El Tuito: Small-town Charm Just an Hour Away
Published Oct 30, 2007 - (Updated Dec 5, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Fall/Winter 2007 issue.
For many, the Puerto Vallarta experience doesn’t extend itself much farther than swanky Conchas Chinas. But with the advent of spectacular restaurants such as Le Kliff and outdoor activities such as those offered at Canopy Tours Los Veranos and the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens, an increasing number of visitors and locals are stretching their boundaries and exploring all the wonders our South Shore has to offer. Beyond these attractions, and barely an hour away from Puerto Vallarta, lies El Tuito, a modest little town you could easily miss as you’re driving south. But step away from the beaten path, drive into El Tuito, and you will be as close to traditional, rural Mexico as you’re going to get, and the pine-scented air will make you quickly forget you are in the middle of a tropical beach vacation.
Located south of Puerto Vallarta lies the municipality of Cabo Corrientes, marking the southernmost point of Banderas Bay.
El Tuito, its capital, is a small town (population less than 4,000) located approximately 1,085 meters above sea level. Its name derives from the ancient Náhuatla language spoken by the Aztecs and means “little beautiful valley.” And a beautiful valley it is. As you drive into town, you will be immediately taken by the uniformity of its buildings, painted with a mixture of local clays that gives their walls a unique orange tinge. Cottage industries abound, from organic coffee and artisan cheese to raicilla, the local moonshine, not available legally until very recently. Easy to navigate, the cobblestone main road eventually leads to a semi-rectangular main plaza, where you will find most of the action, or lack thereof. Remember, this is a small town! Park your car right on the plaza, as just about everything you will want to explore is located within a two-block radius.
One of the many original homes surrounding the plaza has been recently restored and converted into a museum where you can take in the simple but beautiful architectural housing style that prevails here to this day. Nearby, a recently completed cultural center is home to the local library, multiple-use classrooms, art exhibition spaces, even a large meeting room that doubles as a dance studio, where senior citizens can often be found taking folk dance lessons. Next to the cultural center is City Hall, where an intriguing mural depicts legends of the foundation of El Tuito back in the 16th century. Scenes from director Arthur Allan Seidelman’s take on Robert James Waller’s novel “Puerto Vallarta Squeeze” were filmed on location there, a bronze plaque hanging from City Hall walls left behind as a testament of gratitude to the many locals who assisted in the production. While most Mexican towns position their primary church across from its main plaza or vice-versa, El Tuito’s quaint Parish of San Pedro Apostol is right around the corner. Several trails and unpaved roads stem from the plaza, connecting El Tuito with a number of even smaller mountain and beach pueblos, even reaching Yelapa. But these roads are not for the faint hearted. You won’t be able to kill two birds with one stone and explore this nearby popular bohemian getaway on the same trip — take the boat from Puerto Vallarta or Boca de Tomatlan instead.
Mind you, El Tuito is not for everyone. You won’t find wi-fi-friendly coffee shops, chic restaurants, ATMs, overnight accommodations or other amenities such as those found at nearby getaways like Yelapa, Sayulita or San Pancho. But you will find yourself suspended in time as you surrender your senses to the timeless beauty of a typical Mexican day in a traditional Mexican town.
First, reset your odometer right as you pass the PEMEX gas station along Carr. 200 Sur (just past the intersection of Basilio Badillo and Insurgentes). Then drive south along the ocean, passing Mismaloya and reaching Boca de Tomatlan, at which point the highway veers left toward the mountains. You will pass the small town of Las Juntas y Los Veranos (Canopy Tour), the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens, reaching El Tuito 45 km., or approximately one hour, later.
Regularly scheduled buses, clearly marked with “El Tuito” or “Botanical Gardens,” can be stopped at the corner of Basilio Badillo and Insurgentes. The buses stop at all the aforementioned points, ending their route at El Tuito. (You may have to hire a cab to take you from El Tuito to Altamira, should you decide to eat there.)
El Tuito is about as far removed from Puerto Vallarta as it gets when it comes to searching for dining options, making Rancho Altamira an essential stop as you explore the region. Located two km. south of El Tuito along the main highway, Altamira originated as an award-winning livestock ranch over 25 years ago, a major source of quality meat cuts for the region. That all changed in the early ‘90s, when new commerce treaties between Mexico and the United States opened doors to the meat importation industry. Undeterred, the owners opened a successful restaurant and began offering a variety of activities, such as fishing and horseback riding, to the public. Most recently, Altamira began producing Siete Amigos, their own brand of smooth raicilla. Perched high on a hill, the restaurant offers spectacular views of the surrounding land, agave fields, fishing lakes and much more, not to mention a succulent selection of affordably priced traditional Mexican specialties.
On the Horizon
Most locals in the know are likely to go hushhush whenever Maito or Tehuamixtle, two minuscule beach towns known primarily by fishermen, surfers and those looking for a more rustic getaway, are mentioned. Only accessible by boat or by means of a sturdy all-terrain vehicle, these towns have been a relatively well-kept secret, but this is about to change. A soon to be completed paved road will connect El Tuíto with Maito and Tehuamixtle, bringing an economic boost to the entire region and opening the floodgate to new and previously undiscovered beach getaways.
A variety of delicious cheeses are an important part of Jalisco’s thriving cottage industry, and a visit to El Tuito would not be complete without pursuing panela. A white fresh cheese with a mild flavor, panela is perhaps the most popular variety consumed in Mexico. Like most fresh cheeses, panela softens when heated but doesn’t melt. Due to its crumbly texture, it is quite tasty when sprinkled over salads or tostadas, or try it in cubes on a toothpick as a casual appetizer. A more flavorful variety of panela results when the cheese is allowed to dry and harden. Try them both and you will find that they have distinct flavors and characteristics. Intrigued by its exterior texture? Panela is frequently made at home by pressing curds of milk against plastic colanders commonly found at supermarkets! There are several panela sellers in El Tuito, and if you find yourself wandering around the main plaza, you won’t miss doña Nilza Plácito, who has been selling panela from her home across from the cultural center for the last 23 years.
Not To Be Missed
(All at the main plaza or within walking distance)
- Parish of San Pedro Apostol and its impressive boulder altar
- Cultural Center, offering seasonal artist exhibitions
- El Patio de Don Alfonso house museum, where a traditional Mexican pueblo-style home has been lovingly restored
- Panaderia Gallegos, doña Martha’s bakery, where delicious pastries are brick-oven-baked daily
- Doña Nilza’s panela cheese and fresh fruit stand
- Rancho Altamira
When To Go
El Tuito is a wonderful place to visit year-round, but particularly attractive during the summer months to those seeking a quick escape from Puerto Vallarta’s heat. El Tuito blossoms in traditional festivities to commemorate Mexican Independence Day (September 16) and every January to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe with its fiestas populares (January 12).