The Golden Beaches of the Costa Alegre
Forty-five miles along the Mexican Pacific, framing broad bays or steeply pitched coves, are known as the Costa Alegre. Departing Manzanillo's "Playa de Oro" Airport and turning north, we are in the state of Colima until halfway across the Cihuatlan bridge. The other half, and the once earthquake-scarred town, hurtle us into the state of Jalisco.
Our windswept Riviera, which had endured the damage of the '95 earthquake and the '98 El Niño hurricane, is bound by Barra de Navidad on one end and Careyes on the other. In between are bougainvillea in every color, vivid yellow primavera, the ethereal clouds of "rosa morada" trees, and prodigies of bananas, sugarcane, papaya, mango, chiles, sorghum, limes, and even, especially around "El Aguacate," plenty of avocados.
Most prevalent however are the tattered and miraculous coconuts, one of nature's marvels of adaptability and resourcefulness, in themselves a resource, side by side with prickly pear, organ cactus and candlestick. And despite the rollicking appearance of pink frangi-pani, "cup-o-gold" and hibiscus, this hill country that drops off into the sea, peaks separated by pockets of fertile farmland, is scrubby and brown in the dry season, crisp and green when it rains, laced with lazy lagoons, pink herons and white cranes. Lines of scrawny Barhma cattle turn back suspiciously from the ample river beds or narrow streams (or even the center of the highway, late at night), to haunt us with their deep brown eyes.
Beaches are plentiful but hotels are few. The explorer needs to set up a base camp. Barra de Navidad, "Capital of the Costa Alegre," and its neighbor Melaque in the wide bay of the same name, offer a variety of rooms, bungalows, trailer parks and campsites.
Isla Navidad, a private development only a five-minute boat ride (though there is a road the long way around, via Ejido la Culebra) from Barra's stone-paved harbor entrance, offers mammoth Grand Bay, 200 rooms, sandy coves, pools, tennis courts, golf club, marina, gambling casino and a gambling ship (registered in Portland, Oregon).
Hugging the cliff at the south end of the next bay and offering a glimpse of what the coastal jungle may once have been is "El Tamarindo," and ecological reserve and golf course. This contradiction in terms is offset, as one friend put it, by tagging the trees around the greens with their botanical names. "The Villaage" is a cluster of "ecotourism" villas, in this case of outrageous refinement and luxury. Reservations are required.
There may still be a dirt track for the adventurer, but mostly the cluster of houses, ranches or vacation beaches are reached by paved roads that depart the highway to traverse the 2-10 kilometers toward the coast. Gaping Tenacatita Bay offers at least 4: La Manzanilla, Boca de Iguana, Los Angeles Locos and Tenacatita itself. The bay is a beautiful sight, with crashing green surf, honey-colored sand and thatched restaurants by the dozen, for the perusal of local octopus, oysters, shrimp, crab, lobster, grey snapper, and the little fish, like the "cocinero" or the "rayado," salted and roasted whole over coconut charcoal. The best food on the coast, however, lies north toward Puerto Vallarta, with "La Viuda" in Chamela, 10 minutes by taxi from Careyes.
We will cross many bridges as we head north: El Seco, El Arenoso, the hot springs at "Agua Caliente," Purificacion; and the no-name bridge - "Puente Sin Nombre" - but we are now on the Careyes coast near Emiliano Zapata, the hotel and golf club in Tecuan and the private castle at Cuitzmala. There is a lighthouse and fisherman's cove at Careyitas. Next to it Teopa, a turtle's beach. The twins: Playa Blanca (Club Med) and Playa Rosa are to be found here, along with the Hotel Bel Air, a splendid local branch of the Los Angeles homonym, and, all around, the celebrated architecture. You'll find sponge-painted walls in muted colors and splashy combinations, integrated with lattice, thatch and clay. The design revolution of a quarter of a century ago is now a fact of life.
This is a land of diving pelicans, rowdy parrots and dazzling sunsets, a sailboat that steals off in the dark of night, crisp mornings, a honeymoon hideaway, a family holiday. Here is a distant boundary very close at hand.
By Carol Miller
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