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Mexico

North America

Visit Puerto Vallarta: Live it to believe it

January 12, 2016 • By

It’s 6:00 am in Puerto Vallarta and I begin to stir in my bed clinging desperately to whatever moments are left before the hillside roosters awaken me. There it is “ra roo ra roo” (warming up their chords) and then “cock-a-doodle-doo” and rooster cries give way to barking dogs and it’s like an entire chorus of animals participate in nature’s alarm clock. It will be another hour and a half before sunrise over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range but the beautiful and tranquil Banderas Bay invites me to its shores and I hurry to dress and experience the Malecón (seafront) crowd free.

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The symbol of the city of Puerto Vallarta, the Seahorse on the Malecón

As I hit the Malecón, I find a mix of locals and tourists exercising, bicycling, mingling over coffee, walking dogs and chatting about yesterday’s news.  Shop and restaurant workers prepare to open for the day readying their businesses by cleaning floors and windows and tidying up merchandise and setting tables. A crowd gathers outside Starbucks as anxious tourists wait for coffee they trust and free Wi-Fi. It may be a holiday for me but it’s prime season for locals where tourism accounts for 50 percent of the city’s business.

Puerto Vallarta, nestled in a bay on the Pacific Coast, is a top tourist destination in Mexico.  To borrow the city’s tagline, “Live It To Believe It” only tells half the story. It’s a city where people live modestly, work dutifully and retire blissfully.  Although not founded until the 1850s, Puerto Vallarta once acted as a supply point for ships traveling from the Philippines to Spain in the 1500s and 1600s and a hiding spot for smugglers and pirates.

Today, Puerto Vallarta is a top destination for cruise ships and for tourists seeking respite from the chilling temperatures of their homelands. It’s a place to splash in the water, play a game of tennis or a round of golf and absorb the guaranteed 80-85F (26-29C) temperatures. You can lounge by the pool, kick up your heels in the sand, sip margaritas and piña coladas and buy bottles of tequila as souvenirs but considering stepping outside the comfort of your all-inclusive hotel and experience the heart of Puerto Vallarta.

The heart of the real Puerto Vallarta beats in the City Center and the Romantic Zone.

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Old Lady of Guadalupe, Catholic Church, Main Square in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Start by walking the Malecón and observing the tranquility of the bay, stop and admire the architecture of the main plaza easily located by finding Our Lady of Guadalupe Church or simply look for the tower adorned with a decorative crown and containing the bell and clock. It’s visible from a distance. Be sure to note the bronze sculptures and flower beds scattered along the water’s shores and sneak a picture with the city’s icon, the seahorse. From the City Center, walk south along the Malecón toward the Romantic Zone. Here you will find a flurry of activity no matter the time of day. There are beach vendors, restaurants, bars, tourist shops, jewelry stores, art galleries and more. Depending on the time of day, you should grab a drink or bit to eat on the beach, sit for a massage, have your hair braided and banter with the vendors selling everything from wood carved turtles and painted bowels to sunglasses and silver jewelry. The “No Gracias” signs fitted at nearby tables will give you an immediate idea for what you are in for but it’s all part of the fun.

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Malecón at sunset in Puerto Vallarta, View of the main square

It’s a small world in Puerto Vallarta where generations of families live and work. My parents “Joyce and Michael from Chicago” are locals or snowbirds from November until May when they escape Chicago’s harsh winters for the warmth of the Pacific coastline. I am a beneficiary of my parent’s 2008 whimsical purchase and while I may not understand the allure at times I certainly know the magic of Puerto Vallarta is the people.

My parent’s house manager, Ivon, works three jobs to ensure her boys have the best possible education and countless opportunities. My non-Spanish speaking parents would be absolutely lost without her.  Her oldest son recently found out he has been accepted to a university near Manchester, UK and will be leaving Puerto Vallarta at the end of the month.  When I asked Ivon if she thought her son would come home, she said with the face of a concerned mother, “I hope not.”

When I asked Ivon if she thought her son would come home, she said with the face of a concerned mother, “I hope not.”

The local people in Puerto Vallarta are my parent’s friends and family. Other than the sunshine, they are the main reason my parents come back year after year. My parents look forward to lunch on the beach to see Mel, the silver vendor, Carmello who sells sunglasses or runs with my dad at the city’s track and Arelligo whose wife makes handmade bowls often of professional sports teams like the Seahawks or the Blackhawks and my favorite team, the Michigan State Spartans. There is Emma and Chico at Daiquiri Dicks restaurant who greet my parents with hugs.  I can hear the chatter up and down the beach now, “Michael from Chicago is back in PV.”

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Clear skies, courts are empty, Let’s play tennis at the Sheraton, Puerto Vallarta

I play tennis with Martin at the Sheraton Hotel. His daughter is in year seven of a 10-year program for pediatric medicine. She wins awards all over the country for her work.  He is a proud father. He is my friend. We play a little tennis and laugh a lot more. At Yoga Vallarta, I am Joyce’s daughter. Despite my mom’s recent hip surgery, she delights in the classes and the friendships she has made there. Sometimes I am not sure if I take classes for exercise or to hear all the stories I have missed since my last visit.

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My parents celebrating that their company is leaving the next day. On the rooftop at Bistro Teresa’s Puerto Vallarta

For me, Puerto Vallarta is a place where I can explore, shop, eat, relax and practice my Spanish. It’s my home away from home but I rarely unpack my bags.  There are many organized and worthwhile tours available for tourists. You can hire a water taxi to visit the islands, walk the plank with the pirates, catch a boat to see the whales blasting out of the water and soaring through the air or if adventure is your thing, there are zip lining trips where you can fly through the trees of the Sierras.  I prefer to wander the cobblestone streets in desperate need of repair, courageously play hopscotch with the buses and visit with the local shop owners and buy, buy, buy whenever possible.  My drawers are filled with silver rings and bracelets from Mel, my kitchen stacked with colorful handmade serving bowls from Arelligo and my dad owns more sunglasses from Carmello than the Sunglass Hut produces in a year (I borrow from his collection).

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Ready for our pirate adventure. Megan and Danielle in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is a vacation spot, it’s a destination, and it’s a place to mess up your passport and escape for a time.  Together, this city of locals, retirees, ex-pats and transplants make up one working, thriving community of people making the most of life.

Book your flights now, Puerto Vallarta beckons and maybe if you are lucky the Love Boat will be making another run…

$1 USD is 17.92 Pesos, the Looney is 12.65 Pesos and 1Euro is 19.58 Pesos.  There are direct flights from Chicago, Houston, Newark, Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Edmonton and Calgary.  Hurry, snow is in the forecast.

My Favorite Spots in Puerto Vallarta

Eating

(Full disclosure: I’ve never had a bad meal in PV just better meals)

Casa Naranjo – Family run.  Try the pork chop or the sea bass.  Quiet off the beaten path spot

Bistro Teresa’s – Location location location and great food (new spot off the main square).  See the view stay for the food

Tapas Barcelona – A view is worth a thousand words and so are the dates wrapped in bacon and the potato salad

Vitea – Great spot to watch the sunset.  My personal favorite Mojito and red snapper dish

Trio – Take me back to the days of Humphrey Bogart and the kitchen with Julia Child

Joe Jack’s Fish Shack – Ask for a rooftop table and don’t miss the macaroni and cheese and bucket(s) of shrimp

Daiquiri Dick’s – Stellar service and friendly staff, ideal location, strong drinks. Food is so-so.  Make it a beach day

River Cafe – Nestled under palm trees along the river, a nice romantic spot for brunch or dinner.  Live music

Lindo Mar Resort – Location further south from Romantic Zone in Conchas Chinas stunning views for a drink or snack

La Dolce Vita – Delicious salads and pizza with a margarita to wash it down the hatch.  Off the Malecón

Shopping

Mercado Isle Cuale and Mercado Municipal Cuale

The Farmer’s Market with crafts and food – Saturday mornings in the Romantic Zone – Main Square (by Daiquiri Dick’s)

River Cafe Jewelry Store

Elements of Design – Home decorating, pillows, rugs, beautiful merchandise

Cassandra Shaw Jewelry – Eclectic and every day jewelry emphasis on bold silver pieces

Galleria Dante – Serves as a pseudo museum as well as a place to buy tasteful pieces of art

Sonia Borrmann Design – Hand made jewelry that resembles works of art and Sonia is a lovely person

No Name Boutique – Linen dress and bathing suits

Myskova – Beachwear several locations

POPOS – Men and women’s Swimwear, clothing and crazy sandals

Playing

Yoga Vallarta – Yoga and spinning classes

Sheraton – Tennis lessons or put your name in for a match

Fit Club – Clean, nice equipment – typical gym

Vallarta Adventures – Whale watching, zip lining, visit other islands

Pirate Ship – Children should cruise during the day, the ship comes alive for adults in the evening.  Fun show

Art Walk – Hit the galleries and sip some wine.  Wednesday’s starting around 6:00 pm.

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Culture, History, North America

On the Road at Thanksgiving

November 26, 2015 • By

Every Thanksgiving holiday, media reports of crowded airports and busy highways consume the airwaves. Travelers are warned to arrive early, use caution and spend extra time moving from place to place.

It often reminds me of the Willie Nelson song, On the Road again.  His idea of going places “I’ve never been and seeing things that I have never seen” may differ for the approximately 46.9 million Americans who, according to AAA Travel, will train, plane or drive more than 50 miles from home during the 2015 Thanksgiving break. Regardless, it’s a holiday where Americans routinely brave the elements and the delays to be with family and friends for a feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes (baked, mashed, or sweet), cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie and, in more modern times, televised NFL “football” games.

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Turkey napkins

In 2009, History.com published an account of the first Thanksgiving in the United States. The feast took place in 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians shared a special meal to celebrate the end of the harvest. There is no real evidence the event occurred, and some historians argue that Virginia’s Berkeley Plantation celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1619. However, historians concur the colonists did give thanks for a healthy yield of corn and squash, and that the Native Americans and Pilgrims shared a feast at some point in the fall.

Colonist and author Edward Winslow wrote in 1621 of this shared meal:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

The Pilgrims may not have chowed down on turkey in 1621 but they served up a hearty sampling of meat, complete with friendship, peace and togetherness. The colonies (and later, states) celebrated “Thanksgiving” over the years in varying degrees, and often at different times of the year.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln finally succumbed to the pleas of Sarah Josepha Hale, a feminist and author of the Nursery Rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb, who fought the government for 20-30 years to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.  Alas, a man can only take a woman’s complaining for so long, and Lincoln named the final Thursday in November to be celebrated as Thanksgiving Day. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, our notable New Deal architect, moved up the holiday by one week to entice shoppers during the Great Depression to hit the stores one week earlier. Today, Thanksgiving is celebrated the fourth Thursday of November.

Thanksgiving Day is my favorite holiday of the year… at least until someone recognizes December 16, my birthday, as a national day of celebration. There is more focus on friends and family–and less pressure on purchasing gifts. While there are the stresses of cooking (I would not know), it’s a day of eating, talking, watching TV, sitting by a fire, exercising, running the Turkey Trot, and relaxing.  It is not a religious day, but one where we can be proud of our shared history.

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Joyce’s brunch in Puerto Vallarta, Thanksgiving

Until I was 13 or so, my family enjoyed Thanksgiving with my Godparents and their two sons. They would visit us in Chicago (or Ohio, where we lived when I was younger) one year and we would travel to Kansas City, Missouri the next year. My parents, brother and I piled in the car on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving known as the busiest travel day of the year and hit I-70 from Akron, Ohio to KC and later I-55 from Chicago through St. Louis (the Arch) or I-80 from Chicago through Des Moines (the corn). The drive always seemed long and arduous, but once we arrived at my Godparents’, the festivities began, lasting until we had to return home on Sunday, when tears–mostly mine–flowed freely.

I loved visiting Kansas City for Thanksgiving. It was so much fun seeing my Godparents and trying like heck to win the attention of their sons, who I adored. As the only girl, I begged for the boys to include me but I often lost out to my brother, the entertainer. He was only 3-years-old and so certainly cuter than I.  We would watch television with the younger son and sometimes spied on the older. We became fans of the Kansas City Royals and the University of Kansas, because otherwise we surely would be outsiders (my brother would later attend KU).  I fought for years to be included in the annual Thanksgiving football game in the front yard.  On our very last visit to Kansas City for Thanksgiving, the boys and dads granted me immunity from the sidelines.  A few plays into the game, I fell and cried–and that was the end of that tradition. Turns out, I objected to playing on the cement all along.

My family always traveled long distances to be together. We loaded our cars and stood in the cold to watch the beautiful display of Christmas color take over the Plaza, the downtown shopping area in Chicago. We ate BBQ food, cooked meals, shopped the Plaza and shared our version of a Thanksgiving feast, including all the fixings and a pre-dinner blessing.

As we all grew older–kids, parents and grandparents alike–our Thanksgiving Day shifted from Kansas City to Michigan. Now we piled in the car and drove from Chicago to Flint to spend time with my grandparents on my dad’s side. It was important to my dad and special for my brother and me to be with our grandparents and aunts. On Thanksgiving Day, my dad, brother and I attended the Detroit Lions football game (I don’t think they won much back then either), and my grandmother Geraldine would cook up a feast with my dad’s favorite stuffing.

To this day, my dad nudges my mother to get it closer to “Geraldine’s recipe.” My mother answers with, “Michael, her stuffing was Stove Top.  Get over it.”

When I went away to Michigan State University, I welcomed spending Thanksgiving dinners at home in Chicago. I departed early after Wednesday classes and drove the reverse commute of my late teenage years down I-94 from East Lansing to Chicago. My mother, never one to prepare last minute, set the dining room table in advance of my arrival. My family greeted me joyfully.  Home is always welcoming.  Together, we cheered for our favorite football team, lounged in front of a blazing fire with bloated stomachs and settled in for our 100th viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol.

In more recent years, I’ve spent Thanksgiving holidays in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico with my parents, celebrating with an early morning tennis match, margaritas and sunshine. Wherever I am, I insist on embracing the symbolism of the day. I spent 2004’s holiday in the Blue Mountains of Sydney, Australia, overeating; 2012, at the Taj Mahal with my friend Jill, feeling native; and last year, alone in Xi’an, China, doing what Americans do best: hitting the stores for Thanksgiving Day sales. These holidays were special, too–just different.

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Loving the Taj

This year, I am observing the fall harvest in Puerto Vallarta with my parents and aunt (mom’s sister). It’s not a traditional Thanksgiving per se, but it has all the trimmings of a perfect holiday.

Today, my dad, aunt and I exercised early before devouring a carefully planned Thanksgiving brunch prepared by my mom, who whipped up her special French Toast recipe, along with bacon and eggs. Suitably stuffed, with the Hallmark channel calling, we overindulged on Christmas classics and fairytale endings all afternoon. Tonight, we will gobble up turkey and all the fixings at Daiquiri Dicks Restaurant with the other traveling Americans.

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Thanksgiving with my parents and Aunt Jeanne

While it’s certainly too hot to build a fire in the fireplace, I am thankful for my family and friends, near and far. I am thankful for the special memories this day has created and I look forward to more celebrations in the years to come.

Save the diet for next week.  I surely will.

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Turkey time at Daiquiri Dicks Puerto Vallarta

To the Traveling Americans

On the Road Again by Willie Nelson

“On the road again –
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is making music with my friends

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.
On the road again

Goin’ places that I’ve never been.
Seein’ things that I may never see again

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.
On the road again –
Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends.
Insisting that the world keep turning our way

And our way
is on the road again.
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.
On the road again

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway
We’re the best of friends

Insisting that the world keep turning our way

And our way
is on the road again.
Just can’t wait to get on the road again.
The life I love is makin’ music with my friends

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.”