Most folks haven’t heard of Playa Chacala, and that’s part of its beauty. The idyllic fishing village 56 miles north of Puerta Vallarta provides a low-cost authentic vacation alternative to the mega-resorts for which Mexico is famed (some say shamed). A visit here is a recipe for relaxation and has little negative environmental impact. It also provide needed income to a small community still recovering from 2002 Hurricane Katrina.
The village has about 350 full-time residents, only a handful of whom speak any English. If you go, expect to communicate in Spanish or sign language. Locals are patient listeners and are eager to chat with visitors. Everyone keeps their doors unlocked, and the pueblo’s restaurants may offer to keep a running tab for you, so you don’t have to deal with money throughout your visit. In addition to lounging on the white sand beach, visitors to Chacala can also enjoy surfing, snorkeling, horseback riding, fishing, whale watching, and even meditation and yoga at Mar De Jade, a spiritual retreat center outfitted with a hot pool and steam room (see sidebar). You can also hike the surrounding area with its lush fruit and tobacco plantations and discover pre-Columbian petroglyphs.
Where to Stay in Chacala
Budget travelers usually rent a room from a local family for anywhere from $8-$40 a night. There are plenty to be had — no need to make reservations, except during Christmas and Easter week.
The previously mentioned Mar de Jade is an upscale option for those looking for a little more structure, and it is a good place to stay with children. The center provides free medical services, legal aid, school scholarships, and an emergency fund for local residents.
Volunteering in Chacala
Volunteer opportunities in Chalaca include helping students (many of whose parents are illiterate) in the after-school program or lending a hand in constructing new houses with Techos de Mexico (Mexican Roofs), a sister program to Habitat for Humanity. The program helps locals build not only housing but also additional accommodation to rent to visitors. Once their loans are paid off through payments of 50% of rental earnings, the families have a permanent source of income. The rooms built by Techos de Mexico are airy and clean; some also have kitchenettes.
For those in the healthcare field, Casa Clínica offers volunteer opportunities (with a minimum state of three weeks) and a chance to learn about tropical diseases, community healthcare, and Spanish medical terminology. Students can receive university credit through the program.
Chacala’s visitors usually pass the twilight hours dawdling over dinner in one of the restaurants on the beach. They may also enjoy an impromptu sing-along with locals or play a hand of cards. The other option is to read and retire early. Playa Chacala offers the antitheses of the tequila-drowned party scene and fancy resorts that so many visitors seek in Mexico. Once you are on the beach watching the fishermen come to shore at sunset while the water laps at your feet it’s hard not to feel you have discovered the authentic Mexico. And you have.
-Ande Wanderer is a writer and photographer who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.AW-Chilling-in-Chacala
Notes about this article:
I was suppose to go to Burning Man that year, but didn’t get all my work done for the newspaper I worked for before the caravan left. I took it at as a sign — I wasn’t sure I was up for Burning Man anyway. I only had two weeks unpaid leave off a year and really needed to relax. I was also worried about being exposed to the elements under the Black Rock Dessert sun, and I was pretty ill-prepared anyway — something I had been warned about but I simply didn’t have time to prepare for a festival months in advance.
Since I had the time off anyways, I booked a cheap, last-minute flight to Mexico and discovered this then-unspoiled village. I flew into Puerto Vallarta, but found it a bit too urban and overpriced for my vacation tastes, so I researched somewhere more relaxed I could get to within a couple of hours on a bus.
Chacala turned out to be just what I was looking for — there were no other foriegn tourists so it became the perfect opportunity to work on my Spanish, then at an intermediate level. I took Spanish lessons from the mayor’s wife, slept in late, swam and hiked, and read on the beach (under a palapa, of course) .
I got celebrity treatment since I was the only gringa and locals — many who lived there their whole lives — are eager for someone new to chat with. I met village elders such as Luna and Marta, the local shaman and his apprentice, the obligatory mariachi singer, a guy who crossed the border illegally into the U.S. and earned enough to build himself a home here, and hung around the campfire with some college kids from Guadalajara while drinking Tecante and listening to Radiohead’s newly released album, Amnesiac, (the least authentic anecdote from the trip).
I knew it wasn’t a destination such as Cancun or Cabos San Lucas that would appeal to a typical vacationer, but I thought of my old pals at Transitions Abroad might be interested in the sustainable travel angle and they were.