Melaque - A Quiet Haven on Mexico's Coast
Former Wagon Master
Article originally published August 2014 in RV Life
Alternate version pubished in RV Snowbirds Magazine June 2014
South Melaque Beach.
San Patricio Melaque, Jalisco, Mexico.
Six years ago I had never heard of the place. It is a well-kept secret of the Canadian and American snowbirds who have discovered this little piece of paradise only a five-hour drive south of Puerto Vallarta and 60 minutes north of the industrial port of Manzanillo.
North Melaque Beach.
Melaque is actually a conglomeration of three beach towns that have grown into each other: San Patricio, Villa Obregon and Melaque itself. Adjacent on the bay is the charming fishing town of Barra Navidad. Barra is also known for its quaint streets, good restaurants and its expensive five-star resort, the Grande Bay. The resort is on the other side of the harbor entrance, accessible by water taxi. Its isolation by water protects Barra somewhat from the high-class crowd.
The first impressions of Melaque are of a dusty, quiet Mexican town with cobbled streets and potholes, but first impressions are deceiving. This town has character and heart.
It is hard to define what makes Melaque so different. I have traveled by RV over much of Mexico and have never found a beach town with quite this combination. In winter, Melaque is full of Gringos. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they outnumber residents. However, it has none of the Gringo feel that places like Cabo, Cancun or Puerto Vallarta have. It is still, well, very Mexican. Maybe it’s the lack of all-inclusive hotels and resorts that helps make the town so appealing to those looking to spend winter in quiet warmth, free of the party crowd and time-share salesmen. Small inexpensive hotels with kitchenettes and pools are the norm, and can be had for $30 to $90 per night, with much cheaper monthly rates. There are lots of them to choose from. The town is easily reached by taxi from Manzanillo airport, which is only 30 miles away. Many Gringos spend all winter here. Many also come here for dental work. English speaking Dr. Woo (his grandmother was Chinese) and his son, do excellent work, including implants. Dr. Woo is also an accomplished singer and you are quite likely to find him performing at a local restaurant on a Saturday night.
Laguna del Tule
RV Camping Options
Visitors to Melaque find a long, curving beach.Melaque is a great place for an RV. There are several RV parks. Unfortunately, the one downtown was halved in size over the last year, and the popular Laguna del Tule at the south end of town is often booked up a year in advance from November through February. Fortunately it is in the process of adding another 20 sites, which may be ready for the 2015 season. There are also other options. There is a large new French Canadian RV park at the northwest end of town, which is locally referred to as the “French Quarter.” This one caters largely to caravans from Quebec, but also welcomes individual travelers, English or French. A new sizable RV park, the Melaque Paradise, just opened last year at the southeast corner of town (five blocks off the beach). At the far northwest end of town is the “almost free” campground, which is largely a boondocking site for the cheapskates among us. The sanitation situation there is debateable, but when I checked it out last year, the campground was full. There are a few small parks catering to only two or three rigs. There are also several inexpensive RV parks at nearby La Manzanilla and Boca Beach, just to the north, not all of those have full hookups.
At Caravanas de Mexico, where I work, we have added a couple of weeks in Melaque to our RV caravan schedule. The spectacular new Mazatlan-Durango Toll highway, which opened in late 2013, has made a circle route possible from the west, making it easier to explore some interior Colonial Cities, if you wish to add some history to your trip.
Laguna del Tule RV Park
Whales and Pelicans
Melaque is blessed with a beautiful long curving beach. It is not unusual to see humpback whales breaching just off shore in early spring. At the south end, near the Laguna del Tule, it can be dangerous to swim at times, as breakers tend to break at the shoreline, which drops off rapidly. That does not stop young boys from skim boarding in the surf. In fact there is an annual skim boarding competition (Mexico’s largest) in late February/early March. As you move farther south along the beach toward Barra Navidad, it becomes rougher and you can actually surf for real.
The north end is sheltered, shallow, calm and suitable for young children. It is also the home of several beach restaurants. You can see hundreds of pelicans perched on the small fishing boats anchored offshore. At the other end of town is a very large freshwater lagoon, Laguna del Tule, which is a paradise for bird watchers. Just be wary of the caimans that also inhabit this lagoon. Locals claim there are over 100, some as large as 12 feet.
Melaque was hit very hard by a hurricane in the fall of 2011, but it was almost back to normal by spring 2012, thanks in no small part to generous donations from the Canadians and Americans who call this quiet town their winter home.
Did I just say quiet? Well, the one exception is in the week leading up to St Patrick’s Day. St Patrick is the patron saint of Melaque, hence the full name, San Patricio de Melaque. This is one of the more entertaining festivals in Mexico, complete with one of the wildest fireworks celebrations in Mexico. (See the second article below this one)
In the meantime for those wanting some action, there are a few bars in town, including a popular transvestite bar with entertainment on Friday nights. You will usually find it packed with retired Gringos who would never be caught patronizing one at home. It is all good fun, and an opportunity to get some good blackmail photos of your friends on stage dancing with the “ladies.”
Melaque is known for its ceramics, and after five years of spending winters there, actually so is my house. My favorite store is a small hole-in-the-wall operated by the hard working Antonio Dejesus Velez and his wife, Virginia Tenovio Castro. They can be seen out on the sidewalk daily, painting ceramics. They have become almost like family to us, and we receive a warm welcome from them every year when we first arrive.
Many small excellent restaurants are scattered through the town. A favorite of mine is the Salamandra in Villa Obregon. This restaurant is only open half the week, but has excellent food, albeit pricey. A former taco stand, Scooby’s, has become famous for its Sunday night prime rib. It moved to larger quarters this year. Two years ago my Mexican rescue dog, Tomas, spent Happy Hour in one downtown Melaque restaurant sipping a Margarita. Only in Mexico.
Melaque does have its dark side. The popularity of the town among ex-pats and long-term visitors has inevitably attracted some undesirables. There have been two murders of Gringos in the last several years. There have also been some instances of vehicle theft and a robbery or two. The town has responded by reinstating the presence of the tourist police, who were noticeably absent over the last few years. However, as with all negative news regarding Mexico, one has to keep things in perspective. There are no nut cases shooting up elementary schools or movie theaters, and Mexico’s drug war seems far away. As in most cases, those who find themselves in trouble often have participated in risky behavior.
My only hope is that time does not soon catch up with this town. I suspect Manzanillo will soon find itself on the tourist route, now that its ugly, smoke-belching, power plant is being mothballed. It will be hard to keep development from spreading northward, as it has done in Puerto Vallarta. Hopefully it won’t happen in my lifetime.
Saint Patricks week in Melaque
Originally published in RV Snowbirds Magazine Dec 2014
St Patrick as a child
As I watched the preparations for the evening fireworks display, it became very apparent this was not Vancouver’s Symphony of Fire. The first clue were the twin towers of fireworks construction being raised up less than 10 meters from the front of the Catholic Church on the main square, loaded with enough pyrotechnics to start a small war. No barge anchored in the ocean here, no barricades going up, in fact the whole area surrounding it was loaded with taco stands, looking like they had no intention of going anywhere.
The Castillo, as it is known, is raised nightly for a week. A single wicker version is used during the week and the twin structures, one steel and one wicker, appear on the final night. My wife has named the one, the “Wicker Man”, after the disturbing 1973 British horror movie of the same name. The Wicker Man had his first performance a week ago Friday, and has been a feature every night since then. Tonight however, it’s the grand finale. Laguna del Tule RV park where I have spent the last two months is almost empty as the northern exodus of RV’ers began two weeks ago, but I have intentionally stayed on to experience this particular week.
It’s Saint Patrick’s week in San Patricio Melaque, Jalisco, Mexico, reportedly one of the best celebrations in a country that is known for them, and according to many Irish websites, the best darned St. Paddy’s celebration you will find anywhere in the world, including Ireland. Rules are optional, so is safety. It is St Patrick’s Day and this is the last day of what has become a massive celebration of everything Irish, in this normally quiet beach town, 45 km north of Manzanillo.
Mexico has its own share of saints, traditions and celebrations so why the heck do they need to borrow one from Ireland? Well it all goes back to the Mexican-American war. The town consists of 3 towns grown into one another, Melaque, St Patricio and Villa Obregon. Those towns themselves grew out of estates owned by members of the St Patrick’s battalion, Irish soldiers who fought on the side of Mexico in the war of 1846-1848. Mexico reveres these Irish volunteers, and the annual celebration in Melaque is testament to that.
Saint Patricks Celebrations
I have decided to forego most of the earlier nightly displays, save one, in favour of spending several hours enjoying the atmosphere and mayhem to come on this final night. I have decided to place my well being on the line in order to hopefully obtain some spectacular photos and videos to accompany this article. I am aware what I am in for, as I first experienced this festival 10 years ago. I now know that wearing long pants and shoes are a must. That is, if you do not want to be joining the line-up the following day at the doctors office nursing burns, as I did that on that first occasion.
At around 4 PM, parade floats, most of them highly religious, start to gather at the north end of town for the daily parade. Hundreds of people holding foam shamrocks on sticks start to gather to march in the parade along with the floats and various brass bands. It seems most of the town is intending on being in it, Canadians and Americans included. A pickup truck with a loudspeaker chants the verses of the haunting dirge “San Patricio Obispo” while the crowds recite the chorus. The song is almost as addictive as “It’s a Small World”.
The main parade finishes around 6 PM outside the Church on the square. Indian dancers from the parade enter the church, drums beating and natives dancing, to perform in front of the altar under the statue of St Patrick himself. This is yet another example of that strange mixture of Catholicism and native traditions common all over Central America and Mexico.
By 7 or 8 pm, crowds start to gravitate towards the main square. The prime seating spots in the square itself quickly fill with families and young attractive girls in provocative clothing. Maybe the latter are scouting out the braver males for future husbands. In the meantime, the ubiquitous Mariachi and brass bands are setting up in the center carousel and at various points around the square. The next few hours will be a competition as to which band can drown out the other. Stands selling sweet treats like Cinnamon Churros are doing a brisk trade. The nearby traveling midway and rides on the adjacent streets fill with merrymakers. A man on a dancing horse is entertaining yet another group. Vendors walking around, laden with balloons and electronic toys, work the crowd. The Taco stands under the firework towers do a brisk trade and a Bingo game is in full swing in front of the church. The whole square is a scene of family social interaction that you seldom see at home these days, and there never seems to be any of the activities involved that attract police intervention at firework events back home, although a police presence is apparent. Maybe everyone is saving his or her energy for the carnage to come.
By 10:30 pm, there has to be close to a thousand people in the square & vicinity. Spare space is at a premium. I have managed to secure a spot on the center bandstand above the crowd. My big mistake was forgetting my earplugs, as I am only one metre from the very loud brass band playing behind me. My wife has decided to secure a spot on a nearby grassy knoll. Around 11 pm, the Taco stands start closing up and the Bingo game is coming to a hasty end. Ignition time is close at hand. The crowds near the firework towers are thinning out a bit and young boys are gravitating towards the bases of the twin towers with sheets of cardboard for their rite of passage. This consists of dancing underneath falling fireworks. I got close myself earlier in the week to observe and photograph this ritual. It was terrifying, and I am glad I am in the relative safety of the center carousel tonight.
Thirty minutes behind schedule the towers are finally ignited. Wave after wave of tower sections ignite, showering fountains of sparks onto the crowds. Every few seconds, flying flaming incendiaries shoot sideways into the square, one just missing my video camera. I discover to my consternation, I am not as safe as I thought I was. I later found out from my wife that the woman behind her had her clothing ignited. Fortunately it was a shawl she was able to shed off rapidly. The fireworks display lasts a good half hour, the finale consists of rings of fireworks that launch themselves off the Castillo hundreds of feet in the air to land randomly somewhere among the crowd in a burst of flaming pyrotechnics. The show is over. To the unsuspecting, that is.
Saint Patricks Fireworks
It is now time for the running of the bulls. Unsuspecting first time tourists are hanging around the square in a false illusion of safety while those in the “know” are rapidly retreating across the street from the square or looking for high ground. Less than five minutes after the end of the fireworks, the first “Bull” emerges from the doorway next to the church. The “Bull” is a large framework around a wicker Bull loaded with fireworks, carried by a runner. The runner heads out into the crowd in the square, fireworks flying off in all directions. Crowds scatter, dancing to avoid flaming rockets shooting over the ground under their feet. One shoots right up into the bandstand and dances around in the enclosed space I stand, burning a hole in my jeans on one occasion. A nearby startled bystander throws a full cup of beer over my head and video camera in the process. I see several, un-warned tourists screaming and running for safety in terror, in the square below. Escape is difficult as “bull” after “bull” emerges providing little opportunity for an orderly retreat. Eventually the square is full of smoke and visibility is reduced to a point where it is difficult to make out the features of the stores and bars on the other side of the street. However, eight or ten bulls later, peace once again descends upon Melaque. St Patrick’s week is over for another year.
The speed of the action, and jostling of the crowd, made it virtually impossible for me to get good still photos of this event. The “Bull” phenomenon is not unique to Melaque. A similar event occurs every March in Tultepec, just north of Mexico City. The Mexican love of fireworks and their love of being in the middle of the display, rather than simply watching, is widespread. No safety rules or bylaws to spoil the fun here. I love this country. It has become my second home.
If you are becoming weary of Arizona, and looking for new RV experiences, consider giving Mexico a try, as I did for the first time over five years ago. I have never looked back. If you have some fear, which is understandable, try an organized caravan for your first trip.
Paul Beddows is past president of NATCOA, the North American Truck Camper Association, and works for Caravanas de Mexico RV Tours (mexicocaravans.com). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO GET THERE:
If you are coming in an RV, you might want to avoid the nightmare of driving through Puerto Vallarta. You can take the toll highway (15 D) to the new Guadalajara bypass. Exit onto Hwy 80 and follow the signs to Colima to join 54D south.. Take that south through Colima, on to Manzanillo, then north to Melaque. If you choose to fly, Manzanillo Airport is only a $20 taxi ride away. It is serviced by US Airways, Alaska and Westjet from the western U.S. and Canada. You can also take a bus from Puerto Vallarta (five hours).
Here are a couple of videos I took at various St Patrick Celebrations in Melaque.
Saint Patricks Fireworks
Saint Patricks Parade