Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - Surf legend Gerry Lopez stood next to me on stand-up paddleboard, watching a bump in the ocean grow as it inched toward us.
"Paddle, paddle, you got it," the "Pipeline master" said in a gentle, encouraging tone.
I dug my paddle deep into the ocean's clear blue surface, trying to maintain my balance, and the wave picked the board up under my feet. Soon I was gliding down the line clutching my paddle with Lopez, one of the best tube riders and most respected surfers in the world, behind me. A party wave. Until I nearly nailed the guy sitting on the inside, and I bailed out of the wave to avoid a massive collision.
It would be my last wave during a magical surf trip to Mexico that introduced me to an upscale and unexpected side of our neighboring country a coastal haven that gave me a newfound perspective on a region that has suffered blows to tourism and its image over the past few years.
I first heard of Punta de Mita from a Billabong all-girls surf and stand-up paddleboard (everybody uses the term "SUP," so I will too from now on) trip a few months ago. The stories of a mellow, right-hand longboard wave comparable to Malibu's that went on for what seems like forever, told by the trip organizer Cass Husted, had me searching for more about this secluded spot about 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta.
Needing a break from reality, and a relief from the chilly waters in Orange County that were causing near-hypothermia if you didn't put on a full wetsuit, I wanted somewhere warm with a flight close enough to take just a few days away from work. I talked my travel partner Jen into joining the adventure, and we booked our trip to Punta de Mita.
Luck on a Layover
Forget about the bad you've heard about other parts of Mexico.
There are no gun-toting druglords out to get you on this peninsula. There's no swine flu lingering. In all of my travels, this is among the most luxurious places I've ever laid eyes upon.
I have to admit I've had hesitations about visiting Mexico, with the bad reputation the region has had the past few years.
Those fears started to fade on a layover. We eavesdropped on a conversation between a young couple on their honeymoon and Sean Maclean, a Canadian who has lived in the Puerto Vallarta area for years. Maclean became our impromptu travel agent, enthusiastically suggesting must-see sights in and around Punta de Mita.
Maclean and his wife, Daniela, own Vallarta Rentals, and he turned out to be the perfect person to ask about luxury tourism in the area. I was curious about how hard the area had fared after being hit by a bad tourism trifecta: swine flu, the crashing economy and stories of Mexico's drug-induced dangers. He told of days where beaches were barren after the swine flu epidemic.
Signs of better times are showing, and business is resurrecting, with more visitors filing into multimillion-dollar homes on the rental market, he said. Before long, he had painted such a magical picture of Punta de Mita that we decided to extend our trip before even landing in Mexico.
Gateway to Paradise
If you came here a little more than a decade ago, you'd find a quaint fishing village with few homes. The 1,500-acre peninsula was bought by Mexico's largest development company, Dine (pronounced Dee-nay), which had a vision to turn the coastal enclave into Mexico's premier upscale destination. Mita translates to "Gateway to Paradise."
By 2000, the Four Seasons resort was up and running as the development's anchor, and the gated, secured community called "Punta Mita" was born, with "Punta de Mita" encompassing the rest of the area not within the gates. The luxury hotel chain that draws visitors from around the world started with 120 rooms, and business flourished. A beachfront St. Regis was built, and luxury homes behind the gates sprang up, with wealthy people buying them as second homes and developers snatching them up for investment or rental purposes.
The area became the new hot spot for Southern California clientele. Many were wealthy surfers who enjoyed the convenience of a three-hour trip to warm waves. It was life in paradise with the possibility of turning a profit until the economy crashed in 2008, followed by the swine flu epidemic in 2009 that drew U.S. State Department travel alerts.
"No one got sick here, but everybody was scared. We were used to seeing people walking around, and all of a sudden the place was empty," said Four Seasons marketing director Claudia Silva.
In 2010 and this year, bookings have increased. But each time the U.S. government issues a travel warning about drug-related violence and crime in other regions of Mexico, the cancellations flood in, she said.
The lingering effects were still apparent during our trip. Sure, it was the slow season but streets were eerily empty. Shops were starved for business. Day after day, we sat as the lone customers in beachfront restaurants.
Surfers love to get dirty on trips, traveling to Third World countries with little in their bags or wallets. Maybe it goes back to the old '70s surf movies, where remote waves seem far away from showers and soap.
When I thought of a south-of-the-border surf vacation, I always envisioned sleeping in a ramshackle house, eating $1 tacos and dealing with pounding south swells too big for me to handle.
But after an exhausting surf session, there's nothing like feeling pampered.
The face of the surfer has changed. Surfers are no longer bums with no jobs scouring remote parts of the world. They are doctors, lawyers and CEOs of big companies, especially in Orange County. They have disposable income and wives (or husbands) whom they want to feel comfortable while they sneak off to score surf. Places like Punta de Mita also draw visitors who enjoy the surf-town lifestyle, even if they never get more than ankle-deep in the waves.
Jen and I rented a two-bedroom condo we booked online (puntamitasurf.com) for $150 a night. When we entered our new digs our jaws dropped. The two-bedroom condo was beautiful and spacious, with spotless tile floors. The main bedroom had glass doors overlooking a huge patio, grassy area and the ocean. It was the kind of place that would run $400 a night at surf spots in California and Hawaii.
The next morning, we hit the surf early. We rented boards from a local named Antonio, who owns a small shop called La Escuelita on the beach in front of the El Anclote break a long, mellow right-hander that had me buzzing with excitement. With a big south swell slamming the rest of Mexico, we were blessed with perfect 2-3 footers at the protected surf break.
There are many options for various styles of surfers in the nearby area, with eight breaks varying from perfect left-handers to faster shortboard waves within a few minutes via boat. I'm a longboarder, so this smooth spot was perfect for the long, calm rides I like. Think San Onofre, without the crowds. Day after day, I just couldn't remove myself from the ocean, surfing twice a day for two hours, sometimes three, in 75-degree water. It was still officially spring, but here it was bikini weather.
And you bet we spoiled ourselves afterward, with a $40, hourlong massage on day three of surfing, as every muscle in our bodies was knotted with exhaustion.
It was a different vibe here than I've ever experienced, much like stories I'd heard of Waikiki in the days before high-rise hotels and package tours. There's room for everybody, so there was none of the "my wave" angst that can spoil even the most popular surf spots. Here, fellow surfers cheer you on, encouraging you to join in a party wave. SUP'ers mingle with surfers. Experts encourage people taking lessons, and friends jump on each other's boards to try to ride tandem.
We heard Lopez was going to be in town teaching a SUP clinic. Lopez is a Hawaiian legend, the surfer known for mastering the hollow tubes of the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu. At 62, he still looks like he could charge the biggest North Shore breaks. But this day we found ourselves in a lineup on the Mexican side of the Pacific, his Zen demeanor apparent as his eyes searched the horizon for waves.
"It's beautiful here," he said, flashing a big, warm smile.
SUP'er Greg McCombs of Ventura said he was trying not to act like a starstruck fan when he met Lopez. Lopez helped create the Gerry Lopez Rainbow Sandals Battle of the Paddle, one of the largest SUP races in the world, held at Orange County's Doheny State Beach each fall.
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," said McCombs, joined by his two brothers on the clinic.
This has become a new hot spot for stand-up paddling, which has exploded in the past few years. In Orange County, surfers and SUP'ers are irked at each other's existence on crowded breaks. In Punta Mita, they are family, sharing waves.
This isn't by accident. When Lopez started holding his clinics in October, there was a sense of resistance among the locals, says Dennis Oliphant, who owns Sun Country Tours in Oregon and helped team Lopez with the Hotel des Artistes, which co-hosted the clinics.
They invited the local surfers to a fish feast and handed out autographed photos of Lopez, and he talked to them about the "Aloha spirit" that he wanted to bring to Mexico as he had in Hawaii in the '70s.
Many in the clinic came from Oregon, where Lopez lives, and a few came from Orange County, including Doug McCombs of Laguna Beach and Sarah Bemus, a San Clemente surfer trying SUP in the waves for the first time.
"I don't know if I'll do this at home; it's still not really accepted," Bemus said.
Bemus paddled hard for a wave her first day of the lesson, our last day on the trip. She said it felt clumsy, holding a paddle and standing on the board instead of lying on it. But she beamed after scoring her first wave, riding it almost all the way to shore.
The SUP scene likely will spread quickly with the help of Mexico's Surftec distributor Javier Alvarez, a friend of Lopez's who owns an outdoor adventure company called Reaccion. Punta Mita is a perfect place to introduce SUP to Mexico, with smooth waters because it is in the bay.
There's more than just surf in this region. With Reaccion, Alvarez has a goal of making Mexico a mecca for outdoor sporting activities. They have the equipment and connections for people who have goals of getting in big waves with water scooters, mountain biking on remote hills, getting a huge fish while spearfishing, or something more family-friendly like a SUP tour around a nearby island with caves. They have pro photographers to document your adventures.
"We loved nature, so we wanted to get as close as possible," Alvarez said. "Mexico has everything; it's like a virgin for nature. It's so diverse; it has coastline, rivers. I think the future of Mexico is taking people toward nature."
GETTING THERE: Flights are available out of John Wayne and Long Beach airports. Both require layovers. LAX has nonstop flights. Prices as low as $400.
From the Puerto Vallarta airport, you can take a taxi to Punta de Mita for $35-$50, or take the bus from the airport straight to Punta de Mita where the line ends for about $2. Transport is about 40 minutes.
WHEN TO GO: High season is November through April, but for a surfer wanting waves to himself, the cheaper low season is now through October. El Anclote needs a big swell to break, and this is the time the south swells start to pick up, though you'll have to deal with some humidity and rain.
OUTDOOR ADVENTURES: To explore more in and around this region, email Javier Alvarez at reacciondeportes(at)hotmail.com.
Billabong All Girls Surf and SUP Trip: Each year, Billabong hosts a four-day trip to spend the days doing yoga, surfing and SUP for about 10 women. Great way to make new friends and travel with a group. Contact Cass at Billabong-usa.com.
Gerry Lopez SUP and Yoga Clinic: Dates are not set for the next trip, but if you want to learn from the best, check out this trip hosted by Mr. Pipeline. Lopez, who has been doing yoga since he was 19, hosts classes in the morning, then students hit the water to learn how to take waves on a SUP. Trips sell out fast. More info: SunCountryTours.com.
WHERE TO STAY:
Luxury Villas: For a large group or family, renting a home might be the best way to go. We visited Sean and Daniela Maclean of Vallarta Rentals at one of the properties they manage, La Serenata, made up of six luxury villas. La Serenata 2 is a four-bedroom, five-bathroom home that oozed luxury, with clean crθme tile floors, granite counters and a living area that had glass walls that opened to a private Jacuzzi and pool that sat next to the Jack Nicklaus golf course. It sits behind the secured gates in Punta Mita, but visitors can save on price because it is not subject to fees paid at the Four Seasons. Staying here gives you access to a private beach club. Costs range from $600 to $900 a night depending on the season, with a personal chef added for $50 a night. Vallarta Rentals offers a range of options, from $250 per night for a condo to $7,000 for a luxury home overlooking the ocean. More info: VallartaRentals.com.
Four Seasons At the Four Seasons, rooms range from a standard room for $460 a night, to the five-bedroom "Presidential Coral" home for $16,000 a night, and everything in between. Here, you are paying for service and access to the coastline on their property. On site, there are pools overlooking the water. The hotel sits behind secure gates, surrounded by a lush forestlike setting, so there's a walk to get to the water. More info: FourSeasons.com.
Hotel des Artistes: The hotel sits on the sand in front of the surf break El Anclote. The hotel has a pool on the sand, and an infinity pool overlooking the ocean on the rooftop deck. It has a five-star restaurant, and during high season has a sushi bar on the deck. Accommodations start at about $290 a night. The owner also has luxury homes for rent in Punta de Mita. More info: HotelDesArtistesDelMar.com.
Feeling Zen: A new getaway development called Haixa, opening July 15, is a quiet retreat for those looking to connect with their spiritual side. There are yoga courses and a meditation sauna like those the natives here used. It has a quiet common area, Palapa roofs, wooden walkways through lazy rivers and gardens growing herbs used for spa treatments. A boat leads patrons to a private beach. There is a golf course, and full concierge services. Rental condos to three-bedroom penthouses available. More info: VallartaRentals.com.Contact the writer: lconnelly(at)ocregister.com