Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Sunglasses that Sunk Us and Other Lessons Learned in Mexico

The Ruby Princess cruise ship in Cabo San Lucas

Fred and I went on a cruise last week. Neither of us had ever been on one, so it was spectacularly exciting and we had a fabulous time, but as happens with all new adventures, we learned a few lessons.

Actually, we learned many, many lessons, but this post is about what we learned while in our first stop on the cruise, Puerto Vallarta.

But first, a little background. For a month or so before the cruise, I researched what sights we might want to see in each port city (it was a 7 day cruise to Mexico). There are all sorts of excursions available - some through the cruise line and others through outside tour companies - that had activities ranging from snorkeling, to boat rides, to historical city tours.

For Puerto Vallarta, I found information on a 2 mile coastal hike that starts from a little town called Boca de Tomatlan, passes by two pristine, nearly deserted beaches, and ends at the popular beach, Las Animas. (If you're interested, there's lots of great details about it here).

A gorgeous beach view on the hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas beach
One of the views along the hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas

To me, a chance to burn some cruise calories, take in beautiful coastal views, frolic on a deserted beach, and enjoy authentic Mexican food, all sounded perfect. However, I'd have to convince Fred of its appeal. This is a man that names any hike I drag him on, a "death march."

One thing I had going for me was that, once we got to Las Animas beach, we wouldn't have to hike the two miles back. We could take a water taxi!

But one negative to the whole plan was that, to get to the starting point of the hike (the little town of Boca de Tomatlan), we would have to take two buses (a total of about 50 minutes travel time).

I wasn't certain of our success at navigating around the streets of Mexico with our extremely limited knowledge of the Spanish language. And by "limited knowledge" I mean Fred's grasp of the phrase "Las chichis grandes," which, when uttered on the streets of Mexico by a foreigner, may lead us to some interesting establishments...but probably wouldn't get us on the right bus.

Happily though, I didn't have to do too much convincing. Mr. Anti-Death March declared the whole plan an "adventure" and said, "If our daughter can manage to find her way around the jungles of Kauai, the streets of India, and the town of Phuket, Thailand, surely we can manage a bus ride and a hike in Mexico."

And with those words, my story begins.

Lesson #1: Don't pay $10 for sunglasses in Mexico.

Right after debarking at Puerto Vallarta, we stopped at the first kiosk we came to so that Fred could get a pair of sunglasses. In all my research about buying anything in Mexico, the advice was to haggle, haggle, haggle. But alas, I forgot, and we paid the first price quoted, which was $10 US dollars. Also, we probably should have sojourned a little further into the city to find a better starting price, to boot.

But, oh well, we thought. Nothing wrong with supporting the Mexican economy, right?

The sunglasses we shouldn't have spent $10 on in Mexico
The sunglasses that sunk us.

The bus ride part of our adventure was easier than we thought it would be.With the help of a few friendly tour salesmen that bombarded us at the port, we found our way to the first bus stop. Sure enough, the correct bus came along pretty quickly. We told the driver where we needed to get off, and he let us know when we got to the correct stop. Then we only had to say the name of our destination, "Boca de Tomatlan," and an amiable passerby pointed to the next bus stop.

Bus ride in Puerto Vallarta, on the way to Boca de Tomatlan
See the spray painted letters on the window? That's how you see if you're on the right bus. Also, there was a huge windshield crack on the driver's side, but you can't see it real well in the picture.

The second bus route was about 40 minutes long and took us all along the coast. It was a pretty drive, and passed by several resort hotels and sandy beaches. Soon we arrived at our small fishing town destination, Boca de Tomatlan.

Lesson #2: Be prepared to pay to use a public restroom in Mexico.

Of course, after our fairly long bus ride, and before beginning our trek, we had to pee. We bought a few snacks for the hike and the store owner directed us down a path toward the beach to use the restroom.

Just in case we missed the painted letters on the outside of the bathroom, there was a guy posted at the door to let us know 'tweren't free to pee. This was the case in Mazatlan as well, by the way.

Pay bathroom in Boca de Tomatlan
I love the look on Fred's face. He's like, "Really? As I'm coming out of the john?"

Sidenote: Apparently, according the the Urban Dictionary, there is a second meaning for the word "tweren't," which, although being a body part one might interact with when using the toilet, is not the intended meaning here. Just clarifying.

After finishing the restroom business (no pun intended), we made our way to the starting point of the hike.

It was an odd path that took us through people's front yards, basically. But I guess the locals were used to it because most of them ignored the gringos trekking right past their windows.

The two gringos

Vacation house in Boca de Tomatlan
One of the homes whose yard we passed through.

Boca de Tomatlan beach view from the hike
One of the amazing views on the hike.

At first, the path was right along the coast and we could see the azure water and hear the gentle waves below us. It was quite lovely and we were in high spirits (that sounded very Jane Austen-like, didn't it?). I couldn't wait to get to our destination beach and feel that cool water.

Here's a clip of Indiana Fred in high spirits.

And then the beach path began to climb upward.

Lesson #3: When it comes to hike descriptions online, the word "moderate" is very subjective.

I had done my research regarding this hike. At first I worried it might be too much for two osteoporotic, diabetic, old fatties like us. But I read personal accounts and Trip Advisor reviews and most of them described the difficulty level as "moderate," with some of the reviewers being in their 60's. 

Surely, we could handle it, I thought.

When the path began to climb up and away from the coast, it became stone steps. Lots and lots of upward climbing stone steps that went on...and on...and on. Our legs began to ache and we rested often, hoping the next bend would bring a flatter path, but it never seemed to end.

We ran across four locals hiking, who looked to be in their late teens or very early 20's and at least one in their group was having just as hard a time as us.

Fred told me later that he honestly thought he was going to need to be airlifted out of there.

Sweaty, tired, sore, and feeling foolishly overambitious for taking on this odyssey, we finally arrived at the first beach on our route. There were several local families already there, so it was a bit crowded. So much for my earlier dream of frolicking on a deserted beach.

We were not even halfway through our hike, exhausted, and pretty disheartened because we didn't know how we would make it to the second and third beach. 

Then we saw the most welcome sight of all...a water taxi! Fred and I took one look at each other and he took off running along the shore, waving his arms wildly, to flag it down.

So, I guess he did frolic on the beach...sort of.

The water taxi took us past the second beach and that one was deserted, and looked absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of that beach, the water taxi, Fred's headfirst dive into the water taxi, or anything else that happened after the kayak picture below. You'll soon see why.
After a five minute water taxi ride, we arrived at our final destination, Las Animas beach. I have to admit, it sure beat an hour-long hike.

Kayakers we passed as we hiked.

Lesson #4: Bring enough cash with you.

After getting off the water taxi, we could see several restaurants all along the beach. We headed for the one nearest the dock, with several outdoor tables right on the sand. We walked by an older couple sitting at one of the tables and said hello and it turns out they had done the hike too, only they actually hiked the whole thing and I have to say, didn't look near as wore out as us. (What is WRONG with us? Wait...don't answer that.)

I had to use the bathroom, and fortunately, since we were about to be paying customers, the bathroom didn't cost any money.

Let me tell get what you pay for in Mexico. The bathroom was disgusting. The only toilet that was not plugged, didn't have a seat on it and there was no way I was going to sit my tired behind on it. 

Ladies, have you ever tried squatting to pee, after a strenuous hike? It goes something like this:

  1. Squat
  2. Pee till your legs begin to shake
  3. Stand up and rest 
  4. Repeat
It took me like, 15 minutes to pee.

But I'm getting off track. I was talking about enough cash.

You see, we weren't planning on buying souvenirs in Mexico. We didn't need anything, and any trinket we bought would probably end up in a yard sale a couple years down the road anyway. To me, memories and pictures were enough.

So when we were figuring out how much money to take with us to spend in Puerto Vallarta, we tallied up bus fare, one water taxi ride, lunch on the beach, a little extra for a cushion...about $70 US dollars seemed like enough.

We ordered lunch, then counted how much cash we had left, after the sunglasses, bus fare, snacks, and water taxi. We had $37 left.

Lesson #5: Understand the conversion rate and/or ask for the prices in US dollars.

$37! That was less than we expected, so we double checked the cost of what we had ordered (the menu was in pesos) and figured our lunch would come to about $27 US dollars. A bit overpriced for an order of beef fajitas, some ceviche, a Corona, and a Coke, but okay.

That would leave us just enough for a water taxi back to Boca and the two bus rides to get back to the port. We stressed a little, but after refiguring the pesos to dollars conversion (which we thought we had a grasp on) figured we would be okay.

Then the bill came. It was in pesos and since our money was tight and we couldn't afford accidentally over paying (the tip was included in the bill), we asked what the amount was in US dollars. The waiter had to check with the manager.

The bill was $37. Everything we had left.

This was Fred when he realized we may have to beg for money in Mexico. (Source: Giphy)

Talk about stressed! Granted, not having enough money to get back to your cruise ship is definitely a First World problem, but when it happens in a Third World country, it's a BIG problem, nonetheless. I thought we were going to have to literally beg for money from strangers. In Mexico. Now there's a twist for you.

After Fred choked on his overpriced Coke, he talked to the manager to see if he would take $27 and let us make our way back to the cruise ship, get more cash from our room, and return with the remainder. The manager was actually very gracious and kind and said that was no problem and we could do that. And we would have... but we didn't have to.

Which brings me to the last lesson in my story.

Lesson #6:  There are kind and sympathetic people in the world and not everyone is out to scam you.

The nice couple that we met at the table next to ours evidently heard our whole sorry story. The man came over to us, handed Fred $20, and said, "Here. Pay it forward."

They were not passengers on our cruise ship, so there was no way we could immediately pay them back. We asked for their address so we could send them the money when we got home, but they refused (gee...can't imagine why they didn't want to give two needy, poor-planning, overspenders their address).

We thanked them profusely, of course! They saved us from begging on the beaches of Mexico, AND from having to take a water taxi, two buses, a regular taxi, and another water taxi, to bring the shortfall of money all the way back to the restaurant.

Later I wondered, if they had not overheard our plight, and we actually did have to ask them (or anyone else) for money, what would we say? And would they have even given us money, not knowing if we were telling the truth?

I guess the bigger question I was asking myself is...would I have given money to someone with a crazy, hard luck story like ours?

The truth is...I have given money to strangers with a story, but usually with the assumption that the story was just a ruse to get money. But now...having been in the shoes of a person in a scary situation who needs money...I understand that not all hard luck stories are scams. 

Either way, there's nothing wrong with having a little "pay it forward" in the bank, so to speak. You never know when you might find yourself in a situation where you're at the receiving end of it.

So...between the grueling hike and our chagrin at the restaurant, we decided we really couldn't be trusted in Mexico and we had better head straight back to the safety of the cruise ship.

Somewhere in there was a happy hour drink special I really needed to get to.

A water taxi and two buses later, we made it to the ship, having never stepped foot in the ocean water that enticed us on the hike. 

We headed straight for the ship's swimming pool.

One of FOUR pools on the ship.

Oh, and it was later that night that we realized, had we not spent $10 on the sunglasses, we would have had enough money. The sunglasses had sunk us.

By the way, those sunglasses broke the next day, in Mazatlan.

This post was brought to you courtesy of Mama Kat's Writer's Workshop and her prompt to write about something learned in March.

Also...if you like this post, please help someone else avert disaster by sharing!

Six very important things you need to know before going to Mexico!

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