If you are heading off to Mexico, take time out to venture along the magical Pacific coast. Photojournalist Jeremy Jowell meets a manta ray and ponders the Mexican Sunset Dilemma in the heart of Earthquake Country.....
It's early morning and Mexico's calm Pacific Ocean slowly turns orange
as the sun peeks through a veil of thin sea mist. I walk alone down
Melaque's peaceful beach. Just offshore, the fish are jumping. Hundreds
of grey and white pelicans skim above the surface, then dive bomb down
for a feeding frenzy. The shore fishermen intently patrol the break, nets
ready, as they wait for tell tale signs of the shimmering shoals.
A flurry of fins and the sinewy weather-beaten Mexican near me springs into action. The handmade net, weighed down with lead sinkers, flies from his hands and catches the tail end of the school. Battling to beach his catch, he dives into the surf and grapples with the laden net before triumphantly staggering ashore, small silver fish flopping everywhere.
Situated at opposite ends of a three kilometre horse-shoe bay, Melaque
(me-lu-keh) and its neighbour Barra de Navidad are a small piece of paradise
along Mexico's wild Pacific coast. Lying 60 kilometres from Manzanillo,
where the states of Jalisco and Colima meet, the sleepy fishing towns of
Bahia de Navidad take you back to an olden day Mexico. A time of wide smiles
and cobblestone streets.
Life in Melaque is simple and the pace is slow. After a lazy breakfast of fruit and flapjacks, I start off down the deserted beach towards Barra de Navidad. A lone fisherman who obviously overslept and missed the early morning fishing fiesta casts his net repeatedly and comes up empty every time. With a shrug of the shoulders and a gesture to the sun and horizon, he tells me the fishing will improve by evening. He will be back later.
My long hot midday walk wends around the bay. Soon the dilapidated houses of Barra de Navidad come into sight and I stop at the first 'ristorante' to revive myself with a light lunch and a Coke.
Barra's shambling shops and beachside restaurants provide the perfect escape from Mexico's other jet set tourist traps. The plaque beneath the King Neptune and Venus sculpture on the cobblestone promenade tells me I'm standing at 19' 12' latitude North and 104' 41' longitude East, in the capital of Costalegra. Impressive formalities for a small two road town.
The languid life on the beach pitches perfectly with the snail pace existence on the street. Colourful Mexican crafts - Michoacan lacquerware, Guerrero masks, Guadalajara leather, wooden Tonala birds and Taxco silver catch my eye. A lively chorus of "hola amigo" greets me as I stroll past the store owners. A friendly Mexican teenager selling multi-coloured hammocks poses for my camera like a seasoned model. No fee demanded.
Spreading out along the banks of a twisting lagoon, the area is rich in animal and birdlife. Egrets, terns, herons, pelicans, boobies, frigate birds, geese and exotic parrots have made the Costalegre coast their home. Further up the lagoon and across in the jungle of the green headland, turtles, boa constrictors, crocodiles, racoons, skunks, deer, wild cats and the occasional jaguar have all been sighted.
It's just gone lunchtime and I step into the small motorised boat that
takes us across the lagoon to the desolate beaches and steaming jungles
of the Cerro San Francisco headland. We're heading for the small town of
Colimilla. On the way, a garish pink palace spoils the view. The
colonial splendour of a five-star hotel opening soon for the rich and famous.
I join some travelling Canadians and we walk up the rough road through
a forest of palm trees. Suddenly we're confronted by the luxury of a 27-hole
tropical golf course, immaculately designed with island greens and coconut
palm fairways. Millionaire's in Mexico seems set to become Colimilla's
We pass the man-made luxury and after an 30 minute walk, we come across an endless expanse of beauty. Sweeping down to the left is the Playa de Cocos - mile after mile of virgin beach. No people or pelapa's, just spotless sand falling away into the curve of the bay. White breakers pound the shore as the wind whistles down the deserted beach.
We arrive back in Barra as the shadows start to stretch out in the late afternoon glow.
The Sunset Restaurant seems like a good enough place to take on the Mexican Sunset Dilemma. Especially as Happy Hour lasts from lunchtime through to eight o'clock. It's a difficult choice, terrifying for an uninitiated hard core drinker. Giant Margarita...Pina Colada...Sangria. So with the sun slowly sinking, I take the easy way out and start getting totalled on tequila. After several glasses down the gullet, plus the odd Cerveza or three, I make my merry way home to Melaque.
It's not just old age and third world workmanship that have contributed to
the crumbling facade of buildings in Barra de Navidad and Melaque.
At 9.37am on October 9 1995, the area was struck by a devastating two minute earthquake, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale.
"It was so frightening," recalls a restaurant owner in Barra de Navidad, who was sitting behind the bar when the quake struck. "We could feel this shaking and hear this rumbling that went on and on for ever. The ground was moving in waves. Then the tide quickly went far out and a tsunami (tidal wave) rushed in. My 'ristorante' was five foot under water, the fallen fridges floating everywhere.. but I just kept hoping my children were okay."
Schools, houses and hotels in the Jalisco and Colima regions collapsed. The quake, which was felt as far away as Oklahoma City, Dallas and Mexico City, cracked bridges, ripped open highways and killed 33 people. Ninety more were injured. But according to an Associated Press news report dated October 10, 1995, these numbers could in fact be much higher, if past earthquake misrepresentations were repeated. Many people believe that in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the Mexican government purposefully underestimated the number of fatalities. The official death toll was 6 000 but independent estimates put the figure at more than 10 000.
Mexican tremors are often felt along the Pacific coast, from the Guatemalan border up to Puerto Vallarta, where the Cocos Plate of the earth's crust pushes underneath the North American Plate.
The Costalegre coastline is dotted with many small bays off the beaten
track. A group of us decide to take a day trip out to Tenacatita, a beautiful
beach 25 kilometres north of Melaque. After half an hour, the bus drops
us on the highway at the Rio Purificacio. Below the bridge, women are washing
clothes on large slabs of stone. We hire a store owner to drive us down
the dusty road to the coast.
Tenacatita is renown for its calm clear waters, ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
The reefs sound alive as loose coral crackles in the current. Speckled Blowfish peer out from crannies and Angelfish play a darting game of hide-and-seek. I am following a shoal of silver fins when I turn to my left and suddenly encounter one of the wonders of the deep.
A white spotted manta ray is hovering just metres away, almost within touching distance. With tail straight and wings extended, the ray gracefully glides past as I hold my breath, hoping the moment could last forever. Majestically it moves, then in a flash of spotted wings, it serenely disappears into the distance.
Elated and breathless, I swim slowly back to the beach.
In most Mexican villages, community spirit plays a important role in family life. Every Sunday evening in Zihuatanejo, a large fishing town further down the coast, the locals gather on the beachfront for the weekly variety show. In Melaque, they do the De Navidad Walk.
"Every week we get dressed in our best Sunday clothes, come down to the centro and walk round and round the town square," says Mell, who works at a beach restaurant. "Iz nice feeling, saying hello to everyone...and we can look at all the senorita's," he smiles.
Food in Mexico is not for the faint-hearted. What with names like 'Filete a la Veracruzana", 'Pescado al Pancho" and Camaro a la Diablo", it's definitely on the 'caliente' side. But there's also plenty on offer to tempt the milder tastebuds. Like burritos, tangy tortillas or chicken and mushroom quesadillos. And for seafood lovers, it's a marine dream.
My eating patterns have quickly fallen into a tasty routine. For a light snack or starter it's always guacomole, an avocado, tomato, green pepper and onion dip with crispy deep fried nachos chips and fresh salsa on the side. For main meals, I invariably follow it up with something fishy - either grilled Huachinango (Red Snapper) or Mahi Mahi, a firm white flesh done to perfection in herbs and a creamy white sauce.
Later on one lazy day, I set off for a jungle adventure. A Mexican youth
leads me and Rosalitta, a 21 year-old woman from Guadalajara, to the end
of the beach. I cannot understand a word my two Mexican friends are saying
and they don't speak any English but language is not important on such
a beautiful day.
We cross over a rocky road, past a field then head upward through the thickly forested headland. Dappled sunlight filters down through leafy ferns and tree tops as we beat a path to the top of the hill. Suddenly the bushes clear and we are standing on top of a sheer cliff, looking down at a blue water bay and black pebble beach.
The mood is magical and free as we gaze in awe at the solitude surrounding us.
It's time to climb down but after several failed attempts to find the path, it's clear our guide has lost his bearings. A concerned look comes over Rosalitta's beautiful face as we start to hack our way through the steep thicket. Like sweaty seasoned jungle veterans, we crash through bushes, stumbling down sand ledges, holding onto trees, creepers and each other. Finally, covered in prickly thorns, dirt and spider webs, we emerge laughing from the forested greentop.
One dramatic incident seems to follow another in this laid back part of the
world. The next day, three of us hire a flimsy rowing boat, complete with a
captain and an overworked 18hp engine badly in need of an overhaul. Our skipper
is Andres Ramirez V. 'El Chino' to his friends.
We chug our way through a turbulent sea to do some snorkeling at a deserted cove. The wind the previous night has churned up the ocean so it is not the best conditions to view fish. After 20 minutes, we arrive at the remote rocky bay surrounded by steep boulder cliffs and a dense jungle of trees. We anchor 100 metres offshore and swim to the beach through the dumping surf.
Later back in the boat, Chino tries to start the spluttering engine. But trouble is looming.
"O no, need to make reparasi," he says, obviously concerned. The propellor pin has snapped and the swell is dragging the anchor, sending us toward the crashing surf. In a flash, Chino dives overboard, unscrews the propellor and brings it in for an emergency repair.
There's no spare pin so while he's scratching around in the tool box, we desperately paddle with flippers to keep our craft away from the surf and an instant swamping. The elderly bearded American on board has had enough. He abandons ship and starts swimming for the shore, three kilometres away.
Now the situation is serious. We're dragging closer to the rocks and Chino has the desperate look of someone about to lose their livelyhood. Just in time, he finds a small nail in the fishing tackle, slots it in and replaces the propellor. Sighs of relief all round as the engine catches and we splutter back to shore, stopping briefly to pick up the aging American.
"I was already on my way back, would've swum all the way if I had to," gasps the bearded madman.
"But I suppose that's Mexican adventure for you," he laughs, dragging himself into Chino's beloved boat.