I made the mistake of looking at the latest TripAdvisor reviews the morning that I left. My ride to the airport was running a few minutes behind, so I thought I'd see if I could find info on transportation from Puerto Vallarta International to my resort, 30 miles north of the city. Instead, I found a slew of negative reviews from the past two weeks — recent guests had hated their bug-infested rooms, found the food "disgusting," and thought the beach was too crowded to enjoy. To make matters worse, I decided to check the weather prediction, and each day had one of those storm clouds with a lightning bolt underneath.
With so many responses to my April column from people who said they wanted to join me on my beach vacation this year, I was sure I'd be taking this trip with company. Maybe even a small crew of company. So I'd set up a special Facebook group for the trip, reached out to everyone, and started to do my research in earnest.
I sought advice from friends (travel experts and otherwise), looked at all of the travel websites that specialized in beach escapes, and even started perusing all of the daily deal emails for something that would work. I assiduously posted everything I found on the Facebook group, for commentary and thoughts. And got none.
Everything I came across seemed perfect. And sometimes everything seemed suspect. I learned the hard way that making a decision like this by myself was an agonizing prospect. Without a travel companion to help assess the possibilities and express opinions, I was caught up in my own recursive, stomach-knotting internal deliberations, with no acceptable solution.
My first choice had been Tulum, on the eastern side of Mexico, but I was waved off by several people — late July would be rainy and excessively hot. I'd already lived through that last summer. Not what I wanted this year. I looked at Virgin Islands, Jamaica, the Bahamas...and even the Greek Islands. But nothing really clicked for me.
And then the Groupon deal came across my transom. Seven nights for two at an all-inclusive up the coast a bit from Puerto Vallarta. The weather should be hot, but not painfully so, the flight was cheap, the resort looked small but pleasant, and the price was ridiculous. $950 for TWO people in a deluxe beach view room, including food, drinks, free rental of watercraft, and use of the gym.
And there was a consistent surf break directly off the resort's beach.
I went for it. Nobody had stepped up to join me on my trip, but I figured the price was tasty for one person, and there was always a chance I could recruit a travel pal in the coming weeks.
So, reading the weather and the latest reviews just moments before I left for the airport, I thought, "Great. I'm headed to a shitty resort, with shitty food, a shitty beach, and shitty weather. Alone."
But my only choice was to take a deep breath (which I did), and hope for the best (which I tried to do).
I was fortunate enough to get a first class upgrade, so when I got on the plane and was offered a beverage, I requested a screwdriver. Whatever happened, at least I was on vacation. Time to start making the most of it. Within 30 minutes, we were told we'd have to exit the plane because of mechanical problems. The man beside me huffed and groused, but I just finished off my cocktail and smiled.
We took off a couple hours later than scheduled, but there was still plenty of sun left in the sky by the time my taxi dropped me off at my resort, where I was treated at check-in to a cold and fruity "welcome drink."
My room, which overlooked one of the three pools and the beach, was spacious and clean. It took me mere seconds to dig out my bathing suit and hightail it down to the ocean. A few minutes later, I was chest-deep in the warm Pacific, drinking a cold cerveza, floating weightless over the gentle rollers making their way to shore, and watching surfers take wave after wave.
I sat on my butt at the edge of the water, foamy wavelets bubbling up around my feet, and dug my toes into the sand. I said a prayer of thanks. And ordered another beer. And then a Cuba Libre. And a michelada. I met a cool dude named Jorge, who was staying at the resort with his girlfriend.
Then I got back in the water, dove through waves, floated on my back to watch prehistoric-looking birds wheeling through the sky, catching thermals and playing above the sea, and smiled and smiled and smiled.
I stayed in the ocean until I was too hungry to stand it any longer, then showered and dressed for dinner. My first meal was not horrible, though it wasn't wonderful either. I drifted down to the outdoor theater, with cold caipirinha in hand, and watched a laughable, lip-synced tribute to pop music.
When the show was over, I stepped up to the bar and made my first vacation buddy. Gandhi (really!) was a 20-year-old federal police officer working on his degree in architecture. He, like the vast majority of guests at the resort, was there with the rest of his Mexican family. He asked me if I was going to hit the disco.
"Probably," I said.
"Let's go!" he replied.
I shrugged, smiled, and said, "Okay!"
A few nights before I’d left for my trip, I was having cocktails with a friend, talking about yet another solo vacation.
"You'll make friends there," she said.
"I'm not really a talk to strangers kind of guy," I said.
She shook her head in disbelief — I'm one of the most social people she knows. I seem to be comfortable interacting with everyone I meet, and really good at meeting a TON of people.
"Sure," I said. "But that's different from hanging by myself in a bar and striking up a conversation with people I've never met. I’m no good at that. I don’t know how to start.”
"Sounds like you have a good goal for this trip," she replied, wisely. "I think you should try to talk to at least one new person every day you're on vacation."
The thought of that made my stomach flip, but I knew she was right. If I didn't make a point of it, it wouldn't happen. It would be a worthy exercise, unless I wanted to spend eight days alone in a crowd.
"Okay." I said.
So by the time I was headed up to the disco with Gandhi, I'd already met two new people. Of course, they'd approached me, so it was kind of cheating, but it was a good start. Gandhi and I grabbed some drinks and wandered around the little disco. Not much was happening yet.
"Do you want to meet some girls while you're here?" he asked me.
"Yeah, of course!" I answered.
"Okay, me too," he smiled. I think he was relieved to have a wingman with him. He wasn't the only one.
The crowd slowly grew, and Gandhi started pointing out potential targets. But every time he did, their boyfriends would show up with drinks for them a few minutes later. I saw one young woman sitting at the bar by herself, her chair turned to watch the dancing. I gestured over to her.
"Looks good!" Gandhi said. "Go ask her!"
I hesitated. When was the last time I’d asked a girl to dance? Who knew if she even spoke English? What if she said yes, and I'd actually have to get out on the floor? And then I looked at my new 20-year-old pal, and knew I had no choice but to be the man.
She said yes.
We danced through the evening, until the bartenders kicked everyone out after last call. As we left, dry lightning crackled across the sky. Gandhi and a couple of Indian dudes were sitting on one of the bar patios, in the relative dark, talking and laughing, so Carla (also 20, also there with family) and I joined them. When Carla was ready to call it a night, I did the gentlemanly thing and walked her clear across the resort and to her room, listening to the buzzing of insects and calls of jungle wildlife.
As I was headed back to the main area, the ambient buzz of the jungle suddenly went silent. And not five seconds later, the sky opened up and dropped what seemed like a solid mass of water onto the premises, shaking the fat leaves of the local flora, pummeling the palm-topped overhangs. It was one of only two downpours I encountered, and both lasted less than 15 minutes. I headed back to laugh and talk with the boys until we were all too tired to string a complete sentence together.
As I dragged my tired ass off to my room, Gandhi said, "See at la playa!"
"See you there, brother," I smiled.
The next night, after a full day on the beach (splashing around, reading, dozing, drinking micheladas, and surfing), I ate dinner alone at the Italian fine dining restaurant. Pretty delicious, though being surrounded by couples and families had its effect on me. After that evening's show (a review of music from around the world, sort of), I met up with a Chinese dude, named Jimmy, and we started talking.
Not long after that, Gandhi walked over to us with a ridiculously pretty woman in tow. He introduced us to Nancy, a French Canadian woman traveling alone. When I said I was staying until Saturday, she smiled.
"Oh good," she said to me in her sexy, accented English. "I don't have to spend the week by myself."
I kept the ridiculous smile welling up in side me at bay, and said, "Definitely not. At the very least, can we be sure to eat dinner together tomorrow night?"
The relief and joy on her face gave me no choice but to smile back.
Later, as all of us were dancing as a group in the little disco, Gandhi mentioned how sad he was to be headed home the next day.
"Dude," I said, "I have two beds in my room, and paid for two people for the week. Stay with me as long as you'd like."
It wasn't long after that conversation that Nancy mentioned how bummed she was her boyfriend wasn't able to join her for the week. Gandhi looked at me and grimaced. I just laughed. Of course the one single girl traveling alone had a boyfriend!
Nancy looked at me. "If we hang out together, I'm afraid it'll get in the way of you meeting a girl."
I shook my head. "That's not why I came here," I said. "It'll be nice to have someone to hang out with this week. And, anyway, women make the best wingmen!"
She laughed, and we all danced and drank late into the night.
Gandhi wasn't able to stay (partly my fault, because I missed his call the next morning and wasn't able to reiterate my invitation), but Nancy and I hung out quite a bit the next couple of days, saving each other's deck chairs in the sand, and sharing dishes at the nicer restaurants on the resort.
But after a couple of days, our priorities changed (she wanted to visit the city, I wanted to stay true to my beach intention), and, as is the nice thing about meeting a travel pal, we went our separate ways with no questions asked. I didn't see her again until my last night on the resort, and it was just long enough to share a group dance with some other people she'd met and say good night. I'm so grateful for the time I had with her, but I'm also happy it was easy for us to go do our own thing.
I feel like I had a major breakthrough on my solo trip away. Like maybe my internal story that I’m not good at talking to new people is no longer valid.
By the end of my vacation, I’d:
- Dodged waves and had a long conversation with a cool, white-haired, Canadian married dude with an epic mustache, who was the life of the disco every night, danced with everyone, and was beloved by all.
- Had drinks with my Chinese pal Jimmy.
- Played a drinking game with two obnoxious American couples.
- Talked about surfing and drank Pernod with a French Canadian guy I'd met in the lineup a few days before.
- Made friends with several bartenders and the chef at the little snack bar.
- Spent four glorious after-hours with a joyous, warm and funny crew of Mexican 20somethings — from drinking and dancing, to running down to the beach, rolling up our pant legs and letting the warm, moonlit ocean swirl around our bare feet, to playing pool and eating crispy French fries until 4am. I loved those kids. It had to be one of my favorite nights, ever.
- And, of course, I hung out with Gandhi and Nancy, two people I hope will remain friends.
I was on the beach Every. Single. Day (even after my all-day SCUBA adventure).
I’d sleep in, then find my way down to the water, where I’d camp out under a palapa and spend the next six or seven hours playing in the ocean, reading my book (finished two of them), snoozing, drinking cold beverages, and zoning out.
Maybe my beach vacation wasn’t everything I wanted. Maybe it would have been just a little bit better with someone to cuddle with at the end of a sun-kissed day. Or even a LOT better.
But I did have people around me who appreciated it when I’d say, “Holy crap, isn’t this perfect?”
They’d nod, smile, and take another sip of their beers or daiquiris, and then we’d turn back to the water and watch the waves come in.