"This is exactly how I remember it," I say, standing on a wide, flat rock jutting into the sea. We're in Yelapa, Mexico, a tiny seaside village 45 minutes by boat - the only way to get here ― from bustling Puerto Vallarta. My husband, Pete, hops across a few small boulders and joins me. A rooster crows in the distance, and the low hum of an outboard motor draws our attention to a panga returning with the morning's catch. The sun sparkles on the water and small waves roll politely toward us.
Although Yelapa has baby-stepped into the 21st century ― it finally got electricity six years ago, and you can now make a phone call, check your email, and get a latte ― what's best about this place, aside from its glittering tropical beauty, is its timelessness. In the carless village, donkeys still serve as cargo trucks, sunshine and roosters are the only alarm clocks, and life's major decisions are of the snorkeling-or-siesta variety. Yelapa, people say, is what coastal Mexico used to be before it was discovered by the tourist throngs.
But these days, little Yelapa is hot. In the last couple of years, it's emerged as one of the must-visit destinations in Mexico ― or anywhere. Hilary Swank vacations here (I've seen her), and so does Peter Coyote (seen him too!). Yoga retreats are held here, and it's been written up all over the place.
Still, I'll always know this place as my childhood paradise, where I went to fourth grade and spent my afternoons snorkeling in search of moray eels, swimming under waterfalls, and exploring the paths that traverse this town. And on this visit, I am dragging my husband on a trip down memory lane, attempting, I suppose, to preserve it in my mind as it was.
When we first arrive in Yelapa, we forgo the safer exit onto the small pier in the village and instead choose to jump off the boat directly onto the main beach, risking a swamping and some soggy suitcases for the sake of that much more time on this lovely stretch of sand.
"When I was a kid," I tell Pete, "there wasn't even a pier. You used to have to get rowed in by dugout canoe. Watching tourists wipe out was a local pastime."
We stash our luggage and make for two lounge chairs under a thatched-palm palapa. It takes about five minutes before a piece of my Yelapan past comes to us.
"Pie, señorita?" A stern-looking woman, with a giant plastic container balanced on her head, is blocking my sun, and I am grateful. It's Augustina.
Yelapa is famous for its pies, baked by two competing local women who strut up and down the beach balancing lemon meringues on their heads. About a million years ago, I used to sell pies after school for Augustina's sister, Juanita, to earn pesos for Cokes.
She unloads her wares, but I don't even have to look. Without hesitation, I go for a slice of chocolate coconut. Pete nearly has a breakdown trying to decide, but finally settles on apple. Don't worry, I tell him. If there is one certainty, it's that Augustina will be here again tomorrow.
WATERFALL AND DISCO BALL
But the next day, we skip the beach. I am taking Pete to see the waterfall. Not the tiny one in town that the day tourists go to see, but upriver to the Cathedral.
As we tramp along the dusty path, crisscrossing the shallow river, we pass laundry drying in the sun, a huge old sow napping in the shade, and men on horses returning from distant ranches. I regale Pete with fascinating stories from my past. "This is where I lost my sandal in the current once," I say. Or, "I got bucked off Chocolate here."
It can't be more than a few miles to the Cathedral, but we are more than ready for a dip when we arrive. As expected, the wide, green swimming hole is deserted. We jump in and float on our backs, feeling like the stars of our own castaway movie.
As we're drying ourselves on the warm rock afterward, I can't resist. "We used to catch crawfish here," I say before allowing the sound of the water to lull us to sleep.
The nap was a good thing because it's Saturday night, and Pete and I are going out: He's putting on clean shorts, and I have pulled out my orange flip-flops. It's disco night at the Yelapa Yacht Club.
As we walk down the beach and along the cobblestone paths, I babble, pointing out the tree where the chickens roost at night and repeating a story about the El Niño year when people continued to boogie as waves crashed over the dance floor.
When we arrive at the club, really just an open-air restaurant with a cement floor and a cantankerous sound system, people are finishing up dinner at the candlelit tables and Bob Marley tunes are luring Yelapa's collection of expat artists, dreamers, and throwbacks out to the floor.
Pete needs a beer and a shot of raicilla, the local hooch made from agave, before he'll take me for a twirl. But soon he's swaying with the rest of us to "Purple Rain."
It's the morning after the dance when I take him on a walk to the point, past what could be considered Yelapa's fancy neighborhood, in search of that otherwise nondescript rock where I used to hang out and gossip with friends. As usual, I narrate, pointing out the place where my friend Andrea threw a mango at a wasp's nest. But now I'm wistful because even though Yelapa is untouched compared with most places, nothing is immune to change.
And then I see it: my rock. There are now a few bright plastic kayaks on the tiny beach next to it, but it is otherwise exactly what it was more than 25 years ago. And 2,500 years before that too.
As we head back to town, I'm tempted to recount yet another memory. But I stop myself and make a silent promise to spend the rest of the trip in the moment. This is not the Yelapa of 1981, after all. It's the Yelapa of today, and it is still my idea of paradise.
There are direct flights from most major airports in the West to Puerto Vallarta. From there, water taxis ($11 one-way) to Yelapa leave several times a day from the pier at Playa de los Muertos. Check out palapainyelapa.com and yelapa.info for more area information, and plan to ask locals for directions once you arrive; Yelapa is a small town, and few places use street addresses. All prices are listed in U.S. dollars.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Lagunita Thatched-roof casitas with mosquito nets and open-air construction infuse the place with a languid, tropical feel. We prefer the larger ocean-view rooms. INFO: From $80; +52-322-209-5055.
WHERE TO EAT
Yelapa has many good restaurants; some are seasonal, and most are pretty casual about sticking to regular business hours. Here are our favorites.
Barracuda Pizza Lounge Pizza in paradise at this open-air lounge in the sand. A great place for cocktail hour. INFO: $; at Hotel Lagunita.
Pollo Bollo Enormous plates of amazing grilled fish, ribs, and chicken. It's worth seeking out this no-frills, open-air restaurant (pronounced "Poy-yo Boy-yo"). INFO: $; dinner Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun; +52-322-209-5027.
Tres Amigos Classic Mexican dishes like conchinita pibil (slow-roasted pork with pineapple) and ceviche. Candles twinkle at night and each table rests on the sand under its own palapa. INFO: $; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily; at Hotel Lagunita.
Yelapa Yacht Club This open-air restaurant (there are no boats) on the playita in the village has been a fixture in expat life for three decades. INFO: Dinner ($$) and disco (free) on Wed and Sat nights.