“If you take one day trip, make it Yelapa,” my world-traveler stepdaughter Debbie told us, when we set off for Puerta Vallarta, Mexico to vacation with our pals, Kathy and Jay.
We had no idea what Yelapa was—or why you needed a boat to get to a town just down the coast. Later, we’d learn that roads had not yet been built through the jungle to reach Yelapa—and the full, fascinating story of why this was so.
Lost In Time
Yelapa is a small, sleep fishing village surrounded by mountains and tucked into a cove on the Bay of Banderas. There are no roads here, and no cars.
Trying to find Yelapa’s famous waterfall was the first indication this was not your usual tourist stop. No signs. And asking residents for directions led us in circles, where we started to understand how low-key this whole place was: modest homes, unlocked doors, laundry hung in plain view. “You’ll get there, don’t worry,” advised a native woman.
The official vibe here seemed to be: Where you are is fine. The goal is not the point.
Finally, we found the uphill road and began the hike to the waterfall—gorgeous and tall, spilling ice-cold water into an idyllic pond. We swam and splashed for a long time. By the time we dried off, it was late.
Starting back, we joked about how much we’d eat and drink at the beachfront café. Soon, though, our main concern was making the last boat back. Nothing looked familiar. The narrow road wound down and around for much longer, it seemed, than on the way up. The dense foliage was now clearly jungle.
Kathy, whose favorite thing is walking someplace completely new, strode happily ahead. My least-favorite thing is not-knowing where I am going so I wasn’t happy at all. But there was nothing to do but keep going on the patterned cobblestones—and absorb a world that didn’t fit any known parameters.
Above us, houses perched on cliffs. Small dwellings—some shabby, some delightful—lined the road—and then, none at all. Steps appeared out of nowhere. Walls scribbled with advertisements. A large sign pointed the way to a Yoga Retreat. Papers tacked to trees announced art workshops and Resident Meetings.
Out of the silence, the clip-clop of hooves. Two men on donkeys trotted by. “Which way to the beach?” I called, but they were gone. Giggling schoolgirls in white uniforms ran past—then disappeared into the brush.
“It’s like Brigadoon,” I joked.
I didn’t know how close I was to the truth.
Suddenly, we faced a river. But it wasn’t deep and we waded across. Exhilarated, we now saw small shops (closed), chicken coops, fields. A woman working in one beamed at us. “Right here!” she beamed—and there was the bright blue sea, and a path to the beach.
In the early 1500s, five families came down from the mountains and settled in what became known as Yelapa. In 1524, Francisco Cortes led an aggressive army down the coast—but Yelapa natives in feathered headdresses stood strong and told him: We are a peaceful people. Please leave our land alone.
Impressed by their directness, Cortes left the land untouched. Forty years later, King Philip of Spain formally designated Yelapa as a communidad indigena. That order still stands. Outsiders can rent—but they may not own or claim land.
Yelapa is one of the few places left on Earth where the original inhabitants still live, own and control their own land.
This February, we’re going back. Our stay will be enriched by knowing Yelapa’s unique history. A pocket of fairness in the jungle. We’re filed with awe—and gratitude that they allow us to share their peaceful, precious paradise.
Accommodations in Yelapa, less expensive than those in Puerta Vallarta, are unique and often extraordinarily beautiful. Besides enjoying the quiet beach and just relaxing, you can visit both waterfalls, hike, go horseback riding or snorkel. Mostly visitors appreciate living a simpler life.