Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Last Best Beach: Barra de Potosi, Mexico and Sendas del Mar


Scenic View of the Lagoon from one of the Enramadas

 
There is so much to say about this quaint little fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, about a half hour's drive from Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo.  If you seek beautiful, unspoiled beaches, abundant birds, fish and other wildlife, away from the crowds, Barra de Potosi fits the bill.  More than once, this little village of about 600 people was described to me as 'sleepy'.  It's true, there are no bars, discos or shopping areas like Zihuatanejo has to offer, though we did stumble upon what appeared to be quite a little party of locals on our first night, only to discover it was a baby shower!  I think this community knows how to have fun!  For the most part, however, there are quiet beachfront enramadas where you can gorge on seafood, have a little siesta in one of the many hammocks, read a book or play in the sand and waves.  You might also like to kayak the lagoon or tour the village, where you can quench your thirst on my personal favourite, fresh Jamaica water, or pick up a few items at the local craft co-op. 
 

The Highway Ends and Life Begins at  Barra de Potosi
Although a true traditional fishing village in every sense of the word, Barra itself is not old.  Historically, local Mexicans travelled seasonally to the area from Acapulco, to fish.  It wasn't until the 1930's that the area was settled but it still continues to reflect the traditional values of 'community', in that the people  continue to live somewhat as one large, extended family.  In the mid 1980's there was an earthquake in the area, which resulted in a tsunami and most of the village was demolished.  The Red Cross provided funds and engineers to relocate the village away from the beach and constructed 64 concrete and stone one-room 'houses'.  Although many have been modified and enlarged, Barra remains the original 3 dirt streets by 3 dirt streets.
 

On a Nice Day Everyone Goes to the Beach
and it's Always Nice in Barra

I read an apt description of Barra, made by another tourist visiting some years ago and it still applies today:
"We found the natural beach setting to be almost the outstanding feature but the real star attractions are the people!! There is no pre-vailing atmosphere of getting into your wallet (in fact, you sometimes wonder at the lack of commercialism). You will see and become involved with true family core social units with the children, parents, grandparents, friends in a constant state of close harmony and interaction. The family and the village are the center of the universe and that is the way it should be." 
 
Many of us have become accustomed to the vendors that ply the beaches of many tourist areas, cajoling you to buy one thing or another.  Do not mistake the price dickering as part of the culture.  This, my friends, is not representative of Mexico, but of tourism.  You will find neither beach vendors or negotiating in Barra.  And, by the way, you won't find a bank machine or use a credit card either but no worries;  while you will need to take along a bit of cash, we found prices to be more than reasonable and, in some cases, we are not sure how there could possibly have been a profit made!
One of the Passejeras
aka 'Disneyland on Wheels'
 
Barra is easily accessed by car, from Zihuatanejo (Zihua) or the airport, but that doesn't mean you need to rent one. 
Cab fare from Zihua was 300p ($25CA).  If you are interested in learning more about Zihuatanejo and its sister community of Ixtapa, check out http://hpdsinc.blogspot.ca/2013/03/how-i-spent-my-winter-vacation.html and http://hpdsinc.blogspot.ca/2014/04/travel-talk-how-we-spent-our-winter.html.    As the village has its own taxi service, side trips to nearby communities are readily available at considerably reduced rates.  You can also catch the local bus from Zihua to the nearby community of Los Achotes.  From there, you take a ride on a pasajera, a truck with a roof, side rails, and seating in the back, to take you the rest of the journey to Barra.  While we didn't have need of the ride, the experience was enthusiastically described to us by a vacationing family as 'Disneyland on wheels'.  The adventure was thoroughly enjoyed by all, young and old alike!  If you plan to spend your time in Barra, like we did, everything is within easy walking distance, if you are close to the village; if not, the pasajera is a viable option and appears to make the journey down the single access road about every 1/2 hour.
If you're wondering what you might do when in Barra de Potosi, set your internal speedometer in first gear.  We spent mornings over cups of coffee flavoured with a splash of our favourite liquer and fresh rolls from the 'bread man' who comes by on his bicycle each morning.  We went to the pool or the beach, to swim, to fish, to walk, to read.  Activities are best done in the mornings, not only because of the heat but because what the area offers is nature based and it's simply the best time of day to experience them.  Options include fishing trips by lancha  (open boat); kayaking the lagoon; bird watching; and horseback riding.  In the right season, there are whales to watch and newly hatched turtles to release.

One of the Many  Colorful Local Homes

The Church

We explored the village, street by street, and discovered that pretty much everyone had their hand in 'urban' agriculture.  Much of their yard is converted to gardens and a few chickens managing the pests.  We discovered a number of little mercados (markets) to buy basic food and groceries and a pool hall too.  Although we spent more time in Zihuatanejo, where the shopping opportunities are extensive, interestingly, we spent more money on gifts in Barra.  We made several purchases at the women's co-op  and came home with gift bags of sea salt, harvested and sold by a Los Achotes family.

Pork Tacos and Other Tasty Treats
Prepared by Local Families
One of the biggest blunder was to bring our own groceries.  The enramadas each have an extensive menu, 98% of which is 'from the sea'.  Alas, I am not an 'of the sea' kind of girl. . . hence I feared my choices were reduced to a hamburger and, perhaps a chicken based meal.   While I love my chicken, I really couldn't see myself subsisting on a week of chicken and burgers.  Silly us, we stopped at the supermercado (grocery store) in Zihua and literally descended upon Barra with everything one might imagine. . . potatoes, frozen chicken breast (hence our popularity with the pets), pasta. . . B I G   M I S T A K E!  Although the enramadas close at dusk, there are three or four little spots in the village that serve food.  In most cases, they appear to be homes with the traditional outdoor kitchens.  Add a counter for the food and drink, throw a few tables and chairs into the street and voila!  a restaurant!  Interestingly, NONE of these little  gems served seafood but man, the pork tacos are to die for!   I can't, for the life of me, figure out how these families could support these little business ventures because the prices they charged were cheap cheap cheap!  Our first dinner out was 78p ($6.50 CA);  Our second dinner we joined our neighbours; for 6 adults, the bill was $280p ($24 CA). The fare is simple, and the portions are smaller than what we are accustomed to, but very, very tasty.  While the enramadas are a bit more expensive, they are certainly reasonable and less than what one would encounter in the more highly developed tourist areas.  Why would one even dream of cooking?! 
A View from the Street of Sendas del Mar
 In terms of accommodation, there is something to fit every taste and every budget.  We opted for Sendas del Mar, not only because I was bewitched by the architectural elements of the property but also because it is situated a short stroll down the beach from the lagoon, enramadas and village.  Within the immediate area there is a wide variety of lodging, including other vacation homes, Mexican style vacation rentals, bed and breakfasts and a hotel.  Further afield, and located on open water, there are a number of resort developments sprouting up as well.
A few years back,  FONATUR, a Federal government tourism branch, was promoting plans to construct a pier in the vicinity as well as expand facilities in Zihuatanejo.  I understand this was not looked on favourably by many of the locals or tourists, concerned that this type of tourism would not greatly benefit the area but would likely destroy the very reason many come to this peaceful area.  From the outside looking in, the local community embraces the many expats that have chosen to make Barra home.  Aware that the traditional livelihoods of the village fishermen is threatened, many look for opportunities that enhance the lives of the local people while ensuring a sustainable future, including eco tourism.  It's always a balancing act between human and environmental needs and, from all appearances, this community seems to understand that it's in its own best interests to put Barra on the map through grassroots efforts based on sustainability principles rather than rely on government and other external sources without the same vested interest.  I wish them every success.
 
 
Sendas del Mar, Barra de Potosi, Guerrero Mexico:  http://sendasdelmar.com/
Picture Perfect
Sendas del Mar is ideally situated at the southern end of a 14 kilometer stretch of unspoiled beach, near the mouth of a lagoon.  This particular part of the beach is referred to as Playa Blanca and fondly dubbed, 'the last best beach'.  When you arrive at the gates you know something special lies behind.  Three private luxury villas share a beachfront infinity pool, a full size pool table and tropical gardens.  We knew before we arrived that the homes were designed by local architects renowned for integrating traditional construction methods with modern conveniences.  One would think a landscape architect designed the grounds, they are so well matched to the building form, but our hosts, Gunnar and Barbara Erickson get all the credit there.  The property is not simply an architectural masterpiece but a work of art and, as we sadly drove away at the end of our weeklong stay, we were still marveling. 
Sendas del Mar Grounds
One of the reasons we chose this property is because it strives to apply some of the environmental principals we follow at home.  The landscaping not only serves the purpose of beautification, it provides erosion control.  What isn't vegetated incorporates a groundcover of decomposed granite, which is not only aesthetically pleasing but low maintenance.  Due to the high water table, the site boasts a very sophisticated sewage disposal system which ultimately irrigates a small orchard.  Everything that can be is composted and returned to the soil, reducing dependence on fertilizers.   We knew the Ericksons were serious about their environmental principals when the first thing we were shown was how to prepare our bed at night.  That mosquito net isn't just for show after all.  I admit, this worried us both a wee bit but needlessly so; it took us a couple of days to catch on but it really didn't pose a significant challenge.
Our Home Away from Home
We loved the open air concept.  Coming from an Alberta winter, you can well imagine our goal was to spend as little time indoors as possible; what better way to do it than to have your living space partially open?  We were thrilled to discover our little casita came with daily housekeeping and maintenance from on site manager, Tito, and his lovely wife Carmen.  We had great fun practicing our Spanglish and Carmen, in particular, was very interested in improving her English.  Tito was up bright and early each morning supporting our daily breakfast habit with a delivery of fresh rolls to our door. 
 I would be remiss if I didn't mention our other guests, Tali, Scamp and Snow, the resident dogs and cat.  For the most part, I think they would likely have ignored us but we are animal lovers and found the perfect way to tempt them to visit:  cooked chicken breast!  Suffice to say, we were quite the hit with the critters.  By the end of the week Scamp would literally scamper to our step whenever he heard the refrigerator door open.  After watching me feeding Tali, with some resignation Gunnar told me if I was going to feed the pets, at least make them work for it, to which Tali literally rolled out one trick after another.
Happy Fellows

Another Visitor

What cannot be overstated is that it isn't just the property that goes well beyond one's expectations; it's the hosts, Gunnar and Barbara.  While always conscious not to invade the privacy of their guests, they each offer up their special brand of opportunities that made our stay all the more enjoyable.  Upon learning that Eric loved to fish, Gunnar not only offered him a rod but the two could be found surf fishing on a regular basis.  He arranged for a 1/2-day fishing trip with a local guide, Omar, who was very knowledgeable and had a good command of the English language, something not so widespread in the immediate area.   It became common place for Gunnar to appear at our villa exclaiming that the fish were jumping, whereby both he and Eric would race to the beach, fishing rods in hand.  They never caught anything  from the shore but catching was really just a small part of the attraction.  There is, however, fish to be had, as a few days after our return home, Gunnar sent a photo of a very large Rooster fish caught right out in front of the property, to which Eric exclaimed, 'I bet that's what I hooked into that day that got away!  Moral of the story:  12lb. test and ultralight rod is not great for ocean fishing.'  I know what you're thinking. . . another story about the one that got away!  And before you blame Gunnar for lending Eric a bum rod, Eric brought his own with him and ultimately choose to use it over the much heavier, much longer rod Gunnar offered;
We Aren't the Only Ones Visiting
Barra in Winter:  Varied Bunting
 and now Eric knows why
Upon hearing that I had an interest in the wildlife, a bird watching expedition was arranged for early one morning, a real treat for me.  I'm not a serious birder by any stretch but I'm a country girl, after all, and there's nothing I like better than to get out and see a bit of nature and perhaps catch a glimpse of how country people in the area live.  It was a great way to spend a morning and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity.  It was the fourth visit in as many years for one of the two families vacationing in the adjacent home who often accompanied Barbara to the adjacent school to help teach the children English.  In fact, they mentioned on more than one occasion that we were in their preferred accommodation.  They  were a wealth of information about the local area, let us tag along for dinner and showed us the ropes; and made no secret of their love for the community of Barra de Potosi, Sendas del Mar, and Gunnar and Barbara. No wonder!  We were only there one short week and, by the time we left, new acquaintances became friends.  
 

One of my Purchases from the Women's
CoOp of which Carmen  is a Member
The Ericksons are very committed to the community. Gunnar is involved in raising the profile of Barra de Potosi through a couple of different sites:  www.lastbestbeach.com http://www.playablancamexico.com/ and http://71thingstoseeatplayablanca.blogspot.ca/.  He has also prepared a small arsenal of information about the community for his guests, covering everything from plants and animals indigenous to the area; things to see and do, places to eat, groceries, and travelling around.  Barbara puts her many talents to use teaching English to the locals and Spanish to expats.  She not only volunteers at the school, but has been instrumental in the development of the Roseate Spoonbills Women's Cooperative group to make and sell handmade arts and crafts and continues to find ways to raise the profile of the community.  Check this out:  http://imagine-mexico.com/roseate-spoonbills-womens-co-op-group-of-barra-de-potosi-make-innovative-mexican-craftwork.  As if that's not enough to keep them busy, there's book clubs and afternoons shooting a game of pool; let's just say they are well entrenched into all facets of the community.
If you still have questions about the impression this place made on us, the day before we were to return home Barbara asked me whether I was ready to leave.  Suffice to say, it took far too long for me to respond to that simple question.
Would we return?  In a heartbeat!  Need I say more?  Are you considering exploring Barra?  Here's another little enticement:

View from the Pool
Need I say more?
 
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