Free as the Wind In and Around Puerto Vallarta

A dazzling sun. A gorgeous seascape. The bluest of waters. Savor the flavor of this region on Mexico's Pacific coast.

FOR more than an hour the 30 foot-long water taxi speeds south across huge Banderas Bay, its hull whomping again and again in big swells. Our destination is the beach village of Yelapa, reached only by boat, and far away from the high-rise hotels of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Overhead, a dazzling sun brings heat to the bluest of waters. Imperturbable pelicans glide low and dive for fish around the boat. To our left, the shoreline is a mixture of rocks, palm trees, and beaches where clean, beige sands curve up to jungle greenness.

To those who avoid highly structured travel tours, I humbly submit this pounding boat as the essence of unpackaged, go-with-the-wind travel. My wife and I are in Mexico for this kind of experience, but you can find it in Nepal, Sweden, the south of France, or Alaska.

What attracted us to a one-day visit to Yelapa was its remoteness, away from the big beaches in Puerto Vallarta. "You can only get there by boat," said a ticket seller in Puerto Vallarta on the second day of a week's visit here to escape Boston snow.

In the boat, a mini-United Nations holds tightly to the seats and gunwales as we rise and fall. Whomp, whomp. There are three young travelers from Germany, an Australian woman traveling with her African drum the size of a fireplug, a French couple, two Americans of Asian descent, some Canadians, a quiet couple from a Slavic nation, my wife and I, and two Mexican families.

Bring together a touch of tension (can the boat hold together under this pounding?), a great landscape or seascape (if I could just hold my camera steady), temperate companions (some white-knuckled), and a destination slightly off the beaten path, and - presto! Your perspective is changed. You and the travel and the moment add up to a new experience. Indiana Jones would signal thumbs up.

Puerto Vallarta, a snoring fishing village on Mexico's West Coast, was catapulted to international fame by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of John Houston's "Night of the Iguana" (1963). Miss Taylor wasn't in the film (Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr were), but she stayed close by while the international press reported about the off-camera antics of the stars and the beauty of the area.

Burton and Taylor bought a house here, and came back again and again, trailed by reporters.

Economics took over. Big plush first-class hotels sprang up north of the city with swimming pools, tennis courts, manicured gardens, marinas, and superb but predictable restaurants.

An airport was built. And today there is a "gringo gulch" of homes in the older part of Puerto Vallarta where many American and Canadian retirees live year-round.

Here also are the smaller hotels with courtyards filled with lush red bougainvilleas. On the beach, hundreds of beach chairs fill up each day. Tucked in the hills above the older town are bed-and-breakfasts and rental condominiums.

Two dozen or so restaurants with superb Mexican or international food are scattered throughout the town next to dozens of tourist shops, retail stores, fruit sellers, and street-corner taco stands.

The exchange rate at this writing is about 7.5 pesos to the dollar, meaning the dollar goes a long way. Comfortable and clean hotel rooms are available for as little as $35 a night for two.

Our small, somewhat sleepy and worn hotel in older Puerto Vallarta was simply a base to explore north and south of the city.

The city can be noisy and crowded in the winter months (85 degrees F. maximum), but a visitor will find nothing but warmth and friendliness from the locals, even the pesky sidewalk salespeople trying to plug you into a $50 all-day boat tour of Banderas Bay.

Before climbing into one of Puerto Vallarta's many taxis, ask the fare, and bargain if you think it is too high.

But after a few days in Puerto Vallarta I recommend the speeding water taxi to Yelapa This is true getaway territory even though tour boats stop daily at Yelapa's single dock. Only those seeking tranquillity among the palms and sand stay overnight or longer at Hotel Lagunita de Yelapa.

The hotel is a cluster of a dozen or so sturdy grass-roofed bungalows among palm trees situated along flowered walks. For less than $35 a night you sleep in a bed with mosquito netting. Shutters open wide to sea breezes and views of the beach.

When the last tour boat of the day leaves, tranquillity is yours. Take an uphill walk through the dusty hillside village to the local waterfall. A boy named Aldo accompanied us, a smiling guide who spoke no English but understood our halting Spanish.

While gentle Yelapa lies south of Puerto Vallarta, you can find the same kind of tranquillity to the north in the little town of Bucerias ("Place of the Divers").

By bus or car, the town is 12 miles past the airport, facing Banderas Bay. In one of the travel books Bucerias is described as having the "creamiest beaches." Certainly they are clean, uncrowded, long, and almost creamy.

What characterizes Bucerias, with its beach-front rental units, bungalows, and homes, is a quiet casualness that draws visitors again and again. The high-rise hotels in Puerto Vallarta can offer splendid comfort for high prices, but unless you make an effort, you will be isolated from Mexican culture and authenticity.

In Bucerias's small town square in the evenings, local people gather to eat, mingle, and sell goods while breezes from the bay are soft and cool. Visitors are welcome to browse and try out a few sentences of Spanish and explain snow in Boston.

And best of all in Bucerias, you have an unequaled front-row seat to watch a blazing, tomato-red sun lower itself into the sea each night.

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