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Chacala, the anti-Cancun

In the Pacific haven, it's sun, sand and something more. Where else can you do good while vacationing well?

February 25, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Chacala, Mexico — SURE, there's a great beach here, fresh fish, tall palms and only about 400 locals to share them with. But let's start with the treachery and deception.

"You wouldn't believe the snakes. Snakes as big as your head," says Ben Laird, a Wisconsonite who bought a vacation home here last year.

"People are poisoned in Chacala every day," deadpans Richard Laskin of Hornby Island, Canada, who has been coming here for 10 years.

"Are you sure that was a whale?" asks Laskin's friend Stu Reid, gazing offshore. "Could have been drums of toxic material."

Then -- having done their best to deter the reading public from invading their winter haven -- these good-natured liars go back to their tropical idylls. Laskin and Reid tuck into their breakfast at the Mauna Kea Cafe, one of about 10 restaurants in Chacala, as they gaze down upon a canopy of green, a deep blue sea, a deep blue sky and a few dozen pelicans, swoop-commuting between the two.

Sometimes, a lie is really just an invitation. And the truth about Chacala is just as intriguing, especially for a traveler who wants to actually meet Mexicans while vacationing in Mexico, who likes his coconuts straight from the tree, who doesn't need the bright lights of Los Cabos or Cancun.

Chacala, a village 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast, is built around the beach, a handsome half-mile crescent of jungle-adjacent sand. At the southern end of the beach, black volcanic rocks murmur in gentle surf. In the middle of the crescent, half a dozen palm-shaded restaurants serve fresh fish and shrimp (and keep a machete on hand for those new-fallen coconuts). To the north, two dozen battered little fishing boats are tied up at a modest dock.

In town, several lodgings have popped up in the last few years, most offering ocean views, modest amenities and nightly rates from $50 to $90. A little farther north, more than two-dozen luxury vacation homes, some of which rent by the night, have gone up in a gated compound called Marina Chacala.

But what sets Chacala apart from so many other modest but growing Mexican beach destinations is this: Thanks to the arrival of three hippie siblings here at the end of the 1970s, the town is awash in social experiments, many of them built around the idea that locals and tourists need to meet and learn from one another.

Under one 11-year-old program, called Techos de Mexico (Roofs of Mexico), half a dozen villagers have added upstairs rooms and terraces, most with ocean views, none more than a five-minute stroll from the beach. When not snapped up for the season by wintering Canadians, most of these rooms rent for $22.50 to $60 a night.

Other tourists can volunteer on community projects, attend yoga or meditation seminars or learn Spanish as guests at a 24-year-old beachfront retreat called Mar de Jade (pronounced Hah-day), which in winter is usually priced at $120 to $135 per person per night, double occupancy, meals included.

Still other visitors and expats have bankrolled a community library, paid for improvements on the elementary school and developed a scholarship program that underwrites the transportation, books, uniforms and other education costs of more than two dozen local youths. (The public schools in Chacala stop at secondary school, and high school diplomas are as rare as air conditioning.)

But you don't have to volunteer. Instead, you can spend $50 a night on a hotel room with an ocean view and lie around. Or spend $625 a night on a mansion that sleeps 10 and lie around in splendor.

You can take a $10-per-person boat trip to snorkel by the rocks off Chacalilla beach. You can fish for dorado or sierra or surf at La Caleta Point. You can kayak between rock formations and secluded beaches, go birding in a mangrove swamp to the north or drive half an hour east to the petroglyphs at Alta Vista. You can ride a horse through jungle to a secluded beach or drive about two hours into the hills and see Lake Santa Maria, its waters collected in the caldera of an ancient volcano. Or you can stroll back and forth, with refreshment breaks, on that grand crescent of sand.

"Some nights, the sunsets just tear your heart out," says Andee Carlsson, who moved here permanently three years ago from Washington state. Carlsson, who rents a room in one of the Techos houses, said she came here because it was affordable and the gardening was year-round. She stays because "the people here make me feel good," she says. "People just help you out, and you get to help people out."

Ahhh, seclusion

UNTIL the first paved road connected the village to Highway 200 seven years ago, the only way into Chacala was by dirt road or boat. Now, business is picking up and the occasional RV, rental car and taxi has joined the local traffic, including the cab that delivered me to my lodgings at dusk one day.

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