Little Big Sur – Part 1: Not for the Faint of Heart

Note: This story was written in April 2006 and re-posted in TRT.  This is the first of several reports on our efforts to carve out a palapa, evnetually named “Little Big Sur,”  in the jungle south of Puerto Vallarta.

April 2006

This is the story of how we became owners of a 500 sq. ft. beach casa on a turtle preserve in the jungle 30 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, violating most of the rules of smart real estate buying in the process.  Along the way we crashed an international conference on real estate (apparently not learning much), got familiar with the emergency procedures for a scorpion bite, discovered the finer points of getting on/off a water taxi, and partied in an Old Town PV bar in which the most popular way of entering or exiting was on the back of a donkey. Puerto Vallarta would seem to be our kind of town.

It began innocently enough; Karen came across an ad on an international real estate web site:

“Beachfront Cottage Near Pt. Vallarta.  Our private colony is NOT FOR EVERYONE.  We are looking for like-minded escapist for the second phase of construction…There are prohibitions in forest cutting, hunting and importing non-indigenous plant life.  There can be no pets, mechanized toys.  During the turtle season, beach facing lights must be turned off…”


As we were to find out, “NOT FOR EVERYONE,” will go down in the advertising hall of fame as the most truthful copy writing ever written.

Quicker than you can say, “I want this!” KR shot off an email saying we were interested, while asking a few basic questions. Apparently the questions weren’t the right ones as we got a “there are no more lots left” response.  Trying to stave off the imminent suicide of my wife, I decided to try again with a slightly different approach.  I wrote an inquiry laced with references to the penguin farm we’d been to in Chile, the turtle preserve we saw in Baja, how we just worshiped being amongst Mother Nature, and how we often trekked Out There to just get away from people.  I was careful not to ask any questions.

A day or so later “John” emailed and instructed us to let him know when we were coming.  I had never heard of John as I had emailed someone named Amalia.   I tried several times to reach John, but he went quiet once again.

So, that is how it came to be that we flew to Puerto Vallarta for a quick four day real estate scouting adventure, intent at the very least in exploring the Puerto Vallarta area.  Some time ago KR and I got it into our heads that we needed a retreat somewhere in Mexico.  We like Mexico a lot, it’s much cheaper than north of the Rio Grande, so our dream was to buy a beach house in some not-fully-developed part of Mexico.  This past Labor Day we drove up and down the Yucatan Peninsula looking for our beach house only to realize that the days of cheap beach places in the Yucatan were long, long gone. Unless you call $650k cheap.

Look way out there to the right and that’s where we’re headed

In order to save time and money, we flew through the night and got to PV (via Guadalajara) early in the morning.  By that afternoon we had explored the coast along Banderas Bay north of PV.  We were like a SWAT team hitting every village we came across; drive to the beach, look at the “quality” of the surf, see if the place had any charm and/or action, then head for a real estate office (all little Mexican villages now have real estate offices) to check out inventory and pricing.  While there were a number of beautiful places, PV made the Yucatan look like a Pauper’s village.  Nothing even remotely workable for less than seven figures.

That night we went back to our hotel feeling depressed.  Coincidently, a conference given by the International Living group had attracted a couple of hundred fellow Americans looking to relocate down south.  The conference seemed jammed packed with information on everything from real estate laws for each Latin American country to tax advice.  But we were too stubborn and be done when we just wanted to do it, not study it.  Yet, by the third cocktail talking with some of the attendees, I was becoming convinced Honduras was the only beach we could afford.

Then my Blackberry vibrated and there was a note from John.  He would pick us up at 7:45AM because we had to get to the water taxi by 9:00am.  Oh great, there are two things I hate a lot:  prop planes (like the one we just flew in on) and small boats.  Somehow I suspected that this water taxi wasn’t going to be large.  And John said something about it taking an hour to get ‘’there.”

Easy trip: plane, land taxi, water taxi, and hike up the beach

Like clockwork, John arrives at 7:45AM to pick us up in front of our hotel.  John,  as it turns out, is a 40ish American who “took a left turn in Texas about 20 years ago and never looked back.  He met his wife, Amalia, in Acapulco about that time and they eventually moved to Puerto Vallarta. Shortly after he got his lease, the government decreed that this area would become a bio reserve in which there would be very strict rules on what could be built and how the wild life could be treated.  We’d come across a similar situation in the Yucatan with the Sian Ka’an bio reserve.  Same thing there – you can only build 500 sq ft “houses” and you can’t chop no plants down, be cruel to the turtles, etc.   Me, I’m wondering how I’m going to be “cruel” to the Jaguars (not the car) that are reputed to be living near by…

As John continues to describe his 25 acres on three, count them, three beaches, with jungle wild life all about, I take a quick glance at KR.  I immediately know I’m screwed as she’s alit like all the fire flies that are supposed to light up the jungle at night.  John is going on about there will only be 24 cottages on his 25 acres, how there are only two left to buy, etc.  There are, however, some downsides to staying at the Preserve.  No noisy devices are allowed (read TV as in SpeedTV), no pets of any kind, lights off in turtle season, etc.  Its’ when he talks about all the scorpions that KR’s expression changes.  Seems like the little creatures come out at night and can easily be stepped on.  John reassures Karen that they have full “medical kits” at the Preserve and no one has had to go to the hospital after getting bitten.  Yet.  No time to dwell on this little bit of news as the taxi has arrived and we need to get on board.

John leads the way down to the beach and heads to one of the dozen or so water taxis anchored in the surf.  He – and everyone that’s getting in our taxi – is carrying lots of stuff:  car battery, two crates of milk, furniture covers, bags of food, blocks of ice, etc.   It’s then that I notice that I’m the only passenger-to-be wearing leather shoes, everyone else had flip flops or sandals.

About a dozen of us scramble on board.  John tells us there are four or five stops along the way before we get to the Preserve as we’re the second to the last place this taxi goes.  Motor starts and our Captain (Pedro, a 16 year old Mexican wearing wrap around sun glasses and eating a morning burrito with one hand) carefully steers our little boat out of this small inlet and south toward who knows what.

We’re bouncing a long the water before I can say “Honey are you sure you want to do this?”  Pedro seems to be in a hurry.  Bam! Bam!  As the bow flies over one wave, it slams down on the next.  “Never seen it this rough,” John offers.


After about 20 minutes I relax my death-grip on the boat’s bench and look to the left as we bam-bam-bam down the coast.  The jungle/forest comes right up to the shore’s rocky cliffs, and the waves break with a fair amount of vigor just 50 yards from us.  Even though much of the forest is brown since we’re at the tail end of the non-rainy season, it’s still beautiful to look at.  There aren’t many inhabitants beyond the few villages that Pedro hauls ass in and out of, “dropping off” passengers and freight at each.  I’m starting to think this is pretty cool when I remember that we got to come back this way too.  Small planes are sounding  better all the time.

We arrive at the Preserve just over an hour after we begin.  Exit method is different here:  go to the bow of the boat, wait until John or Pedro shout “Now!” as the boat rides down one of the breakers, and jump off into the surf.

Gee, only seven hours till Pedro returns.

Walking ashore, we’re enthusiastically greeted by Dennis, Buzz and Leila, three current residents.  I’m thinking that the arrival of Pedro is probably the day’s Big Event.  Three English-speaking people falling off the boat (OK two falling off, one stepping off) means they can TALK to humans.   I’m already starting to get jumpy, “Hey Dennis, what do you do here all day?” Dennis bought his cottage in January and has been here for about a month.  Buzz and Leila have been here for the past week.   They’re all neighbors and seem unhappy only about one thing –t hey don’t get down here often enough.  That’s great, but I’m still wondering what we’d do after the first couple of days.  I’m encouraged that cell phones at least work– maybe my Blackberry will actually vibrate!

The Preserve at this stage is basically a very pretty construction site with materials sprawled on the beach and the sound of John’s construction crew echoing through the jungle.  Of the 24 cottages that will eventually be located here, less than a dozen are finished, and most of those will be “upgraded” to the new, expansive, 500 sq. ft. plan.  The government has given him until the end of 2006 to get it all done before his building permits run out.  I can’t see how it’s possible, but John assures me that he’s going to do it.

“Doing it” here means, among other things, bringing everything in by boat: Logs, refrigerators, solar panels, furniture, roofing materials, nails, toilets, stoves, tile, beer, wall boards, tools, food, etc., etc., etc.  This includes workers who take the taxi here on Monday, work all day, then take the two mile hike to Chimo to sleep.  Then reverse the process the next day.  On Friday, they take the taxi back home.   I literally can not imagine how they get all the stuff here given the difficulty we found in just getting in the taxi with a back pack on.

Since my Mom didn’t raise no dummy, I knew John had won KR over at the “Hello” part of his sales pitch.   So, we’ve agreed to “buy” a cottage yet to be built, located somewhere in the back 40 part of this Preserve.  We’ll call it “Little Big Sur” because we think the view will remind us of the cliffs around Big Sur, California. We don’t know whether the view will actually be like that or not since we can’t actually see the ocean through all the jungle growth at our site.   KR and I are planning to come back to the Preserve sometime in the summer just before they lay the “foundation” so we can get an accurate assessment of our site.   Then we’ll probably come back a couple of times between then and the anticipated completion in December ’06.

So, that’s the story of how we became what Mexican’s call “Possessors” of a 500 square foot cottage in a turtle preserve somewhere south of Puerto Vallarta.  As to the donkey-riding bar in Old Town, that too was John’s fault.  It seems that we just happened into John’s favorite bar the night after we signed the papers.  I even got to meet Amalia, heck I got to dance with Amalia.

Oh, and one more thing.  Come visit us anytime.

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