I’m hesitant to even tell you. It’s not like Yelapa is Mexico’s best-kept secret, but it’s a special place, which, in spite of the recent rapid growth, maintains much of its original charm. Situated in a small cove off the southern edge of the Bahia de Banderas, where jungly hillsides rise steeply from the fertile waters of the Pacific Ocean. A stone’s throw from Puerto Vallarta, but miles away from the bustle. A fishing village, with thatched roof palapas, burros to transport goods, and no cars. NO CARS!
Accessed only by boat, Yelapa has an isolated island feel even though pangas leave hourly and take 45 minutes to reach the modern metropolis. The pueblo only received electricity 15 years ago. There’s no ATM. And while guest houses and rental properties have modern amenities including WIFI, life is still simple and slow. Trumpet flowers and bougainvilleas line the narrow cobbled street that clambers over the hillside willy-nilly. Houses have no walls, and all the action happens outside, in the midday sun and under starry skies. A warm and welcoming community, where people greet you on the street, and no one is hustling or cheating you.
Open doors, open hearts, and open minds. A place still rooted in traditional village values while embracing 21st-century inclusivity. A place without fear.
The landscape is stunning – verdant hills teem with plants, and the jungle hums with the cacophony of creatures. Underfoot lie tiny lizards, giant iguanas, massive frogs, all the creepy crawly spiders and scorpions and beetles (though thankfully few mosquitos). Pelicans and macaws, woodpeckers, finches and sparrows, vultures and terns soar on thermals. The waters teem with fish and dolphins play in the bay. Whales stop by on their annual migration. The jungle is thick with ferns and palms, Ceiba trees and strangler vines, and the Papelillo (Bursera Simaruba) whose red papery bark peels off in great sheets. A veritable Eden, fed by cool, clean spring water that cascades over giant boulders and forms an estuary at the mouth of the bay.
I’d been here once before; for 48 hours on the tail end of a surf trip with my former partner who’d been going to Sayulita – a popular destination just north of here – for years. It left an impression upon me then, even in passing. So much in fact, that when I’d had enough of winter’s icy grip and began to dream of sand between my toes, I decided to come back. I looked into yoga retreats, realized it was beyond my budget and knew I would find what I was seeking in Yelapa.
Mornings doing asana, long lazy afternoons on the beach and sunset hikes; luxurious hours of reading, precious time eked out for writing, and extra hours in bed lulled by the ubiquitous sound of crashing ocean waves. Simplicity and silence. Tranquility and transcendence. Fueled by hand-made tortillas and tropical fruits. And SUNSHINE! Though inhabited year-round, Yelapa has a tourist season which starts in earnest in October and peters out by April. I was there outside of peak season, which was reflected in the reduction of yoga offerings and some business closures. The interweb was of little use to find classes, so I went about it the old-fashioned way, by looking at posters in cafes and asking around. I ran into a friend who hails from my same small town in the mountains of Colorado and now calls Yelapa home for half the year. She told me about daily classes on the beach.
The next morning I made my way down the steep stone steps that descend from the village to the pebbly beach below. At the far end, almost to where the boat pier juts out amongst the cliffs, is a little building, built in the colonial manner with wavy roof tiles and wooden slat windows. Maria, a Mexicana who did her training in Puerto Vallarta, has been living in Yelapa for seven years. She teaches Vinyasa classes three days a week as part of a group called yogaLOVE (Facebook: YogaLove Yelapa) that includes several teachers and is housed in different locations around town.
With our mats facing out towards aquamarine waters, she guided us through a 75-minute slow flow. Mindful, with lots of emphasis on breath and gentle pacing. She brought spirituality to the practice in a lovely lilting accent, alongside excellent alignment cues with particular attention to hands and feet. Maria encouraged visualization and, at the end, talked us through a short guided meditation. It was exactly what a beachside class ought to be like: gentle and heartfelt, and I left happy and limber.
After class, I plopped myself down into a nearby beach chair under a shady umbrella and drank the first of many coconuts to come, brought to me by a barefoot smiling man.
When I’d savored every last drop of the hydrating nectar, he cut it half, scraped out the pieces and served it with lime, chili, and salt. The perfect combination of sweet and savory, with a healthy kick (50 pesos). I spent a fabulous afternoon sunning myself by the sea, and sank my teeth into the giant novel I’d brought.
In my meanderings about town, I noticed an advertisement for pilates at Oasis By the River (www.yelapaoasis.com). Just inland, along the banks of the lazy river, nestled amongst giant bamboo, lies a small resort with half a dozen rooms to rent, an open-air restaurant surrounded by a pond resplendent with water lilies and a beautiful central palapa used for classes and events. On a smooth tiled floor in the shade of the high, thatched roof, Joy, visiting from NYC, took us through an hour-long session. Joy was lithe and beautiful, with incredible muscle tone and porcelain skin, but she was generally joyless. I found her a bit off-putting and exuding attitude, even though I introduced myself, told her I had no experience with pilates, and that I would modify for my recent injury.
Oasis by the River www.yelapaoasis.com Marin 4, Ranchería Yelapa, Cabo Corrientes, Jal., Mexico 48440 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone (USA) (415)-994-8927 Phone (Mexico) 52-(322)-209-5270
200 pesos/1-hour long pilates session
We began by rolling our feet over several different balls, waking up all the receptors. We practiced balance by standing on one leg and doing forward folds to pick up another ball from the floor. Using a foam rocker, we held planks for interminable amounts of time, did countless crunches and side bodywork. Gradually, as our muscles warmed up, slowly so did she. By the time we got into the challenging core work, Joy was cracking jokes, and I was able to smile through the discomfort. She paid meticulous attention to alignment and cued for muscle engagement, but assumed we all had a strong working knowledge of anatomy and bombarded us with latin names. At the end of the class, though aware of burning muscles and a general sense of fatigue, I was also aware of a greater range of motion than I’d had in quite some time.
I was enthusiastic to return that evening for dinner and open mic night. I’d been invited by my friend, whom I’d happened upon again while walking to the waterfall in town; she and her husband are building a massive house alongside the path. And while I’m certain it will be beautiful and I’d be fortunate enough to enjoy her hospitality next season, it also embodies some of the growing pains Yelapa is experiencing. The population has been increasing rapidly, partly due to an increasing influx of expats and the growth of tourism.
Though some structures have been built in the traditional manner using native materials, most new construction is made of concrete and rebar. Open air structures, constructed to allow a gentle breeze to naturally provide cooling, give way to blocky monsters, replete with air conditioning. Concrete is cheap, and houses can be built quickly, but it’s also thirsty and demands lots of water, which is in limited supply. The falls are noticeably smaller this year, with less water in the pool below. The river is lower too, as more and more water is diverted to be used for construction, or sanitized for cooking and drinking.
And speaking of drinking, I’d decided to take a break. No tempting cocktails with umbrellas to be sipped seaside, nor the customary glass of wine enjoyed in the company of new friends. Instead, when the group gathered to dine under gently swaying palms, I ordered Jamaica, a tart cranberry-like beverage with great health properties. The service was friendly, but the menu was limited, with a chili relleno as the only vegetarian option. Not wanting something deep fried, I asked for a plate of rice and beans with salad. It was very disappointing: I got lardy beans and under-seasoned rice, a small clump of greens, though fresh from the garden, no other veggies and uninspired dressing lacking acidity, and cold, clammy commercially produced tortillas. And though they gave me a discount on my plate, it was still way overpriced. Pity, as I’d had high hopes of the restaurant at Oasis by the River. But the company was lovely, and conversation flowed freely until the music began.
The evening was anchored by Gabriella, Italian by birth, though living in the Pacific Northwest when not here in Yelapa. She sang acoustic covers of electro groups like Massive Attack and Portishead, as well as charming original songs. Slowly others took their turn, including my Canadian neighbor who tickled us all by forgetting his harmonica holder and asking his lovely Dutch wife to hold it in place while he strummed his guitar. It was a wonderful evening, hardly worth making a mountain over a molehill of bad beans.
I went back to the beach the following day for another class with Maria. I was the only student that morning which suited me just fine. Maria was able to tailor the practice to my physical needs, and together we found a comfortable pacing. I again enjoyed her soothing voice and the simple but powerful messages she conveyed.
I slipped comfortably into meditation and decided I would maintain silence until dusk.
Walking meditation seemed like the perfect idea. So I packed my daypack with water, chili peanuts, and an avocado and headed out for the waterfall three miles upstream. The path follows the river and crosses it several times. Along the way are several resorts tucked amongst the foliage, including Vereda, a gorgeous eco-friendly oasis, replete with its own pool. Some friends who’d stayed there had told me about it; it’s a true work of art, a perfect symbiosis of form and function. Artistic design elements abound throughout the resort which features several private palapas as well as guests rooms in the main house.
The owner, Jeff, has been lovingly nurturing this slice of paradise for over ten years. The kitchen is straight out of an architectural magazine with its gray adobe walls, an enormous wooden island and bronze sculptures cast by Jeff’s mother. Inside, guests have the privilege of including fruits and vegetables grown on the property into their culinary pursuits. Over the years, Tatiana Moreno Greene, co-owner and in-house chef, has compiled a cookbook entitled Cooking in Paradise. I made a mental note to buy a copy upon my return to the States as well as keep Vereda in mind for future Yelapa visits.
Vereda Yelapa www.veredayelapa.com
Calle Paseo de las Palmas
Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico 48400
+52 322 101 6400
Back on the path, I passed homes of local villagers (many of whom offer rooms for rent), as well as the stables where the horses and burros are kept. While the burros are mainly used for transporting goods, horses are available for hire at a reasonable price; just negotiate with the caballero. I would have liked to ride, but my lingering injury kept both my feet on the ground. Instead, I clip-clopped over the stones that lined the way until the place where the path diverges to the left (it’s marked with a sign). The dirt track then winds its way through the forest, until it dead-ends at a giant pile of boulders at the pool at the base of the falls. There was much less water flowing than the last time when the spray could be felt from far away, and the bottom of the cascade housed a powerful eddy. But the cool clean water was still incredibly refreshing, and I enjoyed wading through the stream, as well as an hour of sunbathing (I mean, ‘meditating’) on the warm rocks before returning to town.
Famished, I headed to Los Abuelos (Facebook: Los Abuelos) which I fondly recalled had excellent food. It’s tucked into a tiny alley between the Marina and the Casino, and finding it feels like discovering the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The food is outstanding; the love is in the details. Finding my voice once again (like Ariel), I ordered a vegetarian taco and a side salad. The taco was served on a homemade blue corn tortilla and came with a salsa caddy including a perfectly balanced chipotle cream – silky and smokey. The taco was piled high with shredded cabbage, julienned carrots and beets all super fresh and crispy, and underneath was a perfect morsel, whose identity initially eluded me, which delighted me to no end. I love being stumped!
PRIVADA BACALAO #4 col. la playita
Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico 48400
+52 322 209 5043
I finally realized it was a quarter of an avocado, dredged in panko and flash fried. Light and crispy, super salty and umami and inside, melt-in-your-mouth creamy. The accompanying salad was a star in its own right, with slivers of apple, sesame seeds and spicy crisped oats, kissed by a delightful tangy tamarind dressing, not at all cloying or sticky. Beautiful living food, artfully presented and amply portioned while incredibly reasonably priced. My whole meal, including a lime soda, cost less than $4.
Los Abuelos turned out to be hands down the best food in town. I went back on three other occasions.
The second time I ordered a dinner salad. It came with grilled asparagus, peppers, and tomatoes as well as slices of local cheese lightly dressed in a cilantro vinaigrette. I enthusiastically devoured it alongside three perfect tortillas, warm and supple with just the right amount of char. By the third visit, the waiter knew me by name and brought me a lime soda – sin azúcar sin popote (no sugar no straw) – without even asking. I ordered a chimichanga which was equally delicious as everything else I’d already sampled – crispy and light, not at all oily and filled to the gills with veggies. I was about to leave when I noticed a slice of cake being delivered to the table next to me and decided it was time to blow my wheat and sugar wad. The cake turned out to be incredibly moist, super chocolatey and not overly sweet, which is a pleasant surprise in a country known for super sugary postres (desserts).
The next morning, with joints aching for having over-indulged, I set out in search of Sky Temple, the only dedicated yoga shala I could find on the internet. It was already closed for the season, but Judith, its spry owner, invited me to come by anyway. Sky Temple is aptly named, as it sits high above Yelapa on the crest of the mountains. To get there, one climbs up many many steps and it feels like a classical pilgrimage, akin to many I have undertaken in India.
Sky Temple www.yogainyelapa.com email@example.com get in touch with Judith or ask locals for directions
I found Judith mosaicking a set of stairs, sitting on the earth under a banner with Amma’s smiling face. Inspired by the hugging guru’s invocation for peace, which involves visualizing a blue sky and white flowers filled with peace falling from above covering the trees, mountains, rivers, animals, and children, Judith was painstakingly cutting blue tiles. She stopped her work to give me a tour.
The house and her shala are one. She believes in open doors and open hearts and her space is as opening and welcoming as one can imagine. A large covered hall, with no walls and an incredible panorama of the sea below, serves as the practice space. It’s flanked on one side by a guest bedroom which she offers to the teacher in residence. She hosts about twelve groups a year, of approximately 25 students. Judith never had children, instead preferring to think of her staff and her students as her chosen family. She speaks extensively of the concept of creating global family united in love.
She could make Sky Temple an all-inclusive retreat center, but instead, she places participants with local families. This ensures a greater integration of wealth into the local community as well as fostering intercultural exchange.
On the other side of the shala, lies her bedroom and kitchen. No walls separate hostess and practitioner. Rather, guests are made to feel at home, as her staff prepares the daily meal using locally sourced ingredients. The building itself is covered in murals and I found Felipe Garcia, creating a new mosaic of guacamayas, a local macaw and Judith’s spirit animal. With devotion and precision, he cut tiles and pieces of glass and affixed them with concrete mortar. From a pile of pieces emerged an incredibly lifelike representation of the vibrant birds.
Everything about Sky Temple indicates Judith’s commitment to service. There’s a meticulous attention to detail from the impeccable cleanliness of the bathrooms to the artful arrangement of altars. When I pressed her a bit so she could explain what drives her, she summed it up succinctly in one word: “Gratitude.” She paused for a moment and then revealed that she is the daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. “So am I,” I replied. The lengthily conversation that ensued, with Judith once again mosaicking the whole time, was finally interrupted by the arrival of more visitors.
We hugged goodbye like long lost sisters and with an ache in my heart, I descended from the temple to the pueblo below, marveling at the mysterious ways the universe brings us together.
On my final day in Yelapa, I returned to Oasis By the River for what was advertised as “Gentle Hatha and Neurogenic Yoga” and was thrilled to discover that it was taught by Gabriella, the musician. She explained that Neurogenic Yoga was developed by an American doctor, Dr. David Barcelli, as a way of incorporating TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) into a physical practice. She had learned it from teachers in California who studied directly under him. The hour-long class was really basic, more gentle stretching than actual vinyasa, but I really enjoyed Gabriella’s soothing hippy energy. She seems like less of a yoga teacher and more of a healer.
When the TRE came at the end, we lay on our backs and did bridge pose with the soles of our feet together like baddha konasana. The three of us held this posture for 1.5 minutes and then brought our knees closer together and our feet closer to our bodies. Almost instantly, I began shaking uncontrollably. It was a bit like after an amazing Kundalini class when the energy spirals and rises. Or some spirit possession like one sees in mystic traditions around the globe, including the holy rollers. Or orgasm. It was intense, but not scary, and Gabriella made sure to check in with me periodically as my arms flayed and my legs did the chicken dance. When I was ready to end it, I simply lay down in Savasana and focused on regulating my breath. Afterwards, I felt a bit fatigued, as if I had engaged in some strenuous activity, but also incredibly present. Filled with a tingly feeling with a goofy grin on my face. Like the afterglow of really epic sex making.
And like after powerful coitus, I was powerfully hungry. I mentioned to Gabriella that I had been waiting to check out Cafe Bahia. Gabriella’s face turned ashen as she proceeded to explain that the beloved restaurant, which has greeted visitors as they step off the panga onto the town pier, had burned down that very morning. There were thankfully no injuries, but the business was a total loss. It had been made of traditional thatch roof and, once it ignited, quickly went up in flames. No one had been able to save it. There hadn’t been enough water available as the municipal pump was broken and the lines lacked the necessary pressure. By the time people had gathered buckets and began to collect sea water, the structure was completely destroyed, and they focused their efforts on the adjacent buildings. Susan, the owner, wants to rebuild, and there’s a Gofundme page to help her out.
The incident is another glaring reminder of what happens when rampant development is not in check, when infrastructure doesn’t grow at the same pace as demand and the water supply is severely diminished.
The silver lining on the tragedy is that the local government is now going to require all residents to pay an annual fee to tap into the water supply. Whereas previously one could connect a hose to one’s neighbors hose to a hose connected to a hose which led to the stream. In the future, there will be a centralized and regulated system, which seems like a positive first step in ensuring that Yelapa continues to be a beautiful place for travelers and locals alike.
A paradise of gentle people and gentle weather. Of open floor plans and open hearts. Of lush jungle and fecund seas, where people, plants, and animals live in harmony. And if I sound like less of a hater and more of a lover, it just goes to show what a week barefoot on the beach can do.