meeting with a manta

Jeremy Jowell visits the isolated village of Yelapa .. and steps back into Mexico's past ....

It's mid morning in Mexico and Puerto Vallarta's beach starts to fill as the late night revellers slowly haul their hangovers to the sand. After several days of tanning and tequila, it's time to leave this party town for some peace and paradise up the coast.
I'm headed for Yelapa, an off-the-beaten-track beach in the Bayof Banderas along Mexico's Pacific Coast. There's just time for a quick Corona and a couple of marlin kebabs before I jump into a high speed water taxi for the 45 minute thrill ride to paradise.
Along the way we pass Los Arcos, giant offshore rock formations rising out of the ocean. Jet set cruisers are anchored in the blue depths while their party animals snorkel the wonders below. We power past the secluded beaches of Boca de Tomatlan and Las Animas, white sand glistening on the palm fringed shore. As we approach our destination, the angular black wing of a giant manta ray whips the surface near the boat, welcoming us to his world.
Yelapa beach and its small village are only accessible by sea. Some travellers come for a day, others stay for six months. But everyone who sets foot here is captured by its spell.
A few open air 'ristorante' dot the beach, providing Mexican delights to the laid back visitor. First, the perfect starter - guacomole, nachos and salsa. Followed by seafood feasts of grilled mahi mahi and tasty huachinango.  And of course, crates of cold Corona.
Small breakers crash down the beach. Behind the sandbank, a lagoon snakes inland through thick green jungle. Colourful Mexican children play happily on a beached fishing boat, leaping in the air with shrieks of delight.
A pure white flamingo fishing in the shallows grabs my attention. Stepping gingerly into the lagoon, it gracefully arches its long neck, studying the minnows below. Then slowly it sinks in after its prey. A few seconds later, it surfaces triumphant. A wriggling fish hanging from its yellow beak.


Later on the lazy day, I set out to explore the nearby village. It's low tide and I wade through the lagoon, then walk up the hill into the fringe of the forest.
Within minutes, I am back in time. The sand track descends around a corner and a rambling village spreads out across the next bay. There's no traffic in this corner of the world. Just horses and donkeys carrying the locals along their well worn path.
Friendly smiles and innocent faces welcome me from brick stairways and crumbling houses. I meander along a cobblestone track, stopping in the midday heat to buy bottled water and watch Yelapa life pass by.
A chorus of "hola amigo" greets me as I amble aimlessly in the dappled sunlight.
Outside a window, a pet iguana hangs over a hammock. Shy school children, neatly dressed in black and white uniforms, lead me through the maze of sun-drenched alleyways. An old man lovingly tends to his flowerbeds and cactus garden while chickens squawk and pigs snuffle in a yard.
A proud father invites me into his humble home, overjoyed when I ask permission to photograph his beautiful five-year-old daughter. "Si, si, gracias, gracias," he smiles broadly. This is Mexico - where the locals don't expect payment for photographic favours. Just happy to share their warmth and beauty with strangers.
That night is one of star-filled skies and darkness. Then all too soon, my time in Yelapa comes to an end. Winds of freedom flick through my hair as I reluctantly climb into the water taxi for the ride back to Puerto Vallarta. From the rocks, a wild iguana bids me a beady-eyed goodbye.