When Pia Oberholzer Herger moved to Huatulco 20 years ago, Aeromexico pilots routinely radioed ground crew to roust cattle from the runway as incoming flights approached. Serving as manager of the Huatulco Hotel Association since 1991, she proudly reports that the international airport’s tarmac is today bovine free.
Over the past two decades, this 25-mile stretch of Pacific coastline has undergone what Oberholzer Herger describes as a subtle, calculated evolution. Green Globe certification and a carefully balanced master plan watchdogged by Mexico’s Fonatur tourism arm contribute significantly to the former fishing village’s measured progress.
“We’re not a meetings and incentive factory geared to the masses,” she says. “The difference here is that it’s quiet and laid back.” And that’s not likely to change, she notes, since 70% of the 9-bay region is reserved as an ecological zone.
Of all the destination trends in Mexico today, the most visible is the militant attention to preserving and promoting a more authentic Mexican experience.
Most of Huatulco’s sophisticated resorts string along sparkling Tangolunda Bay, while a whole host of tiny beach towns lie both east and west. It’s a 3-mile ride to Santa Cruz, where the lively marina hawks excursions to mostly deserted beaches and bays. The local boat cooperative Sociedad Cooperativa Turistica Tangolunda operates everything from fishing boats for a friendly angler competition to dual-deck party barges for dancing macarena and drinking margaritas.
Our group scored a panga boat for snorkeling in the clear water of Bahia Maguey, before swimming to shore for a feast of pescados rellenos and camarones at Ay Caray restaurant in the cool shade of a palapa with beach chairs.
Minutes from Santa Cruz is La Crucecita, a sweet village where the central plaza is fringed by cafes, silver boutiques and Oaxacan handicraft shops. At La Probadita, we plucked up coffee and moles, sipped potent mezcals and sampled crunchy chapulinas (grasshoppers)—a coveted taco garnish. It’s a low-impact half-day jaunt for shopping and grazing on regional specialties rarely making their way to US shelves.
Another nearby daytrip is lunch at Cordelia’s on Playa Panteon in the quaint fishing village of Puerto Angel. This is what you’re always hoping to stumble upon in Mexico—a mellow escape where locals outnumber the gringos.
To our good fortune, a liberación de tortugas (turtle release) was slated for sunset. This is a remarkable eco-opportunity where visitors join local volunteers to help navigate Oreo cookie-sized, hour-old babies toward the surf, seeing many tumble back to our feet as waves intensified. We simply relaunched them on another bon voyage, hoping they’d beat the odds and see a new day in the Pacific. Planners can factor in this popular event for August through May gatherings.
And then we come to Puerto Escondido, long a refuge for international and local surfers who live an MTV Summer House lifestyle year-round. Known as the Mexican Pipeline, the funky market town is brimming with expat cafe culture up and down the winding cobblestone streets. A day trip here is a must-do.
Puerto Escondido is also a springboard for eco-trips into the protected Manialtepec Lagoon. We joined up with LALO Ecotours for a boat ride through the thick mangrove-lined waters bustling with waterbirds. All of us were each armed with binoculars for a birdspotting spree of tiger heron, osprey, tropical brown pelicans, crested caracara and the rare and colorful roseate spoonbill.
TANGOLUNDA NIGHTS The all-inclusive, 421-room Dreams Huatulco Resort & Spa sits quietly on Tangolunda Bay in the embrace of leafy hills, with five pools, a 12,900-sf spa and 5,000 sf of function space. Entering the lobby and busy Rendezvous Bar, the light and airy design cools you down quickly. Cream-colored walls are accented with dark furnishings and contemporary local art, and the crisp minimalist design and contemporary furnishings are a seductive counterpoint to the rusticity of the region.
For planners wanting to kick it up a notch for incentive travelers, Dreams’ Preferred Club program is an exclusive lounge serving continental breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres, desserts and top-shelf liquors. And even with 85% occupancy while we were there, it was easy to find quiet retreats tucked throughout the well-planned, easy-to-navigate resort.
Down the beach, Hotel Quinta Real Huatulco is poised on a hillside like an Arabian Nights-inspired oasis of tranquility. Housed within whitewashed structures combining curvy 90-ft Moorish domes and thatched palapa roofs, 28 oceanview suites (some with private pools) feature balconies with oversized hammocks roomy enough for two. All are decorated in cream and white, with hardwood Mexican furnishings and regional artwork.
RIVIERA NAYARIT When Marc Murphy arrived in this area north of Puerto Vallarta from Montreal in 1993, “It was very undeveloped and there was little infrastructure,” says the managing director of the Riviera Nayarit CVB. “What existed was mainly small beach towns right along the coastline.”
Not much has changed, except for the occasional Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita or 5-diamond St. Regis Punta Mita Resort. Sprawling along 192 miles of Pacific coastline, the eco-rich jungle-fringed corridor is a study in contrasts where 1960s fishing villages intersperse with the modern resorts. Such as the town of Bucerias, filled with colorful bungalows, seafood eateries and beachfront taco stands. We were lured by the spicy aromas from Claudio’s, a family-owned establishment serving succulent fresh lobster and carne asada al carbón. On weekends, the streets around the central plaza are limited to foot traffic.
In Nuevo Vallarta, Vallarta Adventures is one of the major DMCs for eco-adventure. We headed out on the Rhythms of the Night sunset sail south past Puerto Vallarta to Hollywood director John Huston’s former home along the pristine cove known as Las Caletas. In an amphitheater under the stars, the performance was a fusion of pre-Hispanic and contemporary dance accompanied by live music played on locally made instruments. After the show, tiki torch-lit paths lead to semi-private dining areas terraced above the bay.
Las Marietas is an archipelago of islands in Banderas Bay just south of Punta Mita. The islands are a protected UNESCO bird sanctuary and national marine preserve made famous by Jacques Cousteau, where stingrays with 14-ft wingspans, turtles and dolphins swim among the islands’ reefs. Groups can rent multiple catamarans for groups up to 300 with the DMC Tropical Incentives, which organizes teambuilding sailboat regattas for up to 150.
“It’s great because it’s the first time for many people to learn how to sail a boat on their own,” says sales manager Susana Goche. “They have more fun when they’re actually holding the sails and steering the boat.”
Goche says planners often request excursions that include interaction with locals. Her favorite is the Amazing Farming Race where participants visit different working ranches. They learn to saddle horses and ride them, and play games where they run and catch chickens and rabbits. In the Jeep Rally to San Sebastian tour, groups are divided up to walk around the mountain village, where no one speaks English, and ask a series of prescribed questions. The quickest group back with the correct answers wins.
But keep an eye on Sayulita to the north of Punta Mita. It’s getting a ton of buzz due to the lack of major development, and the influx of ex-pats moving down. The lure?
“When I have friends come visit, we go there,” says Goche. “It’s a hippie town with a lot of surfers. It’s very charming with a little square and a little church. You can sit on the beach in a small restaurant and watch the surfing all day.”
The bohemian art colony/surf town is brimming with galleries, shops and surf instructors. While enjoying a cup of java and chatting with the expat owner of Break-Fast Net, we were amused by awkward novices tackling the waves. So this is an appropriate destination for group surfing lessons since the current is entirely safe.
Be sure to also check out Luis Verdin’s family ranch on the edge of town. Rancho Mi Chaparrita’s 10-zipline tour blazes above a tropical forest canopy. The ranch also accommodates groups with ATV treks and horseback riding to the peak of nearby Monkey Mountain.
“You can see the local flavor everywhere,” says Margarita Guitron, director of sales for the all-inclusive, 5-diamond Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort in Nuevo Vallarta. I had to agree, fully appreciating the resort’s 155-ft palapa ceiling, in-laid stone walkways, indoor gardens with lush vegetation and Huichol Indian artwork. The 267 suites are decked out with oceanview terraces, teak Balinese furnishings and light neutral tones with tropical-influenced color accents. Its 16,500-sf spa is a definite highlight with 80-plus therapies, as is the 25,300-sf convention center with four new meeting rooms.
“All those activities are what’s so special about Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit,” says Richard Zarkin, spokesman for Riviera Nayarit CVB. “It’s like you go into an ice cream store and they have all these different flavors…. We are becoming like another Cancun and Maya Riviera. Puerto Vallarta is a city with lots of cosmopolitan energy and we are a calm destination specializing in eco-tourism. We’re different but we complement each other.”
GUADALAJARA: PEARL OF THE WEST Sombreros off to Guadalajara. Last month, the city officially announced the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, designed by the architectural firm Herzog + de Meuron, who drew up London’s Tate Modern. Guadalajara is already considered the art and culture capital of Mexico, but this new facility is expected to reinvigorate inbound travel on a global scale, starting September 2012. Meanwhile, the recently expanded Expo Guadalajara conference center is already attracting renewed interest with a new 151,000-sf columnless space, making it one of Latin America’s largest.
The historic colonial city tucked in the Sierra Madres is the birthplace of tequila, mariachi and charreada—what we call “rodeo.” Regarding the local firewater and festive music, it’s a rarity to find one without the other. One of the hottest tickets in town is Tequila Express, a full-day, mega-fiesta train ride traveling from Guadalajara station to the town of Amatitan, a few miles east of Tequila. Five well-maintained railcars with 68 passengers each make the trip in under two hours.
Large viewing windows made it easy for our group of 40 to soak in vistas of rolling hills covered with thousands of blue agave plants used in making the Mexican staple. But sightseeing took the back burner as a roving mariachi band filled the aisle and belted out one lively tune after another.
Upon arrival, we visited Herradura Tequila’s museum and working distillery, Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, for a tour through the cellars and photo ops with the resident burro, Coco. That was followed with a full-blown Mexican feast and colorful folkloric performance and lasso lariat rope show.
The next day, much the same deal. More taco and tequila pairings at the world-famous Mundo Cuervo in the town of Tequila. Where was this place during my college years? We ended the night with an exhibition of spectacular charreada horsemanship at Cuervo’s 1,000-capacity outdoor arena.
DMC Vision Tour was the local company who guided us through Guadalajara and the shopping markets in Tonala and Tlaquepaque, on the outskirts of the city. Awesome deals on dinnerware and ceramics, by the way. And we can’t forget to mention the calandrias (carriage) ride through old town to the Guadalajara Cathedral and Plaza de la Liberación.
But it’s tough to top the fun factor of Tequila Express. Be sure to reserve enough seats for your group several months in advance, because it’s also popular with the locals.