Note from Ceal: We visited the Matachen area in January 2012. I’m all about being real, but sometimes I’m chicken. I didn’t want to publish this until enough time had passed, and we were far enough away that I was sure the good citizens of San Blas wouldn’t take up pitchforks and torches to find me and cut off my arms and call it a suicide for printing the good, the bad, and the ugly truth about eating endangered species and loving it.
The flotsam didn’t have arms, but it was wearing underpants. There were crocodiles. The ice cream truck drove on the beach continuously playing an earworm-worthy version of Alley Cat. Kevin stuck his head in a 1700s canon while at a historic Spanish fort. And, who knew sopa de tortuga would taste like pork of the sea?
Yet for some reason, from the beginning, I loved this place.
Remember the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl when Captain Jack Sparrow says, “Tortuga.” and Mr. Gibbs lights up as he repeats, “Torrrtuugaaa!” and then all hell breaks loose? That’s most of what you need to know about San Blas and Matanchen Bay.
Matanchen and San Blas, in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, aren’t going to appear in the bold print of Fodor’s Travel Guides or The Lonely Planet guidebooks, but if you happen to be within 100 miles or so, they’re worth a visit. San Blas is about 100 miles north of Puerto Vallerta on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
We didn’t find any fancy-white-napkin restaurants (we weren’t looking very hard), but did find amazing camerones (Spanish word for shrimp) and ice cold beer at Ricardo’s El Calamar restaurant. Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp is like a limp-fish handshake compared to the menu at Ricardo’s beachside haunt near Matanchen village.
The restaurant itself is a simple place: plastic chairs and tables with bright plaid table cloths. The entire structure is lean-to style open-air palapa made of tree branches and palm fronds. There’s a cinder block hearth fueled by propane, and that’s where they pound and cook the freshest tortillas I’ve ever had. Typically I’m skeptical of establishments that lack running water, restrooms and refrigeration, but I made a week’s worth of exceptions for Ricardo’s shrimp creations.
Spending less than $15 on a dinner for two–plus multiple beers–never tasted better. Empanadas, camerones rancheros, you name it, Ricardo could make it. Best of all the shrimp were uber fresh–the guys were netting them just off the shore in front of the restaurant!
Then came the endangered species soup.
One of the things Mexicans do well is making you feel welcome, and, in this case, part of the family. Ricardo’s family was celebrating his father’s birthday and one of the “special meals” his father requested was sea turtle soup. Once I got over gut-wrenching guilt that wafted from the steaming bowl set in front of me, it turned out endangered species soup is pretty darn tasty. Maybe that’s why they’re endangered?
This restaurant also was the location of the earworm incident – take a listen.
Matanchen does two things, shrimp and banana bread. Really, that’s all. The main village of Matanchen has no less than a dozen stores/bakeries and all those places sell is banana bread. No doubt the bread’s a delicious and sweet treat, but don’t even think of trying to buy the bananas they have hanging near the counter. They won’t sell them to you. Apparently it’s more profitable to put the bananas into the bread than to sell them to a fruit craving gringo.
Less than 10 miles from Matanchen is the town of San Blas, population 8,700. The road to get there traverses mangroves that surrounding the entire area. We were on bicycles riding from Matanchen to San Blas and had a close up view of the prime crocodile habitat. Later we paid for a mangrove tour that showed us just how many lumpy reptiles were lurking. Apparently, after that, I felt confident enough to swim in the La Tovara springs feeding the mangroves. I know, sounds crazy now, doesn’t it? But, there was a rusty, half-immersed chain link fence to keep the crocodiles, caymens, and huge snapping turtles at bay. Totally legit, honest.
There’s something special about San Blas. The now aged and weathered cathedral bordering one side of the town’s square once inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bells of San Blas. The town was founded in the 1500s, but the fort, cathedral and Spanish-styled cobbled streets were built in the mid to late 1700s. The 200-plus year-old structures look better than most of the town’s more recent construction. Cinder blocks and corrugated steel are no match to hand carved stone.
In all fairness, San Blas has been battered by more than its share of hurricanes and tropical storms over the years. It’s not a wealthy area. Insurance claims are unheard of for most, so affordable and available building products are the only option. Evidence of the heavy storm damage is obvious along the harbor where fishing and shrimp boats sit half sunken and rusting in the Rio Grande de Santiago.
There’s some crime. Obviously, as We did find a body floating face down in Matanchen Bay. (More on that in my upcoming book.) The cops ruled the death a suicide. I’m thinking that makes complete sense since the Juan Doe was missing his arms and his ankles were bound. Most folks cut off their own arms and bind their feet before calling it quits. Kevin is convinced the Doe’s actions were a cry for help.
Beyond the body, not being stupid is enough to keep you safe here. Common rules of thumb apply: if it looks sketchy, it probably is. Would you go out alone at night and explore dark alleys in the United States? Same applies in Mexico. We did go out once at night in San Blas. The town square was hopping with the Celebration of the Migratory Birds. The senorita we heard singing blew the doors off anyone I’ve seen on the X Factor. We enjoyed ice cream cones with a handful of other gringos (this is not a tourist destination) before calling it a night. It was our bike ride back to the marina that made the hair stand up on the back of our necks. We sprinted through the places devoid of street lamps with questionable characters lurking in the shadows. Not a good place to ask for directions.
Perhaps the best characterization given to San Blas, that I heard, came from one of the snowbirds from Indiana I met who has been wintering there for past seven years.
“It’s like going back to the 1950s,” she said. “The are dirt roads in the town. People drive old cars, and on Sunday’s there’s a flea market where they sell clothes by the pound and you can find things like used blender parts.”
I don’t know about the used blender parts and clothes by the pound, but she’s right about it kind of stepping back in time. That, and to me it will always be a little like a pirate town. All good visits do come to and end point, and when it was time for us to leave it was only because we knew there were more places like San Blas and Matanchen to set sail for and discover.