Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Campamento Ecológico y Santuario de Animales 2006

La Manzanilla, Bahia Tenacatita, Jalisco, Mexico

Twenty years ago a burned out Mexican brewery executive tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. Arriving on the beach at La Manzanilla on Bahia Tenacatita, he set up a beachfront homestead and prepared to kick back and enjoy the rest of his life.

That was then. Now, at 56, Jorge has acquired title to the land as well as 6 abandoned dogs (including one paraplegic), 25 cats, 12 kittens, the parrot hanging ten from the bill of his baseball cap, a gaggle of ducks and chickens, an occasional crocodile hatchling, and a large homemade turtle egg incubator used to teach the children the importance of protecting the environment and it’s residents. In addition to speaking at the schools several times a year, the children come to Campamento Ecológico to celebrate and release the endangered turtle hatchlings into the sea. Jorge says “I’m changing the culture one turtle at a time.”

Campamento Ecológico is a small campground with 10 sandy spaces ($4US p.p. per day, if you stay 6 days the 7th day is free) nestled under the trees. If you love the ocean, animals, and simpático people, this is a place for you. Fronting the beach is a rustic palapa with hammocks, beach “art”, tables and chairs, and Jorge’s casita on stilts. The stilts are just in case another tidal wave roars through, like the one in 1995 that leveled the camp and washed everything away—except Jorge who survived by scrambling up a coconut tree.

Funky is the decor, jerry-rig the design, campsites are equipped with electrical outlets, a community water source, and small outbuildings house clean toilets, a sink, and a solar heated shower. Fluent in Spanglish, Jorge is a congenial host and can entertain you for hours with beach stories and philosophical musings.

While camping fees help support Jorge’s spartan lifestyle, donations for the animals (seemingly multiplying overnight) are gratefully accepted. The cost of kibble for the dogs and cats alone runs 3000 pesos (US$300) a month. One night a new dog stealthily gave birth to 7 puppies under the Tintanic, Jorge’s overturned rowboat. Now, eight new homes need to be found and eight new mouths need to be fed. The good news is a small spay and neuter group is forming and the future looks brighter for the dogs and cats of La Manz.

Speaking of the dogs, it’s hard to miss Wobbles. Some semblance of a hound, she is the first of the pack to respond to an “intruder” and dead last to arrive on the scene. At six months of age Wobbles was hit by a bicyclist, had her spinal cord severed, and became paralyzed from the waist back. Jorge said he watched the puppy drag herself down the beach following her owner to work in the morning and asked to take the dog. Wobbles has lived with Jorge for seven and a half years and never a week goes by without someone telling him that the dog should be euthanized, one man even offered to shoot Wobbles himself. “No!” cried Jorge, “She’s loved and she’s happy!” She is obviously not in pain and is a very happy girl in spite of being “challenged”.

Pumping an old rusty, fat-tire, beach cruiser along the sandy roads to town accompanied by his faithful gang, Jorge would shop and return to untie Wobbles who stalwartly would attempt to follow if not well restrained. Saddened by having to do this, and Wobbles not being able to run with the pack on outings, Jorge rigged a side car (The Wobblesmobile) of discarded metal parts and lashed a branch to the bike enabling him to tow his beloved perro behind. Now, he says with misty eyed pride, Wobbles sits up high, howling like a siren, announcing she’s the queen of the pack for all to see. Euthanize Wobbalita? “No way!” says Jorge.

Crocodiles? What’s up with the crocs? Fascinating mangroves, simmering with once-endangered American crocodiles, border the back of the Costalegre beaches. At the northern end of La Manzanilla village is a little viewing and feeding area where the crocs beg for handouts and doze in the sun. “Oh yeah, we throw dead animals and fish scraps to them, “ a local man said. There are signs reminding you not to venture too close to the chain link fence, as well as nicely designed informational signs identifying the local birds and other less sinister looking endangered species under protection.

What else is there to do in La Manzanilla? Body surfing, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, shopping for Mexican arts and crafts at Friday’s tianguis (tee’AN’gees’ or Indian market), hiking, boogie boarding, jogging, and strolling the long white coastline, beachcombing, exploring the small fishing village, apprehensively watching the crocs in the lagoon, day tripping to other beaches on Bahia Tenacatita, chatting with the locals, ocean kayaking, eating the freshest ceviche, shrimp, and Dorado, washing it all down with icy cold cervezas or mango smoothies. If that’s too active for you, visit the three galleries offering proof of the talented artists in the area, climb into an empty hammock and watch the waves break, people stroll, dogs play, pelicans dive, and the whales and porpoises breech. The sunsets are award winning.

Day trips exploring the rest of the beautiful and tranquil Bahia Tenacatita are recommended. Starting at the northern most village, Tenacatita, a morning of snorkeling followed by comida (Mexican mid day meal) in one of the palapa restaurants is hard to beat. The mangrove behind Playa Tenacatita is home to many wildlife species including. . .more crocs! Friendly Mexican men in motor boats will give you an interesting tour of the mangroves and it’s wildlife for about US$20. Other pleasant beach villages dot La Bahia Tenacatita as you head south back to La Manzanilla, all have palapa restaurants and some a hotel or two.

Where to stay? Not into camping? No problem, the village of La Manzanilla has everything from ($20 - $45US a day and up) small funky beach hotels with sandy lobbies to fabulous hillside villas with million dollar views with high-end rental fees. Lupita and Martin, the owners of Hotel Puesta del Sol are engaging and offer comfortable clean basic rooms with a community kitchen and third floor roof view of the sunsets for the above prices, they also will take dogs. La Posada Tonalá has nice rooms a bit more upscale with prices $35US and up. Be advised that accommodations at La Manzanilla are limited, and almost nonexistent, during holidays (Christmas and Semana Santa, the week before and after Easter) and weekends.

How’s the food? Fantastic! Numerous beachside palapa restaurants serve seafood fresh off the daily fishing boats any way you like it. Ceviche (chopped fish, tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, “cooked” in lime juice), camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp with garlic), or pescado entero (whole Dorado fish seasoned and deep fried crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside) to name a few specialties of the coast and all for under US$10 a plate. El Girasol serves fresh organic yogurt with tropical fruit and homemade granola for breakfast, as well traditional and Mexican breakfasts. Their Mahi Mahi burger with salad is not to be missed. Yoli’s, on the corner as you come into town, grills chickens for Pollo Asado with all the trimmings for US$5 on weekends and serves very good meals daily for very good prices. On the beach and up on the second floor of a large palapa is Restaurant Martin with a gourmet menu with excellent service and food. Cesar salad tossed at the table, white linen, the freshest seafood, and a good wine list make it popular with locals and tourists. A small Asian-fusion cafe in town gets good reviews from locals too.

To get to the village of La Manzanilla: take the La Manzanilla turn off coastal highway 200 and about three and half-hours south of Puerto Vallarta’s international airport or 35 minutes north of Manzanillo’s international airport, and five and a half hours from Guadalajara. Regular bus service and car rentals in Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and Manzanillo are available. Local buses are a cultural adventure in themselves. While the coastal road is in good condition, it is mostly two lanes, narrow, and winding. You will encounter slow moving trucks and buses, drive with care.

To get to Campamento Ecológico: turn right instead of left when entering La Manzanilla village, drive past the crocs on the right, and continue along the sandy beachfront road beyond the RV parks for about a quarter mile, to the sixth entrance, and you’ll see it on the left. Your stay at Campamento Ecológico will be a memorable one, guaranteed, and will enable Jorge to continue providing food, shelter, and love to the abandoned animals that need him.

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