In the Fall of 2006, a couple weeks after we got married, Michael and I flew to Jalisco, Mexico. We had gone back and forth for quite some time on where we would be spending the week of our honeymoon. In the end we decided we wanted more adventure than a few lazy days laying on the beach, and I got busy researching.
What I found was the city of Puerto Vallarta - it's culture still rich and preserved, a town center with cobble stone streets and beautiful Catholic churches. All surrounded by the lush Sierra Madre mountains.
We booked an 8 day, 7 night trip to an all inclusive resort in the hotel district. That was our first, and only mistake of the trip. Looking back, we spent next to no time in our hotel, and barely even ate there. Every day we set out in search of new adventures, and this is the story we came back to tell.
For $5, we could take a taxi from the hotel district to the center of town, where we spent most of our free time. It was my first taxi ride ever, and our seatbelt-less cab proved to be less than comforting as we raced in and out of traffic, dodging pedestrians and mopeds along the way.
On the boardwalk we found beautiful art and sculptures displayed, with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop.
And we found Our Lady of Guadalupe, the stunning Catholic church I had seen in so many photos, and couldn't wait to see in person.
In the center of town, we felt like flies on a wall. Here there were no sunburned tourists, waitstaff, and beach vendors. It was just us, lost in the middle of a city that was bustling with so much life and energy that it felt like it could just swallow us whole. The locals spoke to me in Spanish, and asked us if we were newlyweds. "You look too happy to have been married for very long."
And in the middle of this city I did nothing but watch, learn, and memorize every smell and sound and the way it all just worked together fluidly.
95 degrees, in a dress, on my hands and knees in pigeon poop was the best place in the world at that very moment. I wanted to remember each and every character in this story, like the old man that walked up slowly with a bag of bread, who turned and walked away just as quietly as he had come.
We wandered farther into the streets until we were the only ones that didn't walk those streets every single day. We ate from food vendors on the street, drank $1 margaritas at a bar, and questioned the quality of the open market butcher shops with no doors or windows at almost 100 degrees outside.
It was my first time out of the country, and I was in love with everything I was feeling. We don't have very many opportunities in life as adults to experience something so new and raw for the first time - consumed by equal parts fear, curiosity, and sheer determination to dig deeper and farther into what we are feeling.
When the sun would start to go down, we would take a taxi back to our hotel every night.
The beach was the most quiet at those times, and we would make our plans for the next day. It was in those sweet nights that we spent on the beach that we experienced something so breath-taking that I could never find the words to describe it again.
One night while we were walking on the beach, I started to notice that every footstep I was taking was glowing. Thinking I was going crazy, I had to stop and make sure that what I was seeing was really true. We'd later learn that on that night, we were surrounded by plankton called dinoflagellates.
Algae that glows bright blue along the shore. We spent so long that night, digging them up in the sand, watching them float out in the ocean, and catching little bits of glowing light on our fingertips. It felt like home, and our sleepy Summertime fireflies.
Restless with our 8 nights stuck at the hotel, we began to notice loud bass, fireworks, and buzzing life miles away, in the town center.
So one night we set out looking for something new and exciting, having previously been timid to venture into the locals area at night.
The town center was alive at night, and there was no other word for it. While we had spent 3 nights stuck at our hotel with the other tourists, dining in their cheesy restaurants and listening to paid entertainment, life was happening just a $5 taxi ride away.
The streets were full of food vendors, entertainers, musicians, artists, and performers. It was loud and people were laughing, shouting, and dancing late into the night. We ate at a restaurant by an open window that served queso made from goat cheese, and realized why we weren't enjoying the American/Mexican food served at the hotel.
For the next couple days, we wanted to explore even farther from our hotel, and decided to board a catamaran that would take us along the coast.
The city was beautiful from the outside looking in, and we kept sailing forward for another hour until it all disappeared into the thick vegetation of the surrounding mountain range.
We came to a small cove where we would be snorkeling for the next couple hours. I had never been, and was scared to find myself suddenly in the middle of such deep water. The fish were amazing. Every color of the rainbow and every shape and size imaginable. The salt burned my skin and every minute spent in the water felt like tiny little ant stings that I learned to completely ignore in my efforts to preserve every memory we experienced that day.
On another day, we traveled to Nuevo Vallarta. The ride was long and hot, with 8 of us in the back of a large military truck. It took an hour on the highway before we started to reach the small towns and again found ourselves surrounded by the culture that we were looking for.
The people and children here were so shy, and reserved. I felt intrusive and out of place.
We were back in the truck in no time and traveled to the countryside. Our next big stop was a trail in the Sierra Madres, where we would spend a couple hours hiking. First we stopped at the home of a woman with a small, outdoor kitchen.
She made us fresh tortillas by hand and I wandered around her land, imagining what her life must be like. One tin roof, no plumbing or electricity, and a huge tequila plant. I guess for her, life is just simple.
We were refreshed and ready for our hike. Along the way I saw some of the most ridiculously terrifying spiders I had ever seen....and I'm not even that scared of spiders. We met a young boy and his horse, and I pretended like I was in the Ferngully Forest. It was sticky, hot, and incredibly humid that day.
Our last stop was Monterrey Beach. It was a small, private cove owned by a Mexican family. Standing on the beach, you could run across the entire length of it in 30 seconds and that was it. Tiny, secluded, and surrounded by lush, tropical foliage. The sand was dotted with gold flecks, and as the tide crashed down on the shore it looked like a flash of light and sunshine so bright it was almost blinding. We were the only two people in the water, and waist deep when Michael spotted the first sting ray. He was out of the water in 5 seconds flat but I stayed, searching for shells, until I got a cut across my butt cheek from a string ray swimming by.
We spent a lot of time in the ocean, on this trip. My heart is by the sea, and the weightless feeling of knowing that something consuming you is so out of your control that you could be gone at any minute.
We swam, boogie-boarded, and kayaked into the waves.
My favorite day of our honeymoon came when we traveled by boat to a small fishing village called Yelapa. It is only accessible by water, and no roads will take you to or from there. I imagine a portion of it's small population has never even left.
It took us about an hour to get there from our hotel, and when we arrived the locals flooded the beach to help us.
It only took about 30 minutes to walk through the entire town. We passed small businesses, homes, beautiful gardens, and more stray cats than I had ever seen. I guess if you're going to be a stray cat, a small fishing village in paradise is the best place to be.
The end of our trip took us to the waterfall at the back of the town. We stopped for a drink and I thought about the people we saw in Yelapa. I felt a nagging sense of sadness, but I didn't know why. For some reason they seemed lonely, quiet, and lost. I was 23 years old and at the time I didn't know a lot about life other than going to college, getting a career, and buying a home with a white picket fence. Years later, I can look back on this trip and understand how my memory of it has shaped who I am today, and what I consider to be a good life.
The people of Yelapa were untouched, intact, and naive to just how hectic and full of static life really is on the outside.
One of Michael and I's favorite stories is one that reminds me of this day, every time I hear it. And when we do, we remember the line-dried clothing, bare feet, and stray cats.
The best part of traveling to a place where everything is unfamiliar is coming back, knowing that it has shaped a small piece of who you are. This was the trip we needed to take. The 8 days we spent, two weeks into our marriage, teaching us lessons about what our priorities in life really are.