Our wheels touched down before noon at the airport in Puerto Vallarta, an overcooked tourist town on the sunset coast of Mexico, pinched between arid tropical mountains and a long sandy beach. I’d been up since four a.m., fifteen minutes before my alarm went off, to make some coffee and order an Uber driver to the Austin Airport. Now, at last, we had arrived at our dream vacation that had been canceled and rescheduled 3 times in the previous year due to the pandemic and the Texas Ice Storm of 2021. It was finally happening.
The plans were to spend only one day/night in Puerto Vallarta. The following five days we would go to Sayulita, a smaller, lesser-known, less-touristy town an hour up the coast, or so we thought. More on that later.
The international terminal and customs desks looked just like American ones, except Spanish was the primary language on all placards with English beneath in smaller letters. I don’t know what I was expecting. Armed militia with machine guns and berets? The officials and airport staff were well-dressed, clean and professional.
I immediately felt a sort of gratitude toward them, perhaps for being
so normal, for not demanding bribe money, or pretending to find something out of order with my paperwork and forcing us to sit in a
sweltering adobe office for hours while the police chief returned from brunch.
No, they positively seemed glad to have us in their country. They were patient, kind, and spoke perfect English even though I was all prepared to wrestle my Spanish back into use. I wondered if they would have been received the same way coming to an American airport.
After only a short wait getting our COVID questionnaire approved and a
few clamorous stamps applied to our passports, and an uneventful retrieval of our bags from the luggage carousel, we set out to find a taxi or, preferably, a complimentary, air-conditioned shuttle to the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now comes the part that I’m not sure how to describe.
We had to pass through a series of corridors following signs for ground transportation. You are probably familiar with the way corridors of airports are often filled with poster advertisements of popular sights and events of your destination city. Sometimes they highlight cultural or artistic features or popular restaurants. Not the PV airport.
The final long corridor out of the terminal had the typical poster frames regularly-spaced along the walls and video monitors mounted from the ceiling and hanging just above your line of sight. But these were all advertising only one thing: a luxury resort called Vidanta. Vidanta owned this corridor. Every square inch of ad space had been bought up by Vidanta. Sign after sign, TV screen after TV screen proclaiming only one message: the unalloyed paradise that is Vidanta—tan, slender bodies luxuriating in benign sunlight beside immaculate swimming pools, champagne glasses clinking in soft focus before a vespertine fireplace, the familiar swinging back-arch of a golfer just teeing off on a carpet of lush green grass. Vidanta was everywhere.
Immune as we all are to advertising, it only made a passing impression in my memory because, well they just seemed so desperate! I mean, buy some ad space, sure. But to buy up the entire corridor? OK, whatever.
When we left that corridor however, we learned what was going on with Vidanta. We entered a widened area in the corridor where folding tables chairs were set up. Here and there were highball tables with bottles of tequila and plastic cups. Soft music played overhead. And at least thirty men and a few young women stood lining the walls of our way toward the exits, dressed in not-quite business casual, each with a handful of brochures. It was the gauntlet. When we entered the room, all eyes—wide, hungry, tormented—turned on us.