Mexican Riviera: Bliss on the Pacific

Beloved by beach buffs, honeymooners, surfers, and cruisers, the Mexican Riviera — that scenic stretch of coastal communities between Mazatlán and Acapulco — entices more and more travelers to its sun-drenched shores each year.

Mexican_riviera_acapulco_aerial_200x150It's the West Coast's Caribbean — a hot, bright cure for the winter blues and blahs, where visitors can reliably expect temperatures in the 80s all year long. Mexico's Pacific Coast is also starting to rival Hawaii as a fashionable wedding destination, and couples wanting beachside betrothals can choose from a low-key village celebration in Zihuatanejo to a swank hotel gala in Puerto Vallarta.

This prime swath of real estate bordering the jungle-clad Sierra Madre range began booming in the 1970s, when the country's government began a push for tourism along the Pacific coastline. Acapulco started even earlier, attracting affluent jet-setters to its spanking-new hotels in the 1950s; however, Puerto Vallarta lays claim to catching the eye of the average tourist, who arrived in droves to the site where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made a film and a tempestuous home in the city's cobblestoned hills in 1963. In contrast, Mazatlán's popularity grew gradually as travelers discovered the beach appeal of this working seaport. Most representative of the tourism push are the sister towns of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. Only four miles apart, they couldn't be more different. Zihua maintains its fishing-village charm by government mandate: building codes are strict and therefore development is minimal. Ixtapa, on the other hand, was born fully fledged as a resort, and vacationers are beginning to flock to its high-rise hotels, trendy restaurants and bars, and the latest in water-sport thrills.

Today the Mexican Riviera sees thousands of cruisers arrive daily to its ports. But for groups vacationing sans big ship, the best way to visit is to fly in and rent a car or hire one of the plentiful taxis, many of which double as tour guides. Activities and excursions continue to burgeon as local entrepreneurs find new and novel ways to show off their region's charms. And then there's all that sand, sun, and sea.

Top Attractions

Puerto Vallarta: The place to be in PV is on the malecón, a palm-lined beachside promenade punctuated by whimsical sculptures by various Mexican artists. From the walkway's southern end, cross over to the zócalo (town square); in sight is Our Lady of Guadalupe cathedral, whose gilded crown replicates that of Mexico's 19th-century Empress Carlotta. By leg power or taxi, climb the steep, narrow cobblestoned streets of the city for a glimpse of Casa Kimberley, once Liz Taylor's hideaway, and vistas of red-tiled roofs overlooking the bay. For kids, there's Splash Water Park for all things aquatic, from water rides to sea lion shows to dolphin swims. A short drive south leads to Playa Mismaloya, filming location for Night of the Iguana and now a popular site for weddings.

Mazatlán: Travelers into history should make Mexico's largest port their base camp, where they'll find nearly 500 architecturally significant buildings to admire, and most within the city center. Among them: the 19th-century Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its twin yellow spires and baroque interior; the 1874 Teatro Ángela Peralta, a lavish Italianate theater still in use today; and the restored townhouses surrounding Plazuela Machado. Hire a taxi or stretch the legs on a walk out to Cerro del Vigía for far-reaching vistas and a view of El Faro Lighthouse, whose altitude is second only to Gibraltar. Mazatlán Aquarium treats the curious to a peek into Mexico's underwater world, with a sea lion show and tanks of sharks, eels, and other ocean denizens.

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Laid-back Zihuatanejo offers few attractions, and that's the way residents and repeat visitors like it. Ideal for an intimate wedding group, Zihua offers sun, sand, and serenity on gentle beaches wrapped around a protected bay. Stroll Paseo del Pescador, a colorful bayside promenade with open-air restaurants and vendors; head away from the waterfront and experience a friendly town sans glitz and hype. A walk down Las Gatas Beach leads to El Faro Lighthouse and panoramic views. In contrast, Ixtapa is where the action is — mostly on the wide beaches and in the hopping nightclubs. Families can swim with dolphins at the Delfiniti Dolphinarium and enjoy the wave pools and water slides at Magic World aquatic park.

Outdoor Adventure

Puerto Vallarta: Forty miles of white-sand beaches serve as languid launching points for parasailing, banana boating, water skiing, jet skiing, and surfing. To the south is Los Arcos National Underwater Park, a prime spot for kayaking, snorkeling, and diving amid granite rock formations. The jungle's proximity to the city means that visitors can make like Tarzan by launching from a rope into a deep pool and zipping along cables set high above in the treetops at Canopy El Eden, setting for the film Predator. Great for groups are golf and mountain biking and hiking tours; in winter, whale-watching excursions sail in search of migrating humpbacks. Year-round, party cruises abound; more demure groups may opt for a sunset dinner cruise.

Mazatlán: Along with 10 miles of beaches offering the usual sand-and-surf sports, Mazatlán's waters are known for sportfishing and nature cruises — two activities perfect for groups. Glide through mangrove estuaries to spot herons, bitterns, and the elusive roseate spoonbill, or try a hand at reeling in marlin or sailfish (catch-and-release is the general rule). Take a kayak or a boat ride to snorkel the calm waters surrounding Isla de Venados, or join a horseback tour on Isla de la Piedras. Body surfing is big at Playa Olas Altas; Playa Bruja, north of the city, has the waves to host an annual surfing tournament. Hardy souls can take guided hiking trips into the nearby Sierra Madre mountains.

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Zihuatanejo's most popular beaches, playas Principal, La Ropa, and Las Gatas, offer palapas with hammocks for lazing and gentle waters for swimming and snorkeling, the latter best at Las Gatas. Anglers can hook up with a local guide to go panga fishing for roosterfish or head into deeper waters for marlin, sailfish, and bonita. On Ixtapa's two-mile-long Playa el Palmar, windsurfers, paragliders, jet skiers, and water skiers ply the waters. Golf enthusiasts can make tee times at Palma Real or Marina Ixtapa golf clubs, both of which offer group discounts. Canyons and reefs at dozens of local dive sites beckon to scuba divers, while Ixtapa Island's fragile coral reef lures snorkelers. Smaller beaches offer their own charms, including horseback riding through coconut plantations at Playa Linda.

Arts and Culture

Puerto Vallarta: More than 30 galleries and civic buildings around the city showcase local and international works of art, many of which can be found on a stroll through El Centro, the heart of PV. History buffs will want to visit the Museo Arqueológico and Museo Río Cuale for their collections of pre-Columbian artifacts. Plays, dance, and open-air movies take place regularly at the Cuale Cultural Center, as do theatrical productions at the Santa Barbara Playhouse on Olas Altas. At the malecón's Los Arcos Amphitheater, mariachi and ranchero grupos perform regularly; come evening, it's a popular place for socializing and listening to local musicians.

Mazatlán: Arts lovers will want to time their visit to take in a performance at the ornate and historic Teatro Ángela Peralta; events include ballet, opera, concerts, and movies. Fiestas full of folkloric entertainment take place weekly at the Hotel Playa Mazatlán and El Cid Castilla Beach Hotel's La Pergola Theater. Shoppers seeking authentic wares should avoid the touristy jewelry and souvenir stores — far better are the covered Mercado Municipal and open-air shops of Old Mazatlán, particularly on Saturday nights, when Plazuela Machado becomes the weekly Artisans' Bazaar. The Museo de Arqueológia and Museo de Arta exhibit local artifacts and artworks, respectively; the latter can be purchased at the nearby Galería Nidart.

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo: Neither fishing village nor resort community have yet to develop an arts scene; still, there are a few places not to miss. In Zihuatanejo, the Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande exhibits pottery and stone artifacts, maps, and murals dating from or illustrating the earliest peoples along this part of the Pacific. Behind Zihua's Paseo del Pescador lies the Mercado Turístico de Artesanías, an open market with more than a hundred vendors selling genuine crafts and goods. Bargaining is welcome. (A smaller artisans' market is on the main boulevard in Ixtapa.) Many of the hotels in Ixtapa host folkloric fiestas and dance performances.

Day Trips

  • Sayulita: Barely developed surfing beach less than an hour north of PV, with kayak and board rentals and beachside restaurants.
  • Yelapa: Rustic, laid-back beach community in a lush cove with waterfalls, accessible by boat, water taxi, or mountain bike tour from PV.
  • Copala and Concordia: Historic colonial towns anchored by cathedrals, one built in 1740, the other a century earlier; about an hour from Mazatlán.
  • Teocapán: Fishing port rife with wildlife on the verge of ecological preserve designation, 75 miles from Mazatlán.
  • Laguna de Potosi: Ecological preserve 15 miles south of Zihua, a birdwatcher's and kayaker's paradise.

Mexican Riviera Events Guide and Calendar

Puerto Vallarta

  • Banderas Bay International Regatta Sails fill the horizon off Banderas Bay during the day; at night, parties and performances abound, March.
  • Festival Cultural de Mayo Concerts showcasing pop, symphony, mariachi, and other styles of music, plus art, ballet, and theater, often around mid-May. Read more about Cinco de Mayo history.
  • Old Town Art Walk Meet local artists and view their work, alternate Wednesdays from late October to mid-April.
  • International Puerto Vallarta Sailfish and Marlin Tournament Anglers compete for big-ticket prizes as they cast for marlin and other game fish, mid-November.
  • Puerto Vallarta Cup Golf Tournament Amateur golfers from around North America vie at Vista Vallarta Golf Course and El Tigre Golf Club, mid-November.
  • Puerto Vallarta Film Festival Contemporary films, documentaries, and luminaries from the Americas, mid-November.
  • International Festival Gourmet Vallarta Taste specialties whipped up by international master chefs during a week in late November.

Mazatlán

  • Carnaval One of the world's largest pre-Lenten celebrations, with parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets, late February or early March.
  • Festival Cultural de Mazatlán Performing arts, exhibitions, literary readings, film, and more at venues in Old Mazatlán, mid-October through mid-December.
  • International Amateur Golf Tournament Amateurs compete for prizes during this golf tourney at the El Cid Golf & Country Club for a week in November.
  • Mazatlán Billfish Classic World Billfish Series Pacific division championship. Big fish, big prizes, for a week in November.

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo

  • Zihuatanejo Sail Fest Regatta held for charity during a week of events such as beach games and a chili cookoff, in early February.
  • Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival Musicians performing classical, jazz, traditional, blues, folk, flamenco, and rock during a week of guitar virtuosity, in March.
  • San Jeronimito River Regatta Music, food, and racing pangas, kayaks, and rafts on this river near the town of Petatlán just south of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, in October.
  • Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Total Tag & Release Tournament Fly-fishers and conventional anglers reel for prizes at inshore and open ocean locations, in early November.

The Passion of World Cup 2006

By guest blogger John George

Oh, the tension.  It's a four year cycle, and I've been riding it since it was at the low point in 2002, just after the US lost to Germany in the quarters. 

It's hard for most Americans to understand the tension that builds as the World Cup approaches.  Soccer is a European thing. It's a South American thing. It's even an African thing. It's far from being baseball, hot dogs, apple pie or Chevrolet. Back in 2005, while 99.9% of the country was watching the AL beat the NL for the tenth time running in the All-Star game, I was with a dozen soccer buddies and chewing my nails.  Would the US get a result in Costa Rica (even a tie would be good) and actually qualify for the tournament?

But it's not just tension. It's passion. Being a soccer fan is something that permeates your entire being. Supporting the national team goes without thinking. And after the great run by the US in 2002, I just couldn’t suppress the idea of going to Germany for the 2006 tournament. So I scored some tickets, made plans with my roomie to visit a friend in Geneva and booked an expensive flight. 

I arrived a week into the tournament and a day before the US/Italy game in Kaiserlautern. Changing trains and cramming into to progressively more crowded cars – fun times. The last leg was standing room only, but it was nothing like the bedlam of the stadium.

Kaiserlautern was teeming. It took us 40 minutes to fight the crowds, get around the stadium, through the gates and to our seats. Then we had 90 minutes of standing and yelling with 50,000 fans. I've been to a lot of US games, probably 15, but I've never been surrounded by so many US fans. It was intoxicating (and it wasn't just the effects of the rosé!) The cheers were all new to me, but, you know, it's all pretty easy.  Clap ten times in a simple pattern then yell "U.S."  Repeat repeatedly. Whistle when Italian players fall down (which was often). Do the wave when the game gets slow. Our section was nearly silent when Italy scored, and I felt the stands move when the US got a tally.  Huge cheers when an Italian got thrown out. Then booing at the ref when each of two US players got a red card. The last 20 minutes were pandemonium and the tension peaked. If they US could hold on for a tie–a valuable tie–they could still become world champions.  And they did hold on.  That 1-1 tie gave the US the slimmest hope that they could advance to the knock-out round where anything can happen.

That hope dissipated before I got my voice back.  The US lost to Ghana five days later in Nurnberg – another raucous event– and was eliminated from the World Cup. The tension was gone. I could just enjoy soccer for the next two weeks and tour Switzerland and environs without all that pesky worry about how the US will do in the next game. I could just enjoy the tournament in bars and pick a new team to support as the last one was eliminated–which was often as I generally root for the underdog.

With the Cup now over, the four year ebb and flow of tension is rising again. Qualifiers start next year. And so does the nail biting. I'm already starting to wonder how South Africa will compare in 2010.

John's lifelong passion for soccer is equalled only by is passion for outdoor recreation that doesn't require a lot of expensive gear, catching bands while they still play in small venues, and consuming cold pilsner (or rose'). He still plays recreationally when his knees allow.


Ecotourism, A Convenient Truth

With Al Gore's new documentary on global warming, an inconvenient truth indeed, people are privvy to evidence of this phenomenon known by scientists for years. Even some non-tree huggers admit that we all contribute in some ways to the effect.

Luckily, as travelers, we can help. Think globally, act wherever we plant our feet. That extends to travel destinations. Ecotourism is a growing niche of the travel industry. Costa Rica was a pioneer in building a tourism industry that was founded on sustainability of its flora, fauna, and community.

The International Ecotourism Society offers the following basic principles that help define ecotourism so you can identify companies that practice the principle. This can serve as a checklist to find an ecotourism company or tour/activity when you plan your next trip:

  • Minimize impact
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries' political, environmental, and social climate
  • Support international human rights and labor agreements

Maui's Pacific Whale Foundation is a snorkeling, whale-watching, and ecotourism organization that serves as a shining example, living up to these criteria.

Of course, it can be hard to travel entirely with ecological matters guiding your vacation decisions. But rather than driving all over Napa Valley, why not consider doing a half-day bike tour? That day of not driving would cut down on CO2 emissions, which will likely save the planet. I'm sure of it. Plus, your vacation will be that much more adventurous.


Best Nude Beaches

Going along with my previous post on the rising nude travel trend, the next logical question is "where are the nude beaches?" since it seems like a natural combination - beach and bare buns. (Unless, of course, the subject makes you uncomfortable as hell and you'd rather go to your happy place and pretend you aren't intrigued. Understandable.)

The Travel Channel has compiled a list of what they call the best beaches for naturalists. Have a look. Then walk, don't run, to plan a trip with friends (even family), if you dare to go bare.

  1. Centre Helio Montalivet in Bordeaux, France
    Best for purists
  2. Couples Resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
    Best for couples or groups of couples new to going nude
  3. Wreck Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia
    Best for young adults
  4. Samurai Beach in Port Stephens, Australia
    Best for anyone
  5. Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica along the famous 7-mile beach
    Best for hedonists and swinging singles (pun very much intended)
  6. Pinho Beach (Praia do Pinho) in Santa Catarina, Brazil
    Best for anyone
  7. Red Beach in Crete, Greece
    Best for rustic naturists
  8. Haulover Beach near Miami, Florida
    Best for organized group activites such as nude volleyball, nude swimming
  9. Red, White, and Blue Beach in Santa Cruz, California
    Best for groovy, bohemian nudists
  10. Little Beach in Maui, Hawaii
    Best for body surfing in the buff

Any other note-worthy nude beaches? How do y'all feel about nude beach-going?


Living the Vicarious World Cup Dream

Experiencing the World Cup in Germany is a completely different level of soccer satisfaction than glueing oneself to a TV for weeks on end.

Johnny G., a friend of a friend of mine and all-American soccer fanatic, is living the soccer dream and blogging from Germany about the World Cup. Peek into the European borders to catch a glimpse of life on the road at a world sporting event with Johnny G.

Sunday, 18 June 2006
Italy 1 -1 US
I just got back to Geneva after what feels like 24 hours on trains. Omigosh! But what fun! Anders, Eugie and her friend Mahmet are awesome travel partners. We started drinking wine as soon as we got on the train yesterday and emptied four bottles before we got to our first stop. We played cribbage all afternoon and picnicked on bread and ham and cheese -- and wine. Actually, we slowed considerably. The third train was jam packed and we just didn't deal with the wine. The game was awesome! Did you watch? I'm sure most of America is looking at a 1-1 tie and thinking "where is the scoring?" But the game was way more exciting than any sports event I've ever witnessed. The crowd was on its feet for the entire game, chanting, clapping, cheering, whistling, booing. It was electric. I started losing my voice in the first 30 minutes. I relied on my whistle for the rest of the game, except when it really counted. That final 30 minutes were a complete emotional drain. Hoping -- praying to the soccer gods -- for the US to prevail. 1-1 isn't a win, but it felt like it. And because of the surprise result in the other game in our group yesterday (Ghana 2-0 Czech Republic) we still have a real fighting chance. We have to beat Ghana and we need some help in the other game (Italy/Czech Republic). Stranger things have happened in the world of soccer...

Johnny goes on about his post-game celebration and return to Geneva, summarizing the journey with this:

Now it's a beautiful June morning in Geneva, and I need to take a nap.


Capsule Hotels in London

E-gad! The world is really shrinking. London's radical innovation in hotel rooms shrinks the price of hotels, along with the room to a 10' x 10' space. While targeting business travelers now who need to rent a room for a few hours in between flights (or during flight delays) or for the night on a lay over, what's to stop other hotels from shrinking space for regular vacationers?

Yotel Hotel, the company making this move, has a quote on their site from CEO Gerard Greene saying, "A wake up call for the hotel industry. We have been bold enough to take steps that no other hotel has taken before, allowing us to offer luxury accommodation at an affordable price." For now, these mini-hotel rooms ("capsule hotels" as Diversion Travel labels them, but Yotel calls them cabins) are slated for Gatwick and Heathrow airport areas in 2006 and then in London proper for 2007.

I'm curious what others think of this phenomenon. I can see it being useful for the business traveler, but I wouldn't want to stay in a shoebox while vacationing. My guess is they would arrive as an efficiency technique, at a reduced price, but then shortly thereafter, regular "big rooms" would increase in price because they'd be relatively "spacious" when compared to a 10' x 10' space. Too skeptical?

Gadling raves about it. I do have to admit when having a long layover in London on international flights, it'd be nice to have a luxurious place to chill, iPod lulling me to sleep.


World Cup Attracts Groups

World Cup mania has taken over the global airwaves. Like the Olympics, it's a time when the world can unite (and compete) via celebration, triumph, and hope. It's a time when national news covers spirited international sports figures, reminding us there is a world outside our offices and home towns.

Whoever you're rooting for, whatever country you call home, chances are you or someone you know is tuned into the World Cup. A good friend of mine from Microsoft has Tivo, cable, direct TV, and multiple televisions in his super tech home all ready to maximize his soccer/football pleasure.

In case you don't have one of your own, here are links for coverage. Any others?

Even if you didn't get to travel to Germany this time, you can gather in groups to watch World Cup games for the next month, and raise a glass of frothy beer to cheer for your team.

Want to plan a last-minute get together with friends for the final days?


Adventure Travel, Risks and All

Life is not without risks. But for those who hike the extra mile, grip that extra chunk of cliff while rock-climbing, or sail, paddle, or kayak the less traveled waterways of the world, your life of adventure likely teeters on the edge of danger from time to time.

Richard Bangs, adventure travel veteran, award-winning author and filmmaker, and founding partner in small-ground travel company Mountain Travel-Sobek (operating since 1969), writes about the inherent risks in any adventure. He contemplates how far you should go to risk your life in seeking lifetime thrills, and when to consider promptly removing your adrenaline-powered foot from the pedal.

These days, I'm a fairly tame person with spontaneous adventures when life gets too dull or predictable. Adventure travel for me includes river rafting, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, sailing with wind (as opposed to floating on calm waters, which is also enjoyable with a tall, cool beer in hand).

For adrenaline junkies out there, I say good luck. For occasional adventurers like myself, I also say good luck. The only certainty on any adventure vacation is your decision to go for it. The rest is up to the whims of fate (or the skill of an experienced tour guide, if you're on a guided expedition). How far are you willing to go for an adventure?


Fast Foods Less Fatty Abroad

Since my earlier post on dieting on vacation, here's the dark side of food on the road. A New England Journal of Medicine study of fast food chains around the world found that trans fat content in food varies widely in fast-food restaurants by country, by state, by city, and sometimes within cities.

Visit Denmark to eat fries. That's the bottom line. They use the least amount of trans fat (the kind that clogs arteries, raises bad cholesterol), which must mean if you travel to Denmark, you'll live longer. Yes, I exaggerate. But look at this MSNBC article on the new study and compare fat content of fast foods to see for yourself.

Perhaps dieting while on vacation is something we should all take up. After reading this article, I tend to think so. Seems safer than grabbing quick meals at some of the fast food restaurants (McDonald's and KFC are mentioned in the study). When traveling as a group, you can always find a smarter way to plan meals on the trip, including at airports, train stations and the like.


9 Volunteer Vacation Ideas

Volunteering can take you far: to Africa, Mexico, Europe, and anywhere else that there's a community or societal need.

Simply find a cause you believe in, choose an area around the world to explore up close, and give your time and talents on the vacation of a lifetime. Plan the trip with a small band of like-minded folks (religious group, alumni group, family members, poker club), and the trip will be even more memorable.

Here are organizations that give you a chance to make a difference while on vacation:

  • 1 to 4 weeks of volunteer vacations from teaching basic math to a rural African classroom of kids to helping scientists ensure endangered species survive through Charity Guide.
  • Just for groups, Earthwatch customizes trips to fit the needs of the group. Help sustain the environment by working with scientists on expeditions in the field. Group leaders go for free (on select expeditions with 6 or more people going).
  • Stop child poverty and raise literacy rates, do plant conservation, sustain economy building. You name the issue (or country) and the Global Volunteer Network has it. From Alaska to China to Costa Rica to Russia to Tanzania and beyond, great programs await.
  • Tutoring, health care, construction, teaching English, environmental protection or research is all done abroad through Global Volunteers. There are also U.S.-based programs as well. All programs take 1 to 3 weeks, depending on your schedule.
  • Through Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program, you can travel to another country and work in partnership with people in need and communities to build homes. Requires a 2-week commitment. Habitat also offers a Collegiate Challenge program for students 16 and older in groups of 5 or more (an alternative way to spend spring break).
  • Join professional leaders on a "group quest" volunteering opportunity of a lifetime to gain cross-cultural field experience for humanitarian causes with United Planet. Expand orphanages in Romania or teach English to tsunami-affected Thai kids (both urgent volunteer projects) and more on 1 to 12-week programs.
  • i-to-i.com offers experiences for families volunteering, paid teaching programs in Asia and Europe, 2-week summer programs for high school kids, and many more opportunities for any group to build homes, preserve the environment, even teach sports for kids in developing worlds.
  • Thousands of international volunteer opportunities abound via Responsible Travel for those who've had enough of mass tourism and want a distinct holiday (vacation) to write home about.
  • Student volunteer travel is a great way to spend summer breaks, spring breaks, and post-graduation down-time. About.com offers several suggestions for volunteer trips just for students.

What are people saying about some of their volunteer vacations? Here are first-hand, candid accounts of volunteering abroad from GoNomad.com. Voluntouring around the globe. Global Volunteers volunteers.

Save your money. Some non-profit organizations may be able to provide volunteer stipends, but most need you to pay your own way since non-profits are just that – not profiting. That means your help is all the more critical to their mission.

Any other organizations like this out there? Has anyone volunteered and found it rewarding? Post a comment and tune us in. This kind of a vacation is definitely on my hit list for things to do in the coming years.