Review 1.3 – Vacation in Nuevo Vallarta

Recently, I was fortunate enough to go on a trip with my and several other families to Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. Now, this is not the more well-known Puerto Vallarta, which contains the airport that one flies into if they’re trying to get to Nuevo Vallarta. In fact, despite their names and proximity, the two aren’t even in the same state. Puerto Vallarta is in Jalisco; Nuevo in Nayarit.

Nuevo Vallarta is interesting because it is not really a place for people to live but for them to vacation. It’s a city of resorts. According to the most recent census information (from 2010), there are around 1302 people there, though I came across other estimates ranging from less than 500 to, um, over 100,000 (nice going, Wikipedia page that calls itself out for a complete lack of sourcing).

At the same time, TripAdvisor lists 41 separate temporary lodgings – hotels, B&Bs, etc., meaning that the capacity for outsiders dwarfs the permanent population, so it’s pretty clear what’s up.

Speaking of pretty, I stayed at the Occidental Nuevo Vallarta, and oh my gosh is it that.

The Occidental is an all-inclusive resort, which means that your basic needs – food, drinks, Michael Jackson impersonators – are covered. It’s a place meant for you to relax. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff, or the big stuff. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find in a city devoted exclusively to tourism.

And I don’t mean that derisively. A city whose sole industry is tourism may be a risky bet that could result in a decimated economy should the whims of an ever-more-fickle public change – even moreso for typically international destinations, but as long as people are willing to buy, they can continue to thrive. Nuevo Vallarta certainly looks like it’s thriving, with the construction of even more resorts going on while I was there.

But the benefits of these industries are often hyper-localized. The last time I went to an all-inclusive resort was a decade ago with many of the same people. It was in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. That resort, too, was a gorgeous place – I have always described it as walking into a postcard, which now feels like an outdated concept and would today probably have been a reference to Instagram – but outside the resort enclave, it was a completely different, extremely poor world. Chris Rock said it well in his most recent special, his first in 14 years: 

You know when you go to the Caribbean, you land and you get in that van? That drive. That scary-ass drive… from the airport to the resort. And you’re looking out the window, you’re like, “What the fuck? What the fuck is that shit? Oh, my God! Whoa!” You see little kids eating dreadlocks. You see Shabba Ranks stabbing a dog. Shabba. Shabba. Shabba. Shabba. See, people looking like they never saw a car before. Wheel. Wheel. Then you get to the resort and you’re like, “Jamaica’s nice.” “It’s so nice. We should invite your mother.” Shit. They give you one piña colada… and you forgive the worst poverty you’ve ever seen. You take one sip, you’re like… “That baby wasn’t really dead, right?” “I can’t wait to jet ski.”

You should watch that special, by the way. It’s called Tamborine, and it was directed by Bo Burnham, whose own Make Happy is probably my favorite comedy special of all time. They’re both on Netflix. Netflix has great comedy specials. Like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which has deservedly broken out into the mainstream media for its deconstruction of the form. But I’m not taking about Netflix comedy specials. Not today, anyway. Today I’m talking about Mexico.

And the drive from the Puerto Vallarta airport was not particularly depressing. In fact, I was more struck by how familiar it was as I passed by Dominoes, Carl’s Jr, and a The Home Depot.

But I never saw Puerto Vallarta beyond that. In fact, I didn’t leave the hotel at all for the first two-thirds of the six-day trip. This was partially a result of my intense desire to just chill out, but it was also because my girlfriend, Danielle, got food poisoning. They say you shouldn’t drink the water on trips like these, lest you end up like that one character in the Sex and the City movie, and for the first couple of days I didn’t. I stayed with bottled and the presumably filtered stuff they had at their bars and restaurants. But at some point, I switched over to the occasional top off from the tap, and… it was fine.

So it probably wasn’t the water that got her. But we don’t know what did. It only happened to her. (Her version of this review would likely be less positive.)

The all-inclusive nature of the Occidental is as such: access to the buffet; a couple of visits to their fancier restaurants; pool, beach, etc.; and free-flowing alcohol. I don’t drink, so the latter doesn’t hold particular appeal for me, but they had a truly delicious non-alcoholic concoction called a Copcabana which I have sadly been unable to find the recipe for – everyone else has boozed it up. I was told by those who indulged that the drinks tended to be on the weak side, which I imagine was partially an economic decision and partially one to minimize the number of patrons who die of alcohol poisoning after spending an entire day drinking in 90something-degree heat.

The makeup of those patrons was interesting to me. The hotel was not, as I had expected, full of Americans. Or even Europeans, as many of the visitors at Punta Cana were. They were, by and large, Mexicans. The relative whiteness of my group stood out, so much so that a young woman from Guadalajara asked why we were there instead of Cancun, though I think the answer is in the metacontext of the question itself.

On the plane, I played Mario Kart 8 like I was in a commercial for the Nintendo Switch with a 23-year-old financial analyst who was going to Cabo for the weekend. Because of course he was. Because that’s where people like that go. There and Cancun. I live in New York City. I get enough of Americans in general and finance bros in particular in my daily life. I don’t need to see them when I’m vacationing too.

We went during the off-season, which meant that, aside from the general lack of Americans, there was an overall lack of people. It never felt crowded anywhere that I was. Only once in the whole trip did I see a pool that looked like it had “enough” people in it, and I wasn’t looking to swim at that time, so it didn’t even matter. I was probably on my way to lunch.

Lunch was great. I was honestly a bit shocked at the quality of that buffet. I looked forward to going there for each meal. The restaurants were pretty good too, with the sushi/hibachi spot being particularly unique. While the moves were familiar, the flavors were unexpected. Little did I know, a main ingredient in Mexican sushi is cream cheese.

But as much as I enjoyed the food, I also just enjoyed the act of eating with that view.

The day after I returned, I went back to work and had lunch at a hot bar buffet staring at a mid-town parking lot.

It was depressing.

Danielle improved for the back half of the trip, and we decided to get touristy. This took two forms: a trip to the nearby town of Sayulita and then a boat “excursion” with Vallarta Adventures to Las Marietas Island. Both were gorgeous in totally different ways. Sayulita blew me away with its colors, ones so vibrant that I don’t think it’s even possible for a digital screen to replicate it. I had seen buildings painted that way, in movies and photographs, but there’s really nothing like seeing it yourself.

Las Marietas is a small island bird sanctuary that we weren’t showed to touch but could snorkel around. It, too, was beautiful, though the experience was somewhat marred by the fact that I was stung by literally hundreds of jellyfish.

Literally. Not figuratively. Literally. We snorkeled around the island, a bird sanctuary that none of us were allowed to actually touch. And in order to get from the boat to the little cove we swam in, we had no choice but to swim through schools of small jellyfish, each of which stung like a tiny little gnat.

Some folks went back to the boat. We did not. The stings were unpleasant, but it was all worth it. And the crew did a show with some pretty great dancing too. Big fan of that.

Speaking of dancing, I saw a Minion doing Michael Jackson choreography.

Eight-Point-Nine out of Ten