This week marked two big milestones for us: We celebrated the eight year anniversary of the day we met, and we also happened to do it while marking one full month of location independence in Mexico.
As we quaffed icy cold beers and watched the sky bleed from cotton candy pink into a glowing fuschia, we remarked to one another that it’s crazy to think it was EIGHT YEARS ago that our lives intersected and consequently changed profoundly and irrevocably. All at once, it feels like the years have flown by and barely any time has passed. But it also feels like we are each other’s constant, like we’ve been together for way longer than “just” eight years, and it’s impossible to envision a world or a life in which the other person isn’t there.
In its own way, life in Mexico has been much the same. Logically, I know that we’ve been here for a month, but it feels like we’re only getting started. After a month here, I feel like we should have something insightful or, at the very least, decisive to say about Mexico.
Instead, all I really feel qualified to say unequivocally is that Mexico sure gets some pretty sunsets. Oh, and that there is, in fact, such a thing as too many tacos.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that our first few weeks in Mexico were a wee bit rocky. To the extent that one can anticipate and prepare for that kind of thing, we were as ready as we could be, but it was still a struggle as we were thrown well and truly from our comfort zones, and one that we simply had to tackle day-by-day. Happily, things have indeed gotten easier with each passing day and, although there has definitely been a learning curve, our first month in Mexico has armed us with plenty of information and things to consider that will hopefully make the months that follow even better. One month in, I can’t honestly say that we are head over heels for Mexico, but I still see glimmers of that potential.
We’ve spent the bulk of our time in La Peñita, a place we have developed complicated and ambivalent feelings for. There are things that we have really come to love about this service-oriented town, but there are things that we decidedly do not love and will hopefully be able to improve upon in our next destination.
We love how friendly and welcoming the locals have been (though I should mention that this has been true pretty much everywhere we have been in Mexico and is certainly not exclusive to La Peñita). We live in a really local neighborhood, and whenever we go out, people always smile and greet us, even if it’s just a quick “Buenos días/Buenas tardes/Buenas noches” in passing. We know the names of the owners of our favorite restaurants in town, and they always wave and holler hello when we pass, and make time to chat with us when we stop in for meals. People have been very patient and forgiving when we inevitably mangle their language, and if our Spanish hasn’t improved as much as we would like, it’s because most people are eager to practice their English with us. It’s always nice to feel like a country is welcoming you with open arms and Mexico’s people have absolutely done that for us.
Because La Peñita is not quite as saturated with tourists as many of the nearby beach towns, it’s also quite affordable: We’re renting the top floor of a gorgeous casita for just $700US/month (slightly more than we were hoping to pay, but with two dogs, we have had to make some concessions as finding dog-friendly rentals is necessarily more challenging and limits our options) and the restaurants and shops in town are cheaper than trendier Sayulita or San Pancho. Another bonus? The crowds that you find elsewhere along this coast are pretty much non-existent (even during the tourism explosion of Semana Santa) even though, as I said, the sunsets are just as pretty here as they are further south.
That said, we’ve experienced some growing pains in La Peñita that have made it clear that this town and this area of Mexico probably isn’t the right fit for us long-term.
For one thing, La Peñita isn’t much to look at on first glance. Truthfully, it’s not much to look at on second or third or any subsequent glances either! We’ve done our best to wander the town (which is not very big) and take photos, but we just don’t find ourselves visually inspired by it. It’s rather shabby and hasn’t been gussied up (gentrified?) the way that the better known towns in this part of Mexico have been. It’s a town meant for locals and although it does have some expats and foreign tourists, that’s not who it’s catering to. I told Tony that I feel a bit superficial knowing I would like La Peñita more if I found it more aesthetically pleasing, but if my truth is that I prefer things to be pretty, then I suppose I have to own that!
Another extension of La Peñita not really being a hardcore tourist town is that we have found dining options fairly limited here. When I said this has been the month of tacos, I was not joking; we tend to eat them at every meal, and on the off chance we order something that doesn’t come wrapped in a corn tortilla, they tend to accompany them so you can turn whatever you have ordered into an ad hoc taco. I kind of hate corn tortillas at this point and last night when the restaurant we ate at to celebrate our anniversary served our mains alongside a basket of buttered toast, things almost got ugly as we each tried to secure more than our fair share of something that wasn’t a tortilla. The local food is also very meat heavy and vegetables other than shredded lettuce/cabbage, onions and the sad watery avocado sauce that passes for guacamole here are pretty much non-existent. One restaurant in town actually offers mushroom tacos, and we gave them a try the other night, only to discover the mushrooms came straight out of a can… I have actually made Tony drive me the 25 minutes to San Pancho so I can eat overpriced “white people” vegetarian food and I, a renowned dismisser of salads, have never been so happy to shove leafy rabbit greens into my face!
We’ve done our best to self-cater to make up for the seemingly unbalanced diet proffered by the restaurants, but that hasn’t been as easy as I would like either. There are a bunch of mini supermarkets around town but, unsurprisingly, their produce is pretty much limited to basic veggies like potatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, carrots, radishes, onions, tomatoes and avocado… Whither art though kale, sweet potatoes, morning glory, spinach, beets, bok choy, asparagus, green beans, peas, eggplant, and any fresh herbs other than cilantro? I walk into Mexican grocery stores, my mind goes blank, and I wind up coming home with three avocados and call it lunch. Cooking fail! There are a few bigger grocery stores just past Bucerias, but that’s a 40-minute drive and we’ve only done the drive once when we went to Puerto Vallarta so we could buy the dogs food at Costco.
I guess what I’m saying is that although Mexican food is generally delicious, we are strong advocates of the old “variety is the spice of life” adage, and have found the local offerings in La Peñita a bit monotonous and not as heart healthy as we might have hoped. We’re thinking this might be a good indicator that a slightly bigger/more cosmopolitan destination would make a good next stop for us, somewhere where it’s more convenient to head to larger grocery stores to pick up things to fill in the gaps the smaller Mexican stores don’t offer, and maybe a wider range of cuisine on offer as well for those moments when we are certain we can’t eat another taco/tostada/quesadilla.
Also, I know I mentioned it in my last post on Mexico, but we live in a super local neighborhood, something we thought would be awesome, but has turned out to be a little less idyllic than we had envisioned. We found out from the tenants who live below us that apparently locals refer to this area as “the crotch”, which certainly paints a picture, doesn’t it?
The roads here are uneven and obscured by a constant fug of dust that makes walking around unpleasant and occasionally hazardous. There are so many street dogs that after Rory was attacked by an aggressive one during our first week here and we acknowledged how stressful walking our dogs had become, we now drive them five-minutes out into the countryside twice a day so that we can walk them without fear. (It’s also much prettier and distinctly un-crotchlike out there, so despite the hassle, it’s worth it.) To get into the main town, we have to cross the main highway which means either playing Frogger and sprinting across, or going under a bridge that puts us right next to a river where the body of a dog has been decomposing for the entirety of our time here. Needless to say, we choose to dodge traffic every time.
And the noise! We had been warned that Mexico was a loud country, but felt confident that after so much time in Asia, the land of roosters and early morning calls to prayer and all other kinds of vibrant street life, that we would be fine.
We were so wrong. After our first week in sleepy San Blas, we felt cocky as the occasional dog barking or horse whinnying in the night didn’t seem bad at all… but the noise in La Peñita is like no other racket we have ever experienced. Trucks that are loud in their own right barrel past our window at all hours of the day and night, often playing loud ads for water or gas or grilled corn or jaunty Mexican polka. Roosters crow, cats yowl like they are being strangled, and a piercing dog rumble breaks out on our street every night between 3 and 5 am, often prefaced by one dog barking incessantly all by his lonesome for an hour or so beforehand. We have both taken to sleeping with earphones in and music/soothing meditation mantras on (Tony tried ear plugs but they didn’t cut it), and we still get woken up two or three times a night. Given that we are of an age where most of our friends are beginning to have children, I heartily recommend that anyone considering taking that step come and spend a month in our casita first to get a taste of what prolonged sleep deprivation feels like.
Sometimes we ask ourselves whether we’d be having a better time if we were staying on the other side of the highway, or maybe in a different town altogether. Despite 99% of the restaurants and many of the shops being located on the other side of the highway, there’s less noise, less dust, and the roads are better, so we probably would find it more relaxing than our present barrio. We’ve done day trips to Sayulita and San Pancho both, and personally found the insane crowds in Sayulita oppressive and prices much more expensive, which really detracted from the city’s otherwise obvious charms. San Pancho was definitely more our speed, though I wonder how much longer it will be lazy and laid-back as tourism has clearly boomed there too and I imagine it will only get worse as it catches the overflow from Sayulita. It is not really any more “real Mexico” than Sayulita if the quirky boutiques and many international restaurants lining its main road are any indication to go by, but it’s a pretty town that reminded us a lot of Pai in Thailand (which we LOVE) and, as I’ve already established, authentic Mexico can sometimes be rough, so I could see us happily spending a few weeks there. I’m hoping before we pull up stakes here we can visit a few more times.
But, truth be told, we are not small town people. Undoubtedly we would go stir crazy if we spent too much time in San Pancho or Sayulita, just as we have a little bit here in La Peñita. For our first week here, I wanted nothing more than to hide under the covers and watch Netflix, in part because of how overwhelming the world outside seemed to be, but also because it just felt so good to finally have our own space again and be 100% in control of our schedule again. But after a while of mimicking a turtle tentatively poking her head out of her shell while reluctantly venturing out to walk the dogs or find food, I started to get casita fever and found myself excited to explore. What that amounts to here is going to the beach. We can either walk to the main beach here in La Peñita (which is, honestly, not that nice as it is often littered with trash) or, if we are feeling ambitious, walk to the neighboring town of Guayabitos which is very popular with older Canadians and enjoy that beach. Or we can get in the car and drive… to a beach.
This may be controversial, but Tony and I are kind of ambivalent about beaches. We sort of subscribe to the whole, “once you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all” mentality, and while we can (and have!) enjoy a few hours lazing in the sand or frolicking in the ocean, we just don’t have the interest or enthusiasm to spend a whole day at the beach. A couple of hours of fun in the sun and surf and then we are pretty much asking, “OK, what’s next?” It’s been wonderful to have the car so we can explore, but it also feels like everywhere we’ve visited along this coast has been variations on a theme. If not for the more diverse dining options on offer further afield, I can’t say that we would feel super motivated to venture forth from La Peñita. This makes us terrible travel bloggers, I realize, but we do find ourselves having to psych ourselves up to get outside (even though I know too much time indoors is not great for our mental health). We have plenty of work to keep us busy, but we didn’t come to Mexico to spend 12 hours a day cooped up inside working and marathoning The Good Wife. After many months of prioritizing work and building our business over the travel side of things, I know we need to work a little harder to shift our mentality and regain a healthier, happier work-life balance.
I also know we will gravitate back to the beach eventually but, for now, we’ve decided to sample a different slice of Mexican life when we leave La Peñita in a little over a week’s time. We want to see whether somewhere a little more cosmopolitan and cultural, with a wider variety of diversions and day trips and a richer food scene works a bit better for us. To that end, we’ll be heading to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest city, renowned for its slamming local dishes, mariachi music, rodeos, and beautiful architecture. We’ll actually be staying in the nearby artists’ enclave, Tlaquepaque, which is supposed to be a little more gentrified and manageable, but is still close enough we’ll be able to make easy trips into the heart of the city but can escape the chaos at the end of the day. We’re also hoping to do a day trip to Tequila and maybe some other pueblos mágicos during our visit, but we’ll figure out those details once we’re there.
For now, we’ll take pleasure in our final days in La Peñita and the Riviera Nayarit. We have vowed that no matter what, we’ll be down at the beach every night to catch the sunset. I know I’ve only mentioned it a million times in this post, but they really are breathtaking. We sure will miss them when we’re gone, so we’d better enjoy them while we can. This may not be our perfect paradise, but some kind of paradise is still pretty great.