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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkTravel & Outdoors 

Town, Resort Offer Safe Haven for Mexico Trip
email this pageprint this pageemail usShera Dalin - Telegraph UK
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July 15, 2010



Barra de Navidad, seen from the luxury Grand Bay Resort on neighboring Isla Navidad, is a small village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico along the Costa Alegre, or Happy Coast, that offers surfing, deep sea fishing, beach combing and excellent seafood restaurants. (Telegraph/Jorge Riopedre)
With all the news of violence coming out of Mexico these days, many visitors have been scared away. But the lovely little town of Barra de Navidad and its neighboring luxury resort on the Pacific Coast are an oasis of welcome and relaxation.

Located about three hours south of Puerto Vallarta, Barra de Navidad is one of the hidden jewels of the Costa Alegre, or Happy Coast. Founded by Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in 1540 on Christmas Day, which explains the name Christmas Bar, this area is blessed with strong waves for the surfer set, gorgeous sunsets that rival Key West and small towns filled with tasty, authentic Mexican food and lovely artisanal crafts.

A good base of operations is the Grand Bay Resort on Isla Navidad, a short boat ride across a lagoon that separates the town from the resort property and is actually located in Mexico's smallest and safest state, Colima. While many tourists may not have heard of Isla Navidad or the Grand Bay, celebrities such as pop star Lady Gaga, hockey player Wayne Gretzky and President Bill Clinton have all decamped to the Grand Bay (www.wyndham.com).

If the two-story Presidential Suite doesn't fit a beer budget ($2,730 per night, low season), one of their smaller executive suites provides a dining room, a living room and even a kitchen for families. A luxury room ($350 per night, low season) had ample space for a couple up to a family with two children, as well as a quiet balcony for watching the boats and birds flit across the lagoon. Balconies also are a great location for early risers who want to spy on tejones, shy raccoon-like animals native to the area.

The Grand Bay's multi-level swimming pool with water slides and swim-up pool bar is a haven from the full-on heat and humidity of a Mexican summer, which is the off-season until August. At that time, Mexican schoolchildren are on vacation and families come in droves. Winter is the high season and the prices rise accordingly.

The resort also provides kayaks for paddling around the lagoon and an excellent kids' club for times when mom and dad want to visit the full-service spa or go shop in Barra's many craft emporiums.

For those who love to shop, there is a wide selection of intricate Huichol indigenous crafts in Barra. Often these are jewelry items or animal figures with tiny seed beads sewn or embedded into the surface of the object in graduating hues of colors that give great depth and artistry to each piece. Like in most markets and bazaars in Mexico, haggling is expected for those who like to negotiate for what they want.

Perhaps one of the best-groomed and most scenic golf courses in Mexico is the course at the Grand Bay. It's open to the public with reservations and has 27 challenging holes, some with arresting views of waves crashing against the rocks bordering the Pacific Ocean.

One of the highlights of a trip to Barra de Navidad is seeing the bounty of surrounding ecosystems. That means leaving the placid Barra area and encountering Mexico's police force.

Taking the main road, Highway 200, to the area's other cultural attractions closer to the city of Manzanillo is likely to result in one or two police or Mexican army checkpoints. These roadside checks are courteous, easily managed in English and result in opening your car's trunk or maybe a quick look around the vehicle's interior.

If the sight of troops with automatic weapons is unnerving, the easiest way around it is to travel with a local tour guide or tour company. The police and army recognize these guides and wave them through checkpoints without stopping.

Although Barra de Navidad is in the state of Juarez, which has been in the headlines for violence, Isla Navidad, and the remaining adventures mentioned here are in the state of Colima. As Mexico's smallest state, it is primarily agricultural and, to date, has the lowest crime rate of any Mexican state.

For those who want to spike all that relaxation at Isla Navidad with a thrill, the Natura Parc zip line in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains is the place (manzanilloadventures.com). For $80 per adult and $35 per child, visitors can launch themselves off five connecting zip lines.

Natura Parc provides each person with a helmet, gloves, safety harness and dual pulleys to ride the zip lines; one is a backup for safety. Experienced English-speaking guides, excluding jump leader Cholo, who leads each jump and is proud of his 2,000 zips across the mountains, accompany each group of riders.

Getting to the uppermost zip line is a physically demanding hike and not for the sedentary. But there is a rest stop at the halfway point up "Deer Mountain," as the guides have named it, and the reward is well worth the exertion, despite the first dizzying moment of stepping off into space and careening lightning-quick across the treetops.

The sunny views of the nearby shipping port of Manzanillo, with its blinding white architecture perched above the Pacific, casinos and the spot where Bo Derek filmed the movie "10," are more than repayment for the brief heart stoppage.

The zip line adventure includes bottled water for the hike and a delicious lunch of clay-oven grilled organic pizza at El Rincon de la Tia restaurant in the hamlet of Benito Juarez adjacent to Natura Parc. Maybe the adrenaline from the zip line enhanced the taste of the pizza, but this is fresh, perfectly baked pizza oozing with gouda cheese. Try the Mexican pizza, which comes with a drizzle of refried beans, green peppers and bacon crumbles.

Another educational and interesting side trip is El Tortugario, the sea turtle preservation center in the tiny beach town of Cuyutlan. El Tortugario (www.cuyutlan.com.mx) is a private turtle breeding and research sanctuary that subsists on the 25-peso (about $2.50) adult admission. The center breeds these gentle giant creatures in the hope that more of their endangered offspring will survive their trek over the black sand beach back to the sea after hatching.

The center has several resident adult turtles for viewing and one baby turtle for petting even if visitors are there outside the hatching season in August. There are also endangered iguanas to look at and a few lazy crocodiles.

Cuyutlan is also home to the Salt Museum, which recently was renovated with federal money. This is still a rustic affair, situated in a wooden warehouse with no climate control. But the exhibits give a good picture of how residents, including indigenous peoples, have toiled over centuries to harvest salt from the sea in man-made salt lagoons.

That sea salt, now prized for its natural minerals, is shipped across the country and is a staple of Mexican tables. A hefty 2-pound bag will cost 5 pesos, or about 40 cents.

If you still haven't had enough of Mexican wildlife, another attraction is the iguana sanctuary in the city of Manzanillo. Sandwiched between a canal and an auto repair shop in a residential neighborhood, visitors can stand on the sidewalk across the canal and see scores of endangered iguanas perched on the trees overhanging the canal. Children especially get a kick out the iguanas' frequent bathroom breaks, which resoundingly land in the watery canal below.

Some of the iguanas are as large as well-fed cats and their colors range from dusty brown to vibrant green - the best to eat and the cause of their endangered but now protected status, said guide Humberto Ramirez of HumberTours.

If the zip line wasn't enough adventure, on the way to Natura Parc on Highway 200 is Rancho Pena Blanca (www.mexicanpacific.com/get/ranchopenablanca/). The ranch offers tours of its tequila distillery, ATV rides on the mountains and beautiful beach surrounding the ranch, and opportunities to pet donkeys and taste tequila, of course. Watch out for days when cruise ships are docked in Manzanillo because the ranch can get crowded.

On the trip back to Isla Navidad, there are opportunities to stop at one of the many roadside stands that sell fruits produced by the banana, coconut, mango and durian (jack fruit) groves populating the area. Five varieties of bananas alone will satisfy most people and give more than a flavor of this rich, vibrant area.



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