When I was young and had decided I would one day travel, I figured I’d probably never go to Mexico. It was where everybody went, and I knew that I wanted to go places that weren’t already well-travelled by people from my own country, or by people from ‘Murica, to the south. If I wanted to be somewhere with a lot of Canadians and Americans, I could simply stay where I was.
Up until 2016, my decision to avoid Mexico had held strong, but then my wife and I got invited to join her parents for a few months in La Peñita, Nayarit, on the Pacific coast.
It was winter in Canada and we had nothing better to do, so we accepted.
Since then (I wrote this in 2022), we have spent a total of five months in various locations around Mexico. And, at the time of this post, we’re here still/again.
In some aspects, Mexico is what I imagined it would be: poor and dirty, dangerous if a person isn’t careful, and, in certain places, populated by too many Canadians and Americans. But, in many other ways, it’s so much better than the reasons I chose to avoid it in the first place.
A medical emergency brought us to Mexico for our trip in 2022. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer in Costa Rica (a country not exactly known for its quality medical services) and the price of having an operation there was (like everything in Costa Rica) ridiculous. The most sensible option then was to head north to Guadalajara, Mexico.
That turned out to be an excellent idea. The entire ordeal went perfectly, and after a short recovery period following a successful surgery, we all decided to head to Melaque/San Patricio/Something-or-Other. Towns, like people in Mexico, often have many names, and I still don’t know how it all works, so, after this, I’ll just be referring to it as Melaque (Meh-lah-keh).
It may seem odd that a big, metropolitan center like Guadalajara gets only a brief note in this post, seemingly only as a stopping point en route to the coast. And yes, if that’s all it got, it would be odd, but because the first two months in the city were focused on the whole cancer thing, and my wife and I returned to Guadalajara after a month in Melaque, Guadalajara gets an entire post to itself later.
Back to Melaque then.
Melaque, in the state of Jalisco, is a very typical Mexican town. It’s a dusty, grubby little place with very few paved streets, very few sidewalks that actually span an entire block, too much errant garbage, and the requisite number of stray dogs and chickens running around. Besides all that, though, it’s got some great shopping, good beaches, some decent places to eat, and many of the nicest, warmest, and most welcoming people to be found anywhere.
Though Melaque is small (less than eight thousand people as of 2010, but it’s definitely grown since then), it’s a fun and lively little place. Due to its location, it’s huge number of hotels, apartments for rent, bars and restaurants, and the fact that its big beaches are swimmer-friendly, Melaque is a destination for both Mexicans and foreigners.
I doubt there were fewer than fifteen thousand humans present at any given time during the entire month we were there.
Guessing by the number of new construction projects on the go, and with the governments of Canada and the US driving people out of their own countries by the millions, the population of Melaque should continue to grow significantly in the near future. When this happens, I hope it keeps its authentic Mexican charm instead of morphing into yet another overly Americanized Mexican hot-spot. Time will tell.
We did enjoy our time in Melaque, though it is small, and, as I’ve stated in numerous other posts, we don’t really do small towns.
Melaque didn’t captivate us like many places in Europe do, and we’ll likely not return, but that being said, there are a few things I’d like to mention for the sake of others looking to visit.
I generally like to make breakfast at home for my wife and myself, because nobody can quite poach eggs just the way we like them. But every so often I enjoy a nice breakfast that’s been cooked by somebody else. On such occasions, Chavakiah Massage and Café was a good go-to. Massage and café seem like a bit of an odd concept, and I never opted for the massage, but the food was good and the setting was relaxed and shaded for most of the day.
Breakfast at Chavakiah
For a slightly nicer establishment, as well as great food, coffee, various other types of drinks, and excellent service, my personal favourite place for breakfast was La Taza Negra. It’s a little more of an upscale joint (for Melaque), and on top of all the things I just mentioned, it’s a decent workspace for digital nomads.
I must now note that, although it’s not a breakfast place, right beside the Taza Negra was a fantastic medium-sized convenience store (I forget the name) that had just been opened by a lovely Mexican family. The husband and wife are some of the nicest people on earth and the store is stocked with a good assortment of necessities. Also, this is one of the few places in Melaque where one can buy actual bread, not the gross, cheap, sugary dough that passes for bread in most of Mexico.
As far as lunch and dinner in Melaque go, I think the only place I would actually recommend is Rustik, a cool little bar with outside dining right on the street (like many places in Mexico), as well as a few indoor tables.
What makes Rustik a notable place for food is the pizza. It’s fantastic! And not just fantastic for Melaque either; it’s the best pizza I’ve had in Mexico (yes, including Guadalajara), and it would hold its own anywhere I’ve been (yes, including Seasons in Tirana, Albania… maybe).
I’m sure there are more good lunch and dinner restaurants in Melaque, but I didn’t find them. Everywhere I went for lunch or dinner was, at best, very middle of the road, and, at worst, terrible. My wife and I often cooked at home, which was no real hardship because we enjoy cooking, and we’re really good at it.
Though we may not have found many notable food spots in town, there were no shortage of places to whet one’s whistle for those who enjoy a few drinks (or many drinks) in the evening. Three places spring directly to mind.
If you’re from Canada or the States and you’ve lived for at least seven decades, Albatros (that’s correct, one “s”) is definitely where you’ll want to let your toupees down. But make no mistake, even though the combined age at the Albatros on a busy night is in the thousands, the dance floor is always full. For those folks who remain young at heart no matter how many great-grandchildren they have, Albatros is a testament to the fact that you’re never too old to get white-girl-wasted. I’ve witnessed it personally.
For obvious reasons, Albatros, though entertaining and inspiring, wasn’t exactly mine or my wife’s tube of Bengay. Instead, we frequented a couple of places where most of the patrons were born well after any notable world conflicts.
The best one, by far, was Barba Negra, which, a few days before writing this, I learned was closing down. (Update on the Barba Negra status, months later: they’ve found a new and better location, and have re-opened. Yayyyyyy!)
So, really, anything I can say about it isn’t going to be helpful at all for anyone travelling to Melaque. That may be true, but while it lasted, it was great fun. It was a good place to hang out with Mexicans and French-Canadians while we all got cross-eyed and played pool until tomorrow.
Along with the great people and the almost-level pool table, there was also live music every night I was there. Really good live music.
Maybe Barba Negra will be back some day soon. (And now it is. 😉
The other night spot we really enjoyed was Cafe Macondo. The name says “café,” but we never café-ed there once. Instead, we hung out inside, as far from the street as we could sit, in the surf-chic lounge, and listened to their excellent music playlists while they plied us with flawless drinkables. From what my wife and I saw, this would be one of the places to find good evening food, though we never tried any. We were too busy carpin’ them diems and knocking back cocktails.
Cafe Macondo is inside an old movie theater that suffered earthquake damage some years ago. Since then, it’s been cleverly re-purposed. Café Macondo occupies one half of the building, and the other half is home to another restaurant.
As well as having a cool surf-chic vibe, it’s also kind of steam-punky with a bit of a Lost Boys feel stirred in for extra flavour. The sound system is bumpin’ and the service is lacking for nothing. Macondo is definitely very cool.
The most impressive thing about Melaque was how, during the week of Semana Santa (Easter in our culture), the entire town was one huge, friendly, fun party. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that the entire town was a party. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere. And what was most impressive was that during the whole week, I didn’t see any belligerence or typically North American drunken stupidity. And the entire town was a party.
The festivities weren’t confined to the bars, restaurants, and plazas either. The beaches were packed with groups of friends, couples young and old, kids, grandparents, and pets too.
Party on the beach, Mexico style!
After a decent amount of time spent in Mexico and an ability to speak enough Spanish to actually communicate (and the fact that I’m never too shy to hang out with Mexicans), I can say, with no reservations, that Mexicans may be the world’s leading experts at the art of partying.
Sure, the Germans do Oktoberfest, the Brazilians and Colombians have Carnivals, New Orleans has Mardi Gras, and there are events like Burning Man, Shambalah, and the Montreal Jazz Festival, but those go for a set amount of time and then they’re done.
Mexicans have parties like that every other week. They don’t even need reasons.
“Oh, hey, the sun came up again. Let’s have a fiesta.”
A priest, or a warrior, or an artist in some town did a cool thing three-hundred years ago? “Let’s party!”
Some people might not get it, but, to me, those do sound like great reasons for everyone within a hundred miles to show up and get down for days. Which they do. However, Mexicans know when to shut it down. Once in a while they’ll even take the odd weekend off.
Mexican culture is undoubtedly unique (and complicated), and Mexican people are varied and interesting. There is no other country on the planet quite like Mexico. Mexico is just Mexico, and mostly proud of it.
Their motto seems to be: have life, will party. And, as everyone in the know knows, most Mexicans can also outwork everyone alive except Filipinos, who, coincidentally, party like beasts too. Hmmmmmmm?
I did mention that Melaque is grubby, dusty, and littered with garbage (as is most of Mexico), but it does have its charm. There are some beautiful old buildings, and stunning trees and plants everywhere. In Melaque, the beach goes on forever, and the ocean is a perfect, glimmering blue mirror for the sun.
Melaque, not without it’s charm.
There was a lot of construction and renovation underway while we were there, and, with the steady influx of tourist dollars, it’s likely that Melaque will see a deserving upgrade if not every penny gets lost to corruption, which is a possibility everywhere in Mexico.
For foreigners looking for a slightly cleaner, prettier (albeit smaller) place to hang their hats, Barra de Navidad may be more up your alley. It’s a bit less Mexican and a bit more Mexican-beach-destination-for-tourists. Not so much that it sucks, though. In fact, it’s really rather nice.
Barra is about a five-minute car ride south of Melaque, or a twenty-minute walk along the beach from Bungalows Laguna Del Tule.
We only spent a few days in Barra, and we liked it, but I’m not too sure I’d want to live there. It’s apparently quite a debaucherous little party town. And although I personally don’t have a problem with that, it’s a tiny little debaucherous party town, and I prefer my life to be more private than is possible in such a place. I also like to be somewhat productive most days of the week, and constant hangovers utterly negate such a possibility for me.
I think we made an intelligent choice without even knowing it. Many of the locals we met told us that we did it properly: live in Melaque and go to Barra to visit.
Barra de Navidad has a beautiful malecon (which was undergoing upgrades or repairs when I saw it), some nice seaside bars and restaurants, and lots of vendors selling wares of actual quality. Directly in front of the malecon there’s a bit of surf break, so it looked like it was only a short little swim out to the waves.
The malecon in Barra
El Horno Francés, a lovely French cafe with a tree-shaded patio, was a nice place to while away an hour or so one afternoon, and the coffee and cheesecake lived up to what one would expect from a French café. As it should, apparently the owner is from Paris.
El Manglito, on the laguna side of the peninsula, is a nice, covered place to go for drinks and seafood, and seemed to be quite the destination for buses full of Mexican tourists. The service at El Manglito was stellar, but the music was a bit too Mexican for me (I don’t care what anyone says, traditional Mexican music is beyond terrible).
The one time we stayed past nightfall in Barra, we spent the evening at Jarro Beach Sports Bar. We sat out on the patio with waves crashing on the rocks directly below us before heading inside to spend hours playing pool at the old, uneven, beat-up table. It was a blast.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, there are no bank machines in Barra, and the bar was a cash-only establishment, so we had to go back to Melaque and end the night at Barba Negra. It was probably for the best.
Across the lagoon from the Barra de Navidad malecon sits an impressive-looking resort called the Hotel Grand Isla Navidad Resort. We didn’t get a chance to check it out, but it looks like they spared no expense. It’s even got its own golf course. There’s another big resort around the corner and down the beach from that one. And it’s no small wonder; the area is perfect for them.
When the time came to leave the coast, we got a taxi to take us from Melaque to the bus terminal in Barra, where we mounted one of the fine machines that they use for high-end road transport (The cost from Barra de Navidad all the way to Guadalajara was roughly $46 US for the two of us and all of our luggage).
ETN Bus lines. Not a bad way to Travel.
Our final destination was Guadalajara, but we decided to spend a couple of nights in Manzanillo first, Mexico’s largest and busiest port on the Pacific side.
Manzanillo is not pretty (it’s a working port town), but it has some nice beaches and a few big resorts. But the best parts of our little stopover in Manzanillo were: a beautiful place called Cafe Esperanza Fusion, and a surprisingly good Japanese restaurant, called La Katana.
We spent an afternoon at Cafe Esperanza, taking advantage of the comfortable space and good internet. The panini’s and salads are excellent and they have many kinds of tea and good coffee. And, like so many places in Mexico, the servers and the owner (I think she was the owner; she was one of those women who wore the boss hat like a boss) were incredibly sweet and helpful. If a person is in the area, I would highly recommend stopping in.
La Katana, the Japanese restaurant, is small but clean and nice, and the excellent food comes in huge portions that would cost twice the price anywhere else. I could barely move for hours after leaving Katana but I would go back three times a week if I lived in Manzanillo.
Two days was enough time in Manzanillo, and we weren’t sad to say goodbye to the coast and board a bus again for the six-hour trip to Guadalajara.
The month we’d spent in and around Melaque had some good moments, but all-in-all, it wasn’t exactly what I would call memorable, and if I hadn’t recorded the trip for this blog I probably would have forgotten the details already.