Recent renovations spared the 40-year-old vine, whose blossoms are collected by locals to brew a medicinal tea.
The flower's shape, color and scent were like medicine to me, a perfect prescription to cure Pacific Northwest winter blues. Along with the rhythmic sound of the surf, the off-beat timpani of a mariachi band and the sweet-
and-sour flavors of an iced margarita, the flower was just what the doctor ordered.
This was my first trip south of the border and definitely not my last.
Vallarta has become an internationally renowned beach resort with towering condos, a bustling nightlife and wonderful restaurants. It's also easy to find quiet cobblestone lanes, lush gardens and breathtaking examples of Mexican culture.
Despite concerns about safety in other Mexican regions, especially in cities along the U.S. border, I never felt threatened or uneasy in this coastal city.
Instead, I was welcomed as an "amigo." Strangers greeted me with a robust, "Buenos dias." Add "Gracias," to your Spanish vocabulary and you're set. I got along with no problems and a Spanish vocabulary of about a dozen words.
Built into the jungle, much of the city clings to steep hillsides. Along the beach, giant hotels create cocoons where visitors can stay put, if they'd like.
But how could you resist exploring the old town? There I found restaurants where feasts could be had for less than $30, including the margaritas.
I also found great shopping at a Saturday market, myriad galleries and gift shops.
There's both lots to do and nothing to do in Puerto Vallarta. It's your choice.
Zip-line canopy tours, bungee jumping, parasailing, boat rides and whale watching are among the favorites.
I spent a day whale watching with Ocean Friendly Tours (oceanfriendly.com). Oscar Frey is a gregarious guide, deeply knowledgeable about the region and passionate about the marine life. The giant mammals eluded us: Humpbacks are abundant off Puerto Vallarta from Christmas through mid-March but this was the end of March, late season. But Frey found many other sea creatures and birds for us to observe.
After spotting a small group of porpoises, Frey delighted in recognizing a female with distinct coloring.
"Hola, chica," he said. He hadn't seen her in nearly eight years.
Back on shore, I was content to wander the old city's streets, sit on the beach, soak up the sunshine and enjoy wonderful Mexican cuisine.
At Gil Mar (www.gilmarrestaurant.com), an unassuming, small Mexican restaurant, the fire-roasted tomato salsa was made tableside in a molcajete, a mortar and pestle made from volcanic stone.
At Las Palomas (www.laspalomaspvr.com), a waiter brought whole avocados to the table to make fresh guacamole, while we overlooked the malecon, the bustling beach boardwalk.
The malecon is the place to people watch, stroll and look at a stunning collection of sculptures, some permanent bronzes, others magnificent renderings made of the sand.
Burn off some calories by climbing the hill behind Our Lady of Guadalupe, the early 20th century cathedral. Long, steep staircases pass stucco homes where flowers compete for every inch of the plentiful available sunlight.
Hacienda san Angel (www.haciendasanangel.com) is a stunning, luxury hotel in this neighborhood. Although hardly noticeable from the street, the building is a collection of villas that surround statue-filled courtyards. Ring the doorbell to take a peak, then dine at the rooftop restaurant that frames the sunset above old rooftops, the town and beach.
We found La Esquina de los Caprichos (www.facebook.com/pages/Esquina-de-los-caprichos), a modest and inexpensive tapas restaurant in the same neighborhood.
For a great weekend brunch, ask for directions to La Playita, a restaurant below Lindo Mar Resort (www.lindomarresort.com). Here you can watch a woman making tortillas, then and be sure to try the homemade tamales.
Back at the town beach, Playa Los Muertos, it's possible to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner all with your feet in the sand. La Palapa was a favorite. Most restaurants have beach chairs and umbrellas where you can park as long as you like. You can expect a shopping mall of vendors to walk past offering blankets, hats, sunglasses, necklaces, paintings, skewers of grilled seafood, candy and much more. Smile and say "nada" if you aren't interested, or try haggling for a bargain.
This isn't a pristine village, to be certain. With little winter rain, it's dusty and dirty. I found that part of the charm.
Although our spacious condo at Casa de las Flores (www.casadelasflorespv.com) included a full kitchen, with so many good, inexpensive restaurants, the only appliance we used was the blender. Add ice, coconut milk, pineapple juice, lime and rum.
Combine with the view of the ocean, the sound of the breaking waves and the gorgeous cup-of-gold flowers. Raise the glass. Salud!
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Alaska Airlines offers several daily flights from Sea-Tac to Puerto Vallarta, both direct and via Los Angeles.
There are luxury resorts and condominiums as well as smaller guest houses and villas. Choose to stay either in the "Hotel Zone," side-by-side giant resorts, or the "Romantic Zone," the older part of the city. Check for Web specials and don't be shy about asking for discounts, especially for extended stays.
For activities, ask before you buy. It's better to work directly with a tour operator than pay extra to go through an intermediary.
ATMs make it easy to get a good exchange rate for pesos. I also brought several small denomination U.S. bills, which worked well for tips.
Yes, don't drink the water, but food-borne problems are easily avoided by eating at restaurants and avoiding street vendors. The treats on the beach may look wonderful, but we were advised to steer clear.
Most important: Don't forget to apply lots of sunscreen.
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