Monthly Archives: March 2013

Oaxaca

After driving seven hours on the windiest mountain road you could ever imagine, we arrived in Oaxaca City. As the navigator, the first thing I did when we entered the city was get us lost. All of a sudden, we found ourselves sitting in traffic on perhaps the sketchiest street we’ve been on since the trip began. There were prostitutes hanging out on the sidewalk and all manner of unfriendly looking people walking all over the place. As we were stuck with cars all around us, all we could do was hold our breaths as we slowly made our way out of there. Not a good first impression of Oaxaca City, especially after the nauseating drive we had just completed.

After a few tries we found our way to the RV park where we would be camping. When we pulled in, we thought “this cant be the place!”- it looked completely run down and deserted. Then lo and behold, Mr. Oaxaca comes to the rescue. An enormously buff guy with biceps bigger than his head came walking by and we asked him if we were at the RV park. He assured us that we were and that the manager would return shortly. In the meantime, he offered to show us his gym across the street. The walls of the gym were covered in photos of Mr. Oaxaca in all kinds of modeling and body builder poses (he literally was Mr. Oaxaca back in the 90’s). Mr. Oaxaca took us under his wing and offered to show us around town. He took us to see the Arbol de Tule, a 2,000 year old Mexican Cedar 14 meters in diameter and said to be the biggest tree in the world.

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Mr. Oaxaca also took us to Ciudad de las Canteras, a beautiful park in Oaxaca City with a lake and cool rock walls and paths everywhere (canteras means quarry).

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Mr. Oaxaca had to work at his gym all week so Aron and I were on our own. We headed out to explore the center of town where we strolled around the main square, or zocalo, and saw Oaxaca’s Cathedral.

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The streets of the city are lined with colorful buildings and palm trees with churches on nearly every corner.

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Oaxaca is known for it’s food, it’s crafts, and it’s chocolate, so naturally we  had to get a taste of all three. We sampled some Oaxacan chocolate which had lively notes of cinnamon and cardamom as we watched how cocoa beans are roasted and turned into chocolate.

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At the Mercado de Artesanias (the artisan market) we perused row after row of handmade cotton clothing, woven wool rugs, and hand painted wooded figures called alebrijes. We made it out with a dress for me, a belt for Aron, and a rug and mirror for the van.

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One night we dined at La Biznaga, a restaurant that we had read about in the Lonely Planet and was confirmed as a great choice by our taxi driver. The mescal margaritas were strong, fresh, and delicious and everything we ate was bursting with the flavors of Oaxaca.

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We started with squash blossoms stuffed with cheese, lightly battered and fried, and covered in a flavorful green sauce. We also sampled some baked Oaxacan cheese wrapped in herb leaves and my favorite- a crispy tortilla horn filled with jamaica (a type of hibiscus flower) served with guacamole.

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For the main course we shared chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms bathed in black mole with blackberries. We have never tasted so many flavors in one bite, it was a delicious experience for the senses.

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Just outside of Oaxaca city, we visited Monte Alban, an ancient Zapotec site inhabited from about 500 BC to 750 AD when it was mostly abandoned. The ruins sit atop of a mountain overlooking the valley and Oaxaca City below. At it’s height, Monte Alban had nearly 20,000 inhabitants and was a great Zapotec City. Even the ancient Aztecs would visit Monte Alban with gifts because when the valley below was covered in fog, Monte Alban would be above the clouds and therefore closer to the gods that were so important to their culture.

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A local of Xoxocotlan (pronounced ho-ho-kot-lan), a town at the base of the mountain, happened to be jogging by and stopped to share the culture of his ancestors with us. He showed us the tomb of an ancient ball player in the ground which to a passerby would have simply looked like a hole. We climbed inside as he told us it’s story.

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The ancient ball games were a very important part of Zapotec culture and were played for the gods. Players were selected at a young age and were given a tattoo of the sun god on their leg to symbolize their privileged status. In each ball game, two players would use only their arms and upper legs to get the ball into a bowl on a platform in the center of the court. Once one player got the ball in the bowl, the game was over. Sounds simple but sometimes the games would last ten hours or more! Here is a picture of the ball court at Monte Alban.

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The winner was thought to be in the favor of the gods and would become a very important, high class member of society. The loser was thought to be not in favor with the gods and would be cast our of town to wander the valley where he would be shunned by all the other towns. When the winning ball players would pass away, they would be buried in a tomb deep in the ground with pottery, jewelry, and stone figures of the most important gods to keep them safe.

The fibers of the tree below were used to make the balls for the game. The little round berries on the branches were eaten to clean the blood- one was swallowed every day for thirty days.

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Our guide also took us to an ancient ceremonial center of Monte Alban which is only available to the local indigenas. Indigenas still gather there to communicate with the gods of sun, rain, and corn and the following day (March 20) there would be a ceremony to welcome the coming of spring. In the center of the ceremonial site, our guide showed us a carving of an Aztec god (on the right) speaking with the most important Zapotec god on the left.

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The villages around Oaxaca City are each known for a certain artesanry, or craft, such as green and black clay pottery, woven wool rugs, textiles, and alebrijes. Aron has a small collection of alebrijes back in San Diego so we stopped in Arrazola, the town where they originated. Manuel Jimenez of Arrazola was the first to make alebrijes. As Manuel and his alebrijes became famous throughout the world, the entire town joined in. We went into shop after shop of alebrijes until we couldn’t look at any more. Each artisan family
had a slightly different style and often the men carve the wood figures and the women paint them. All are hand painted with brightly colored dots and intricate patterns. We ended up looking at so many that we were too overwhelmed to buy much. We also visited the home of Manuel Jimenez’s two sons who continue their fathers tradition and host a gallery in their home. This is the one picture of an alebrije that I was able to take as the artisans usually do not allow pictures because they want to preserve the originality of their work.

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On our last evening in Oaxaca, we strolled the town center and visited the Templo de Santo Domingo, by far the most magnificent of all of Oaxaca’s churches. The entire interior from floor to ceiling is covered in three dimensional carvings and sculptures gilded with gold.

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The beautifully lit, colorful streets of Oaxaca were filled with people out for the evening.

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We stopped into a few art galleries filled with all kinds of beautiful, creative paintings and we wished we had the money and the space to make some purchases. Below is a photo of one of my favorite paintings.

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Our last stop for the night was the central square where we ate some elotes in front of the beautifully lit cathedral.

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Leaving Oaxaca City, we took a different road back to the coast but it turned out to be just as windy, if not windier, than the first. We drove past cute little mountain towns in the pine trees. One town in particular had colorful mushrooms painted on many of it’s wooden buildings and made a few references to Maria Sabina, an indigenous curandera, or shaman,  who had lived in the area for most of the the 1900’s and introduced magic mushrooms to the rest of the world.

We hit the Oaxaca coast and spent a few days exploring the beaches of Zipolite and San Agostinillo. Zipolite is a nude beach which we thought wouldn’t be a big deal, but we did feel a little uncomfortable when we sat down to a nice breakfast and there were elderly nude men and women strolling around and stretching in the sand in front of us. Don’t look too closely at the picture below or you’ll see what we mean.

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In both Zipolite and San Agostinillo we stayed in little hotels because we had a hard time finding a spot to camp in the van. In Zipolite we stayed at Posada San Cristobal (posada means guesthouse), a nice three story hotel right on the beach.

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In San Agostinillo, just a few kilometers down from Zipolite, we stayed at a restaurant/little hotel called Mexico Lindo y Que Rico where we rented a little cabana and ate wood fired pizza.

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Our last stop in Oaxaca state was Barra de la Cruz, a spot known for it’s long sand bottom right hand barrels. Unfortunately, we learned that a recent hurricane shifted the sand so the wave is no longer as amazing as it once was. Aron surfed some pretty alright waves in the evening but was a little disappointed after all of the surf videos of perfect barrels that he had watched.

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We did see a cute little pony though which I was pretty excited about.

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Overall, Oaxaca is a beautiful state, from the coast to the mountains. Next up- Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Surfing Mexico’s Pacific Coast

Leaving Puerto Vallarta we embarked on the next leg of our adventure into uncharted territory. The first stop along our three and a half week tour of Mexico’s gorgeous Pacific coastline was Playa Mayto, a remote, empty, long stretch of undeveloped beach two hours south of Puerto Vallarta.

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We camped on the beach in front of Hotel Rinconcito, one of the only two little hotels around and spent the evening swimming in the ocean and walking as far down the empty stretch of beach as we could.

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The next morning we learned that Playa Mayto is a popular place for sport fishing in the summer. Fernando, the owner of Hotel Rinconcito, showed us pictures of huge Roosterfish, Dorado, and Huachinango (red snapper) that had been caught right off the beach and the hotel had huge bbq grills for fresh fish fiestas.

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Later that morning we made our way down to Bahia de Navidad, a beautiful bay with the little fishing village of Melaque at the north end and the town of Barra de Navidad on the south end. There is a surf break at Barra de Navidad but there were no waves at the time so we camped at a nice campground on the beach in Melaque where we made friends with some elderly Canadians traveling in RVs. Heaps of Canadians come down to Mexico for a few months this time of year to escape the freezing Canadian winters- out of all the people we have met so far an overwhelming majority are Canadians. Pretty interesting, eh.

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The next morning we drove an hour south to Pasquales, a famous surf spot known for it’s big, fast, heavy barrels. We found a spot to camp at Hotel Rio de Pasquales which ended up being the surf nexus of town. It was Friday night and tons of surfers were visiting for the weekend, primarily Mexicans from Guadalajara a few hours away. The sand on the wide stretch of beach was dark grey and hot and was sadly littered with all kinds of trash. Out of all the beaches we visited on the coast, Pasquales definitely had the most trash, possibly because so many people flood in and out of the town during the surf season. Aron surfed some fun fast tubes in the morning and then we continued on our way.

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After the morning surf at Pasquales we drove south to La Ticla, a really fun left and right point break over a river rock bottom. We spent two nights at a large campground on the beach which consisted of a long row of palapa shaded sandy camping spots. Aron surfed some really fun waves and we enjoyed all the culinary delights that the local women would come to the campground to sell- tamales, pescadillos (fried fish tacos), and freshly baked breads.

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Next up was Rio Nexpa, a beautiful little beach town alongside a river with a firing left surf break. The beach was lined with cute little cabanas with palapa roofs. From any spot along the beach there is an amazing view of the waves peeling down the point. We camped at Mary Jane’s, a very chill spot consisting of a nice upstairs restaurant with a gorgeous view of the waves and a little sandy campground with bathrooms, showers, and a spot for washing dishes. The owner, Martin, originally a chef from Florida, is absolutely awesome and made us feel right at home. We made some new Canadian and Israeli friends that we shared some nice dinners with and we also met a lovely couple of Australians, Bryon and Stevi, who are traveling the coast in a Ford Econoline camper van. Aron surfed good sized perfect waves three times a day while I did yoga in the mornings, ran in the evenings, and read and watched the surfers on the waves during the heat of the day.

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After four nights in Nexpa we decided it was time to move on although we would have loved to stay for a month. We drove two hours south to Playa Saladita, a tranquil little beach town with a slow wave that was perfect for learning on. We set up camp in the sand on the beach under a shaded palapa at Paco’s restaurant and liked it so much that we stayed six nights.

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Aron took me out surfing every day and I got to work on my nonexistent skills a bit. Some days I would do yoga in the morning, surf in the afternoon, and then run on the beach in the evening- now that’s what I call a perfect day! Our Aussie friends were in Saladita too and we explored a few other surf breaks in the area with them. Twenty minutes south of Saladita just north of the town of Troncones is a little town called Majahua with a fun beach break called La Boca (meaning “the mouth” since it is at the mouth of a river). We drove across the sand out to the break where Aron and Byron surfed some fun waves.

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We also ventured thirty minutes north of Saladita to a spot called El Rancho, a remote left point that runs for at least a hundred yards and has barely been discovered. The only thing on the beach besides sand and surf is a little restaurant. Aron, Byron, and our Canadian friend Alex surfed some empty, fun waves there as well.

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After nearly three weeks of being salt crusted and sand blasted, we decided to splurge on a hotel room in Zihuatanejo, a pretty large, developed coastal resort town. We arrived in the city in the evening and didn’t have much of a plan except to drive around and find an inexpensive hotel for the night, which we’ve since learned is not the best idea. We quickly became overwhelmed trying to navigate the maze of streets in the crowded, unknown city, especially after spending so much time in little beach towns with hardly a single dusty road running through them. Hot, sweaty, tired, and frustrated, we parked the van while I tried to find a hotel in our Lonely Planet travel guide. After a few moments, a police truck drove by, turned around, and pulled up alongside of us. We were worried until we saw the huge smiles on their faces. The four policemen ended up being super friendly and just wanted to make sure that everything was ok. They even recommended a cheap hotel in the center of the city and offered to provide us with a police escort. We thanked them but decided to drive back along the coast to try our luck at some of the beachfront action. We parked the van near Playa Madera, one of the main beaches and strolled around. As we walked along the cobblestone streets a bottle of water came sliding down at us from the steep hill above. We caught it and walked up the hill to return it to its owner who we chatted with about places to stay for the night. He ended up offering his place to us which turned out to be a gorgeous $800 a night four story villa overlooking the bay that he takes care of. There was a group of Americans arriving the next day to rent out the villa, but he gave us the top floor for the night which had the pool, a kitchen, a library, a beautiful tile bathroom with hot showers, and an amazing view of the bay for 200 pesos (about $15).

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We had forgotten what a hot shower feels like after three weeks of cold showers. After cleaning up, Aron and I walked along the malecon to have dinner at a restaurant that our new friend recommended. We had a lovely romantic dinner of chile rellenos (stuffed chilies), mahi mahi, and margaritas and then walked back to the villa where we joined our host for a little tequila as we enjoyed the gorgeous open air view of the city. What started out as a hot, sweaty, frustrating encounter with the city ended up in a wonderful, memorable night in Zihuatanejo.

We spent our second night in the city down the street from the villa at Bungalows La Madera, a gorgeous, inexpensive hotel that I would recommend to anyone visiting Zihuatanejo.

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That evening we met up with Byron and Stevi for a delicious Italian dinner in the center of town. We had pizza for the first time in months and it was wonderful.

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The next stop on the surf agenda was Lagunas de Chacahua, a national park that we had heard about from other travelers. We caravanned down the coast with Byron and Stevi and arrived after a thirty kilometer drive on a super wash board dirt road that rattled the van like a maraca. I have never seen anything like Chacahua- the network of lagoons separated the beach where we were camped from an island with a long perfect right point off a jetty. There were egrets, herons, and other birds everywhere and the lagoon waters were clear and calm and perfect for swimming.

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A large portion of the population in Chacahua is Afromestizo- of mixed African-Mexican descent. We read that a slave ship may have sunk nearby long ago which is how the community started. We camped in a grassy area alongside a little restaurant run by a friendly, elderly local woman who cooked 50 peso fish plates for us.

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We would paddle across the lagoon or pay 10 pesos to have a lancha (little boat) take us across to the island where Aron and Byron had fun surfing.

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There was another wave on our side of the beach as well that barreled pretty hard and was even more fun although not as long.

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After two beautiful clear days and nights at Chacahua, the mosquitos that we had heard so much about came out and attacked with a vengeance. As soon as the sun would start to set we had to hide in the van for the rest of the evening where we would watch movies and read. When the swell dropped and we got tired of the mosquitos, we headed south for Puerto Escondido, a spot known as the “Mexican Pipeline” for it’s huge barrels. There wasn’t much for waves while we were there so we just spent one night camping next to a nice little garden restaurant on the beach before making the long trip through the mountains to Oaxaca.

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This last month of traveling has been pure bliss. We have seen so many new places and have met wonderful people all while hanging out, surfing, and eating amazing fresh seafood at some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We are just living and loving life!

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Puerto Vallarta- The Pearl of the Pacific

While I was living in Santa Barbara during grad school, Aron and I spent a few weekends taking sailing classes in the harbor. One day when walking around the docks, we came across a statue of a little boy gallantly riding a seahorse. A plaque at the bottom of the statue declared it was a gift to the city of Santa Barbara from its sister city, Puerto Vallarta, “The Pearl of the Pacific”. Upon arriving in Puerto Vallarta, we found the same statue of the little cowboy while strolling the boardwalk (or malecon) along the ocean in the center of the city.

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We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on the afternoon of Sunday, February 10 and found our friend Govinda “Benny” hard at work outside of Murphy’s Irish Pub on the malecon, enticing passerby’s to stop in for a drink or a pot pie. I have never seen two friends so happy to see each other. I just couldn’t stop smiling as Aron and Benny hugged and laughed and just couldn’t contain their excitement to be in this beautiful city together.

We walked up to Benny and his girlfriend Crystal’s adorable studio apartment where we would be staying for the next week to shower and unpack. It is located right in the center of town, three blocks up the hill from the malecon and is surrounded by plants with a gorgeous view of the ocean.

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We joined Benny for a few drinks and some dinner at Murphy’s and then walked over to Viejo Vallarta, the oldest part of town filled with vibrant bars, restaurants, and shops to pick up Crystal from her work. We toured a few fun bars in the area including The Roxy and Bolero where we met an awesome couple of Canadians, Steve and Kathy, otherwise known by their band name Butterflywingtip. They are some of the coolest people we have ever met and they make cool, creative music together that you can check out on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/butterflywingtip. We ended up walking over to their treehouse apartment which was a second story open air studio surrounded by trees alongside the river Rio Cuale that ran through town, it was gorgeous. On the way back to Benny and Crystal’s we stopped for some late night street tacos and quesadillas.

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The next day was Benny and Crystal’s only day off of the week so we planned a fun trip to Yelapa, a beautiful little town in a cove only accessible by boat. Steve, Kathy, and their husky Skully joined us as well so the seven of us loaded up the van and drove half an hour to Boca de Tomatlan, the last little coastal town south of Vallarta that can be reached by car and also the town where some of Benny’s family lives. The sky was surprisingly gray and the ocean was extremely rough but nonetheless we boarded a water taxi along with ten or so other people and headed out for the 45 minute ride to Yelapa. We had to hold on for our lives as the little panga was lifted into the air by the swell and would smack back down onto the ocean. It was pretty exhilarating and we made a good time out of it but it was a little scary. We made it to Yelapa safely and found a perfect little three bedroom casa directly on the beach for 800 pesos ($65 or so) for the night.

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We wandered the cobblestone streets of the little hilly town and bought some fresh caught fish from some local boys and found a market with produce.

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We cooked a lovely dinner of fried plantains, guacamole, fish in garlic sauce, grilled peppers, and a salad and had a wonderful night with great friends.

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The next morning we woke up to a gorgeous blue sky. We strolled through the town and bought some fresh tortillas from a tortilleria and made another lovely meal at the casa.

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We enjoyed the day on the beach and Aron and Steve snorkeled in the clear waters. I couldn’t stop taking pictures and saying how beautiful everything was, it was just amazing.

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Our friend Justin from San Diego who currently lives in Yelapa and works at a swanky resort on the cove had the day off and met up with us on the beach. When we all gathered at a palapa restaurant on the beach for some drinks, Justin introduced us to raicilla, a type of moonshine made from agaves like tequila and mezcal. It was a little smoky like mezcal and really livened up the already fabulously fun day.

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To make things even better, the Pie Lady of Yelapa stopped by. The Pie Lady of Yelapa is known throughout Vallarta and beyond for her delicious home made pies and has been selling slices of her freshly baked pies to the lucky visitors on the beach of Yelapa for more than fifteen years. We had a slice of the chocolate coconut pie and it was one of the most amazingly delicious things I have ever eaten in my life. She had made it fresh that morning and I just wish I had the words to describe how good it was. The only picture I have does not do it justice either.

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The time we spent in Yelapa with our friends new and old were some of the most memorable days of our lives. It was pure bliss, we all had such a wonderful time in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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During the week in Vallarta we would spend the days strolling along the malecon or wandering the cobblestone streets of the town before going out for dinner and drinks in the evenings.

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We spent a lot of time enjoying some of the delicious food the city had to offer. Our favorite was Tacon Marlin, known for it’s fresh seafood burritos. I had one with red snapper and shrimp and Aron had their famous burrito with marlin, shrimp, and octopus. They were absolutely amazing and I have been dreaming about them ever since. We also ate fresh oysters on the beach, some of the freshest and most delicious we have ever had.

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For Valentine’s Day we drove back up north to Sayulita (about an hour drive from Vallarta) to explore it some more since we had only stopped there for a moment on the way down the coast. We found a nice little camping spot near the beach at Sayulita RV Park and Bungalows for 300 pesos and spent the evening and the next morning at the beach.

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Aron surfed some little fun waves and then we strolled the weekly farmer’s market which sold everything from clothing, jewelry, and trinkets to fresh produce and cooked foods.

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We wanted to stay in Puerto Vallarta longer but after a little over a week we knew it was time to move on. There is still so much to see on the road ahead of us. It’s difficult to keep moving when we want to stay in each beautiful place that we stop in but we are grateful for the beautiful places we have seen so far and the wonderful people we have met along the way. Thank you Benny and Crystal for showing us such an awesome time in Vallarta!

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