The trouble with the Mexican Pacific is all the stuff you can't get. For instance, you can't get beeped. Or lunch in five minutes or less. Or Morton Downey Jr. You can get horizontal, bronze, away, refreshed, sand in your shorts, stupified, mesmerized, surf-whipped, down, weak-kneed, stupid and even busted, which happened to me. But you can't get call waiting, microwave fajitas (ketchup with that?) or an ulcer.
Believe us, we looked into these things, at great personal sacrifice. Photographer Walter Iooss Jr., his assistant, Dan Jenkins Jr., and your reporter set out with a case of Pepto-Bismol to leave no margarita glass unturned and no sunset unregistered along one of the world's longest, most languorous, laughably low-budget coasts.
We traveled from the blue, blue waters of Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja California, across the Sea of Cortès to the mainland of Mexico and the posh jungle seaside resort of Careyes (perhaps the only place in the world where you have to stop your jeep on the way to the polo match in order to let the crocodiles cross the road), down the coast to sun-stroked Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, over the mountains to the shoppers' paradise of Oaxaca (an ancient dollop of Mexico that may not be on the Pacific, but on my map is only an inch away), across the mountains again to Mexico New (Huatulco, the country's latest resort, with its nine traffic-light-green bays) and finally, up the coast again to Mexico Familiar (Acapulco, where a wake-up call for before noon is presumed by the hotel operator to be a hoax). All in all, not a bad 12-day assignment. And no heavy lifting.
Oh, one other thing you can't get along the Mexican Pacific is hotel laundry service. Or at least not without speaking fluent housekeeper. And so when you come home from this discount paradise and you have worn one shirt taco-side-out three times and taco-side-in twice and your bag is starting to smell so ripe that even the gorilla in the American Tourister ad wouldn't go near it, the first thing you do is dump everything directly into the washer—which is what I did. But what you might fail to notice is that all your Pulitzer-potential notebooks are in there too; and by the time the notes have been through the dryer, they are a lot like Dr. Ruth: tiny, wrinkled and a little mixed up.
February 7, 1989
And so what you get out of notes like that is a story like this, which is sort of disorganized and out of sync. Of course, when you think about it, that's a lot like the Mexican Pacific.
FORTY-FOUR THINGS ABOUT THE PACIFIC COAST OF MEXICO, IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, THANKS TO A GUNG-HO MAYTAG
1. The three most important words for the traveler
!Hola! (hello), gracias (thank you) and destapador (bottle opener).
2. The worst place to be a grasshopper
In Oaxaca a certain, tiny variety of grasshopper is sometimes known as lunch. We knew you would want to have the recipe:
About 1,000 grasshoppers (the younger the better)
1 cup guacamole
1½ cup chili sauce
pinch of salt
Directions: Soak the grasshoppers in clean water for 24 hours. Boil them, then let dry. Fry in a pan with garlic, onion, salt and lemon. Roll up in tortillas with chili sauce and guacamole.
Serves six, if you can find six.
3. Best bar in Mexico
Hussong's in Ensenada has been setting people up and throwing people out since it was a stagecoach stop in 1892. Just about any night you can go into Hussong's and meet dust-drenched locals, saddle-sore cowboys, sun-reddened tourists, wave-bent surfers, and burnt-lipped fishermen. When Ensenada had a casino, legend has it, even Al Capone bent an elbow here. This is a drinking bar, so don't look for any nachos or video games. Just take one of the 60 stools at the 120-foot-long wooden bar and sip Hussong's beer, the house brew. And don't worry about the policeman at the front door. They haven't had a good bar brawl at Hussong's since.... What time do you have, anyway?
4. Skimpiest bikinis
La Condesa Beach in Acapulco is further proof that the good folks who design women's swimwear are doing more than their fair share to conserve fabric. And not just on the women. This is also the No. 1 gay beach in Mexico.
5. Best hotel in Mexico
Las Hadas in Manzanillo is very good, but the most romantic, most secluded hotel in the land is Las Brisas in Acapulco, where everything is pink and white: the rocks, the jeeps, the gas station where you fill up the jeeps, the boats, the ballpoint pens, the free drink they give you when you're checking in, ashtrays, hangers, umbrellas, even the dividing fines on the resort's roads. Built into a steep mountainside, the hotel has 300 private bungalows, most with their own hibiscus-filled swimming pools.
In the morning, why order room service? Just open up the "magic box" that is located in the wall of your room and you will find fresh-baked rolls, Danish, plums, mango, watermelon, bananas and coffee, all free. (The box is replenished throughout the day.) Then open up your private refrigerator, pull out a bottle of champagne and some orange juice (both cost extra). Best of all, Las Brisas has a policy made up of the three sweetest words any traveler could hear: "No tipping, please."
6. Toughest Indian in Mexico
Forey (no known first name), an 85-plus-year-old Periclú living near San Josè del Cabo, walks through the cactus-filled desert without shoes (he drags his feet so as not to step on cactus). A rattlesnake once bit Forey, and the snake died, it is said. He is the only man in Cabo who can smell a hurricane coming. Forey once ran down a deer until it dropped from exhaustion. Now, that's hunting.
7. Worst caddie
Eddie at Ixtapa Golf Course will insist you take a cart so he doesn't have to walk. Eddie will stand so the shadow of his head falls directly on your ball. Eddie will yell at you for hitting with the wrong club. Eddie will call you "pork meat" in Spanish, which, of course, you might be. Luckily, Eddie can't mess up the best thing: The course, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. creation, is gorgeous.
8. Best rule to make sure Eddie reads to you in English
That would be Rule No. 13 at Ixtapa Golf Course: Precautión: En Los Lagos Habitan Lagartos, which means "Caution: Alligators live in the lakes." Now, how bad do you really want that new Top-Flite?
9. Easiest way to turn your mouth into a blast furnace
Eat an innocent-looking little habanero, the hottest chili in Mexico. It is sometimes yellow, sometimes green, sometimes red and always merciless. Too much habanero—and a bite is too much—and your eyes start doing the strangling scene in Hitchcock's Rope, your nose runs like the Rio Grande, and you dunk your head in the aquarium. People have been known to bite into a habanero—called in some regions "crying tongue"—and faint away like Scarlett O'Hara. Luckily, we give you...
10. Best way to cure chili mouth after you have drunk every beer at your table and the table next to yours
Try forming an O with your lips, then suck in hard. Eat some bread and salt. Sugar works too.
11. How to lie about fishing
More than 40,000 marlin are caught every year off Los Cabos. Here the blue waters of the Pacific meet the green of the Sea of Cortès. People usually have to roll up their yacht windows to keep the fish from jumping in. But if you come to Los Cabos and don't catch a fish, don't despair. Pull the old bucket trick: Tie a bucket to the end of your line and drop it into the sea. Then have the captain pull out at three-quarter speed. The bucket will pull your pole until it looks like a marlin is on the line. Quick, get the Instamatic. "I'm tellin' you, if I'd have caught this baby, I'd have needed two dens to hang it.'
12. After this, you might wish you had used the bucket trick
When the golden fish, about the size of a bread box, is hooked, it leaps as high as 12 feet in the air and puts on a beautiful battle dance, changing from bright gold to blue to green. This fish can take hours to bring in and, legend has it, can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
13. Best vision in Mexico
Twenty-one years ago, Gian Franco Brignone, an Italian banker, took a few men and some machetes and hacked his way 30 miles through the jungle to a place he would name Costa Careyes (Turtle Coast), halfway down the Mexican Pacific. Now he has a part-Mediterranean, part-Mexican paradise painted in unforgettable pastels and designed in a style best known as postprimitive luxury.
Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, one hour north of Manzanillo, Careyes seems like a planet of its own. "European people get here and they say, 'Ahhh, this is Mexico,' " says Brignone, 62. "And Mexican people come here and say, 'Ahhhh, this is Europe.' "
What it is, though, is the most luxurious, tasteful, sensual port in Mexico, a sort of Anti-pulco, where there are no stuffed armadillos, no phones, just gorgeous water, architecture and people. Europe's jet set flits down once in a while for the polo, the Swiss chef and the animal preserve that protects jaguars, turtles, crocodiles and hundreds of varieties of rare birds.
But the most beautiful thing of all in Careyes is the open-air, cornerless villa that Brignone built for himself on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Darryl Dawkins always said he came from "Lovetron," and this may be it. From every room there is a view Donald Trump would kill for. One outdoor couch is so sensual that Calvin Klein came down just to shoot one Obsession perfume ad on it.
Brignone lost an eye while building his villa (a nail flew into his eye while he was hammering) and so he named the place Mi Ojo (My Eye). He also created a monolith near the beach, a huge white wall that fills a small crevice in the land. In the middle of the wall is a circle with slide-away doors. He calls it El ojo de Venado (Eye of the Deer).
14. Best speed-limit signs
When a Mexican is killed in a traffic accident, relatives mark the site with a roadside tombstone.
15. Best Mexican driving joke we know
This was told by Chi Chi Rodriguez: A tourist is riding in a taxi and the driver goes screaming through a red light. The tourist says. "Are you crazy? You just went through a red light!" And the cab driver says, "It's O.K., my brother does it all the time." Then he went flying through another red light and the tourist screams, "C'mon, we're gonna get killed!" And the driver says, "It's O.K., my brother does it all the time." Then he comes to a green light and he stops. And the tourist says, "Why'd you stop? The light is green." And the cabbie says. "My brother might be coming."
16. Best book on Mexico
Carl Franz's The People's Guide to Mexico costs $14.95 but is really priceless. Among countless nuggets, Franz tells you which is the inside and which is the outside of a tortilla. (The outside is thicker, like the crust on bread.)
17. Maybe you should wish for more plates
At Christmastime along the Pacific, they make bu‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±uelos, a thin, crispy pastry covered in honey. After the last spoonful is eaten, you are supposed to smash the plate underfoot and make a wish for the coming New Year.
18. The Corona curtain
Why do Americans drink Mexico's Corona beer like Kool-Aid, when a Mexican wouldn't touch the stuff if he had just crossed the Baja in coonskin pajamas? We couldn't figure it out either, and Corona wouldn't tell us. Some say the wells they use for the domestic stuff are different than the ones used for exported beer. Some say it is the different pasteurization standards in the U.S. All we know is, when in Mexico, the beer to drink is Pacifico. And don't ask for a lime.
19. Workable Mexican toast besides salud!
Another useful nugget from Franz: !Arriba! !Abajo! !Al centro! !Adentro! (Up! Down! To the middle! Inside!)
20. A word about clocks
There aren't any. Or, at least, many. After all, who has time for clocks? So much sun and surf and beach and beverage. Your average coastal local would no sooner wear a watch than a monocle. In Careyes, it's a policy: No clocks provided. Not in the hotel rooms, not in the restaurants, not at the pool.
At first, of course, we found this quite impossible. One of my companions begged for a clock, bugged housekeeping for one, bothered assistant hotel managers—to no avail. He might as well have been at the Gnome Hilton in Zurich asking for Coppertone.
But by the end of our trip almost two weeks later, he had forgotten clocks existed. You could have asked him what time it was and he would have replied, "Friday. Or at least Thursday." He no longer gave a tamale about train schedules or Filofaxes or the 30-seconds-or-less express lane at Wendy's. He had become completely unaccountable to his Seiko.
Hmmmmm. Do you suppose that that's what vacations are for?
21. And that's not counting Chiclets
If you go to Acapulco and don't stay at a hotel with a no-vending zone on the beach, you will not get a good tan. That's because vendors will constantly be hovering over you, blocking the sun, just in case you make a move toward your wallet.
We sat down on the beach in front of the Acapulco Plaza Hotel for 30 minutes just to see how many pitches we would get. Answer: 52, for, among other things, toy parachutes, bracelets, Coronas, stuffed turtles, coconuts, hammocks, dresses, wooden ships, marionettes, ducks, jade, peanuts, congas, waterskiing rides, scary-looking tanning oils and prostitutes. Only the Corona man moved us to make a transaction.
22. Best phrase to know on Acapulco's beaches
!Làrgate, Bobo! (Scram, Buster!)
23. Two interesting facts about Mexico
The average Mexican chili has more vitamin C than a glass of orange juice. In some places in Mexico, if you get a parking ticket they take your license plates.
24. Best sunset in Mexico
On Playa del Amor (Love Beach), at Land's End on the tip of Cabo San Lucas, the sky lights up baby blue on one side, soft pink on the other, as if divided by a cosmic line—Cortès on one side, the Pacific on the other.
The sun, perhaps knowing that its minutes are numbered, outdoes itself in one last magnificent plume, turning pink clouds blue, blue clouds purple, streaking the windblown wave tops orange, and changing the sand to a glistening red.
25. Best place to be a dog
We met a dog who sees that sunset every night. How he got to Love Beach is a mystery, since the only way to get there is by boat or by climbing a huge craggy mountain that not even Lassie could traverse. But he was there, all by himself, every time we went, emperor of one of the strangest and most beautiful places on earth.
When you walk on most beaches, you eventually reach a parking lot or a street or a taco stand. Here you just come to another, equally glorious beach. All there is at Love Beach is beach, except for the giant honey-colored rocks that poke up through the sand, their bases loaded with caves and their faces dotted with pelicans.
Love Dog, as we called him, was a scruffy black mutt with one white foot and an uncanny knack for seeing a crab, chasing it, catching it on a dead run and eating it in less than two seconds. Love Dog could find a crab two feet into the sand.
We had no idea where Love Dog got water to drink, perhaps in those caves. We worried about him. On our last trip there we tried to get him to come back with us on the boat, but he tilted his head as if to say, Are you crazy? Have you seen this sunset? and trotted off. We suspect he had a surfboard hidden somewhere.
26. Hotel least likely to have HBO
Yelapa is a coastal jungle town without electricity, telephones, street lights or, for that matter, streets. You cannot get to Yelapa by car. It's about a two-hour boat ride from Puerto Vallarta or a half-day ride on horseback from the nearest village, Chiapas. Your room in the only hotel in town comes with or without hot water, depending on whether the staff got a good fire going that morning. Because of scorpions, your bed will probably be hung from the ceiling and covered with netting. In Yelapa, people shake out their shoes before putting them on. But if you like birds—kingfishers, red-headed parrots, white American ibis, imperial woodpeckers, herons—or just the sound that quiet makes, you may never leave.
27. Sorry, still more on scorpions
One night in Careyes, I asked Giorgio Brignone, Gian Franco's son, if there were scorpions there.
"Oh, yes, but it's no problem," he said. "The great thing about the scorpions here is that if there's one crawling on you as you sleep and you roll over, it will make a clack! sound when it hits the floor. That will wake you up."
How comforting. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to hear a clack that night or not hear one. What if a scorpion learned to fake a clack? I make it a rule never to put anything past scorpions. From then on I reminded myself to roll over a lot.
Once, driving on the road, we saw a scorpion about eight inches long. This scorpion had a small farm animal in its mouth. If that scorpion crawled on you in your sleep, you wouldn't be able to roll over.
Not to worry. Scorpion bites are rarely fatal. First thing you do if you have been bitten is suck on a bag of limes, then treat the bite with some lime juice, some garlic and, of course, some battery acid. Preferably Diehard.
28. Best alltime margarita recipe
Use damiana, a local liqueur, instead of Triple Sec. Damiana, which is made from a shrub, is said to have aphrodisiac powers.
29. Robinson Crusoe would have been happier...
...if he had known about coco locos. Open up a coconut, drink a good shot of the milk (a good-sized coconut holds about a liter), then retop the drink with tequila or brandy and squeeze in a little lime. Hey, who wants to be rescued, anyway?
30. Toughest gringo in Mexico
Bud Parr, 76, was born in the U.S. but retired to Mexico at 41 and built himself a paradise at Cabo San Lucas. And when we say he built it, we mean he built it.
There were no roads then. So he had brush cleared away for a landing strip and from then on traveled in and out of Cabo San Lucas by plane. To build Hotel Cabo San Lucas, Parr had to construct his own electrical plant, manufacture his own plumbing pipe, dig his own wells, make his own furniture and tile, saw his own lumber and grow his own plants for landscaping.
He made that first hotel work and then built two more. Parr has a heroic feel to him; he's a sort of Indiana Baja Jones. He was a friend of Howard Hughes's. When John Wayne needed to recuperate from his 1973 lung operation, he spent four months living in Parr's house. Parr has out-hunted and outfished the toughest and most famous of men—Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Chuck Connors—and was a pioneer of light-tackle fishing. He has held a number of world fishing records.
31. Best place to have a whale of a lunch
From the dining veranda of the Hotel Cabo San Lucas, gray whales can be seen hob-bobbing their way south in the late fall and heading north early in the spring. If you happen to see a couple of whales with scratched-up noses, toast them for us.
32. Hurry, our precivilization sale ends soon
The resort-development arm of the Mexican Board of Tourism, FONATUR has a habit of plugging figures into its computer, finding an empty piece of paradise and turning it into a resort. FONATUR did it to Cancún, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo and Loreto and also had a hand in developing Los Cabos. Now it's going to do it to perhaps the most radiant place of all, a tiny fishing village called Huatulco, about 200 miles north of the Guatemalan border.
Looking at Huatulco from above is like looking at Cancún before 24-hour room service hit. Only Huatulco is more resplendent. It is a necklace of nine emerald bays and shell-brown beaches; none can be seen from another.
Not far from the bays are two islands with their own bays and beaches. Unspoiled isn't the word. Untouched is. At Conejos Beach there are turtle tracks, vultures eating dead fish, manta rays jumping out of the water, porpoises not far behind—but no people and no chaise longues.
In 30 years FONATUR expects two million visitors per year to fill up 26,750 Huatulco hotel rooms, but for now the village is a theater waiting for opening night. There are luxurious hotels full of empty. There are blue-blue swimming pools with nary a swim-up-bar customer. There are waiters standing around, practicing on each other. There are golf courses waiting for grass, beaches waiting for Chiclet sellers, moonlight waiting to dance playfully off somebody's hair. See it before Kentucky Fried Chicken buys a lot.
33. Best wave
Legend has it that in April or May a giant wave comes crashing against the city of Cuyutlàn, about 30 miles from Manzanillo. It is known as the ola verde, the "green wave," and those who have seen it say the wave is 30 feet tall.
34. Best waves
Puerto Escondido, 150 miles south of Acapulco, has the third-best surfing waves in the world, behind those of Hawaii and Australia. Puerto Escondido is the place that was supposed to be the next Cancun, until FONATUR discovered Huatulco and left Escondido to the dudes, babes and goofy feet. One reason they dumped it is that the undertow is so severe that only experts can brave the water.
How tough is the surfing here? Well, put it this way: They won't rent you a surfboard because they figure you won't be back.
35. Where to surf
Anywhere. Nearly every place we went had very good, head-high surf. The best places we saw were in Puerto Escondido, Ixtapa and just south of Acapulco, but the surfers who showed us the best spots said they would personally wax my teeth to my tongue if I told you exactly where they were. Ask at the front desks. And remember, bring no valuables to the beach. We buried about $600 worth of stuff near Ixtapa one day only to find it gone when we came back.
36. Sign least likely to be found in New York
At Hotel Cabo San Lucas: WE DO NOT USE KEYS FOR THE ROOMS. LEAVE THE DOOR UNLOCKED. They haven't had a robbery in five years. There are no bandits here.
37. Best place to get a neckache
The baroque monastery and church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca took 77 years to build and has two three-story altars made of red cedar and covered with gold leaf. I saw, painted or carved into the ceiling, eight Dominican cardinals, four Dominican popes, 48 Dominican martyrs, 48 all-purpose angels, 12 apostles, the genealogical tree of Saint Dominic and numerous stories from the Bible.
38. Best way to make sure Mexico runs out of fish
The Mexican government, once again, has agreed to allow Japanese and Korean long-line and seine fishing in local waters. The long lines, baited every 30 feet or so, can stretch for 40 miles, catching stuff that even the Japanese don't want. "All the Japanese want is 12 percent of what they catch," says Mike Parr, Bud's son, who has been fishing these waters for 30 years. "The rest they throw away."
39. Best hammocks
The ones slung off the veranda of every room at the Hotel Camino Real in Ixtapa are irresistible. The hammocks are shaded during siesta, so you can crawl into one, gaze out on the delicious bay and go to sleep counting all the important calls you're missing.
40. Do you mind if we talk about tourista?
Tourista is like Mexican pottery. Everybody who goes to Mexico comes back with some. Franz has two suggestions: 1) To prevent Montezuma's Revenge, take a tablespoon of Pepto-Bismol three times a day for several days before leaving for Mexico, then two tablespoons a day when you get there. 2) To cure an attack, put eight ounces of fruit juice, half a teaspoon of honey and a little salt in one glass. Put about eight ounces of water (boiled or mineral) and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda in another glass. Drink both of the glasses, alternating sips. Do this about six times a day. You're welcome.
41. How much for the Sears Tower, amigo?
On Dec. 23 in Oaxaca, they have the Night of the Radishes—not a sci-fi movie but a festival in which townspeople set up booths and show off constructions made from radishes—everything from animals to faces to buildings.
42. Biggest coffee-table possibility
The tule tree in Oaxaca is possibly the weirdest tree in the world. The trunk is wider than a street and weighs an estimated 539 tons. The tree is at least 2,000 years old and takes 28 people, touching fingernails, to reach around it.
43. Best place to hang out
Every night at the Acapulco Convention Center, five men dressed in costume climb to the top of a 115-foot pole, to re-enact part of an ancient ritual. One man stands on a 1½-foot-wide plate on the top while the other four tie ropes to their feet and throw themselves off the pole upside down. The plate stander then begins spinning the men around the pole, gradually letting more and more rope out, until their haircuts sweep the ground. Now go see the cliff divers.
44. Best way to give to the Acapulco policemen's ball
It was my last night in town, so I was saying goodbye to the Mexican moon by cruising up and down the lovely Costera Miguel Alemàn Avenue in an open-air, very pink Las Brisas jeep. Because of a serious shortage of clocks (see above), I did not know what time it was. It might have been 1:30 in the morning, but it might have been three. And because speed is a function of time, I think I was doing 30, but it might have been 60. Then again, I didn't care. My only purpose in life was to see how far the clean Pacific air could bend my eyebrows back.
The next thing I knew, a traffic officer had pulled his car up next to me and was screeching something at me over a loudspeaker. It was either "All the boys down at the station wish you a speedy trip back to your hotel" or "Pull over." I pulled over.
In the States, when I have been pulled over, I try a little humor first. I wait until the officer walks over, then I roll down the window and say, "A Big Mac, fries and a Coke, please."
I didn't try it this time but quietly handed over my license.
"This is beeeg trouble for you, Reeeck." It was not the greeting I had hoped for.
"What did I do, Officer Sir?" I said.
"Beeeeeg trouble, Reeeeck. You were speeding."
"Was I? I'm very sorry. I apologize."
"And you went through a red light, too, Reeeeck. This is beeeeeeg, beeeeeeg trouble. You might have to follow me down to the station."
I had seen all the movies. I knew what to do next. You either reach for your wallet or go to jail and Dustin Hoffman ends up doing your life story.
"Uh, is there any way I could pay the fine right now, Officer Sir?"
"Well, I don't knoooooooow...."
I began to finger my anorexic wallet, with a please-please-please look on my face.
"O.K.," he finally said. "It will be 150 American dollars."
You could hear me swallow in Tijuana. I dug it out, stuck it in his hand and said, "Thank you, Officer Sir." I had $50 left, enough for breakfast and a cab to the airport in the morning. I started to put the Jeep in gear.
"And another $50 for the red light," he said.
I paid it.
I only bring this up to show you how renewing to the spirit the Mexican Pacific can be. You can fork over 200 zops in bribes and still not feel cheated.
Besides, I know how I can write the $200 off on my expense account.
Hotel laundry service.