach clubs. To top things off, there is the par 72 Punta Mita Pacífico golf course, which attracts golf fans to a bucolic setting and entices them with the unique challenge of an island hole that can be reached on foot only at low tide.
We begin our excursion on a rough dirt road through the tropical jungle, and end up on a perfect green, surrounded by exotic flowers and kissed by the breeze and the waves. We have gone from elation to tranquility. This is the very essence of Puerto Vallarta-Riviera Nayarit: a gamut of emotions for families, couples, or solo travelers, equally ideal for lovers of adventure and extremes and seekers of harmony and tranquility.