The paparazzi-thronged hotels of Punta Mita, north of Puerto Vallarta, might hog the limelight but it’s the new wave of barefoot boutique hotels on the boat-accessed bays south of the city that are attracting the arty crowd, says Sarah Barrell
The Great Dane is looking nervous. If there was space on the boat for him to pace around, that’s what he’d be doing. But the surf-soaked wooden bench seat provides barely enough room for his stately behind. His eyes race back and forth across the approaching shoreline as the little panga makes one of its regular high-speed approaches, skimming the Pacific swell, gunning for the white-sand beach with what, to the uninitiated, looks like a suicide landing.
Tucked away on a boat-only-accessed bay south of Puerto Vallarta, Casitas Maraika is a hamlet of six mismatched, open-fronted houses carved into the jungle-clad cliffs. Its beach club, built in the nooks and precipices of a rocky outcrop overhanging the pounding Pacific, is where the Great Dane is bound. Accompanied by his owner and their chef friend, who carries a cumbersome sous vide cooker, they’re one of Maraika’s more eccentric arrivals today.
Mike, manager of this boho’ beach retreat, bats not an eyelid. He’s seen it all before: barefoot DJs trailing record bags and long-limbed girlfriends; musicians lugging instruments, amps and ample supplies of whatever might be needed for the weekend. The chef’s entourage is here for Maraika’s monthly gastronomic day, focused on an extravagant-yet-affordable tasting menu, ambitiously prepped in the generator-powered, camping-style kitchen.
“It’s a pretty laid-back place,” smiles Mike, guiding me to a superbly kitsch bar laden with tropical fruits, flowers and jewelled Mexican skulls. “Here, have a raicilla.” It’s barely 11am but I, along with chef and most of the other new arrivals bar the dog, accept the shot. No one downs it, of course. Product of Jalisco state’s blue agave cactus, this is a tequila but not as you know it: a sip-and-sigh affair. The liquorice-black liquid is steeped with the roots and herbs of the hillside, delivered by a resident farmer in recycled litre cola bottles. Minutes later I’m both woozy and somehow simultaneously buzzing.
“The raicilla works magic,” says Mike. “After a couple of days of relaxing like this, we get the best performance out of our visiting artists.” An ex-festival and event producer, along with chefs, Mike has a wide net of creative types to draw into the bay, everyone from Grammy Award-winning musicians, to a jazz band of underprivileged kids from Guadalajara.
I’m just about vertical again by the time the food arrives. Many guests aren’t, propping plates on hammocks and floor cushions. Having watched chef Fabian Robles-Conde toil over his sous vide, I won’t risk the sand claiming his creations. A good call: the octopus, marinated in shrimp essence, with pork scratchings, served on a tostada with red peppers and onions, is one of those dishes whose memory lingers long after the suntan has faded.
Later, I follow a rough coastal path padding barefoot though a dog-populated pueblo, down into Las Animas beach. Lured from the crowded beaches of their package resorts by the Shangri-La of a boat-only-access beach, tourists pitch up here, only to find more of the same: a parade of bars and shacks catering to all their banana boat, selfie stick, frozen margarita fiesta needs. I could walk beyond, of course, towards the string of barefoot retreats that are starting to appear in bays further south. But today, I think, it’s back to Maraika’s hammocks and home-brewed raicilla.