By Jennifer Simonson
I rest my right cheek on the surfboard, letting the cool ocean water lap against my face as I try to catch my breath. Off in the distance I can see grey rain clouds billowing over the mountains, threatening to cut my surf lesson short. The rhythmic motion of the ocean lulls me into a daze, allowing me a moment to savor my surroundings before being whisked up—only to be immediately knocked back down. Is this really what I wanted from my “relaxing” vacation?
“Vámonos,” my instructor says, pushing my board ahead of an upcoming wave.
“Okay,” I reply, taking in a deep breath before pushing myself up on the board.
Even though Mexico is just a two hour flight from Dallas, I haven’t set foot in the country in more than a decade prior to planning this trip. My more recent travels have taken me further south in Latin America to hike the mountains of Peru, to taste wine in Argentina, and to backpack through the jungles of Colombia.
But when I decided I wanted to end 2018 with a quick beach vacation I figured it was time to revisit my neighbor to the south.
While arranging the trip, I’m intent on experiencing a decidedly different style of Mexican beach vacation than what I experienced in my 20s—one remembered by days spent on the beach surrounded by empty Tecate cans, and nights in dark dance clubs full of waiters holding whistles and trays of tequila shots.
This time around I want to relax sans copious amounts of alcohol, experience local culture, and try something new. No longer in pursuit of an all-you-can-drink resort, I book three nights at the W Punta de Mita, 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. The W is known for its balance of health and fun. The morning buffet features, delightfully, both a smoothie bar and a Bloody Mary bar. It stands to reason that “Detox. Retox. Repeat.” is their official philosophy.
Despite my best intentions, the retox portion of my stay is immediately peddled as I push open the door to my room only to find two Tajin-rimmed glasses, two small bottles of tequila, fresh grapefruit juice, agave, honey, lime juice, and soda, along with instructions on how to make a Piwiwi, the hotel’s house cocktail (named after a local bird).
Detoxing on property could be as easy as strolling up a hill to the 4,000-square-foot spa. One can never be too relaxed on vacation, so I book a body treatment to scrub away any remaining anxieties I’ve carried with me from home. The spa has an intricate layout of therapy pools all set to varying temperatures. For the truly brave they even have a cold plunge pool set at 63 degrees. I’m not in the mood to be brave, so I relax in a hot tub underneath a towering fig tree as I wait for my massage therapist to retrieve me.
The W is a self-contained complex with a beach, two pools, multiple restaurants and bars, and a spa. “Most of our guests never leave the resort during their stay,” says Javier Puente, the hotel’s marketing manager. That said, one of my general rules of travel is that no matter how amazing and all-inclusive your hotel stay is, you still need to leave the property.
Bearing that in mind, on my second day in Mexico I head to the nearby boho surfer town of Sayulita. Like any good Latin America town there’s a central plaza playing host to wooden benches, raised planters, and palm trees surrounding a teal and pink gazebo.
The central plaza is where friends stop to chat, teenagers sit closely on the benches holding hands, and children run around playing endless games of tag. It’s easy to people watch the day away sitting on a bench eating a coconut paleta.
Colorful flags line the five streets that spoke off of the central plaza’s hub. The pedestrian-only street that heads to the beach is crowded with barefoot surfers, tourists on vacation, young backpackers who also seem to be on vacation (permanently?), and families with young children. Vendors line the streets selling handmade trinkets and souvenirs while the shops above the street sell surprisingly high quality artwork.
Back at the hotel I expand my knowledge of local culture with The W’s culinary and beverage classes. Ceviche is a common staple of Latin American beach communities. It’s a fresh, tasty, healthy dish that I learn during my class is as easy to make as letting raw fish soak in lime juice for ten minutes, cutting up cilantro, tomatoes, onions and jalapeños, then mixing everything together.
I had thought I knew everything there was to know about Mexican liquors, but during a mezcal class later that evening the instructor introduces me to my new favorite liquor—raicilla.
“It is a cross between mezcal and tequila,” says Viridiana Garcia, who’s running the class. Raicilla is made from an agave plant like tequila and is roasted like mezcal. It’s smoother than tequila, but not as smoky as mezcal. Along with explaining the distillation process of the liquors, Garcia also teaches us that a shot of straight tequila each and every day is good for keeping cholesterol low.
On my final day in Mexico, after getting my fill of relaxation and culture, I sign up for a surfing lesson to challenge myself. “This is the Mexican vacation you wanted,” I say to myself, preparing to stand up on my board, planting my weight on my back foot, sticking my hands out for balance, and staying upright for all of five seconds longer than my precious attempts—before splashing down face-first into the surf.