Category Archives: Nuevo Vallarta

Beyond the Bay (The Marietas Islands, Mexico)

Sunset on Bay of Banderas

In my mind, it’s better to “go” than to wait for that perfect someday.  Branches of my family tree sag with somebodies who waited upon “somedays” that never came.  And so, when the choice is between traveling by myself or staying home, I water my plants and pack a bag.  Faced with a full week of unfettered days a few years ago,  I opted for Nuevo Vallarta and some time with a new favorite friend, Me.  On one of my final days, I joined a group sailing out of Banderas Bay toward the Marietas Islands.

One interesting element of traveling alone is the way it enables one to drift in and out of conversations.  One can listen to others -or ignore them.  There is the opportunity to engage with those around you or to take a personal retreat. One can rev up the brain or simply observe as your senses soak in the impressions of each moment.  The optimal method to achieving this mental utopia is to situate oneself within groups of a certain size.  My sailing trip from Nuevo Vallarta to the Marietas Islands violated that self-imposed standard by at least one hundred people.  The gleaming wood sailing vessel was elegant, classic, but unfortunately, much smaller than I had expected and hoped for…  My fellow passengers numbered only twenty and included cozy couples, a family of four and an extended family group of about twelve from Appleton, Wisconsin.  But, the morning sun was warming up a perfect day, and it was infinitely better to be there alone than to not be there at all.  I settled onto a white canvas cushion and floated into my own thoughts as we sailed out onto Banderas Bay.

Children climbing ladder and Mother; Puerto Vallarta

Grief over the closely-timed deaths of my parents, grandfather and marriage had created a watery barrier around my moments of joy and muffled its volume.  I was no longer somebody’s daughter, nor anyone’s wife.  And for this week, I was a mother traveling without children.  I was simply “Heather.”

The difficult part comes during the “look at that!” nudging moments. Sharing the remarkable seems almost an elemental part of processing it and saving it into our internal hard drive.  We define the extraordinary against those who are familiar with our ordinary zones.  That afternoon in Mexico, I knew I was sailing toward “extraordinary.”  And, instead of saving it for “someday,” I was ripping open the package and taking the first bite all by myself.

The Sierra Madres merged into a singular broad expanse behind us as the sea sprayed the bow and the afternoon rolled into a brilliant sort of serenity.  I somehow became part of a couple of family groups,  learning the early and mid-chapters of lives for which I’d be unlikely to read the endings.  Although the whale migration season had officially ended, two humpbacks swam in the mouth of the bay.  Our guide, Gustavo,  speculated that the stragglers were a mother and calf who had not been ready for the pod’s swim north.  I’ve watched bus-sized humpbacks breach with dramatic splashes in Maui’s waters. This was different.  We were further away, but the glimpse of determined mother with her child was a more intimate encounter.

Schooling dolphins by Marietas Islands

We cut sharply through the dark blue waters, eventually spotting the stumpy blobs of volcanic matter that are the Marietas Islands, but before we could get there, we were surrounded by about four hundred dolphins. They circled us again and again as a dancing, leaping parade. From the reactions of the boat’s crew, I knew it was unlikely I’d see such a spectacular display again.

The largest island loomed ahead like an overly puffed and then squashed marshmallow…

The magic of the Marietas lay just ahead.


Magic in the Marietas

Cable and Pacific

Weaving’Wonderful’ on the Bay of Banderas

…As our sailboat neared the Marietas Islands, schools of jellyfish amended the captain’s chosen snorkeling spots twice. Just as well. While I wouldn’t trade memories of an accidental swim through tiny diaphanous sea jellies a few years ago, I remember with equal clarity the lingering stings along my upper lip.

Beach; Marietas Islands

My solitary week in Nuevo Vallarta had etched some bold new strokes into who I knew myself to be. I had flown through jungle canopy on zip lines, negotiated city buses and explored Puerto Vallarta on foot. I had kayaked in the Pacific Ocean and run miles along the golden crescent shore of Banderas Bay. Talking to strangers had yielded vibrant vignettes of lives far removed from my own, and lively music had set rhythms in my heart that made hope dance in directions my feet longed to follow. And now, I floated toward rocky protrusions called the Marietas Islands.

Other-worldly. Agave and other similarly scrubby brush covered craggy masses punctuated by arches and overlooks. The cliffs seemed a breathing being beneath the constant motion of landing and launching sea birds —most with specially coated feathers for ocean plunges. Frigates, not so biologically well-equipped, added drama by thieving fresh fish from the mouths of successful divers. As we slowly made our way around the largest island to a safer snorkeling spot, I spotted my first blue footed booby bird and then several more of the stumpy birds perched on the boulder tips of outer islands.

Marietas rock from beach

The Marietas Islands, popularized by Jacques Cousteau and now protected as a national park area, is volcanic in origin and surrounded by coral. We dropped anchor near a steep beach nestled amongst its cliffs, and a dinghy took us in range of the coral and marine life. Our guide kindly broke the rules and allowed me to remove my life vest to free dive down into fish range. The water was clearer than I had expected; I followed one fish after another until it was time to relax on the postage stamp of a beach. A few of us explored the unspoiled island in our bare feet, ducking under arches to find still more caves and overhangs, wandering a splendid twisting geological maze.

I didn’t want to leave.  I wondered how long it would take —climbing
Marietas Islands off of bowthe rocks, feeling sand and sea swirl between my toes and watching fluttering sea birds —before the passage of time would matter again. As the boat slowly backed from the islands, stark yet lovely with their swirled caves and arches, I cradled the moment. I breathed in every sensory bit of it and wondered how it could all be so perfect when there was no one to “nudge” or share it with. It was revelation to me that a tree could fall within its forest and that my ear alone could be enough to hear and mark its sound. And, it was pure freedom to know that bliss could wrap its arms around me, just me. It didn’t have to be a group hug.

We soaked in the music and salt air on our sail back until that group from Appleton, Wisconsin grabbed onto the cables on the side of the boat and began dancing. Before long, someone grabbed my hand, placed it firmly on a cable, and I was dancing too

MORE:  “Weaving’Wonderful’ on the Bay of Banderas”

“Beyond the Bay (The Marietas Islands)”

“A ‘Photo Hike’ through Puerto Vallarta (Part One)”

A ‘Favorite Day’ in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco (Part Two)”


Weaving “Wonderful” on the Bay of Banderas

Horses along Bahia de Banderas; Nuevo Vallarta, MX

It happened on the day I broke my own primary rule for solo travel.  It was pivotal.  It was perfect.  And it was all mine.  I told an old friend about it over lunch last week and sailed through the splendid memory all over again.

I was in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, reweaving my life into something that would fit for the next several years.  My kids were vacationing with their dad, and I was utterly alone -with thoughts, a few personal goals and the Bay of Banderas.  I had already done a lot of exploring: both inside and out.  I had navigated city buses to Puerto Vallarta, zip lined through lush jungle canopy, run miles and miles along a beach that sparkled gold in the sun and spent evenings tapping out page after page on my laptop.

The one thing I hadn’t done was dance.  For years, now, it seemed.  At this point in my life I danced only at wedding receptions.  Usually with my sisters —and there had been far more funerals than weddings lately.  It seemed a small and silly thing to miss, but the unlikeliness of opportunities did not diminish the desire.

Against my better judgement on one of the last days of my stay, I signed up for a sailboat trip to the Marietas Islands.  This wasn’t the first time I’d traveled alone, and experience had steered me toward blending within larger groups whenever possible.  It felt safer, it provided more options, and ultimately felt more comfortable.  But, my more reflective pace had cost me a spot on the larger catamaran tour; my only remaining choice was an intimate sailing excursion with thirty four strangers.  In the end, my curiosity about the Marietas Islands was stronger than my fear of discomfort.  I packed a book and journal along with my sunscreen and camera and hoped for “OK”.

More about an afternoon that included whales, schooling dolphins, blue footed booby birds and… my pivotal moment: “Magic in the Marietas:


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