The boat flies across the azure water, and above me, green mountains rise. The sun skips across the water like stones thrown by an unseen hand. Behind me, the driver’s practiced touch guides the little speedboat towards our destination. He doesn’t chat, seeming to believe that the Pacific Ocean surrounding us speaks for itself. I agree.
Just a few minutes later, we pull towards the shore crowded with laughing Mexican children and their parents, vendors and whooping teenagers, and old ladies under their sun umbrellas. This is Playa de las Animas, a beach accessible only by boat and one of the most beautiful in the region of Puerto Vallarta. The water looks “Disneyland blue,” says my sister. The sand is soft, the color of brown sugar. It feels separate from the world, a tiny planet all its own, exclusively reserved for pleasure. It is unsurprising that this is a popular spot.
We settle into beach chairs near the shore and I people watch from the shade. It’s Vallarta’s off-season, thanks to the summer humidity, so most of the beachgoers are Mexicans, not international tourists. Many come to PV from other states in Mexico, like Guadalajara, for their vacation. Dark eyed babies in flouncy bathing suits toddle towards the break line and no one worries—even the beach here is gentle, the surf more like a caress than a slap against my toes.
The owners of the restaurant where we are sitting offer us the use of a kayak for free, trying to make their shack-by-the-sea more appealing than the others. I paddle along the shore and around the little dock until my arms burn with exertion. Along the way, curious children swim towards my boat and tan boatmen nod in my direction, giving me a “Buen dia, Senorita,” as I pass. I glide past the owner of the restaurant, a young man in a bathing suit and tank top unsuccessfully trying to stand-up paddleboard. He offers a winning smile as he falls into the warm sea, then climbs on again, wet and laughing. He is brazenly unembarrassed, finding joy in his own ridiculousness. There is something about this that feels distinctly un-American to me. I like it.
He paddles up to a teenage girl wearing a bright bikini, her dark hair braided back in the signature victor style. He cajoles in Spanish, begging her to come on to his board. She laughs, waves him off. Eventually, she abandons her family and joins him. She has no idea what she’s in for, and a few minutes later I hear her shriek as she falls in, and then “lo siento” again and again. He is forgiven for his lack of skill. Mexicans are willing to find humor in failure.
The afternoon continues lackadaisically, dreamlike. Animas is seductive in its simplicity—people come here to be apart from the dizzying pace of the 21st century and for a few hours at least, all they worry about is whether they want chili on the mango they buy from the vendors walking the shore. Around 4:00, the water taxis start to arrive and tourists stream towards the boats. Our own hasn’t yet arrived, so I sit to watch the crowd. Amid the tide of humanity is a little boy of about four, in a wet rash guard and swim trunks. He drags his feet as he is tugged along by a mama who doesn’t want to miss the boat. He looks up at her beseechingly and begins to cry, loudly and plaintively. He looks back at the beach as she picks him up. He doesn’t want to leave and he kicks against her, desperately trying to preserve his afternoon in Shangri-La. In truth, I don’t blame him. I lift a hand and wave. He sniffles and then waves back, a small gesture of goodbye to Las Animas. The inhabitants of the beach flow out like the tide.