If one goes to the farthest south end of the Sayulita beach where the sand turns to jagged rock, a secret road can be found that leads behind the rocks to Playa de los Muertos, a hidden beach invisible from the rest of the world. On the way, to the side of the road, one passes a grand old cemetery. The headstones, various granite memorials and gargoyled stone mausoleums can be seen, recently festooned with new flowers or streamers or papier-mâché effigies. There is no grass, only barren gray soil and stones. Trees that must have grown long before the graveyard was built hang sadly overhead providing shade in the motionless heat.
Every night, skeletons, ghosts, Catrinas and even La Llorona herself, rise from their resting places, glistening under the pale moonlight, to come and frolic in the ocean, kicking sea spray, body surfing. The waves wash through their ribcages and loose-fitting jawbones, and gurgle down from their empty eye sockets.
During the day, the few mortals who discover the secluded beach wander vacantly on the shore or venture into the water, their souls heavy with woe and the cares of this world. The sunlight is more bronze there, more penetrating, so much so that one can almost see the bones of the living through their thin skin. And the water whispers of countless old vessels that have landed there or, if less fortunate, were crushed to splinters upon the rocks.
Studying a map, I noticed the secluded beach with its mysterious name. We decided we had to go there.
Where the outcropping of sharp rocks marks the end of Sayulita Beach, a sidewalk leads further, past the more elite condos withdrawn from the teeming crowds. Kiosks serving wine and mimosas, cafe tables and chairs, and quiet, manicured foliage create a placid atmosphere. No peddlers come down this far. But shortly the resort condos end and the sidewalk turns into a dirt road leading inland and uphill into a dusty neighborhood. This is where we found ourselves late Monday morning.
Suddenly we were alone, the din of town and tourists behind us. The dirt road meandered between the hulking concrete blocks of what aspired to be multi-story apartment buildings apparently abandoned midway through construction. Enigmatic graffiti defaced the blocks. Tall weeds, vagrant firepits, and rubbish persuade most of the curious to turn back at this point.
I realized a stray dog had been following us for ten minutes, perhaps reading from our eyes that we were headed for Playa de los Muertos. Nobody claimed the dog. Could they even see it? It trotted along as if we were old friends, frolicking between the structures. We approached the dusty cemetery, the dog was the only living creature to be seen. He seemed familiar with the place. “Where is everyone?” I wondered aloud to Trina.
The dog came and went. We would look around and notice he’d left us, and then he would reappear carrying some item in his mouth like a leg bone or half of a fish. I commented to Trina that his appearing and disappearing seemed fitting for the Beach of the Dead. The forlorn yet promising entrance to the beach then appeared on our right.
Passing under an arch of high palm fronds, our route changed from dirt and rock to lovely white sand. Suddenly the view was beautiful again and the steady crash of the waves restored that unique seaside calm to our souls, disturbed only by a few strange human sights.
An ageless wight rose from a chair in which he seemed to be sleeping, and he approached us slowly, his gait stilted, his eyes hazy like the undead, struggling to form his words into sentences. We perceived that he was asking if we wanted to rent an umbrella and chairs in the manner in which a witch would invite children into an oven. We said no with a furtive smile and a quick gesture. Behind him through the window of the lone food trailer, we could see hunched figures toiling obscurely over bright flames, but the trailer was not open for business.
We walked out onto the short beach to wet our feet, our little carnivore still darting around us. To the right, a chaotic mass of ancient igneous formed a rugged peninsula, including one island with a forty-foot natural tower, accessible with a few careful leaps across boulders spanning frothing seawater that washed in between. I had to take a closer look.
Here and there a few specimens of sad, statuelike animal life could be discerned if you looked carefully, often the same ashen hue as the ancient lava flow. A pelican with its bill nodded to its chest sat regally like an avian Ozymandias. An orange crab defied my approach and held its ground.
On the island I saw fishing line strung randomly, a leather gauntlet, a golden earring. From the extremity facing back toward the land I could see that the summit of the tower was climbable but more treacherous than I dared. A pirate’s bones were likely arrayed on top for a witch doctor’s midnight bacchanal.
Back on the beach, a man indistinguishable from an Indian swami appeared in loose-fitting cotton trousers and no shirt. His wild mane of hair and long beard were white, and his skin was like leather tanned to a dark umber. He sat under a small tree meditating then, rising slowly, he walked into the water and swam away and was never seen again.
One or two other undead couples arrived and set up camp in the nearby grove inland from the water’s edge. They seemed to be content to sit in their loose-fitting, gypsy attire, avoiding sunlight, mostly concerned with each other rather than the features of nature. They produced black bottles of potions that they drank from pewter spoons, ate unrecognizable fruits, and smoked Bubonic #9.
The weight of the sun and the languor of the beach of the dead, and the mulling and skulking of outcasts who trickled through the entrance gates began to wear on us and, feeling an inward pull from the holy ghost to return to the land of the living, we decided to return. Our little dog was gone and we never saw him again.
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Neither of us slept well the first night following our traumatic entrance into Puerto Vallarta. But by 10 a.m. the next morning, we found ourselves in the backseat of the car of Mr. Benjamin Sanchez, our Uber driver, as he drove us to Sayulita on a mountainous, winding 2-lane tropical jungle road. We left behind the resort-style campus of the Hilton with its numerous buffets of bland (but free) California sushi rolls, bland red wine, bland quesadillas. But we had discovered the best Mexican beer.
In my opinion, Pacifico is the best of all the popular Mexican beers and I give it my heartiest recommendation. Even more exciting is the fact that even Trina, who never drinks beer, liked it! More on that later.
We soon came to trust Benjamin and shared stories about our families. We passed through coastal towns of Nueva Vallarta and Bucerias before plunging into the hot Mexican jungle for the final leg. Up and down hills, through narrow passes and always under lush high foliage. We zoomed by secluded fruit stands and merchandise vendors.
I told Benjamin that we had considered renting a car at the airport, and asked what he thought. Was there any danger? Just a couple of rich gringos. Could we be captured by the cartels and held for ransom? No, he said. The cartels leave American tourists alone because local business depends on them. Kidnapping Americans would give Mexico a bad reputation, tourism would dry up, and the whole area would suffer.
The ones to worry about are the police, he said, because if your car breaks down or if you get in an accident and need police support, their eyes will start spinning with dollar signs and you will have to pay a steep price to get them to lift a finger for you. It was better to skip the rental car and use Uber or the taxis. I think that was the first really good news we received on the trip.
Sayulita’s streets are all cobblestone and we drove slowly. The sidewalks were teeming with people. Skies were clear, the sun was warm, and the air was dry. Benjamin had trouble finding our boutique hotel, The Distrito 88. There was no sign, no marquee, no welcoming entrance, and no check-in counter. After a call to the hotel, we learned that an understated, wrought-iron gate was the entrance, and it stayed locked at all times.
The concierge whose name was Lalo met us at the gate with smiles and fluent English. Almost everyone spoke English. Benjamin wanted to book our trip back to the airport, but Lalo warned us all that the taxi union was very territorial about Sayulita, and they had an ongoing feud with Uber. Past hotel guests had been trapped in Sayulita when taxi drivers saw tourists getting the much cheaper Uber car and blocked their exit. If you want to use Uber, you need to meet at the edge of town to avoid angry taxi drivers. We told Benjamin Sorry, but we would be getting a taxi.
Distrito 88 has only 8 rooms. No children allowed. The rooms were gorgeous and the view of the water from up the side of a steep hill was spectacular. Lalo led us on a long trip up outdoor stairways to get to the very top of the facility which was built into the mountainside. Our studio apartment had air conditioning, fast wifi and kitchenette. No rice on the bedspread.
We skipped out to find some lunch: a hamburger and chicken enchiladas, and chips and the best guacamole anyone has ever eaten at a place called Chocobanana. We gave some pesos to a woman who came up to our table with a sign that said she had leukemia.
It was still early afternoon so we went down to the beach for a dip in the ocean and a little beach reading. A man brought us cheap margaritas in our lounge chairs. I bought a breezy hat from a man walking around with 20 of them stacked in his hands. A group of teenagers sitting next to us were drinking tequila from a bottle and singing Mexican pop songs. After a while, they all fell asleep.
At this point may I remind you that this vacation was just shortly after the Texas snowstorm that left us traumatized without power for five days. When we got back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner, the power was out in the whole block. Our hearts sank. I texted Lalo, did he know what was going on? Yes, he said, there was an explosion and probably a transformer had blown up nearby. It was Sunday evening. What chance was there, I wondered, that the Sayulita utility company would get power restored? I thought we were doomed to have no power for days.
Back in the room we had no lights, no internet. Trina took a shower with all water in the water tank on the roof. I took a bath in the swimming pool.
We went out to buy candles and bottled water, and to find a place to eat. We saw that most of the rest of the town still had power.
We ate at a restaurant called Davalu that had a balcony overlooking the town square. The food was unbelievably delicious. I had the Filet Dorado al Pastor and Trina had Pasta Mexicana. Lalo texted me while we were there to say that the power was back on.
A meek little girl about five years old and all alone came up to our table with a bundle of the same colorful woven bracelets we had seen other vendors selling. She mumbled something in Spanish that probably meant Would I like to buy one? We were already used to saying No to the numerous peddlers who were everywhere selling crafts, and Trina said “No thank you” at the exact moment that I said, “Sure! I’ll take one,” and the little girl turned to Trina and said “Ha!” right in her face. The bracelet was 10 pesos or 5 US cents, certainly worth it to make that spunky little girl happy.
When we were walking back, there was the utility truck and three men who had just finished getting power restored! Shame on me for being such a pessimist about Mexico. I’m happy to report that contrary to what is often reported on American TV, it is a strong, beautiful country. So much of what we’ve heard about drug kingpins and gun violence was nowhere to be seen on our trip.
That evening we heard that there had been mass shooting in Austin.
The end of Day 2.