“Alright, just look for the painfully white people” Chris said as we paddled closer to shore. The water was still as my paddle cut through it, doing my best to keep up with my darling husband. It still didn’t feel real: that morning we had woken up in Chacala to the sound of the jungle, waves crashing on the beach and the faint smell of fire. Well rested from blast down Baja and passage across the Sea, we were eager to get up and get to shore and see our family – the very purpose of our timely mission down the coast.
Chris’s brother Jon had anchored in Chacala back in 2016, and was why the family chose it as our rendezvous spot for a week of relaxing, sailing, and beach side shenanigans. Since Chacala is a quaint fishing village, we didn’t see many gringos besides our family that excitedly jumped up and down on the shore as we paddled our SUPS in. “You made it!” Mama Neely said as she hugged us both, grinning ear to ear. Our nephews were playing in the sand and ran over to hug us while Chris’s sister Tess, brother in Law Jason and Mama Neely’s boyfriend James “held down the fort;” an umbrella covered table, surrounded by chairs, beach toys and coolers.
Chacala is located 64 miles north of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Nayarit, with a year round population of about 300 people. It’s a popular vacation destination for Mexican families and it has a beautiful, uncrowded long half-mile beach set in a natural cove surrounded by mountains, framed by a thick forest of coco palms. Although it is noted to be quite rolly, the motion can be remedied by a good Flop Stopper and stern hook. It is a wonderful free anchorage with good holding, and easy shore access found by the panga dock. Just to note, we anchored at 20-25 feet in sand at 21 09’50″N 105 13’38″W.
We spent the day sharing stories and photos from our journey, then casually walked through town and learned a bit more about our new digs. The main drag in Chacala is pretty chill, just like you’d expect. It’s lined with a few restaurants and hotels, with evidence of new upcoming infrastructure. In comparison to Jon and Shannon’s video and blog post from back in the day, there was definitely a bit more going on in terms of food and vacationers – the word was out, and we anticipate Chacala will become the new “underrated” vacation destination. Back at the beach we loaded up the golf carts that the family had rented before we headed up the hill to the villa.
As the golf carts went from cobblestone roads to pavement to dirt the views kept getting better and better. The road to the villa doubled as a trail to the extinct volcano of Durón Ivanna, which we would soon learn is nothing but a big crater filled with marsh grass with a panoramic view of the sea but below the crater, in a gated community, is where we found our temporary home away from home (and Avocet): Villa Carolyna.
When Mama Neely goes on vacation, she only knows how to do it right – remember our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy? After researching Chacala with Jon over the summer, she came across Villa Carolyna, a beautiful Villa with four levels. Each level had a large bedroom suite with private bathrooms and patios that overlook the sea. Of course Mama Neely and James had the master suite above the kitchen and dining room, while Tess and Jason, Chris and I and the boys all occupied the rooms below the infinity pool. It was undoubtedly one of the nicest places we have had the pleasure of staying, and we were still pinching ourselves that we had made it in time to enjoy the villa with family.
Although we were hesitant to leave Avocet alone at anchor for the night, we felt comfort in knowing we could see her from our room and didn’t have any real concern with our dinghy, Winglet, that was locked to a tree with no outboard. The anchorage was just a tad rolly, but nothing crazy, and our anchor had set hard, so our only true fear was incoming vessels. At the time, there were six boats anchored in the little cove, which according to Jon was a lot, but before sailing away from Chacala we counted a total of twelve boats!
Our first night we swam in the pool with our nephews, had dinner, played games and checked on Avocet one last time before going to bed. We hadn’t slept in a land-bed since Christmas, and were excited to take showers that lasted a bit longer than five minutes – it was sinful, to say the least, and the little gecko that took residence in our room witnessed our sh!t eating grins for our entire stay. I named him Gary.
Another Beach Day
Despite sleeping onshore, Chris and I were still clearly on cruising time and were up with the sun long before the other adults. Our younger nephews Truman and Hansin were up, minding their business in the “pool room” while the Villa staff worked hard to sweep up leaves, replace towels, do remaining dishes and ensure the property was as enjoyable as it could be – they really did a wonderful job. Chris was in the kitchen making his coffee when one of the house keepers was doing dishes – “AYE” she yelled. From the sink, she held up her hand to which a little gecko was attached. She and Chris laughed as the little lizard scrambled off through the window and back into the jungle.
We truly thought we were the first adults that were up, but Jason came walking down the stairs with a big smile on his face. “I got up and watched the sunrise from the crater” he said, making his way towards the coffee pot. Since he was up he had no problem driving Chris and I back to Avocet to check in on her… but first we stopped for a quick breakfast at Lalaxtli, right across from the dinghy landing. The food was fresh and affordable as we sat in the ruins of an old building that the jungle had taken back. Vines crawled up columns as the fig tree (I am assuming it was a type of fig) dropped big, fresh fruits on the sun canopies that were carefully draped across the area. The three of us sat at a table made from the slab of a Huanacaxtle tree – a big name for a tree we would become more familiar with very soon. After breakfast we launched Winglet and made our way back to Avocet where Cleo welcomed us home with snuggles and demands to fill her food bowl.
“They are heading down now” Chris said as he finished his cup of coffee. I had spent the morning aboard Avocet trying to catch up on client work that was unexpectedly put on the back burner during our passage to the mainland. I still had more to do, but finished most of the pressing details and could pick up where I left off later. Luckily I had my phone that I could work from while sitting beachside with the family, even though it looked like I was just scrolling the day away. It was about 10 minutes from the Villa to the beach; just enough time for us to pack up and paddle our SUPS to the beach to meet them. It was another bright and sunny day, the heat being indicated by the number of vendors with ice cream carts walking up and down the beach. Mariachi bands competed with the music that came from beachgoers speakers adding to the cacophony of breaking waves, motor boats, and the sound of kids playing on the shore.
Chris was quick to jump back in the water with our nephew, Truman, sharing a paddle board. They paddled around for a while, but I glanced up from my work long enough to watch the inevitable. Unlike myself, Chris has never really surfed and didn’t grow up by the ocean so is still learning how to time sets. Don’t paddle yet, shift your weight, oh god he’s going for it… I thought as I watched my husband paddle into a wave with our nephew on the front of the board, making it too nose heavy resulting in a textbook pearl dive. the back of the SUP launched up, and the two were catapulted. Chris popped up quickly, concerned for the safety of Truman who he had just squashed, and was relieved to see the kid was fine besides being a little shell shocked and bruised. They had made it all the way back to our basecamp before Chris realized his prescription sunglasses were gone. Despite our attempts to locate them, Poseidon kept them for himself. The real kicker? He had croakies on them. Mexico: 1, Chris: 0
That evening Tess made ceviche (I had chicken) and we watched from the pool as whales breach in the sea below. Avocet’s red cockpit lights shone bright in the anchorage, allowing us to spot her quickly… even after a few cervezas. It was around 11:00 pm and we had just sat down to a rummy rematch when Chris excused himself to check on the boat from the balcony. He didnt need binoculars to see that another boat had come into the anchorage and dropped their hook behind us, with no stern hook – which meant they would swing into us and others when the wind shifted. Jason volunteered to take us back to Avocet, but of course it was on a night we decided to use the paddle boards instead of the dinghy.
I sat in the sand as Chris paddled up to the new boat, which from the shore looked like it was on top of Avocet. My anxiety took over as I hoped the captains of the boat would be kind, and move. That’s when Chris called me. “So… they are going to move. But after they finish dinner” he said. “Did you explain the severity of the situation?” I asked. Not only had they decided to drop their primary hook on top of our stern hook, but they had no concept of swinging and didn’t realize it was basically an unspoken law to set a stern hook when others in the anchorage have. Additionally, they had just bought the boat and decided to sail it north. ay dios mio. Chris was patient enough to explain the simple laws of the anchorage with the green crew, and more patient than I would have been to allow them to finish dinner before relocating far away from us, especially since they only had a primary hook.
It was getting late, but Chris didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat until he knew the other had pulled anchor (without fouling our stern hook) and moved elsewhere. With no way to get to the boat, Jason and I retreated back to the Villa. I channeled my nervous energy into my work, crossing more off my to-do list. Around 12:00, Chris reappeared at the Villa and after sharing the story of the green-anchoring-sailors we resumed our game of rummy that Mama Neely, as usual, won.
Pescador por el Dia
Despite living on a sailboat, we have never been anglers. Perhaps it’s my distaste for seafood, or maybe it’s the bloody process involved with preparing the meat, but when Chris was invited to go fishing with the boys he quickly shot the offer down. “I have spent the past month on a boat, waking up early, so sitting on a panga under the hot sun and getting bloody is not my idea of ‘vacation’” he said over coffee with Mama Neely, Tess and I. Instead of fishing, we treated ourselves to a yummy breakfast at Corazon Canela, then hung on the beach waiting for our pescadores to return.
“They look young” Chris said as a young couple pulled their dinghy up the beach. Their kids, remarkably tanned, ran in the water while the parents set up camp. Finding fellow young cruisers can be tough, so we decided to go introduce ourselves. Matt and Amy were the crew of Double Deuce, a C&C that was anchored a few boats over from Avocet. We chatted for a bit then parted ways… for the time being anyways. A few weeks later we would reunite in La Cruz and really get to know each other. Until then, we coexisted on the beach.
For once, we had routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, go to the beach, come back to the villa, jump in the pool, shower, dinner, games, bed and repeat. It had only been four days, but we had decided that it would probably be a good idea to stay on the boat that night just in case anyone else picked up on our newfound routine and could use it against us – not that Chacala felt unsafe by any means, but it’s always better play it smart. Especially after the anchorage incident the night prior. So after a dinner of fresh fish, courtesy of our fishermen, we made our way back to Avocet for the night. The familiar feeling of gentle rolling mixed with Cleo’s deep purrs on top of my chest was the perfect combination for a good night’s sleep.
Isla Del Coral
When you travel with the Neely’s (specifically Chris’s sister) you can almost bet that your day will be scheduled. Tess is an incredible planner, and really does her research to ensure you get the most bang for your buck and squeeze the most memories out of moments – which is why we were surprised when our days lacked structure and were basically a free for all. “Maybe she’s broken” Chris joked as we packed up our bag. “Or maybe… she is on vacation” I retorted. After all, with all the hats she wears the woman deserved a break! However, she did manage to pull together an excursion to Isla Del Coral for some snorkeling.
Located off the Pacific Coast of Mexico near Rincón de Guayabitos, Coral Island is one of the many hidden treasures found in Nayarit. From Chacala, it was about a 25 minute Panga ride with snorkel gear promised as part of the deal – but like many excursions in Mexico, there was a disconnect somewhere along the line. Fortunately Chris and I had enough snorkel gear to outfit everyone (minus Troy and Jason who hung back at the Villa) with various bits and pieces.
It was our first time snorkeling since being in Mexico and although we were skeptical with the island above the surface, it was magic below the waterline. Schools of brightly colored fish swam past us, I came face to face with the biggest puffer fish I had ever seen and even nearly ran into a slow moving Asian Sheepshead. We spent hours with our faces below the water, the salt drying out my lips as I waterboarded myself with my broken-snorkel. Note to self: get a new one.
On the way back to Chacala, Hansen fell asleep sitting upright while Truman wasn’t too far behind him.
One More Sunset
It was our last night in Chacala as a family. “Imagine living on a boat” our eldest nephew Troy said, clearly not remembering his Aunt is the queen of sass and sarcasm. “Imagine having to go back to California” I said, watching his 15 year old brain short circuit trying to find a better comeback. We were all sitting on the shore by the Panga dock, watching Chris and Truman sail our Fatty Knees around the anchorage.
Soon, more dinghy sails popped up. The boys had started an impromptu regatta around Avocet and the other boats. It was at that moment I was reminded of a post I curated for Lin Pardey’s social pages regarding her own Fatty Knees: “I appreciate the merits of an inflatable tender but I truly miss having a hard sailing dinghy like we did while I cruised on Taleisin. I can’t count the number of times we invited local youngsters (and often not so young folks) to share a sail on little Cheeky. I often recall the time when a cruising mother asked if she could borrow the dinghy for a few hours. When she came sailing back she sighed and said, ‘what bliss, a chance to get some real peace and tranquility and feel like I was playing at the same time’”.
The sun began to set and Chris swapped out the sail rig for oars as we prepared for our last night in the Villa. We soaked it all in: the “long” showers, views, stationary bed and of course our family.
Back to Boat Life
It was hard to believe that the week had already passed. We fought so hard and so long to be there in that moment, yet it went by in a blink. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere, but as I sit here trying to reflect on all those days I am just reminded of how wonderful it is to have a family willing to travel and meet you wherever your anchor lies.
Chris and I collected the last of our belongings from our suite, stuffing them into our dry bags, then hugged our loved ones goodbye. Truman asked his parents if he could live on the boat with us, and although he would make an excellent crew member (small hands = access to small places to run wires, fetch tools, etc) he had to return to school. We promised him a summer full of sailing aboard his own boat though, a little Laser 14 we bought the boys for Christmas. We shared long hugs before Jason drove us back down to the town where we waved our final goodbye. There we were. Just the two of us.
As we rowed back to Avocet we passed by a stunning Mason 44 that anchored next to us. They had just laid anchor, and Chris was eager to make an introduction as we came across their bow. “Beautiful boat!” he called. The crew was grateful for the words of praise and shocked to learn Chris grew up on a Mason 43. “Which boat are you on?” they asked. We pointed to Avocet behind us, and shared her name. “Wait, Avocet? Like THE Avocet?” The woman asked. We pleasantly laughed, “Well I don’t know about THE Avocet, but yes, thats us!” Chris said behind a grin. As it turned out, we knew our new neighbors. We had raced with them, many moons ago, in the Home Port Regatta… they were a Ventura vessel as well and none other than S/V Juliette. What a small world.
Cruising to La Cruz
S/V Juliette was the first to leave, pulling their hook in the early hours of the morning. They were headed south, to Banderas Bay where we would cross paths again. Chris and I decided to decompress from all the family time and try to settle back into the swing of things – after all, we were getting soft being pampered in the palace that Villa Carolyna was. We spent the day doing odd jobs around the boat, jumping in for a swim and finally catching up on all my work.
The following day we were well rested and eager to follow our new friends around the corner into Banderas Bay, but made sure to enjoy the morning full of golden light, smells of beachside fires and of course the sounds of life in the jungle. We made it, and at the time had a hard time thinking anything could top our time in Chacala, but this was only the beginning of our mainland chapter.
Thank you to Mama Neely and the Erdman family for rendezvousing with us and making Chacala so memorable, and to the Prism crew for the recommendation and insight.
Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)