A cyclist’s paradise…on the bike and off
My pulse-quickening (and eye-opening) adventures with Bici Bucerias by Stephen Lund
It started out as a week’s worth of cycling in a country better known for tequila, sombreros, drug cartel violence and Montezuma’s revenge.
And it ended up as a complete quashing of media-hyped stereotypes and the exciting discovery of a quietly inviting tropical paradise...not to mention several hundred kilometres of the most satisfying cycling I’ve ever done!
Challenging rides, epic climbs and plenty of pleasant surprises
I’ll be honest: when my wife and I set off for Mexico and my week of guided road biking with Bici Bucerias, we didn’t know what to expect. So we expected the worst.
Seven days later, we came back to Canada with an unequivocal opinion of the place:
“Why would you want to vacation – or ride your bike– anywhere else?”
A cycling addict hits his pinnacle
I met Joel Goralski in 2009.
That was the year I decided to switch gears from ‘Spandex-clad commuter’ to ‘serious road racer’. I was 44.
This manifestation of a man’s midlife crisis got enthusiastic nods of approval from my wife. It certainty seemed less costly than a red Corvette, and it promised to keep me trim and fit. Win-win.
In my very first road race, I eked out a hard-fought second-place finish. Joel approached me after the race, explained that he’d recently created a cycling team for ‘guys our age’ and invited me to join.
I raced with Team Niklas until I moved from Calgary to Victoria (for the year-round cycling) in 2011. During that time, I joined Joel in France for a week of dream-come-true cycling… including a race that culminated atop the 21 hairpin bends of legendary Alpe d’Huez – the pinnacle of any amateur cyclist’s ‘career’.
Or so you would think.
After I moved, Joel and I kept in touch. And when he told me, in mid-2013, that he was moving his family to Mexico to start a bike touring company, I was hardly surprised.
Joel, you see, is one of those guys who lets his passions shape his lifestyle. And Joel, more than anyone I’ve ever met – more than me, even (and that’s saying a lot) – loves cycling.
Only one thing left me wondering. “Why Mexico?” I mean, of all the places people think of when they think of road biking, Mexico’s far from top of mind. In fact, Mexico rarely makes the list.
But if you know Joel, you know there’s always a method to his seeming madness. And in early October 2014, I got a chance to discover exactly why Mexico makes so much sense….
In 2013, Joel and Jillian Goralski packed their kids and their worldly possessions into a 24-foot RV, made a 4,700-km southbound trek and settled down (and set up shop) in Bucerias, Mexico.
The quintessential Mexican town - Bucerias
Located on a stretch of the Pacific coast known as the Riviera Nayarita, Bucerías has a beach that stretches uninterrupted for nearly 30 kilometres. Along its cobblestone streets, charming cafés and artisan shops open into secret gardens behind walls draped with bougainvillea. A busy central plaza is home to markets and festivals under the clock tower.
But beautiful beaches and vista views are just the beginning of Bucerias – a warm, welcoming Mexican town whose unpretentious character stands in stark contrast to the contrived resort style of nearby Nuevo Vallarta.
In the weeks leading up to our trip to Bucerias, my wife was anxious. No – that’s an understatement. She was manic.
We’d been to Mexico before – twice, actually: Cancun back in 1991 and, just last year, Puerto Aventuras. But we never really strayed from our all-inclusive resorts – those protective cocoons where the food is excessive, the English-speaking staff are attentive and the experience is more sanitized than the twin toilets in your lavish room.
Heck – when you’ve forked over hundreds of dollars a day for ‘all you can eat’ and the resort offers such authentic Mexican adventures as booze cruises and dolphin rides, why would anyone venture beyond the guarded gates? Besides, the world we saw from our hotel shuttle – with downtrodden people coming and going from crumbling shacks and ramshackle busses – looked like no place for a pair of lily-white gringos whose broken Spanish extended no further than ¿Dónde está el baño?
Is it any wonder, then, that the prospect of spending a week in a Mexican town, amid Mexican people, eating Mexican food, was making Sarah edgy?
And if worries about bedbugs and unrelenting pedlars and Montezuma’s revenge weren’t enough, media hype about Mexican violence was grist for the mill of her ‘worst case scenario’ mind-set.
“Although I was determined to conquer my inner scaredy-cat and accompany my husband to Bucerias, I worried about many things,” she candidly confesses. “And googling ‘is Mexico safe?’ didn’t help matters! Would I be kidnapped? Would sandcastle-builders find my body in a shallow grave on the beach? And what would I do while Steve was off cycling? I certainly wouldn’t be leaving the confines of our villa by myself. And speaking of Steve – what kind of idiot goes cycling on roads through the bandito-infested Mexican jungle?”
See what I mean? Manic.
…to ‘Paradise Found’
All told, it took a little less than half a day in Bucerias for Sarah’s pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme.
“In no time at all,” she explains, “I was a convert. My fears dropped away like ripe mangos from the tree in the courtyard next door to our villa.
“Venturing out daily – by myself – I felt perfectly safe. When I got lost (as I occasionally did), I simply asked for help – once at a dentist’s office, once from a taxi driver waiting for a fare, once from the proprietor of a roadside taco stand. Even if their English was as shaky as my Spanish, we somehow communicated and they helped me find my way.
“I met and spoke with local Mexicans who were helpful and generous. They helped me get on the right busses and pay the correct fare. Some were eager to have me look at what they were selling, but a gentle No, gracias is all that was needed. What struck me is that they were all making a genuine effort to earn a living – unlike the many, many people on the streets who harass me for hand-outs in my home city.
“And the food! It was so convenient and affordable to eat out – never mind tasty! We ate delicious Mexican food cooked and served by street vendors and modest establishments. We also dined a couple times at more upscale restaurants operated by expats. And upset tummies were never an issue…unlike the tummy troubles that beset me last year at our all-inclusive hotel!
“Steve set off cycling most mornings, and I was never bored without him. I swam, I read, I walked, I explored, I shopped and I experienced the town and the people of Bucerias.”
Just how much of a convert is Sarah? Let’s just say we’ll be returning with our children for two weeks in March 2015 to spend spring break in Bucerias!
What struck us most about Bucerias – apart from the 32-degree heat – was the warmth of the locals and the exquisite flavours of the shockingly affordable food.
A Puerto Vallarta cycling experience beyond all expectations
My wife isn’t the only convert in the family.
After five days of cycling around Nayarit and into the nearby Sierra Madre of Jalisco,
I really can’t wait to get back and do it all again!
The road less travelled
Let’s return to Joel for a moment, and let’s revisit the question of his sanity.
Here’s a guy who, in Calgary, founded and built Niklas Group – a highly successful real estate development company. (If you know Calgary, you’re probably familiar with Casel on 17th – a nine-storey condo tower with a European-inspired bistro, café, wine boutique and organic market on the ground floor. That’s just one example of Joel’s inner-city handiwork.) He had a great gig going.
But after 10 or so years of vacationing in Bucerias with his wife Jillian and their two kids, Joel did the kind of thing most of us only dream of doing: he heeded the call of sunnier climes, moved his family to Mexico and opened for business under a funky new shingle:
Bici Bucerias – an adventure operator specializing in bicycling tours.
What on earth possessed him to do such a thing?
“That’s easy,” says Joel. “The biking around here is simply incredible. Most of our customers show up as sceptics and leave as true believers.
“During all those years vacationing in Bucerias, I spent countless hours in the saddle exploring the area's roads, talking to local riders, zeroing in on routes that range from recreational to hardcore. And along with the diversity of rides, I’ve found it to be one of the safest places I’ve ever cycled.
“While the typical North American ‘two car family’ is becoming more common here, the sensibilities of getting around by bike or burro have endured.”
Indeed they have. Save for a few instances of behind-the-wheel impatience, the drivers that came up behind us seemed perfectly content to toodle along at our pace until it was safe to pass, which they tended to do with a honk and a wave.
And then there were the kids, who looked at us and cheered for us like we were movie stars!
Based on several years of reconnaissance, Joel has mapped out a selection of rides that range from the easygoing to the extreme – all on roads that are, for the most part, well maintained and lightly travelled.
The ups and downs of cycling in Puerto Vallarta Mexico
Let’s talk terrain. And the fact that not everyone who rides a bike is a hammerhead (cycling lingo for guys and gals who refuse to pedal gentle ’n’ easy).
Terrain first. My five days of riding unfolded as so:
Day 1 • A relatively easy, relatively flat 60 km from Bucerias to El Colomo and back again
Day 2 • A 60-km loop whose steady climbs and fast descents took us through Sayulita – a funky little fishing village
Day 3 • A day of epic climbing: 4,300+ metres of elevation gain over three peaks including El Paso de la Virgen – a 10-km ascent whose double-digit grades brought back memories of Alpe D’Huez
Day 4 • Another day of great climbing (3,120 m) to the town of El Tuito and beyond, starting and finishing with 10 km of rolling and scenic coastal roads south of Puerto Vallarta
Day 5 • A ‘wind down’ 40 km on flat roads, with a couple of all-out efforts to challenge some Strava segment leaderboards.
I’ll confess: because I tend toward ‘hammerhead’, Day 1 left me a little leery that the whole thing might be too easy; but the days that followed wrung that notion right out of my noggin.
For Joel, that first day’s ride is crucial to making sure every rider’s time on the bike is unforgettably satisfying. While allowing riders to acclimatize to the altitude and humidity, it gives Joel a chance to align them with the right rides and the right guides.
With a stable of experienced guides always at the ready, Bici Bucerias caters to a full range of cycling ambitions and abilities – from easygoing sorts who like to soak up the scenery to weekend warriors eager to push themselves further than ever before to serious athletes who choose to live their lives in heart rate zones 4 and 5.
That’s really good news for hammerheads like me, whose worst fear (apart from a head-on collision with a bus) is having to dramatically dial down our effort to accommodate the ‘slowest common denominator’ in a large group of cyclists.
All the fun with none of the hassles
If you’ve ever taken your bike on a plane before, you know it’s a monumental hassle…and no small expense.
For starters, you have to break your bike down and carefully stow its precious pieces in a cumbersome box that makes manoeuvring through the airport more of a challenge than ascending the Pass of the Virgin. When you finally make it to the check-in counter, your smiling CSR will sting you for a handling fee that’s usually $75–100 each way. And let’s not even talk about the anxiety that grips you by the throat as the conveyor belt carries your bike away and doesn’t let go till the baggage handlers toss it through the door at the other end.
But what else can you do? If you’re even semi-serious as a cyclist, you have a deep emotional attachment to your bike and can’t even imagine riding a rental from a Mexican tour operator.
But let’s not forget, folks: Joel is far more than semi-serious when it comes to cycling. He knows the pains of shipping and (fingers crossed!) receiving a precious bike by air, and he built Bici Bucerias to make it easy to travel to Mexico and discover its promise as a cyclist’s paradise.
Teaming up with the Specialized shop in Puerto Vallarta, Bici Bucerias has assembled an impressive fleet of two-wheelers: the Allez and Tarmac for everyday road rides and the S-Works Venge for serious roadies. (For cyclists of other stripes, Bici Bucerias has bikes for cross-country, mixed terrain and non-technical mountain biking as well as cruisers for leisurely town riding.)
For around the same cost (or less) of transporting your own bike to Mexico and home again, you get a week’s worth of a bike every bit as good (or very, very close) as the bike you ride back home.
And when you’re riding, there’s no need to fuss with extra water bottles and stretch those jersey pockets to their limits with bananas and power bars. Most of the rides are vehicle supported, and the rest include regular opportunities to replenish.
If ever you’ve longed for a change of pace from the roads and routes you ride day in and day out – and what serious cyclist hasn’t? – Mexico’s sure to deliver the variety and challenges you’re craving.
Never a dull moment. Ever.
Eat. Drink. Soak up the sunshine. Stroll. Shop. Stretch. Take a dip. Take a sip. Explore. Eat some more. Swim. Surf. Build castles in the sand. Dance. Dream. Breathe. And just be.
The ‘off the bike’ Bici Bucerias experience
With cobblestone streets and a central avenida just one block up from the beach, Bucerias has all the hallmarks of a traditional Mexican village.
Pedestrian-friendly streets with broad, well shaded sidewalks. Colourful colonial homes with sun-baked shingles and high stone walls where geckos scamper amid flowering vines. Vendors selling just-picked fruits and veggies from pushcarts and pickups. Friendly greetings from the cool porticoes of street-side shops and cafés. And an unhurried, unworried ambiance that invites you to experience life at the unfamiliar pace of ‘slow and easy’.
Something that surprised me about Bucerias is how safe I felt wandering its streets both day and night. The media has done a great job of painting Mexico as a place full of perils, but their broad-stroke reporting has unfairly coloured places like Bucerias as unfit for sensible travellers. Mexico is a big country, and like every big country it has pockets of criminal activity. Happily, Bucerias isn’t one of them. You still need to come with your common sense, of course, but you needn’t be paralyzed by irrational fears.
On Sundays in Bucerias, townspeople and tourists alike can be found shoulder to shoulder at the local ‘mercado’ (market), which sells everything you can imagine (and quite a few things you can’t).
If you’re eager to sample the authentic flavours of Mexico, Bucerias won’t disappoint. We frequently treated ourselves to the home-cooked delights of local street vendors and humble establishments, which ranged from ‘delicious’ to ‘extraordinary!’
Our favourite was Tacos Linda. Inside a carport outfitted with eight tables and a small kitchen, Linda cooks while her son waits on the patrons. For our second meal there, Sarah had fish tacos and I had the arrachera (a huge, tender and flavourful steak) served with a poblano (stuffed pepper) and a cheese quesadilla. And with a very generous tip, it all came to less than 10 bucks!
Try your hand at stand-up paddle-boarding. Take a horseback ride along the beach. Or fill your shopping basket with fresh fruits and veggies from local vendors around the town.
Unforgettable Mexican experiences are by no means exclusive to Bucerias. Dining and cultural adventures abound in nearby La Cruz, Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta.
We also enjoyed a few Western dining experiences at restaurants owned and operated by expats. These included Chin-Gon Asian Flavours – a Thai place whose food is fantastic and whose Ferraro Rocher ice cream is to die for; Karen’s Place – a beachfront establishment whose huge portions ooze with freshness and flavour; Joe Jack’s Fish Shack in Puerto Vallarta, which served up one of the best burgers I’ve ever devoured; and Charlie’s Place in nearby La Cruz, whose wood-fired chorizo and chill pepper pizza left a warm and pleasant aftertaste.
For those inclined to sign up for an all-inclusive Bici Bucerias tour, I’d say it’s very well worth it. As much as he’s a cycling aficionado, Joel is a ‘foodie’ who puts a lot of effort into ensuring his guests are well fed and well refreshed with the best Bucerias and the surrounding towns have to offer.
On our second-to-last day in Bucerias, Sarah and I hopped on a bus bound for Sayulita, where we met the Goralskis for a lazy afternoon nibbling nachos and sipping cold beverages under a palapa and splashing around in the warm surf.
We also took a short trip to Marina Riviera Nayarit in La Cruz and, for about a buck apiece, picked up the biggest, freshest prawns we’ve ever eaten!
Another dimension of the relaxed Bucerias lifestyle the Goralskis eagerly share with guests is yoga. At the beautiful Shala Ananda Yoga studio just a five-minute walk away, we opened our hips and our chakras as Diana (a transplant from Kansas) led us through an invigorating Hatha flow.
When Bici Bucerias has full groups booked, Joel likes to bring Diana or her partner Brett down to Casa Victoria (see next page) for a poolside yoga session before setting off for the day’s cycling adventure.
If you want to infuse your holiday with a ‘big city’ experience, Puerto Vallarta’s just 20 km away –a 40-minute bus ride that’ll set you back a mere 20 pesos (around $1.50).
Mi casa es su casa - Bici Bucerias
So where do you stay when you go to Bucerias?
Well, you can stay at the Decameron – a shockingly purple all-inclusive resort just a couple blocks from the Bici Bucerias shop. A little further away, you can choose from thousands of rooms at dozens of hotels and resorts in Nuevo Vallarta. Or you can book one of the many condos and houses for rent throughout the town of Bucerias.
The thing that makes the most sense, though – especially if you’re travelling with a larger group that likes to stick pretty close together – is Casa Victoria.
Jointly owned by Joel and his business partner, Casa Victoria is a self-contained collection of villas, most of them newly renovated. The main floor includes a pair of two bedroom/two bathroom villas plus a one-bedroom garden suite. Upstairs, there’s another two-bedroom and one more one-bedroom. And apart from the main building is a two-bedroom casita.
Grand total: 10 bedrooms that will comfortably accommodate 20+ guests.
Centrally located on a quiet residential street in the coveted Zona Dorada (Gold Zone), Casa Victoria is just a block and a half from Bici Bucerias, two blocks from the beach (one of the longest stretches of white sand along the Mexican Riviera), a five-minute walk from the yoga studio and a 10-minute walk from the town square. It’s also close to a great selection of food stands, restaurants, convenience stores and boutique shops.
Embraced by tropical lushness, Casa Victoria has a shared lap pool and a roomy pool deck with plenty of lounge chairs, a barbecue and a palapa.
Maid service is provided twice a week along with garden and pool maintenance. Personal laundry service is also available (if you need to have your Spandex laundered).
Sarah and I don’t agree on everything. (Whether 40-somethings should strut around in Spandex, for example.) But on the matter of Bucerias, we’re unanimous: you should go!
Thank you, Bici Bucerias
Yes – I was a sceptic.
But after a glorious week in Bucerias and five fantastic days of cycling on the highways and byways of Nayarit and Jalisco, I’ve joined the ranks of the other guests who’ve joined you on your rides.
A true believer.