An Inside Guide to the Bay of Banderas
BoutiqueHomes' Kris Roni called Yelapa home for nearly five years before decamping to nearby Puerto Vallarta, and despite countless ‘panga’ boat journeys to and from this jungle cove, the experience still invokes a sense of wonder. Here, he describes what's special about this village in the Bay of Banderas, and where else to explore while you're visiting.
BoutiqueHomes finds its roots in Yelapa, a fishing village at the southern end of the Bay of Banderas, where founders Heinz Legler and Veronique Lievre built Verana, a hotel born from creative ingenuity and a whale's share of grit. A stay at Verana is a must, and most guests find themselves drawn back time and again, but all visitors should be sure to take the jungle path down to explore this village in its tucked-away cove. Meaning ‘where two rivers meet the sea’, Yelapa has often been considered a vortex, bringing people and ideas together and bringing about a little something more.
An eclectic mix of young and old locals blend their traditional and more modern sensibilities, an aging abuela taking a siesta in her hammock contrasting with the hip youngsters on their smartphones, in this fishing village where ranchera music can be heard through the cacophony of parakeet song and macaw squawks.
Spend a morning strolling through the organic sprawl of Yelapa, and you'll find Doña Chelly selling her world-famous pies. Shredded coconut, banana and apple are all favorites, but the toasted walnut will always be my choice. Get languorous on Yelapa beach and share a fresh fish ceviche or shrimp aguachile; the red snapper grilled on a stick over open coals is a local treat, and you can see families crowding around on Sundays to join in on what many tourists come to partake in.
Pro tip! Jam up to the waterfall in town before the double-decker booze cruise unloads scores of day trippers to pose for photos with iguanas. The refreshing mist from the falls beckons and invites a dip while Yelapan kids show off their daring by climbing the rocks and somersaulting into the natural pool.
The more adventurous visiting Yelapa can paraglide with the locals offering the service. The initiated 'gliders' flock here for the good thermals the cove provides, but if you prefer the depths to the heights, the diving and snorkeling here yields glimpses of an array of fish—damsels and sergeant majors, pufferfish, boxfish, butterflyfish, eels, eagle rays—and if you’re lucky a turtle. If you’re unlucky... a brush with a jellyfish.
Heading north from Yelapa by bumpy boat, then a bumpier bus, brings you to the city of Puerto Vallarta, more than likely where you originally arrived by plane. There is so much information on Vallarta available that I’ll highlight local favorites, such as a spicy Mezcal cocktail on Playa Cameron at the beach restaurant El Barracuda. Next door at night, the DJs come out at El Solar well past your author's bedtime. In up-and-coming neighborhood La Versalles, you'll find a plethora of alternatives to local cuisine, with genuine Caribbean creole curry and braised oxtail at Oregano, Galician tapas and wine at La Gallega a taberna do porto. Bringing it back to local Puerto Vallarta staples, Memo Wulff’s Barrio Bistro is the place for haute Mexican cuisine.
And, of course, no visit to PV is complete without a stroll along the Malecon, perfect for people watching, seeing the dizzying Voladores de Papantla (dancing pole flyers), getting a gelato, and checking the sculptures of native artists such as Jonas Gutiérrez, Alejandro Colunga, and the renowned Sergio Bustamante.
Watch the sun set on the Bay of Banderas, named for the legend of the thousands of indigenous peoples who stood proud with plumed banners or ‘flags’ when encountered by the Spanish.
Living in Vallarta full time for well over a decade inspires you to look for alternatives to the city, and when it’s too hot to hang, a retreat to the Sierra Madre mountain range to the east is a great opportunity to explore the older colonial towns tucked away in the cooler pine forests—San Sebastian del Oeste, Mascota, La Yerbabuena, and Talpa de Allende.
San Sebastian del Oeste is a tiny town with a rich history, in that it was founded as a mining town in the early 17th century. Here, we once again find this dynamic of tradition and radical, perfectly summed up by avant-garde retreat and restaurant Jardin Nebulosa (Nebula Garden), which strives to use local ingredients in a slow farm- and forage-to-table philosophy. Their brewed-on-site craft beer sates the thirst of the drier mountain air.
Get swept up with a group of Mariachi musicians walking through the alleys in the evening, guided by a storyteller regaling a crowd of tourists from Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara with the tales of San Sebastian. Join in with a group of bohemians around a campfire for kirtan chanting. More than likely though, you’ll gravitate to the town plaza where women selling arum lilies paint a scene reminiscent of Diego Rivera.
A must-do before departing San Sebastian is to drive or rent an ATV and ascend to ‘La Bufa’, an outlook point where you can get a 360-degree view of the surrounding forest and mountains. On a clear day, this is the spot, over 8,000 feet about sea level, where you can look out and see the same ocean you’ve just come from.
Returning to the coast, a roundup of the region would not be complete without visiting Sayulita, where the hip and trendy arrive to surf one of the region's only reliable breaks. It is much busier than in years past, parking is a challenge, and the beach is crowded, but the eccentric boutiques, great restaurants and bars make it clear why this is such a popular destination in the region.
Complementing Yelapa and Verana, the town of Sayulita and its surroundings are a perfect way to turn the trip to the region into an extended experience. From the southern end of the Sayulita beach, the Palapa Beach House has an expansive view of the surf and sand, especially from the yoga platform tucked up in the hillside. On a hill looking out over central Sayulita are Casa Saturno and Casita Mimas, a stone's throw (or coconut roll) from Casa Dos Chicos, shared with us at BoutiqueHomes by an Italian host who has gone out of his way to create welcoming homes here for a generation.
I’ve called the area of Puerto Vallarta home now for 14 years. Here, I’ve met love, adventure and wonder, and welcomed a child into the world. It’s long been hailed as one of the world’s friendliest destinations, for all walks of life, your author included. The amount of time I’ve spent here is rapidly approaching the time I spent in the northern California town I grew up in, and I’m thankful daily for the gift of living in this part of Mexico. It's culturally rich, ecologically diverse, and I haven't even scratched the surface here.
Our sights are set on 2023, and to get there we’ll be celebrating Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Dia de Accion de Gracias (Thanksgiving!), and Navidad y Año Nuevo. That last day of the year is when you can join me on the beach at midnight for a mezcal and fireworks that double their spectacle over the mirror of the bay. Espero que nos vemos pronto, aqui donde podemos vivir hermosamente.
Explore the Bay of Banderas here.
Photographs courtesy of Kris Roni, Roshan McArthur, and Palapa Beach House.