How many places are there, left in the world, like Yelapa?
I have no idea, but there can’t be many. And the number is certainly dwindling. I wonder, if Yelapa is “discovered” soon, how much longer will it remain as it is?
Where is Yelapa? Don’t ask Google; it doesn’t know. A search for a Yelapa map turns up nothing. Yelapa is within an area roughly defined as “Costalegre” (The “Joy Coast”), which comprises hundreds of miles of Jalisco state’s coastline, from Puerto Vallarta, to Manzanillo in Colima state.
I “discovered” Yelapa in late 2010, quite by accident. I was taking a boat tour of beautiful Banderas Bay, off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. My guide, Mario, pointed out that the south side of the bay is inhabited only by remote fishing villages, accessible only by sea. All roads around the bay, south of Puerto Vallarta, turn inland and away from the coast about 20 miles out of town, at Boca de Tomatlan.
But the bay, surrounded by mountains, continues on for another 25 miles or so, to the Cabo Corrientes lighthouse (recognized as the southernmost point of the bay). A series of small villages dot the coast, each separated by a couple of miles of sheer cliffs into the ocean.
“No roads can go between the cities; it is too steep,” explained Mario. “Only the water taxis go to each.”
The shallow-draft water taxis often roar right up onto the sand, and beach themselves. More elaborate passenger loading facilities are primitive, if not non-existent. (Water taxi rides should cost about $10 each way from Puerto Vallarta.)
Anyway, the last of this series of towns along the south coast of the bay – including Quimixto, Las Animas and Caletas – is Yelapa. It is located in a little bay-within-the-bay.
This little treasure features a sparklingly clear bay, a few houses hanging tenuously from the cliffsides, and towering mountains with lush tropical foliage.
“There are also two waterfalls here,” Mario advised.
I was interested. “Let’s land,” I said.
Yelapa has a small public dock, adjacent to which there is a delightful restaurant, Cafe Bahia, which is run by Americans (Susan, the owner, is a Paris-trained chef) who offer a menu of fresh, delicious, organic ingredients. Most of the fare is grown locally. Very reasonably priced – entrees $3-$10 – but open only for breakfast, brunch & lunch.
After a short but satisfying detour at Cafe Bahia, the hike to the nearest waterfall, La Cascada, is resumed. It is less than a quarter mile up a canyon, behind the pier. Along the way, you pass several tiny but intriguing stores, bars, and one- or two-room B&Bs. There was also a craftsman’s shop along the way, where elaborate wooden bowls were fashioned from bits of local hardwoods; these are expensive souvenirs, and the artist wants cash (American dollars, preferably).
La Cascada, a delightful, narrow stream of water, is about 100 feet tall and surrounded by jungle. The quantity of water cascading down depends greatly upon whether it is wet or dry season (dry season seems to start in March and last through the summer). Orchids, butterflies and other exotic flora and fauna abound. Some visitors bathe in the small pool at the waterfall’s base. (A “public restroom” 30 feet up the hill left of the waterfall is a hoot.) A tiny cafe (not recommended, except for the view) is nearby.
To get about in Yelapa, you hike. There are no roads. There are no cars. (I told you this was an undiscovered paradise.) Some locals wanted to build a short cement block roadway; but enough people objected to it that the idea was largely abandoned. The chief beef? The blocks would be harsh on the hooves of the horses and donkeys that are the town’s principal form of transportation.
After visiting La Cascada, what’s next? Take the narrow pathway that winds around the hill above the south side of the inlet, on whose rocky hills hang the houses of most of the permanent residents. The pathway leads to the beach, where a dozen or so “restaurants” serve drinks and limited menus of Mexican specialties (including Yelapa Pie) in beach chairs set along the sea.
It is easy (and has been done) to while away an entire afternoon, sipping local beverages, idly watching the sun track across the azure sky, and concerned only that the waves might reach your chair.
Beware of the moonshine made in the area: Raicilla. The variety that I was offered tasted like the time when my blender’s motor seized up and leaked brown, burnt-smelling machine oil into my home-made frozen concoction.
(Some reputable bottlers actually offer a spruced-up version of raicilla for sale in Puerto Vallarta; even cheap tequila, by comparison, tastes refined.) The raicilla made here comes from primitive-looking stills operating in the nearby mountains.
A second, much larger waterfall is located a few miles up the long Rio Tuito canyon. It is called “Catedral”, because of its size and elaborate elegance (again, depending on water flow). Donkey- and horse-back rides to the waterfall are offered; the prices charged can fluctuate wildly, depending upon how gullible the guides think you are. The distance is easily hiked in about 90 minutes; a couple of interesting cafes along the way provide refreshment and an excuse to give up.
Back on the beach, parasailing was offered on my last visit. It seemed a harrowing experience, as the tow boat must weave in and out of other watercraft moored in the narrow bay.
Fishing is said to be excellent between Yelapa and the Islas Marietas, farther out into Banderas Bay. We sighted a small whale, which came right into the harbor.
Day visitors leave by about 4:30 p.m. (that’s when the last scheduled water taxi – usually packed – departs for PV; later offerings to Boca de Tomatlan, from whence you can catch a bus back to PV, can go as late as 6:00 p.m.) The town, not that lively even at the height of the day, really gets rather sleepy. But the locals seem to gather at one watering hole or another each night for imbiding, inhaling and star-gazing (sadly, it is often foggy here in the early evening).
Overnight visitors have at least a dozen hotels, B&Bs and eco-lodges to choose from. Prices range from $65 (for a beachfront cottage, with breakfast) to as much as $300 a night. The high end is occupied by lavish Verana, a posh-not-really-roughing-it “eco-lodge”, high on the hills above the bay. How posh? It offers Yelapa’s only infinity pool. Verana often charges five- to seven-night minimums; those who can afford it say they would have gladly paid more. (Airport pickup in PV and delivery here is included.) But there are more affordable choices.
Hotel Lagunita is a series of rustic thatched huts, right on the beach, and probably Yelapa’s most-visited lodging establishment. It looked a bit too primitive for my tastes. But Yelapa is all about leaving “civilization” – and time – behind. Embrace what Yelapa offers, and you will get it; if you long for loud music, frenetic crowds and mints on your pillow, stay elsewhere.
No matter how long a visit you plan to Yelapa, in my experience, you always leave wishing you had planned to stay longer.
Miss the last water taxi, and you will get your wish.
March 26, 2011