Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!
We are on the side of a gorgeous mountain. Lush greenery around us, a river rushing several hundred feet below us, and a warm tropical breeze blows through our hair. All is well with the world. Breathing in inspiration, breathing out gratitude. Then the sound kicks in “vooRRRR, vooRRR, vooRRR” and we lurch back and forth, simultaneously thrown forward while being incredibly thankful for the invention of the seat belt. For a moment, I totally understood how people get whiplash. I have visions of being stranded at the top of a Mexican mountain, the last known vestiges of civilization several miles below us and I begin to wonder, “What the HELL was I thinking?”
Let’s go back about three hours. Our second to last port was in our sights. Puerto Vallarta is the first port in Mexico, and the only port where Galina and I didn’t have excursions planned through Semester at Sea. After my experience in Guatemala, the port prior to Mexico, I was ready to be a true traveler and not a tourist, so I was excited at the thought of wondering through a new city and for going on our own excursion. About two months prior to this moment, Galina and I received a staggering booklet of colorful pictures and expressive descriptions of between 10-15 excursions per country. My goal when choosing excursions was to experience things that would never be possible in the U.S., which led me to learn about the process of chocolate making, emerald jewelery making, and hike an active volcano. However, when we looked over the excursions for Puerto Vallarta, they all seemed a little generic. Things like swimming with dolphins in an aquarium, horseback riding on the beach, or whale-watching were all fabulous options for many people, but since we live in California, none of them inspired much excitement for either of us. Therefore, we struck out on our own.
My goal for Puerto Vallarta was originally to go snorkeling, as they have some of the best snorkeling in the world. However, these conditions did not exist in the middle of winter. During my research, I found an eco-tourism company that specialized in “off the beaten path” tours and adventures. Some people may equate this to death, but I was up for it, and Galina signed on without even seeing the website or pouring over the Yelp and TripAdvisor recommendations like I had. When we stepped off the ship, we had the name of the company, the address in Spanish, and instructions to show the ticket “to any taxi driver, they’ll know where we are.”
With nothing more than this address and trust in Jose, our incredibly helpful taxi driver, we set out to get past the cruise ship terminal and main area of town which was teeming with tourists to get to the “true” Mexico, to be able to christen ourselves travelers. A $40 cab ride later, we find ourselves in old town Puerto Vallarta and suddenly I felt much less like a traveler and much more like someone who wished she had paid more attention in high school Spanish. Due to my insane over-preparedness, we were almost an hour early, so Galina and I enjoyed using WiFi for the first time in weeks. She texted with her family about Christmas and I sent my mom a vague text that said, “I’m about to go ATVing in Mexico. If I die, make sure to spoil my dog.” I subsequently lost cell service, leaving a panicked Midwestern mother on the other side of the text message. We sat around a little longer while teenagers worked on dune buggies, ATVs, and other vehicles in varying states of usability. We finally met our guide who tried to make up for spotty English with a huge smile, put on helmets that smelled a little funky and had me thinking about the bottle of Purel that was sitting neatly on the desk in my cabin. This was our view:
We got a quick (and I mean quick) overview of how to operate our vehicle which was known as a “Rhino.” I chose it because it looked like the safest option when two women decide to go gallivanting through the Mexican countryside. There were seat belts and a roll-cage, plus we both had to wear helmets, so all-in-all, I felt fairly safe. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a stick-shift because I was all geared up to show off my automatic car skills picked up on a variety of farm equipment and a menagerie of second-hand cars during my years growing up in Ohio.
I decided to drive first, so with Galina riding shotgun next to me, we set out. Our guide was up front, then a teenage couple on an ATV, then another employee who wove in and out of traffic in order to get “in action” photos which I was convinced he would try to sell back to us at the end of the day (foreshadowing: he totally did). We drove through the cobblestone street of old Puerto Vallarta and gradually transitioned to smaller stone roads, then dirt roads, then straight up dirt paths. We crossed rivers and streams, swollen from recent rain waters and enjoyed lush vegetation that had me humming the Jurassic Park theme song in my head the entire day. After about an hour, we stopped at a roadside stand that offered us a much-needed bathroom break and moment of gratitude for views like these.
I insisted that Galina drive the rest of the way. In my head, we were simply going to backtrack the path we had already driven, but our guide had another idea. He thought we should really get the full experience, which included hugging the sides of mountains as our Rhino started to have what I can only describe as seizures. I’m convinced that it wasn’t really in gear as the engine continued to rev up and down, jerking us around in our seats while we were several hundred feet above the ground and miles from anything. At first it was funny, all part of the adventure. Then, it became a little concerning, then very concerning. I was already going into Res Life duty mode, thinking of contingency plans. Would it make sense for both of us to stay with the Rhino while our guide went for help? No, then we were alone in the Mexican countryside. Would it make more sense for one of us to stay with the Rhino while the other one went back with Jose, to make sure that he actually came back? No, because that meant one person would be all alone. Would it make sense for both of us to go back to the shop on the guide’s ATV and then send them back? Well, that was a laughable plan since there were absolutely no road signs and I had no clear idea where we turned and where we kept going. The plan then became to just drive slow, coast on the declines, brace our necks, and pray we made it back without any incident.
By some small miracle, we made it back okay. Right before we were about to leave, our guide insisted on taking us to a local restaurant. Apparently, the tour also included a tequila tasting! Who knew!? Galina and I (wisely) decided that we needed lunch first and subsequently had perhaps the best Mexican food of our lives. Seriously, I will have dreams about this guacamole. After lunch, we had a quick tequila tasting, which was surprisingly delicious! Like many people, I have only had tequila after making poor choices throughout an evening and then really want to push myself over the edge, so I was participating more to be kind to our hosts then to actually enjoy myself. However, having good tequila is actually a delightful experience! We tried chocolate-flavored, hazelnut-flavored, and my favorite kind, an amazing version that was mixed with cold milk and crushed walnuts which resulted in a Kahlua-like flavor. We then had the tequila version of moonshine (ugh, never again) and the “Grey Goose” version of Mexican tequila which is next-to-impossible to get in America. Overall, it was a really great day! We got a cab to the tourist part of town, walked around a little bit, and then headed back to the ship for perhaps the most amazing sunset of my life. Mexico taught me to dare a little more, trust my instincts a little more, and that an adventuring heart can take you far!