IGNORE THE MEXICO TRAVEL ADVISORY?
A week before we boarded the plane, the US State Department issued a travel warning against any non-essential travel to Mexico . As I follow through now with our family vacation in Puerto Vallarta, I’d like to defend my actions as essential travel. Dear Dept of State: If you knew the stress and hard work my wife and I have endured over the last year, you would understand the necessity of this trip. As far as I can tell, the only way you’re going to get accosted here is by some guy trying to sell you a time share. And, you wouldn’t know by the airport that people have been scared away from Mexico – the lines in Immigration and Customs were horrendous, but it was a Saturday after all. Besides the upgraded Malecon – now peacefully closed to vehicle traffic, and the project to widen the sidewalks in the Zona Romantica, everything seems pretty much the same.
Someone said to me before our departure: “Oh, as long as you don’t venture outside of the resort, you’ll be fine.” Resort? This is not some artificial all-inclusive Caribbean resort cocoon. No, we are in the Zona Romantica – the real thing with its dusty cobblestone streets teaming with semi-retired Canadians and 30-plus gay men, art galleries, open-air restaurants, a few Tequila shops, technicolor Pacific sunsets and an overabundance of beach vendors on Playa de los Muertos all coddled by the gigantic Banderas bay on one side and steep hillsides on the other. So venture out into the real world I did. Out to find something chocolate.
This is not as easy as it sounds since Puerto Vallarta is a long way from the epicenter of chocolate in southern Mexico – Oaxaca. But, with two young children in tow, we were going to stay where it is safe for now. Here’s what I found.
FINDING CHOCOLATE IN PUERTO VALLARTA
1. Mexican Hot Chocolate Disks of Moyahua – I found these traditional style Mexican chocolate disks in a sweet shop one block off the Malecon. There were no ingredients on the list, but the guy in the shop said it was 70% cacao. I tasted it at home and it’s not. Instead, it’s a typical coarsely ground mix of heavily sugared cacao with a bit of cinnamon taken almost exclusively as a drink. For me it’s too sweet to even drink as cocoa, but I have a plan to blend it into a mole along with some better chocolate and chili peppers I’ve acquired on this trip. I have to say it’s better than the disks of Abulita that I found on my last trip to Mexico. The shop also had a large almond chocolate bar that had cacao as the first ingredient. Both are 85 pesos. Dulceria Con Orgullo Azteca, Juarez 449. The shop is a block or two off the Malecon.
2. The Chocolate Mole at El Mole de Jovita – Head down Basillio Badillo away from the beach and walk right past the highly overrated Joe Jack’s Fish Shack to this authentic mom and pop restaurant three doors down . On a Friday night, we found a young woman stirring a pot of mole sauce ready to blanket a variety of chicken and other dishes from a simple menu.
The exact recipe of any Mexican’s chocolate mole is usually a well guarded secret, but the savory sauce is brought to life by chili peppers and balanced by dark chocolate thrown in at the end. Other ingredients may include tomatoes, fruits such as raisins, spices and bits of bread or tortillas as thickeners. They told me this mole contained something like of 37 different varieties of chili peppers. Don’t worry, the heat is actually quite mild.
She offered a sample of the sauce on a chip with a few sesame seeds sprinkled over the top. I found it neither excessively spice nor sweet – nice balance. The dining room is open to the street in front for people watching. With great regrets, we were already waiting on a table next door on the last night of our trip. I really wished we had gone into this place for a more authentic dinner prepared by a Mexican family. The reviews on TripAdvisor are excellent. Next time. El Mole de Jovita Restaurant, 220 Basillo Badillo.
3. Xocodiva Artisan Chocolates – I blogged on this shop a couple of years ago and it’s great to see that they are still going strong. Excellent, rich, thick drinking chocolate, chocolate bars, truly artisan truffles and other chocolate confections. Not cheap, but top notch. Worth a visit or two, or three for sure. They’re in the romantic zone next to the San Marino Hotel on Rodolfo Gomez 118. 322-113-0352.
4. ChocoBanana, Sayulita. We did venture out on the highway north of the bay to this picturesque and vibrant surfing village. One of the better coffee shop / cafes is ChocoBanana along the main road in the center of town. We never did get to try the namesake banana because noise from the nearby sidewalk construction drove us out. None-the-less, there’s lots to do in Sayulita besides eating, like shopping, lying in the sun or learning to surf! Surf lessons abound on the beach as well as laid-back beach eateries and chairs to rent. The crowd is mixed, but definitely younger than in PV.
We took the 75 minute taxi ride up from the Zona Romantica for about 650 pesos plus tip and then decided to take the public bus back for about 80 pesos (for two adults and two children). The bus was fine. We had to stand for about 5 minutes, then another 30 minutes with kids in our laps and then the rest of the 90 minute ride with our own seats as the bus emptied out. Without children, it’s a no-brainer to take the bus. Catch it at the airport or at the Wal-Mart.
5. Chocolate Cream Tequila Liqueur – I had read there was a chocolate tequila available in PV, but there was not much information to go by. I’m not really a tequila drinker, but the chocolate twist sounded intriguing and conjured up images of some Mexican craftsman extracting cacao beans into a traditional distilled agave spirit. I found a large tequila shop, Tequila Arrecife, on Olas Allas one block south of the Los Arcos hotel on the opposite side.
A salesman with excellent English ran through the options – about 4-5 tequila-based chocolate liqueurs with a few, but not all available to taste. Think Bailey’s Irish Creme, but with chocolate flavor and a backbone of tequila. Not exactly what I was looking for, but I was on a mission, so I picked up one that was the least sweet – Mayakoba Crema de Chocolate al Tequila. This liqueur used silver tequila base and the flavor was sweet and heady. I found it a little disturbing that there were some bits of solids floating around despite my vigorous shaking. At only 28 proof, this is not much stronger than wine. I could see taking this as a dessert drink or pouring it over ice cream.
You can expect to pay about $30-40 US for 750 mL unless you are more patient than I was, you and can get a better deal. If they quote you in US dollars, then pay in dollars. Otherwise, pay close attention to the exchange they are using for Pesos and make sure it matches the local exchange you paid…or walk away (tell them you are going to get some dollars and think about it).
Tequila Arrecife has only been open for three months and has no sign, but it’s too big to miss. There are also plenty of smaller shops on the Malecon including some branches of Tequila Arrecife. 411 Calle Olas Altas. P. 222-0984.
TO RETURN TO MEXICO OR NOT?
Still recovering from travel now, we haven’t yet decided whether we will go back to Mexico next year. We went to Costa Rica ten years ago and then again in 2011 and both were wonderful experiences. But recent reports are that Costa Rica is becoming over priced as everyone afraid to travel in Mexico is fleeing further south for vacation. On the other hand, Puerto Vallarta has its unique charms that might not be apparent to the unobservant. It’s like a museum that can’t decide whether to show classical art, contemporary art or natural history. It’s all there along with crumbling wings under repair and a hidden security system that, for the most part, keeps the bandits out.
 The warning is detailed state by state and includes the state of Jalisco where Puerto Vallarta lies. But the general warning also states: “…there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes.” If you read the fine print on Jalisco, it says that the trouble there is in areas bordering other states. Until drug dealers have a reason to go off their beaten drug route, PV will remain unscathed and safe, in my opinion.
 At first I was going to recommend that you visit Joe Jack’s Fish Shack and have their Mexican Hot Chocolate for desert. The drink has improved over the years and gone from an overly sweet, heavily cinnamon-laced drink to a thick, rich melted dark chocolate with rum. The pros on Joe Jack’s: the roof terrace. The cons: It’s overflowing with a clueless crowd that seems to seek dumbed-down, tasteless Mexican food, the wait is ridiculous, and the service is slow. We went there on our last night in PV and were “overlooked” by the manager while waiting for a table so that we had to wait on the street almost an hour even though we had arrived at 5:15! If you judge a sushi restaurant by its rice, then you judge a Mexican restaurant by its guacamole. The guacamole at Joe Jack’s is a half-hearted effort to mash some avocado with tomatoes and onions. Case closed. “But it’s not a Mexican restaurant,” you say? Right, it’s a kind of overpriced Mexican fusion pub. Still not worth the wait. We’re done with Joe Jack’s. The manager did give us a free coconut pie for desert only after endless complaining on our part. Thanks man. It was the right thing to do, but we’re done.