This article is from the February 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
Will Success Spoil Barra de Navidad?
by David Simmonds
I have often wondered how the histories of the two towns, Puerto Vallarta and Barra de Navidad, might have been changed had John Huston filmed “Night of the Iguana” 150 miles farther south some 30 years past. Would Barra have become the international headquarters for “party-til-stupid” revelers as the still beautiful Vallarta has? Might it yet? The answers are maybe and probably. How’s that for first class reporting. I feel like Bill Clinton explaining…whatever it is this week. Not that Barra de Navidad (henceforth referred to as Barra) has been completely unchanged since my first visit in 1975. The town has grown and the no-see-ums are no longer the dominant cultural focus. No, on my most recent trip in November, the hot topic had been elevated to the recent swamp-draining. It seems that the rainy season had extended into the fall, and the lagoon was full. Heavy equipment was employed to create an opening out to the sea, resulting in a lower lagoon and a very dark and murky ocean. So much for a little body-surfing after my four-hour drive down from Puerto Vallarta in our suspension-challenged VW bug rental. The usual azure sea was black for several hundred yards out with snakes crawling out of the slime on to the newly reed-covered beach. It was very weird. Weird enough to leave one of my traveling buddies, Karl, speechless for the first time since we first met in Little League many years past. Karl will talk to a tree stump if a breathing person isn’t in sight, stone sober. He soon recovered, however, and didn’t shut up again for the rest of the week.Located off the normal tourist track, Barra retains an atmosphere of semi-seclusion. It would be my choice for relocation if I ever enroll in the federal witness-protection program. The “wise guys” wouldn’t find you here. Not enough red wine and ziti in town.
I looked and listened closely to the middle-aged gringos, hoping I would be the one to find D.B. Cooper. He could have hidden here. I wanted to ask him, “D.B., what were you thinking as you floated down toward the tree-tops under your parachute? What in your life prepared you to undertake this improbable theft?” But, although there are a number of interesting characters in town, none answered to the name D.B.. The search continues.
Barra de Navidad (Christmas Bay) was named on Christmas Day in 1540. It was a port at that time for the early expeditions to the Orient. In about 1590 the Manila fleet was moved to Acapulco and Barra became like so many other west coast communities, scratching a living from the production of bananas and coconuts and the fish taken from the sea.. Shortly after WW II electricity came to the town, followed by a paved road from Guadalajara. With the road came the first tourists, although not in great numbers. They tended to be weekenders from the big city looking for a quiet respite on the beach. And to a great degree that is still the composition of the majority of visitors today. The “season” spans from December though March when the town picks up the pace a notch, but the rest of the year fairly crawls. No Hard Rock, no Pizza Hut. Not even a Bing’s Ice Cream Parlor has found sufficient reason to “improve” the neighborhood. If you look up the word “siesta” in the dictionary, you’ll find Barra de Navidad. It is tailor-made for an afternoon nap.
Barra reminds me of San Blas, farther north up the coast, except it’s cleaner, friendlier and seems to have a better handle on biting insects. The summer rains can be pretty intense at times, with the suffocating humidity also a factor for the wimpier souls. But the weather stays warm throughout the year, as does the water temperature.
If you like sportfishing, Barra may be as good as anyplace in Mexico — outside of the Cape area of Baja California. Some I have talked to think it’s better. Wahoo, dorado, marlin, sailfish and tuna are caught year-round and the charter prices are reasonable. A marina has been built and has become home to some nice cruisers. There is always the option of panga fishing for a cheaper fare. Either way, you will catch some fish.
So why would one want to come to a sleepy little town with not a whole lot to do? Well, that’s just the point. You come to relax, to see the beautiful countryside, to walk on a beach unlittered with sunblock scent, to meet the people. You come because you’ve been to Vallarta and Acapulco and you always wondered what those places were like before the Marriott, before brain-thumping discos. And you come because none of your friends have, and you can dazzle them with your sense of adventure.
Although Barra dates back several centuries, there is no apparent evidence of its age. It doesn’t possess a colonial past preserved in its buildings and streets as does Mazatlán. There are no nearby pyramids or ruins to rival the Yucatán. It is a flat spit of sand separating the ocean from the Laguna de Navidad. I don’t recall seeing any buildings over three-stories and some of the streets are unpaved. It immediately feels like an agreeable place and in a short time you find out that is just what it is. I’m sure they must have police, but I never saw one, nor the need for one. Late night walks back to your room are serene and secure and very, very quiet. The sound of waves needn’t compete with hot rods and trucks. The town is situated two kilometers down the road from Mexico 200, the coastal highway that stretches from Tepic, in the state of Nayarit, all the way to the Guatemala border.
Due to its location, surrounded by water, Barra doesn’t continuously morph in all directions, growing daily to house people that seem to appear from thin air, as has happened in so many other previously “quaint” villages. There are less than 3,000 local folks calling Barra home on a year-round basis, swelling a little during the winter months as a gaggle of wise snowbirds come in from the frozen north.
For years I have heard the prediction that Barra will soon be discovered, and I guess to some degree it has. The Mexicans from Guadalajara and Colima have been coming for years. But the gringo visitors who land here are among the more adventurous Mexico travelers. You know the type…the misfits who actually like exploring new places, staying in hotels without room service, eating great, fresh food in dives devoid of an “A” rating from the health department. Beware of these dangerous, irresponsible throwbacks. Or better yet, become one.
Is The Future Now?
Now for the real news. Rising majestically on the peninsula Isla Navidad just a short distance across the lagoon from town, looking down in disdain on the unwashed, sits the brand new Grand Bay Hotel. I convinced my friends, Chris and Karl, that maybe they could clean up for a day, leave the beer behind, and we would drive around the lagoon to the road that would take us to the guard house that protects the hotel from the rest of us. “Relax, guys, I can talk my way in anywhere. I’ll tell them I’m writing a piece and want to tell the world about their property.” And, in spite of being warned that only paying guests and royalty would be allowed to invade, we were welcomed in and given a tour.
I normally stay in inexpensive hotels in Mexico, but I have spent time at many higher end properties in several countries, not coincidentally because my wife really likes them. So I can comment on this with some authority. The Grand Bay is a beautiful, first class hotel. From the meandering swimming pool to the three international cuisine restaurants, you swing in the lap of luxury. The hillside setting provides constant views of the ocean and the little village across the lagoon, Barra de Navidad.. The rooms we were shown are large and well-appointed right down to the telephoned equipped marble baths. But what really sets this property apart is the 27-hole Robert Von Hagge-designed golf course. Driving into the gated grounds you navigate along several fairways, and I have to tell you, it is as attractive a golf course as I have ever seen, Pebble Beach included. It looked like it could eat you alive as well — not for hackers.
The rest of the huge grounds (500 hectares) is being touted as an ecological preserve, and contrarily, a boat marina with tennis courts and home sites. The Grand Bay looks like it will be a huge success, despite the fact there were very few guests when I visited. What all of this portends for Barra, I’m not sure. It has been quite a while since one of the seaside villages has been transformed into an international resort destination. Cancún, Cozumel, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas are now all well-established tourist centers and have been for over two decades. Loreto, in Baja, has been predicted to be the next in line for years, but it just hasn’t happened, and I don’t think it ever will. It’s really not warm enough in the winter, and its too hot in the summer. Besides, there is the fresh water problem that you find in the desert. Not enough of it. The fishing there, however, is tremendous. Most serious fisherman I know aren’t nearly as concerned about their accommodations as they are about the availability of cold beer and hot bait.