Mexico City - My childhood vacations relied on the same unvarnished elements: fishing poles, campfires and a cramped tent. Trout for dinner. Possibly for lunch as well.
Thus, perhaps, is explained my adult vacation penchant for ritzy resorts graced by swaying palm trees and strutting peacocks. To me, a vacation constituted a getaway from the familiar. An escape. Therefore, over the course of three decades, I stubbornly refused to consider spending precious vacation time renting anything as mundane as someone else's home.
Admittedly, the home vacation rental landscape has lapped my expectations along the way, growing into a $100-billion industry. HomeAway, the market's biggest player, lists more than 1.2 million homes among its various websites.
This spring, I decided to see what we had been missing. A year after visiting Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we were eager to return. But this time, there would be no resorts. No swim-up bar.
In part, it was a decision of necessity: Our family of five can no longer slyly slip into a standard hotel room. In addition, some relatives wanted to join us for a few days at the week's end.
If sharing a home would keep us together, save money and simultaneously satisfy my need for getaway adventure, I was all for it. Little did we guess that besides the realised savings, we were in store for adventures and personal connections that are all but impossible to find within the boundaries of the hotel experience.
Relationships were cemented, and we dove more deeply into the country's culture and its people. As I look back now, the memories seem more vivid, more genuine than usual - particularly those that surfaced from the most humble of the homes we rented.
I designed our home-rental vacation adventure in three segments: an elegant home in Puerto Vallarta's city centre, a simple beachfront cottage in an isolated village and a fantasy villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Some lingering trepidation haunted me, however, as we parked our rental van in front of the first of the three dwellings.
What if the toilet got clogged? Who could take the place of the hotel staff? What about meals? How would the homes measure up against a hotel stay? Would reality match the promise of the website photos?
The answer to the last of these questions waited behind a pair of heavy, metal-studded wooden doors. A tower peeking above the rock-wall exterior hinted at the proof inside: This constituted more than a home - it was a castle.
Casa de la Torre, it is called, was constructed in 1970 and named for its distinctive three-story tower. Via email, the property manager had agreed to welcome us - over margaritas, with guacamole and chips, as it turned out.
As we lugged our bags inside and turned a corner, I felt as if we had entered the pages of The Secret Garden. Around a rectangular pool in a courtyard, a riot of ferns and flowers in purples, whites and pinks escaped from pots and clambered along the walls. Sago palms stood at attention. Stone angels on the walls kept vigil over all.
More surprises revealed themselves as our exploration continued. A talavera fountain in blue and white. Even more tile in the kitchen, framing modern, stainless-steel appliances. The kitchen, living area and dining room were connected, the patios and garden visible through accordion doors.
Each of the five bedrooms and 5½ bathrooms carried personal touches, among them stained-glass windows, a shower head emerging from a vine-trailing Roman column and a stone face in the guest bathroom that sent a stream of water gushing into a stone basin with the turn of a brass knob.
The second-floor master bedroom provided a glimpse of the Pacific, but it was not until we climbed the tower's spiral staircase to the third floor that we fully appreciated the castle's vantage point. From the third-floor patio, we spied dozens of red-tiled roofs marching before us, halting only at the blue crescent of Banderas Bay.
Clearly, this home had architectural appeal. But we had also picked it for location. Situated a few blocks north of the Gringo Gulch area popularised by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1950s, Casa de la Torre put us right in El Centro (the centre, or downtown) of Puerto Vallarta and its cobbled streets, just three blocks from the seaside promenade known as the Malecon. Revived by a major renovation in 2011 that closed it to vehicular traffic, the Malecon represents the city's beating heart, especially on weekends after dark.
It was where we found ourselves near sundown on our first day, swept along with the current of families, mostly locals, past the street vendors and musicians. Dinner was a quick bite along the boardwalk because we couldn't wait to get home and into our pool.
Breakfast was part of the package at this dwelling, and the next morning we woke to the faint sounds of Monse, the housekeeper, stirring in the kitchen. She prepared fresh fruit and coffee for us daily, and also assisted a chef in an optional dinner at home one night that, while beautifully presented, was expensive by local standards at about $29 (about R400) a person, including tip.
The bulk of our meals during this stay in town were drawn from Puerto Vallarta's vivid and varied street-food scene. I'm beyond finicky about street food, particularly in a foreign country, but on a previous trip we had sampled about a dozen spots through Vallarta Eats' Signature Taco Tour.
We repeated the tour this trip because we liked it so much, but also revisited on our own several well-remembered stands, specialising in piping-hot carnitas, battered fish and stewlike beef birria. At prices ranging from 70 cents to $1 per taco, our family routinely consumed entire meals for less than $20.
Our first moving day dawned too early. In a scene that was to be repeated twice more, we packed wistfully and were sent on our way with a personal touch. Monse, with Martin, the gardener, saw us to the door, helped with bags and, contrary to their intent, made it that much harder to leave.
Our second home, perched on a beach in the remote village of Quimixto, about 12 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, required arrival by sea. We drove to the sleepy port town of Boca de Tomatlan, where Raul, the house's caretaker, met us at the dock.
After 20 minutes through choppy surf, we spied our next dwelling: a salmon-coloured bungalow right on the beach. Via email, the owner had cautioned me that this was a simple place: two bedrooms, an open living/kitchen area, no air conditioning.
The attractions, she told me, consisted of the quiet town itself, its friendly inhabitants and a nearby waterfall. And, of course, the ocean out front, where pelicans dived for hours on end.
A few steps down the beach stood a single palapa known as Coco's, where we found bartender Andres Ramos Lopez willing to dole out smiles, drinks and answers to our plentiful questions in equal measure. The only sounds that registered were the surf and the steady pounding of a hammer as one of the locals worked on a boat next door.
We began, in Spanish, by asking what there was to do.
“When there are no tourists, we fish,” he said. “There's the waterfall, the beach. Here, it is pure relaxation.”That sounded perfect to me. But the kids were insistent in their need to remain tethered to the Internet, and the house appeared to have no WiFi.
“What do you need the Internet for?” Andres asked.
In Quimixto, one might just as well ask about the need for a car. Other than ATVs, there are no motorised vehicles - mountains cut off the village from the main highway. Natives and visitors arrive by boat. They walk, and often ride horseback.
Andres asked whether we planned to visit the waterfall the next morning. It's a tough hike, he said, but his dad could guide us there on horseback for about $11 each.
First, we took an evening walk into the village, where children ran gaily, castoff boat motors idly inclined in yards, stray dogs sized us up. Nearer to the beach and vegetation, terrestrial crabs scurried out of sight by the dozens as we approached.
Poverty was evident, but not an accompanying sense of desperation. The locals smiled, chatted and redirected our steps when we got lost. Unlike in town, where it's easy to get by with English, our family's fluency in Spanish proved to be a definite advantage in Quimixto.
Overnight, rain rattled loudly on the rooftop and lightning storms illuminated the bay. We discovered some of the down side of roughing it: A drain backed up, bugs fought their way past the bed netting and the fans lost an unequal fight against the humidity.
All of which, it must be admitted, took some of the shine off our adventure, at least for my wife and kids. I took it in stride as part of the experience in a working-class town, and promised myself I would learn even more about the people here, who constitute the faceless mass of cooks, servers, maids and more at countless nearby resorts and tourist sites.
Over breakfast, Raul and his wife, Palita, talked easily with us in the kitchen as she prepared a breakfast of eggs, fruit and pancakes. Like the dinner of chicken quesadillas and locally caught fish (meals added a modest cost to the stay) she had delivered the night before, the food was simple but satisfying.
With just a question or two to jump-start the conversation, Palita provided a concise description of life in Quimixto:
“Rich people here? There's none. Everybody's working. There's less poverty than before. All the work is in tourism.
“We went to primary school - sixth grade. We learned to read and write, and that's it. My father doesn't know how to read. Raul learned English working at the stables as a kid.
“Everyone knows each other - a kid can walk in the streets. We take care of each other. It's peaceful.”
The ensuing morning journey through narrow, twisting paths to the waterfall would have been all-but impossible for us on foot, so the horses proved to be a godsend. At the trail's end, the roaring falls filled a natural pool; the rocks at the fall's base formed a natural slide.
Later, Raul ferried us by boat to the nearby beach village of Las Animas, which has a number of seafood restaurants and offers water sports such as piloting personal watercraft and parasailing - a veritable metropolis compared to Quimixto.
Too soon, the morning arrived for us to cart our bags to the beach where Raul and his boat awaited. On the ride back, a pod of dolphins kept pace with us, skimming just below the surface, almost out of sight.
I had seen the website photos for our final rental home, but I have to confess that neither they, nor words, were adequate. Set above a beach-side sister dwelling just south of Puerto Vallarta, this villa, known as Marea Alta (high tide), proved the most elegant place I've ever called home.
Set on two levels and artfully decorated in Mexico modern (think bright, pastel colours, distressed wood, candlesticks, four-poster beds and decorated ceramic pots), the villa had an open design with direct access to the outdoor patio and pool areas. The beach below was close enough to hear the faint pounding each time waves met the shoreline.
We were joined for this segment of our trip by four relatives, bringing our party's size to nine. Thus our desire for an oversize dwelling, and we fit comfortably in the four bedrooms.
Unlike our first two stays, this home included the preparation of two meals a day - we paid only for ingredients, plus staff tips. We provided a list of our grocery needs to the houseman, Jesus. Olga, the cook, transformed them into artful chiles rellenos, tortilla soup, chicken enchiladas and more.
Upon our arrival, Jesus's first two questions were: “Do you want a beer? Do you like margaritas?”
Por supuesto - of course. Between the drinks, the pool, the view and Olga's cooking, we found ourselves reluctant to leave home and see anything more than the bay before us.
But for our last full day in the area, we wanted to get out on the water and give our newest visitors an afternoon at the beach we had enjoyed further south at Las Animas. We engaged the services of a charter boat, which picked us up in the surf below our villa, and motored south to snorkel the warm water around Los Arcos, a cluster of offshore granite rocks that is home to nesting seabirds above, tropical fish below.
For a lunch of shrimp tostadas and nachos, we revisited the nearby beach. After, the kids went parasailing and took rides on a banana boat.
Then it was back home, a 45-minute straight shot north along the coast to our own little beach, where a small weekend crowd of swimmers had congregated in the surf.
As we motored in slowly toward the sand, one of swimmers, clearly unhappy, asked why we were interfering with their fun.
“That's our house,” I replied, pointing up at the villa. “And we need to get home.”
If you go...
Where to eat
Vallarta Eats Signature Taco Tour
Meet at Insurgentes Bridge in Old Town Puerto Vallarta
This walking tour introduces the historic Old Town area through a belt-straining succession of tacos. From crispy pork skin chicharron to lightly breaded dorado (which Hawaiians call mahi-mahi) to juicy beef birria, the flavour of Mexico emerges one bite at a time. Adults, $55; children 4 to 12, $39; free for children younger than 4.
Five minutes south of Boca de Tomatlan (by boat)
Reservations via website; no phone calls
The remarkable Ocean Grill is set on a cliffside and accessible only by boat (or to hardy hikers) from the sleepy fishing port of Boca de Tomatlan. Fresh seafood is the specialty, such as the smoked marlin tostadas. Take note of rules prohibiting diners younger than 14 and the necessity of reserving one of the three daily seatings. Entrees are $9 to $16.
Delfin 14, Sayulita
North of Puerto Vallarta, past the string of resorts in Nuevo Vallarta, await the beach towns of Bucerias and Sayulita. Sayulita in particular is worth a visit, for its surfer/hippie vibe, street vendors and an obligatory chocolate-covered bananas at Chocobanana. Coffee, smoothies or breakfast for a few dollars; the namesake chocolate-covered banana costs about a buck.
What to do
Juarez 628, Puerto Vallarta
Jalisco is home base for Mexican artistry, and though Puerto Vallarta can't compare to its capital, Guadalajara, in breadth (or prices), flocks of shops and market stalls hawk blown glass, pottery and elaborate embroidery, among other wares. My favourite stall, Galeria Indigena, has some extraordinary pottery from throughout Mexico.
The lush jungle that surrounds the city makes for ideal zip-lining terrain, and Canopy River has a comfortable base area and friendly guides. The 11 zip-lines range from more than one-third of a mile long to a 50-yard sprint that ends in a river dunking. Adults, $80; children 7 to 12, $51; free for children younger than 7.
Local 13-C, Calle Mastil, Marina Vallarta
Start with a zip-line tour, add two giant water slides, pools to rappel into, a mule ride, a speedboat jaunt across Banderas Bay and a bumpy jeep journey, and you end up with Vallarta Adventures' Outdoor Adventure. The guides are hilarious, safety is a priority and the photos we took home tell a happy story. $109; guests must be age 10 or older.