(THE BEACHES OF) PUERTO VALLARTA WRECKED BY RESORTS
It took me this long to realize how tourism has wrecked much of the beachfront in the lovely town of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, on the Pacific coast. I usually stay in the old town to spend one night on my transit from Guadalajara, where I live part of the year, to, and from Canada. The very first time I did that trip, I had selected the cheapest hotel I could find and that still looked acceptable on the photos online. As I rode a taxi to the address after arrival at the Primera Plus bus terminal on my way to the hotel, the driver seemed a bit concerned and offered to drive me to a much nicer hotel for only a slightly higher rate. I declined and responded not to worry as it was only for one night.
The hotel was old and really Mexican, built in the style of an old hacienda where the guest rooms are built around a courtyard stacked with many plants and no roof over the yard. As the building was 3 stories high, it was shady in the courtyard and the sun was unable to shine down to the bottom. I am taking a stab at guessing how old it was: at least 60 years old. It was primitive. The single bed in the middle of the small room consisted of a tiled pedestal of cement with a rather hard, but clean matrass on top of it. The bathroom in one corner of the room had an opaque glass door, a shower and a toilet. Everything tiled and in working shape. It needed an update and some tiles were broken, but it was adequate. It was only for one night after all and dirt cheap.
It is important to know that the peoples in this land existed already centuries before the hordes of modern-day tourists came down on the area like a cloud of all-consuming locusts in biblical times. I observed so much self-assuredness and feelings of entitlement on the cement patios among North American (white) tourists, hanging out on their lounge chairs surrounding the numerous swimming pools at the exclusive, all-inclusive resorts, not realizing that they and their ilk were not even around until recently in this part of the world. Tourism also ruined the village as it is. PV has become a cheap tourist mecca, just for the tourist.
Back to me. When I stayed at the Azteca Hotel, or at another place, 2-steps up from the Azteca Hotel called the Porto Nuevo Hotel—both located in old-town-PV—I used to pop in on the beach scene in the morning before catching a flight or the bus, had my coffee and breakfast, and if I was really energetic, went for a walk on the malecon. It was always lovely with lots to see in terms of people-watching, and the occasional pod of dolphins could be spotted in the bay. PV is too crowded with tourists for me, but still an interesting spot for one day. Until I searched for a pet-friendly hotel.
The year before—my first winter with my cat in Mexico—I had a surprise on my return to Canada. The cheap and quick hotel right outside the PV airport, called One, had booked me with my cat Mimi, but on my return to Canada One wouldn’t let me stay again: no pets allowed. I had a heck of time finding a room right that same afternoon. Mimi sat in her cage all this time from early that morning through the 5-hour bus trip and could not hold her pee any longer; she sprayed right through the mesh of the kennel onto my skirt while I was arguing with the receptionist of Hotel One. So now I was not only tired and irritated, but smelly too. After a long time of haggling on the phone with hotel owners, I decided to try the old standby: the Azteca Hotel. No problem: they let me bring Mimi with me. I had my usual stroll on the beach and breakie while Mimi stayed in the room, and we left in the late afternoon for the flight back to Canada.
This year I didn’t want to be surprised. I stayed at the Azteca on my way in. On my return to Canada, I decided to try out the so-called pet-friendly hotels. I found one online in the “Hotela Zona” for a reasonable rate. The write-up online looked lovely with pictures of a swimming pool and a dining room and supposedly close to the beach and other amenities. My Spanish-speaking friend booked it for me and Mimi, well in advance. On my arrival everything was hunky-dory. This time I had flown in to PV instead of bussing it, and had more energy left. I went out to grab a bite to eat.
On the property adjacent to the hotel was a lot that had been converted to a food court with a number of converted steel containers arranged around the seating areas in its centre. The offerings were a mix of American and Mexican fast food, which is really what Mexican street food is. It may not be fast cooking it, but the slow-cooked meats are cooked in advance (except the Al Pastor meat) and then steamed or reheated on the grill, just like the soft tacos and other receptacles for the fillings. It was for the place and the time more than acceptable and the clientele came streaming in shortly afterwards. No surprise these customers were all tourists from outside Mexico—Norte-Americanos.
The next morning, I went out to have my breakfast on the beach as usual. I was wrong in my assumption but didn’t know that yet! I went across the busy street—the main drag into PV—and bumped into security guards standing by the barriers blocking access to the 5-star resorts on that side of the street—hotel after hotel—who would not let me pass to go to the beach. Finally, I asked one guard what the heck is going on and where the public access to the beaches is. He laughed and said “Down that way, keep walking, because this access is only for hotel guests”.
Indeed, further down at the bridge across the small river that flowed ocean-wards, I saw a small paved path underneath trees and shrubs along the river going westwards, where the beach was supposed to be. I walked down that walkway. Obviously, this was not a very “resort-worthy” trail with a lot of garbage strewn in the stinky river and beer and liquor empties on the path. This must be the place where unsavory things happen. High fences and walls blocked the access to the properties along it on the other side of the river. One young man was hanging out next to a bag of beer bottles who was talking on a phone. He noticed this lone woman walking along the path and followed me with his eyes until it was clear I was no danger to him. At the end of the walkway I saw the ocean and a sign: watch for crocodiles.
When I walked onto the beach I saw right away more uniformed Mexican guards. They did let me onto the beach however. When I walked along the sand, looking for restaurants or a beach shack for my breakfast, there weren’t any. Just more hotels with more elevated cement patios off the beach, populated with chunky white folks lolling around the many pools on lounge chairs. No fishing boats on the beach, no locals and their children playing, nothing that indicates participation by locals at all, (except as service personnel) just gringos strolling along on an immaculately groomed beach, and more Mexican guards.
On the beach itself each property border between resorts was defined with stacked up rocks, so you couldn’t easily keep walking, and more uniformed guards, and sometimes a fence or a net. Crazy! I argued with one guard that the beach is public and should be free for everybody to walk along. He smiled and kept his mouth shut, apparently well trained in dealing with these loco gringos. The guards let me walk on, watching me as I went by.
Lovely beach-side dinner location some other time in old town PV
These resorts reminded me of Bali and the ocean-side resort I stayed in more than ten years ago. People could not enter from the street and all people on the beach were resort guests. That was Bali, Indonesia, were the year before my visit a bomb had destroyed a nightclub, and other bombs had gone off including close to the American embassy, with many dead tourists as result, followed by a serious downturn in tourism. Revolutionaries or suspected activist/terrorists of the local resistance group had been trying to oppose the brutal administration, which is led (or controlled) by the military with a puppet president. Indonesia is a third world nation. But I am in Mexico, which is a member of our North American Free Trade Agreement, a democracy and not a third world country. Mexico, where millions of Americans and also Canadians have resettled year-round, and where an intense exchange of workers between the three countries happens, legal or otherwise. We, North-Americans are familiar with Mexicans; they are our partners. What gives? Why are these tourists so keen on white leisure ghettos? The cartels do not usually attack foreigners; they are a scourge for Mexicans.
I got hungry and the sun was burning on my skin. Alright then, I would eat in an American-style restaurant if there wasn’t anything else to be had. Wrong again! When I walked with my white face into one of the elevated patios and made my way along the guests without being stopped by guards and entered a building that seemed to be a restaurant, I asked the hostess at the desk for a seat. The girl’s face showed hesitation and she asked if I was a hotel guest. I said no and asked if that mattered, and that it is a restaurant, no? I added that I would pay for my food, or something like that. Immediately a manager of some kind—male of course—came hurrying to us. I repeated my request. He explained that the restaurant is only for guests. I asked for the way out to the street, but he refused that too, and told me I have to go back the way I came in. Only guests were allowed to be in the resort. Damn!
So, I walked on along the beach, hot and hungry and really annoyed, and yet there was no access to the street. After having walked a few kilometres, I passed a sort of shack in between two resorts. Hurray, a Mexican place. It was indeed a sort of bar with a patio of planks and umbrellas with a few tables and chairs, but it was still closed, the woman there told me. I asked her if there a way to the street and she pointed me into the direction behind the shack. The property widened into a large, mostly empty and very dusty parking lot, where some tour busses were parked. A narrow exit/entrance appeared before me at the end of it and I saw the main highway. To speak in Gilead lingo: praise be! I saw a restaurant across the highway.
Happily, and near a heatstroke, I crossed the road and threw my body down on a chair in the half-empty restaurant. It turned out to be a traditional Mexican breakfast/lunch place. With a large class of fresh squeezed orange juice and water in front of me I ordered my meal, sweaty and strangely out of place as I must have looked to the young Mexican waiter. I was the only gringa of course. All the other gringos eat in their (relatively cheap) all-exclusive resort—prisoners in their all-white ghetto.
Now I know and understand what tourist resort travel does to the beaches and the beach towns. I assume this indeed goes on at other coastlines and villages with those all-inclusive resorts. It is devastating; nobody else can use the beaches anymore where the resorts take over. The locals had to make way to the gringos, who are overly concerned about their safety in this “dangerous” country, so guards are needed and boundaries drawn around them.
If there any locals left that can even afford to live there after the raised costs of living expelled most locals, they would have to travel all the way to old-town to be able to sit on their area’s beach and use a relatively small area that is already full-up with gringos. I remember at an earlier time at the beach talking to an elderly local man, sitting on a bench in old-town PV. I asked him if he thought whether tourism was good for the locals. He was quietly not positive about it but wouldn’t elaborate. Now I understand.
To me it looks like another form of colonialism, even if a few rich Mexicans also use the resorts.
In another post I will write on the history of Puerto Vallarta.
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