There's a certain kind of tourist who prides himself on refusing to be satisfied with the synthetic brand of experience on offer in a place like Puerto Vallarta, who looks for the road less traveled where he can see and do what real locals do. I think I've mentioned this before.
Others have noticed too. Puerto Vallarta is ready to accommodate these special people. About an hour south of here is the town of El Tuito, which several of the self-styled travel curators who blog about these parts have certified as a taste of "the real Mexico."
I suspect many actual Mexicans would be discouraged to learn this. El Tuito is a dusty agrarian county seat with a population just shy of 3,000. It has a charming little town square and a modest church, but I can't think what would make it more authentically Mexican than anywhere else.
We live alongside Vallarta's own central plaza and principal church, and when we want to see weatherbeaten masonry, crumbling municipal infrastructure and loose chickens, we don't need to drive 40 miles into the hills. We can just look out the window.
Not that we didn't think our recent visit to El Tuito was worth the trip. It was, and for that matter the trip itself was worth the trip.
The highway south skirts the bay and offers panoramic Pacific views at every turn, all the way to Mismaloya where Night of the Iguana was filmed and beyond to Boca de Tomatlan, where you can catch a water taxi or hike the rugged cliff and jungle trail to the more remote beaches.
The road then veers away from the coast into the heights of the Cabo de Corrientes peninsula, which defines the southern edge of the vast Bahia de Banderas. As you go up, rain forest abruptly turns to long-needled pines. By the time you get to El Tuito in the center of the cape, you've climbed 2,000 feet and the air is noticeably cooler.
We went no further, but one of the best reasons for making the drive is that if you turn west off the highway onto one of the sketchy roads out of town, you eventually reach Mayto and the other beaches where there are only a couple of tiny hotels and literally nothing else but trackless sand and crashing surf as far as the eye can see. That's on our to-do list for sure.
El Tuito and its environs live mainly on farming of sorghum, agave and other row crops, raising livestock and the distilling of raicilla, which is tequila's evil twin. They also make panela, one of the soft, mild cheeses Mexicans favor.
But gringos who go there because they like to congratulate themselves on getting off the beaten track will be disappointed to learn that El Tuito isn't content with its relative obscurity and would be glad to trade its tranquility for more tourists.
The largest raicilla distillery now has its own boutique inn, the panela factory gives tours, there's a patio restaurant on the square that earns Tripadvisor stars, and also a tidy little cultural center with one of those colorful indoor murals featuring heroic effigies of historic figures that adorn public buildings all over Mexico. That's it pictured above.
What's "real" to me about travel is that wherever in the world you go, you find people trying to make a living the best way they can with whatever resources and skills they can bring to bear.
In places where those happen to be meager, it strikes me as curious at best that some visitors feel the impulse to hype and romanticize the resulting struggle to get by.