Get to the Choppah!

P1030267The difference between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan was striking. We walked down the gangway out of the ship to a beautiful green plaza, with Mariachi players, and mini bird sanctuary, and lush greens all around. We braved the gauntlet of photography, where ship photographers have you pose with parrots, pirates, and whatever they can find as you exit the ship. We found out tour guide right away, and she moved us over to the correct waiting area as she waited for the rest of our tour.

It was hot here, but right away you could see that this was a very different climate from Cabo and Mazatlan. This was jungle. The hills were covered in lush, green trees, not the desert scrub we saw in our last two stops. The air was not desert dry, but not overly humid either. We had a tour today that was a multi stop tour on a Unimog, to a Botanical Garden, Local Town, roadside bakery, Hacienda for lunch, Petroglyphs, and naturally, a Tequila Distillery tour. You simply can’t go without a Distillery tour, it just wouldn’t be Cricket.

Once the rest of the tour group got off the ship, we all followed our guide towards the bus area. She went past the busses, and over to the smaller docks of the marina. A couple of big, Zodiac boats were there. She pointed at the nearest one and told us to load up. The tour apparently started in the South Bay area, and we were going there by boat. We loaded up, put on life jackets, and the boat pulled out and took off across the bay. The weather was clear, and waves were low, so it was a fantastic ride. As we pulled out from the city, the green hills came closer, with cliffs going straight into the water in areas, others with sandy beaches spreading out in crescents dotted with umbrellas. Homes and restaurants were in the hillsides, and became sparser and more extravagant as we got further.

We turned into a bay, and the homes turned from wealthy gringos to working locals in an instant. This was Boca, a local fishing village, and where we got loaded onto our Unimogs for the ride. It was a beautiful location, we had landed at a small dock, but the bay was a sandy beach all around, with little concrete homes and a fleet of small boats at anchor or beached. It was really a little paradise, without all the fake tourist crap around. No one ran up to us selling anything, they were busy, the tourists were just passing through. Yulia almost fell off the dock twice as she looked around, completely blown away. (apparently, safety rails are a insult to machismo, and strictly prohibited)

We were taken straight to the Unimogs, with the chance for a bathroom break. If you haven’t seen one, a Unimog is a lot like the German Troop carrier from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, it is a German Troop carrier from WWII, so technically it’s exactly like that, but since they were made by Mercedes Benz, they last forever, and have been in use as Farm vehicles ever since. Ours were bright yellow, and had a nifty safari vibe, and a great gasoline smell.

We loaded up, and started our loud and shaky ride out of Boca. There were a couple of Unimogs in our tour, we had the main guide we met at the dock in ours, and her name was Rubi. She had apparently had 16 cups of coffee this morning as she was REALLY HAPPY AND EXCITED ABOUT EVERYTHING. But we could also see that she wanted us to enjoy the tour, so we were looking forward to a good tour.

We stopped at the petrogylphs first. We had climbed up the hills for quite a while, and while the back of the Unimog had a canvas top, the sides were open and kept us cool. The instant we stopped, it was hot. The first thing Rubi did was pass around bottles of water and a wet hand towel, which was our “air conditioning”. These were both useful right away. We had pulled off into a private field, with a few farm buildings around and the obligatory burro. We walked through the middle of this to some large rocks fenced off from the farming areas. As we approached, we could see patterns in the rocks, and Rubi went up to start explaining them. These had apparently come from a nomadic group that had farmed and lived in this area during certain growing seasons, and these marked the good areas to be with traditional signs and symbols. There were Owls, symbols for water, a simple calendar, and of particular note, and four-petaled flower. This was notable because this flower symbol has remained in use in Mexican imagery until the present. It can be found on the peso, in artwork, and notable, on the Christian image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Another example of traditional pagan imagery coopted into Christianity. We would see this again in our church tour.

Our next stop was the Botanical Gardens. We had a half hour to walk around and see the plants, and the amazing view down the valley. This had apparently been started as a preserve for local naturally growing orchids, which get picked and sold by locals as they are very valuable. Now it is really stunning, with conservatories on the top of the hill, and a sweeping vista to the valley below. We were given lemongrass tea to drink and cool down. I ended up getting some bug spray, as the higher into the mountains we went, the bugs and flies got thicker. Lots of butterflies were also about, drinking from water spilling out of the central fountain, scattered along the ground. As you walked through the area, they would take flight, circle around your head, then land back where they were. it was a pretty cool effect. Sasha spent her time trying to get them to land on her hand. Eventually, she succeeded, and was ecstatic. We loaded back up and took off in a cloud of dust and gasoline fumes.

Once on the road, Rubi opened a cooler of drinks and made sure that we weren’t too thirsty, or sober. I immediately snapped up a beer, and a beer/squirt “shandy” that Yulia and Sasha split. The rest of our crew in the Unimog reluctantly took a few beers for the guys, while their wives looked on judgmentally. We’ve travelled to Mexico quite a few times, but I’ve never run across people, on a tour to a distillery, who drank so reluctantly. The Amish we saw last year were more fun. Fine. More beer for me. I had two more.

We pulled over to a roadside bread stand. Rubi had been pointing out that part of the theme of this tour was to visit real life in Mexico. Not “Golden” areas but real life. Both the bread stop and town visit were real, local people. The fishing village where we landed was where Rubi’s family had a house. The distillery was in the town where her grandmother lived. The whole staff of the tour company were part of these communities. This wasn’t just about driving a bunch of gringos around, They wanted us to love what they loved about Mexico. So far, it was pretty hard not to.

Rubi gave us a great description of the types of simple traditional bread made by the family running the stand. These were simple flour and water breads, sometimes with berry or chocolate fillings. They even did a ham, cheese, and jalapeno bread, which Rubi mentioned was the “Rubi Special”. We got a look around, and were shown how they mixed and made the loaves, and cooked them in a old fashioned clay oven. Looking at the oven, it took a minute before I realized that it wasn’t a portable clay oven, but was carved out of the hillside itself. This Pretty much defined traditional cooking. We bought a few of the rolls, and they were amazing. The “Rubi Special” was excellent. Yulia and I agreed that this was turning into an amazing tour.

Another windy drive up the hill and we were in Tuito. Everything was lush and green around here. The Unimog dropped us off on one side of the town, and we all started to walk along the street. We were just taking a tour towards the central plaza. Along the way we were introduced to how the local schools and clinic worked. We met some kids who just finished the Morning school session. and afternoon session would start later. The two sessions matched the work schedules of the parents. Kids were out enjoying Mexican Shave Ice, (either Berry or Tamarind today). We tried fresh Passion Fruit from a local vendor (awesome), and saw Mango and Coffee trees in local yards. The plaza was the oldest part of town, and we got the tour of the city hall, the local church, and how everything had been built, changed, and rebuilt over the years. Rubi took her time to point out that this was very typical for Mexico, which was the point.

We also went to the local graveyard, for a talk about the Day of the Dead. The celebration happens the day after the Catholic All Saint’s Day, but isn’t a Catholic holiday at all. It is literally a party in the graveyard, a celebration with the spirits of dead family and loved ones. Shrines are made at home for the departed, meals planned, and the celebration goes as long as a week in some areas. Here it is typically just for the day. We Took time to walk the graves. As we left, Rubi reminded up to brush off the spirits and tell them to stay here. Probably good advice.

From there we rode to a local family who ran a woodcarving business. They primarily worked with protected red hardwoods, which were beautiful, but you need a special license to gather (you can only use pre-fallen trees). The son of the family works the off season in Alaska on a crab boat to finance things. He had a Sitka shirt on when we arrived. They served up a few cheese tacos (made with a local cheese similar to Oaxacan cheese, they were small, but really good) as we looked around the place, and the son made Racida, a tequila moonshine, which Was given to me and the retired navy guy in our group. he seemed to want to drink, but his schoolteacher wife kept pushing him not to. She was nice, but talked to everyone like they were in 1st grade. It got really damn annoying. We both fired down the Racida, it was a bit rough, and required an extra cheese taco to keep in place.  Shortly after that, he commented, “all my back pain is gone” and was interested in more as his wife looked on in horror.

Back in the Unimog, I stuck to water for a bit to dilute out the moonshine, and we started our trip back down the hills, pulling into the Hacienda that was located pretty close to the gardens we were at earlier. This place was a small riverside hotel and organic farm, and lunch was setup for us here. We were amazed at how much drink and food was on this tour. They had chicken, cactus, a local Mole sauce, Guacamole, cold zucchini, and some drinks. As usual, nobody drank but us. Damn gringos.

After eating we walked about the grounds, saw a mother goose guiding her goslings around as Sasha made cute squealing noises at them trying to take pictures. The girls cooled off by the river a bit, saw a avocado tree that wasn’t ripe yet, then we found a lychee tree that was fully ripe. All the fruit that was in easy reach was already picked. I looked around a bit, and found some that were in *my* reach (at 6’5”, I have a small advantage in fruit stealing – insert note about permission and forgiveness here). Once Yulia and Sasha were munching on one, Rubi came over and was thrilled that we could get some down, as they were just falling and rotting at this point. I asked her if she wanted some as well, and the nodded while saying, “I never said that”. So I pulled down a whole bunch and handed them around to any of our crew that wanted any. Which was the navy guy, Yulia and Sasha, and Rubi. I gave Rubi a  handful, and she was pretty pleased.

Our last stop was the tequila distillery. we pulled off the main road and another small town, and went up another hill on a side road. This was Rubi’s grandmas town. The distillery was close to the top of the hill, and had a sign out front. at the bottom of the sign it read, “The only distillery on this hill.” They were right about that. +2 points for being funny. As we parked, Rubi told us that this area was used for the filming of the Schwarzenegger film “Predator”, and that the Helicopter used for filming was our front of the distillery. It was left in the jungle after filming, and the remaining frame was brought here after moving around to people over the years. If you had never seen one, this is what a non sequiter looked like in physical form.

Inside the distillery, and very nice guy with a beard shaved into a very thin, staircase shape across his chin (Mexican Hipster? No clue) gave us the tour. At this point I could do these in my sleep. What was different was this was all new. They place at Mazatlan we saw was an older distillery being revived and modernized. These guys started new, and the quality showed it. We went through a full vertical tasting – 3 regular tequilas, plus three tequila liquors. It was just Me, Yulia, Sasha, and the navy guy. Even though the shots were just small taster shots, these folks went on a distillery tour, and wouldn’t try any tequila. Damn Gringos. We gave Sasha permission to try it as well, we thought drinking with us is always better than behind our back, and these were some pretty small shots.

In the end, these guys made some really great tequila. I ended up buying a bottle of their Repisado. From there we drove all the way back to the Cruise Terminal in the Unimog. Rubi pointed out local city sights as we went.  This included her Grandmother who we passed as we left the Distillery town, she was in the local shop. Further down, we passed the filming location for Night of the Iguana, with Ava Gardner and Richard Burton from 1964.

Despite the rest of the Americans on our tour being complete deadwood, this was amazing. Rubi loved her city, and it showed in her passion for the tour. We couldn’t help but feel the same. I love the desert climate of Cabo, but it doesn’t compare to the rich jungle and city we found in Puerto Vallarta. The sea, sand, and jungle all came together here. We spent over 8 hours driving around the hills, and barely even touched the town.

We can’t wait to come back.