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Turning 50 with good friends...and a burro: PV to Yelapa

I first came to Puerto Vallarta and then Yelapa 25 years ago. Paula and I were dating when she came across an ad in the newspaper for a cheap all-inclusive package to Puerto Vallarta. This was my first trip out of the U.S. and my third time on an airplane. I was 25.

It was a difficult weekend for me as I was so focused on not being a tourist or doing touristy things that I was a bit of an ass, got my sister’s camera (and our clothes!) stolen, missed the panga to Yelapa and didn’t make a very good first (traveler) impression on my girlfriend. I knew about Yelapa (you can only get there by boat) and that it was a very cool, artsy place to go and hang out, so going for the day on some godforsaken tourist boat for a 3 hour tour sounded horrible. Instead, “We would take the panga!” from PV and hang for the day on our own terms. Well, that didn’t happen. We missed the panga, which only goes once a day (didn’t know that) at 7am (that either) and returns the next day (nope). So instead, we had a cab ride from hell, camera/clothes stolen and a walk on the highway back to the hotel with bare feet and only a swimsuit. I gave Paula my Teva’s – she was not impressed.

We were in PV for 4 days and never made it to Yelapa together. Paula had to get home to get back to work. I was on a summer break from college and unemployed so I decided to extend my trip for three weeks. I kissed her goodbye at the airport and all of a sudden, I was alone in Mexico.

Trying to get to Yelapa the first time. Age 25

6th time was the most memorable. Age 50.

I had one more failed attempt at the 7 a.m. panga before I finally made the boat to Yelapa. That delay proved fortuitous, as I happened to sit next to a woman named Isabel. She was originally from Santa Cruz, CA but had lived in Yelapa for 20+ years. She was one of the original expats who had settled there and she owned a little piece of land near the point where she had 5 open-air palapas for rent. I told her I needed a very cheap place to stay and she offered one of her palapas for next to nothing if I would ‘do some work’ around the place. Done!

I thought I would spend 2-3 days there but I stayed for 3 weeks. It was my first real adventure. I was living in the jungle without electricity. I wrote in a journal at night by gas lamp. I swung a machete in the jungle by day with Jose who worked for Isabel. We didn’t speak each other’s language but we managed to communicate, and I learned about the jungle; what was malo or bueno. I saw and killed my first scorpion. I drank ricilla (the local moonshine) and had my first vision of what appeared to be an Aztec warrior.

The landscape of Yelapa was incredible. The dense and alive jungle grew down to the water’s edge. I felt like I was living on a movie set. But it was the people that I met that really seemed to be the essence of the place. Isabel was 60 then and amazing. She was close with the local Huichole's and had been on one of their pilgrimages. I would go down to the beach in the late afternoon after the tourists left and hang out with the locals – Mexican, Huicholes, and U.S. or Canadian expats. People would take me in to their home for dinner and I would go to town parties - it was amazing. I would often leave the point to go out and explore on my own and inevitably I would come home around midnight with a good buzz and a full heart.

I grew up in Yelapa and I never forgot how it made me feel. So I’ve been back several times, one of them for my 40th birthday with some very good friends. During that trip we were invited to a wedding in town where I was able to hang with Isabel again. I am told that when we were all walking back to our hotel after this party, I shouted, “I am Yelapa!!!!” It’s a very special place for me.

With Isabel in 2005. Age 40

Twenty five years after I first arrived in Yelapa, we celebrated my 50th birthday there. We have incredible friends and a few of them flew in to celebrate with us at our favorite jungle resort, Verana. For some, this would be their first experience in Yelapa and for others one of many. We had an absolutely incredible time there and I was honored and humbled by the toasts and book that Paula and our friends put together for me. My amazing wife and friends touched me deeply in the one place I hold sacred. I could not be more grateful.

Boat ride to Yelapa. ("I got you, Baby")

Favorite house at Verana

Pre dinner group shot. What a great day.

King for the Day!

Santiago and Natalia from Guadalajara joined us. It was Natalia's birthday too!

Group shot at the pool.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story in Yelapa this time. I got to see Yelapa from a different vantage over the next couple of days.

I have hiked all around Yelapa. Up in the mountains, down the rivers, to the waterfalls, etc. I have had many a day that turned into night where I made midnight treks back up the trail by only the light of the moon. A great majority of these trips have involved libations (Ok, probably all of them). I have NEVER even stubbed a toe on these treks.

Sunday night however, went down a little different. We watched the first half of the super bowl in town. I had three beers. We left during the 3rd quarter to walk from town out to the point and back up the hill to Verana. It was after dark and raining mildly. Right before I got to the top, I missed a step and my foot went into a gap between the stone steps. The sharp edge gave me a jagged laceration and turned the back of my heel, right behind my Achilles, into hamburgueso meat. It was bad and I knew it. I limped up the rest of the way to my palapa, and cleaned and dressed the wound as best I could. I knew I needed a doctor but it was late so we had to wait until morning. The next morning I headed into the town with Paula via a painful hike in the rain down the hill to take the Verana boat.

The night before I contemplated what a clinic in Yelapa would look like. I hoped there would be a younger doctor who spoke English and a clinic that had white walls. (I wasn’t overly particular). We had a woman from the hotel accompany us. She took us to the doctor’s house where she knocked on the door and his mother answered. OK, he lived with his mother. And likely he isn’t too old, unless that was really his wife. Once he came through the door, I realized that one of my preferred criteria was achieved – he was young – very young. Like he lived at home because he couldn’t afford his own place young. I had to assume he graduated from medical school and this wasn’t some sort of field trip for him. We walked, mostly in silence, to the clinic.

Loooong walk to the clinic with the baby doctor..

Gauze, tape, blood, hotel garbage bag. What a look.

When we approached the clinic I saw a white building with an official sign that said, “Medico ..." this and “Government...” that. This gave me a bit more comfort. Once I climbed the stairs and walked inside, I found that we had entered a brand new clinic. Furniture was pushed to the center of the room, a bucket of home made spackle was on the floor with a trowel, tarps were strewn around, and one guy was working in one of the back rooms. Fortunately, the doctor’s examination room and office seemed to have already been painted – white. Check. The doctor was young, the walls of the clinic were white and he spoke a little English. OK, let’s do this.

The doc looked at my wound and asked me how it had happened. Almost immediately, he said I needed stiches. Awesome. He numbed it, cleaned it and stitched it. I hobbled out of there with antibiotics, more dressings and a clean and stitched wound. And it was free. I love this country!

7 stitches. We found out later it was not a great sewing job.

The journey back to Verana was unpleasant. Now it was pouring down rain. We hobbled down some steps and then to the beach because it too steep for me to go through town. I had a plastic Walmart bag taped tight around my foot to keep the dressing dry. To get into the Verana boat, I had to time the waves and river current and hop in on one foot backwards. It wasn’t graceful, but it was effective – I didn’t tear the stitches. We had a rainy boat ride back to the Verana dock. The dock sits below a steep set of stairs that I took one at a time, up to the spot where the Verana ‘Bell Boys’ load luggage onto the mules to bring up to the hotel. Guests usually hike the 25 minutes up the hill to Verana. But this time, I was the luggage.

El Burro

My mule loped the last few steps to just below the restaurant where my friends were having breakfast. I hadn’t seen any of them since before the injury, and now they saw me, on top of El Burro, in all my glory. I dismounted as gracefully as I could (not very), but they cheered me on.

Muchos gracias

We all settled in to our last day together. It turned out to be a very good day. We played games, laughed til it hurt, got a chance to talk and we drank a little tequila. I am blessed and grateful to have such good friends.

Last group shot before the boat back. Love you guys!!

Waiting to hobble down to the boat. Bummed out a little, but what a view.

So goes life on the road. Live, adjust, modify and be grateful. I bummed for a short time about how ½ inch the other way on the stone step and i would have no injury. My insightful friend Mark, brought me back to grateful – ½ inch the wrong way and I would have torn my Achilles tendon and been on a plane back to SF and the whole trip would be over. So I’m good. More tequila please.


We stayed in PV for another week to get the stitches out. I can’t drive and we are told we shouldn’t travel. Yesterday, nine days after it happened, I went back to the doctor to get the stitches out, and the wound is now infected. Back on antibiotics and we must stay in PV for at least three more days and go back to the hospital here to have the infection assessed. We are hoping it will be ok and we can get back on the road by the end of this week. So for now, we’re holed up in PV - where it all started for us. Guess you could say we have come full circle.

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