LBS Pt. 2 – It’s All Downhill from Here

November 2007

Eighteen months and eight trips ago, Karen and I purchased a yet-to-be-built Palapa on a turtle preserve 30 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  There were a lot of warning signs that this wouldn’t be your normal real estate project, which we oh-so-typically ignored.  Like, it wasn’t really a purchase, since it was a long-term lease.  And OK, it wasn’t the normal long-term 99 year Mexican lease either, since it was only 40 years long and it was a sublease, not a lease.  And why get our own lawyer since the sublease was in Spanish and I can’t read Spanish?  I knew immediately that I liked the Gringo developer, John, when he pulled out a bottle of Raicilla (the local version of Tequila shown being made on the left) when starting to talk about the “deal points”.  Little did I know that the “purchase” would be the most conventional part of this experience.

The next hint that maybe this wasn’t going to be your average, slightly vexing vacation home construction project was the small little fact that the only way to get there was via an hour long water taxi ride.  At the time, I didn’t understand this the only way that we could get there and it was the only way that anything was going to get there.  Which turns your sense of project planning and timing upside down since things like the hundreds, if not thousands, of bags of cement used for construction needed to come via water too.  Other things useful for construction, like power tools, were not in abundance either since the place is off the electrical grid and runs primarily by solar, generator and mule power. Heavy emphasis on the latter.

So I thought it would be fun to write a mini journal chronicling our experiences building our palapa, which we named “Little Big Sur” (LBS) because our view reminded us of Big Sur.  Some of you unfortunate enough to have received the various earlier versions, have periodically responded with various ways of saying, “better you than me”.  This has only made me more determined to recapture what reputation I have and prove you wrong: that KR and I aren’t really crazy; that we have, indeed, made a savvy real estate deal rivaling The Donald’s.  This is the latest installment from our trip this past week and I wanted to bring everyone up to speed as we are getting painfully close to completion, currently scheduled for Thanksgiving (yes, that’s 2007).  Lines will be forming for the Grand Opening ceremony, I’m sure.

This trip was both exhilarating and a total grind.  Exhilarating because we’re seeing LBS come together and it’s absolutely, mind-boggling beautiful.  The pictures below do not do it justice.  It’s all the more gratifying as we see our vision become a reality, which is way cool for a first time “builder.”    Working with John has been a joy as we marvel at his vision, creativity, and ability to organize his little troop of workers. But it’s also been a grind as the weather has been horrible (hot, humid and alive with every kind of bug you don’t want to see), exhausting (lugging stuff all around, climbing up and down ridges, making construction decisions, doing errands, and riding back and forth on the taxi), and tedious. Here’s the typical sequence of a construction supervision visit:

  • Spend weeks prior to the trip buying stuff that you can’t get in Mexico and then at least a week before the trip packing stuff
  • Spend a day carting that stuff to PV via car, plane and taxi
  • Spend a couple of days walking up and down the ridge, visiting LBS, making decisions
  • Revise plans
  • Pay more money
  • Revise plans
  • Get back to PV
  • Go shopping for … beds, stoves, faucets, etc.
  • At every chance, get a hard-earned cocktail
  • Gladly fall into bed and watch Spanish TV

Maybe because of the above, we have learned a lot about how to do this, although I’m not sure exactly what “this” is.  Part of “this” is how to travel frequently to Mexico, how to build a house, how to build a house in a foreign country, how one decision affects others which of course affects money, how to explore a place that is “foreign”, how to meticulously plan logistics to a really hard to get to place, etc.  Here’s my quandary:  I know that some of you want all the gory details and “key learning” and others of you just want some laughs and a few pictures. Here’s the entire menu, so order what you want.

Progress? We decided to make Little Big Sur a little bigger and added some floors! No, this is an-all- too-typical scene in PV these days -- massive construction. PV is undergoing a transformation which is noticeable at every visit. I’ve never seen so much construction in such a small town. I suppose with more people, comes more regulation. The big controversy is the installation of the dreaded parking meter. Installing meters apparently became a necessity to pay for the new most-beautiful-on-the-beach-parking-structure that no-one-uses because street parking is free.

Wandering around town, there are construction projects in every size and shape in most parts of the city.  This is good news if you’re a developer, shop owner, “services” employee, a construction worker or someone looking to buy a condo.  I’m not sure its good news for everyone else.  We already have a Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Office Depot and a dozen Mexican department stores. Starbucks is slowly mounting an attack on the dozens of local coffee shops and they now have their second store open.  Soon to come on the scene is Home Depot (yah baby!) and Costco. Can Neiman Marcus be far behind?

Still There. Old Vallarta is still there, if perhaps in slightly smaller doses. These pictures are of an Old Town neighborhood called Conchas Chinas (Chinese Shells). Conchas Chinas is a gussied up section in the hills on the southern tip of El Centro sometimes referred to as the Beverly Hills of PV. Needless to say, we can only afford to walk around the area.

Green Season: October signals the end of the rainy season with the jungle at its greenest. It’s also at its fullest in terms of wildlife: red fox, jaguar, wild boar, dozens of kinds of birds, crab, and lots of lizards all live up there. I’ve only seen the crab, lizards and dozens of different kinds of bugs, many of which were making me their meal this trip. This is a picture of our little village in a small cove which John calls “Chonchos.”

Traveling Like a Mexican: KR and I always looked askance at Mexicans in LAX on their way home. Invariably, they looked like they were taking everything including the new kitchen sink in their luggage. We now understand, having gone to Ross the night before our trip and bought the two largest, cheapest pieces of luggage we could find and three huge duffel bags. We then proceeded to stuff them with pillows, flatware, a full set of glasses, flash lights, binoculars, four kinds of board games, dried food, books and paper towels. Somehow we got the bags onto the airplane (no extra charges : )), through Mexican customs (no taxes : )), to Puerto Vallarta, then the 20 miles south to the water taxi pick up point, ONBOARD the water taxi along with 35 other people, and finally OFF LOADED on the beach at Chonchos. And we did it with no breakage and nothing hitting the water! Here, we get help humping the stuff the final 100 yards up the beach.

One Year Ago. Left: Site of Little Big Sur first cleared. Middle: The basic structure is created, with the “innovative” lower deck design. Right: KR and John look happy with themselves.

“Mule Highway” Our version of Interstate 5’s “Grapevine” in LA, we now have a well-traveled foot/mule path used as the primary construction road to our section of the Resort. Unfortunately, most of the way is uphill. Here John and KR pass one of our neighbor’s houses in an early stage of construction. I’m told the neighbor works for Blackwater, which is reassuring as you can never have too much security. Since his place has a commanding view of our cove and coast line, he’ll keep a sharp eye out for any approaching trouble.

On top of the ridge, sits LBS: The “door” is behind the round window. Eventually, there will be some sort of low wall on top of the steps to separate the kitchen bar from he entrance.

View from back patio forward. Little Big Sur might be THE definition of open living, as there are only five walls in the place, and they’re not all connected. Somehow, it’s grown from 500 sq ft. to 1500 sq. ft. of open space, making it the largest casita in the resort. The stairs on the right go to the loft bedroom. The kitchen is also on the right. Immediately to the left of this picture would be the bathroom and bedroom.

Standing in the Dining Room, looking at the kitchen counter and up to the second sleeping loft.

The Deck: Looking at the cement couch and outside bed. Dining room is to the left, ocean to the right.

The Master Suite. Wiring and doors yet to be finished. Bathroom is directly behind the bedroom. The bedroom, like everything else, will be “open.” I’m asked a lot about how to protect stuff from the weather and possible intruders. We’ll use some sort of bamboo type shades around all the major parts of LBS to protect from the elements. As to intruders, I suppose our best protection is remoteness. Not many people get to this neck of the jungle, and those who do we’ll know. We’ll also have some lockable closets for the family heirlooms.

Size matters, at least when it comes to solar systems. Many think that we over-built, as we have four panels to everyone else’s one, six batteries to everyone else’s two, and an inverter. That’s what they think now, but they’ll be jealous once I get my DirecTV, Internet, DVD equipment going. Oh, and perhaps most importantly, we’re getting a world-class blender. Once on stream, I’m thinking of selling my excess electricity to some of my neighbors. “Worldwide Walti Solar Power” has a certain ring to it.

Everything comes by boat, either from PV or Chimo. Here, the kitchen counter top is unloaded with some wall boards. Yes, they successfully unloaded everything.

About a dozen pieces of local Parrota wood have made this curved counter top. Our Mexican Hostess is admiring the work, while Artemio gets the water working in the kitchen sink. Ahh, team work…

More of this to come: After another hard day of supervision, it’s nice to have a cocktail on the couch, even if its cement. Someday it will feel like one as well and the cocktail will have lots of ice.

Lest we forget, we’re working towards our version of this. This is Dennis’ place, often referred to as “The Model Home.”

The Good Brother. Our water taxi “firm” is owned by a family and operated by a pair of brothers. We call Martin the Good Brother as he’s the better driver. This is all relative, of course. While Benito’s skills behind the wheel would be welcome if escaping the Federales, he’s best at helping old ladies and Gringo Tourists on/off the taxi during beach landings.

Well, that’s “all” for now.  Keep sending good vibes our way as we look to “finish” LBS for Thanksgiving.


New Special Bonus  Multi Media Section!

For those of you who just can’t get enough, here’s a couple of home movies from this trip:

1. First home movie of LBS:  the best way of seeing it.

2. Water taxi ride from Chonchos

3. Feeling of Speed:  water taxi coming out of Yelapa

4. Typical Puerto Vallarta bus ride

1 reply
  1. bryan birch says:

    Sam mentioned you had done something similar.
    So I went looking. We just spent our first nights in our place this Christmas. (2 weeks)
    Wondered where your thoughts were years since this note. Still in love?


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