December 11–18, 2009

      The second week in December marked the Festival of Our Lady of Guadelupe throughout Mexico and much of Latin America. It is a very special occasion in Puerto Vallarta and we had hoped to be there for the final night. Though we had planned to be in Puerto Vallarta for the entire week, we had the unexpected opportunity and good fortune to spend the first two days in the town of  Tequila with a small group under the leadership of Naomi Kitamura. The rest of the week we sat by our pool and read and relaxed until dinner time, when we ate our way through some of PV’s best restaurants, some old favorites and some great new finds. It was the kind of “vacation” we had looked forward to, especially after a week of truly bone-chilling temperatures when the thermometers stuck at well below freezing; in fact, we reached -18° one morning and below zero four days in a row. Puerto Vallarta’s balmy days and nights were good therapy.

Chuck and Clis 1. Old Friends Meet for Dinner at Ernesto’s

    Chuck and Clis Prather joined the ranks of the retired years before we did, and chose to live on their well appointed boat that they have docked at the Puerto Vallarta Yacht Club for several years. We had met them on our trip to Copper Canyon in 1998. We reconnected last year when we learned that both of us spent time in Puerto Vallarta. This year we had dinner together at Ernesto’s, a small, family owned restaurant in Jarretaderas, a village north of PV just across the Rio de Bolanos in the state of Nayarit. Their award-winning tortilla soup is to die for and they feature all-you–can-eat ribs on Thursdays. It wasn’t Thursday, but after a bowl of soup/stew there wasn’t enough room for the ribs anyway.
Eating at Ernesto's
    The Prathers picked us up at the Krystal and drove us up to Ernesto’s (take the Jarretaderas ramp off the main highway, turn right at the Sex Shop—you can’t miss it: the sign is big and the lettering is clear—and drive just a few blocks until the road turns to dirt). We ordered only tortilla soup, which is unlike the usual broth-with-tortilla chips concoction usually found in the States; Ernesto’s makes a thick, hearty chicken stew with some tortilla chips. Ernesto’s has made their recipe available to everyone. A small bowl makes a meal and a medium bowl will fill a hungry eater. We can’t imagine ordering a large bowl. (It’s a bit of a drive from the Krystal, but we have since learned that the “original” Ernesto’s is located in downtown PV at Rafael Osuna 157. We’ll not miss that next year.) We thank Chuck and Clis for introducing us to another great dining experience in Puerto Vallarta.

2. Touring and Tasting Tequila

    Last year the Prathers toured the town of Tequila (population about 40,000) and several distilleries there. They had a wonderful time and encouraged us to look into going this year. We contacted Naomi Kitamura, who lives in Nuevo Vallarta and organizes a small group to visit around the time of the Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which in Tequila is celebrated on a single day. We contacted her in the spring and she agreed to take us along. Since we did not have a car, we rode with her and her friend, Andrew. Though Tequila is in the same state as PV—Jalisco—it’s a four-hour drive north and east toward Guadalajara.
Overlooking Tequila
    The drive took us through a lot of beautiful countryside, including tropical mountains and fields of blue agave, the basis for tequila. We were quite happy to be passengers this day. In 2006 the area surrounding Tequila was named a World Heritage Site for its cultural significance. We passed Tequila Volcano (elevation 10,000') which last erupted about 200,000 years ago, creating the volcanic soil on which the agave plants thrive, as well as spewing lava and obsidian that are used to pave Tequila’s streets and adorn the sidewalks in town. The fertile valleys where the agave is grown are surrounded by mountains thick with tropical growth.

    We arrived in Tequila about noon and met up with three other couples, two of whom live a great deal of time in Puerto Vallarta and the parents of one of the others who were visiting from Spain. Our group of ten stayed at the comfortable and centrally located Casa Dulce Maria. (The website is in Spanish but it shows the facilities nicely; those of you who read Spanish can practice your skills.) We were dropped off and had just time enough to put our bags in the room and meet up for the start of our tour of the Sauza distillery which was planned for that afternoon. We noticed the open air central atrium at the hotel, but didn’t worry about rain for the weekend, but we do wonder what it is like during the rainy season!
Guillermo Sauza

      Sauza Museum, Distillery, and Hacienda.  Our first stop was to the Sauza Museum which focuses on the origins of the family business and on three generations ("Tres Generaciones") who ran the company until it was sold off to Pedro Domecq in 1988. The museum is just off the church square and chronicles the development of the company from its founding in 1873 and especially the accomplishments of the Don Francisco Javier Sauza, who ran the company from 1931 and helped position tequila as a drink with an international reputation.

    We walked from the museum to the Sauza family hacienda property on the edge of the town where Guillermo Erickson Sauza, the grandson of Francisco Javier Sauza, has begun production of a new label using a small distillery on the property. Los Abuelos (“the grandfathers”), is an “artisan” handcrafted tequila that is, since 2007, available in the USA under the name Fortaleza. The ever-smiling Sr. Sauza joined us at the distillery to answer our questions about the distillation process and to share his passion for tequila.
Entrance to the Cave
    We enjoyed a generous sampling of the three tequilas (blanco, reposado, and anjeo) produced by Los Abuelos, along with snacks and music in the storage cave where the barrels are set for aging. We walked the grounds of the hacienda and ended with a superb dinner (with margaritas) served al fresco against a backdrop of the agave fields that are still producing on the property. We felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this beautiful property overlooking the town and for the gracious treatment we received while we were there.

Dinner at the Hacienda
      Festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  By late afternoon thousands of people had begun to gather in downtown Tequila in the area around the main church, Santiago Apostol Church. Bands could be heard in several directions and a dozen or more vaqueros/cowboys showed off their horses that danced in the street to the music. It was quite a show of horsemanship. In addition, there were carnival rides, food booths, and rock bands adding to the very celebratory atmosphere—a little something for everyone of all ages. By dusk, the crowd on the street opposite the church swelled as the parade with a military band and Indian dancers and the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe pushed its way through the thousands of people standing along the street. Fireworks preceded the parade marchers and rockets were fired following the parade.

    We went back to the hotel to rest a bit while we waited until ten o’clock when the main fireworks were scheduled to be set off in front of the church. Scaffolding for elaborate fireworks was erected throughout the evening and by ten o’clock each ower of fireworks displays were set off one by one. We are not sure which of the men lighting the fireworks had gone to pyrotechnics training, but we did see one firefighter and two police officers holding back the crowd away from the explosions. The whole dazzling event lasted no more than twenty minutes. It was noisy, festive, spirited, and great fun for everyone. We were glad to be part of the evening.
Festival Fireworks
    In the morning, we ate breakfast with Bill and Mary (Andrew and Naomi are waving in the background) on the church plaza, which had been cleaned of all debris, and we watched the scaffolds that held the featured fireworks displays being dismantled. By the time we had finished eating, the plaza was spic and span, ready for Sunday morning worshippers, which included a dozen young girls dressed in their white communion dresses lined up in front of the church.
Breakfast in Tequila
    In the time we had before our tour to the Cofradia distillery we walked through the streets of the downtown, window shopping. Like so many towns we’ve visited in Mexico, there is a sense that this is a real town where people work, shop in locally owned businesses (no Wal-Marts in Tequila!), worship regularly, and visit with one another in small groups in restaurants or one benches in the zocalo. The rough, narrow streets create traffic snarls, but most folks don’t seem to be in a hurry.

      La Cofradia Distillery.  Mid-morning we were picked up and driven to the Corfradia complex on the outskirts of town. This large scale distillery (they claim they are the 7th largest in Mexico) has been in business for over fifty years and, unlike the "artisan" distillery we toured yesterday, they produce 100% blue agave tequila and mixto tequilas under at least nine different labels. Their factory is quite large and spread over several buildings. The grounds of La Cofradia were immaculate and included several cottages for overnight guests, a tasting area, shade trees and a pond with fountains and ducks. We were surrounded by fields of agave and, away from the town, we felt a sense of quiet on this day. While the basic distillation process is similar to other distilleries we’ve visited, this was the most modern complex we have encountered. Because we visited on a Sunday, no work was in progress and the stainless steel tanks were empty. The tour was an excellent and instructive complement to the tour the day before at Los Abuelos. After extensive sampling, we took advantage of special pricing on three bottles of their best Cofradia Reserva Especial.

    [Three years ago we visited a really small family tequila operation on a trip to San Sebastian. Everything seemed to be done by hand in a small building on the edge of an agave field. In spite of rather spartan conditions, the tequila was quite good, suggesting that the size of the operation may not be a factor in the quality of the product.]
Bottle Bus
    At the end of the tour we met for margaritas and last minute questions. The singer-guitar player who entertained us at The Cave at Los Abuelos was on hand for some encore singing while we waited for the arrival of the "Bottle Bus" that took us back to town. We said our good-byes to the other tour members and got ready for the return trip to Puerto Vallarta. Naomi and Andrew had planned to stop for dinner in Rincon de Guayabitos, a charming seaside resort less than an hour from Puerto Vallarta that is very popular with Mexicans and, judging from the license plates in a nearby RV park, Canadians. Our seafood dinner overlooking the bay was excellent.

      A Final Thought.  If you visit Tequila, be sure to walk through the 150-year-old La Bola de Oro ("Glolden Ball"), an all-purpose store a block from the zocalo that sells vegetables, fruits, nuts, hardware, pots and pans, bird cages, canned goods, peacock feathers, and anything else you can think of—in a corner store that rivals a two-car garage for floor space. As you walk along the sidewalks, be careful not to succumb to the temptation to fondle the (lower) half-body mannequins that line sidewalks in front of some clothing stores displaying the latest fashions in very tight women’s jeans. Of course Cuervo Tequila has a presence in town near the Cholula store (Cholula hot sauce is manufactured in nearby Chapala). Tequila factory tours are a must (why else go to Tequila?) and can be made through a variety of sources: Mundo Cuervo offers a "fantastic journey through the amazing ’La Rojeña’ of José Cuervo." Other trips include, the Tequila Express, and La Ruta de Tequila. And there is the National Museum of Tequila. Happy sipping!

3. R & R in PV

    After a whirlwind two days in Tequila, we spent the rest of the week enjoying the quiet of the Krystal, which seemed almost deserted, compared with the numbers of guests we usually see on the grounds and around the main swimming pool area. Also, there was none of the noise from the major renovations and construction we experienced the last few years. Another difference we noticed was the weather: this was our first trip in December and the temperatures were very pleasant and the humidity relatively low. We didn’t use our pool much and we hardly sweated either running or walking through town. Judy overcame some cold-like symptoms enough to run a few days toward the end of the week. It was, all in all, a very pleasant week of true rest and relaxation.
By the Pool
    We each read several books, played some cards, and generally relaxed through the mornings and early afternoons. Slugs. We shopped at nearby Soriano’s for breakfast and lunch (and margarita) fixings, and ate dinners away from the Krystal, selecting some old favorites and discovering some new ones:

    Pipi’s is still outstanding and we wouldn’t miss going there when we’re in Puerto Vallarta. Judy’s frozen mango margarita was probably a quart and the fajitas outstanding. The owners were there as they usually are, each recognizing us though we come only once a year. The place is festive, the food is good, and there is not usually a line if you go in the middle of the afternoon or early evening.

    Tino’s closed their Pitillal location and moved downtown near the malecon, but, sadly, the kitchen and atmosphere went in different directions. Now it’s just another noisy, crowded downtown eatery for tourists, lacking the family-oriented neighborhood feeling that we enjoyed in Pitillal. Fortunately there are three other Tino locations in the greater PV area and we’ll try them out.

    Marisqueria Cueto’s (no website): This neighborhood restaurant is really out of the way and not easy to find. It’s several blocks east/above the sports complex on Brasilia; the walk there will build your appetite and the walk back will settle your meal. Take the bus to the Sheraton Hotel and walk a half dozen blocks until you come to it on your right. It’s the only business in sight. We ate excellent seafood, enjoyed the informal atmosphere and banter with a very friendly staff. Hughes was even up to trading T-shirts with the waiter and wound up with one of the best looking restaurant logo on the back of a red T-shirt. We’ll go back there again.
Dinner at Encanto
    Restaurante Encanto (also no website): Judy proclaimed the Encanto her new favorite place to eat in Puerto Vallarta, and that’s impressive considering all the fine dining we’ve experienced in fifteen or so years. The restaurant is spotless, just slightly formal but friendly, has an excellent and diverse menu (Mexican and largely seafood), and is moderately priced. Like Cueto’s, this is also a bit out of the way but worth the walk: get off the Centro bus just after it crosses the river and walk east (away from the ocean) on Aquiles Serdan (closest street to the river) about five blocks up from Insurgentes. Judy’s seafood chile rellenos and Hughes’s red snapper in a pinon nut sauce were surprising twists on favorite dishes.

    [Note: Hughes almost always has flan at the end dinner. It’s his informal final test of the restaurant’s quality. Each of the restaurants where we ate served good flan, but the very best of the week was from a street vendor whose flan was sweet and tasty, but lighter—without the thick consistency of cheesecake. It’s a matter of personal preference. But it got us thinking that we really should patronize street food vendors more often. They must be good since many seem to be always busy and their prices half those of the restaurants.]

    Because we used only the master bedroom and the kitchen/living room of our two-bedroom villa at the Krystal, we have an extra week to use somewhere else. We thought we would try a Florida winter vacation like everyone else at least talks about. We have a week planned in Destin, Florida, which we hope will provide warm weather, though we’re prepared to walk the white sand beaches in a sweatshirt if necessary. Now, if it’s only half as nice as PV........

Judy and Hughes Moir
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