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Barra de Navidad, Mexico A Walk Back in Time

Impressions of Barra de Navidad Mexico, November 2023

The place was dusty, almost as grainy as my memories of being in Barra de Navidad over 32 years ago.
The place looked familiar, and at the same time it didn’t. The same can be said about the traveller as well.

Barra de Navidad is a small beach town located about two and a half hours south of Puerto Vallarta, an hour north of Manzanillo and about a 5-hour drive from Guadalajara.

Once outside of Manzanillo (a very grubby industrial port town) the drive to Barra reminded me of the Philippine country side – flat, green and verdant, complete with tall palms surrounded by bananas and groves of papaya trees.

A gorgeous setting

Barra de Navidad (literally translates as Christmas Bar) is located on a narrow spit of sand sandwiched between a lagoon and the Pacific Ocean. I sum the place up as a drinking town with a fishing problem.

The beach fronting Barra de Navidad curves almost 5 kilometers to the North and the joins the neighbouring towns of San Patricio and Melaque. The large horseshoe bay is outlined by sawtooth hills creating a very picturesque spot.

The string of 3 and 4 story hotels that line the beach in Barra is interspersed with small ocean front casitas.

Barra de Navidad (6 of 31)

Barra is laid back, cruisy, low key, approachable and friendly

The folks here are a blend of locals, holiday makers from Mexico and North America, as well as overwintering gringos. Canadians can be overheard at breakfast telling stories of the horrible winter weather they left behind in the “Great White North”. The Canucks do like to talk about the weather.

Once you have been in Barra for more than a few days faces start looking familiar.

Barra de Navidad has a nice balance with a definite Mexican flavour. It does not feel like “Gringolandia”, or some transplanted town from North of the Border with palm trees.

Barra de Navidad is unpretentious, you can be a tourist here without feeling like a tourist. It is a very easy place to slip right into.

The main attraction

The Pacific Ocean plays central stage in Barra de Navidad.

There is the ever present, immense, unique – fishy – watery – salty- smell of the Pacific Ocean.

Sometimes the sea is calm, other times it is much more energetic, sometimes disturbingly so. The Pacific can also be extremely violent at times.

Depending on the day, an aggressive Pacific surf can pound the beach with thunderous crashes as trapped air is expelled when tonnes of water flops, before rushing up the beach.

Pro tip – never turn your back on the sea here, you might find your self flattened, dragged up the beach 50 feet with a rough sand enema wondering w.t.f. hit you. Treat the sea with the upmost respect, it can hurt you.

During our stay the surf traumatized the beach in front of our hotel with alacrity. The surf induced mini-earthquakes rattled the sliding glass patio doors of our second-floor room. We could see our clothes sway on their hangers as the reinforced concrete structure visibly shook. This was in late November, there were no hurricanes or tropical storms churning off in the distance. Just swells coming in from the open Pacific on an otherwise calm sunny day.

There is evidence of even more energetic waves that have pounded the living daylights out of the structures on the foreshore. There is some cheap ocean front real estate on offer, if you have any money left over from purchasing Florida swamp land.

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Surfs up!

The breaking surf here attracts the surfers. There are several surf schools catering to the sunburnt tourist crowd.

There are also the deeply tanned resident surfers cycling to the Malecon, their boards hung from brackets as they keep one eye on the surf and the other on lost tourists wandering in the middle of the road.

The place also has a sense of stillness, in a way it is like a living painting.

Feeling hungry, thirsty, require entertaining, or need some stuff?

Barra has a plethora of convivence stores selling junk food and cold beer.

During the course of the day some local fishers build a collection of empty Tecate Rojo cans as they hang out in shady spots.

Touts gently hustle passer byers, offering fishing trips or mangrove tours.

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Shops sell tourist bric a brac and beach clothing.

There is a cornucopia of restaurants, some good, others – meh.

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The West facing ocean front establishments dish up some spectacular sunsets along with ice cold margaritas.
There are the roaming vendors who ply any guests at the eating establishments with offers of mini apple pies, bottles of vanilla extract, jewelry and various baubles and trinkets.

Most vendors are gracious if you decline their offer with a polite “no gracias”, some of the tiny elderly ladies look like they are going cry when they don’t make the sale, crocodilo tears perhaps?

Buskers also ply the restaurants looking for some jingle….

Getting about

Barra de Navidad is a very walkable place.

There are a few Tuk Tuks and Yellow cabs with white accents to get you further afield if necessary.

The local bus to Melaque costs about 11 pesos. Like busses anywhere, they are full of characters. Some of the buses wander through the barrios. Sometimes the bus is full of school kids making a lot of noise, while teasing the few brave Gringos.

The beat-up busses groan, wheeze, and creak as they bang along. Each driver gives a personal touch to his working area of the bus. In addition to the standard wooden change tray, some busses are fitted with shrines others with photographs and decorations.

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Residents get around in golf carts, Can Am Commanders, and various other quads, you will also see motorcycles ferrying entire families. There are some cars but unlike other parts, Mercedes or Acura’s are few and far between.

You also see lots of Gringos getting around on bicycle or motorbike.

Wake up!

Barra is usually a sleepy quite place, there are times, however, when it is awakened from its slumber.

Barra definitely picks up on the weekends. On Friday afternoons the Chevrolet Suburban SUVs roll up after making the trip from Guadalajara. These land barges ferry families of Tapatios armed with coolers, and beach chairs.

Vendors show up around dinner time, in cars fitted with loud speakers declaring bolillos!, bolillos!, bolillos! (a savory Mexican bread roll).

Loud speakers mounted on poles attached to motorcycles are like modern day town criers making announcements of the day. You see the same rig doing the rounds in neighboring towns.

As for the wildlife, cheeky Grackles eye you up with sideways glances, along with strident squawks clicks and whistles. The noise from the congregation of grackles is almost deafening when roosting at the Zocalo for the evening.

In the morning flocks of sparrows participate in a loud chaotic wake up call.

Speaking of noise….

Madness in Melaque

We have been advised if we are ever in the area around St Patrick’s day, attending Semana San Patricio is a must. It seams odd that local residents honor an Irish Saint as their patron saint, however; there is a good historical reason.

Melaque and the other pueblos in the area were established by Irish soldiers from the Saint Patrick’s Battalion unit of the Mexican Army. These Catholic soldiers fought against the United States, in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848.

The Semana San Patricio celebrations are apparently “over the top “and the week-long celebration is often referred to as “Madness in Melaque”.

A study in contrasts

Barra is a study in subtle contrasts. There is the contrast between Mexico and the other countries that constitute North America, between quite and noise, between calm and bursts of energy, between growth and decay.

Constant maintenance

Barra de Navidad has armies of laborers fixing the damage inflicted by the surf and its salty spray.

There is a balance of decay and upkeep here. Humanity is constantly fending off entropy and the forces of nature. It is a slow-motion battle between human industry and the “burn it all down” force of nature.

Tame birds sing of freedom. Wild birds fly.

There is plethora of birds in Barra de Navidad.

Frigate birds hang in the air waiting for something to happen.

Brown Pelicans surf the air above the waves. These amazing pilots take full advantage of ground effects (the aerodynamic phenomenon of combined increased lift and reduced drag when a wing is flying close to the close to the ground – or the water in this case).

These masters of flight efficiency are a marvel to watch. Pelicans use the air as it is being pushed by the breaking waves to become airborne, gaining height in preparation to dive for the next course of their meal.

Terns dart into the water looking for food.

Flocks of cormorants fly in jagged vee formations.

Something addictive about the place

I think this is a place where you either get it or you don’t. Those who do, get hooked. Many people we spoke to in Barra have been overwintering or returning for vacation year after year for decades. If you are looking for the bright lights of the big city, Barra de Navidad probably isn’t your place.

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When l was first here in the early 90s, they were just breaking ground for the Grand Isla Navidad Resort across the entrance to the lagoon. I remember thinking the place would be ruined, but it has not. It might not be as sleepy as it was 30 odd years ago, but it has definitely not lost its charm.

Barra de Navida is a great place to hang out for a few days or a few months. I have the feeling I will be back some day, and I am thinking it will be less than 30 years between visits.

About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

1 comment… add one
  • Nice post Michael. I think you’re a little unfair to Manzanillo. It certainly has it’s industrial area but there are some really nice beaches along the coast west of the city centre. We spent a fabulous week there and really enjoyed our time.

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