Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Summer 2002

Playa Azul on Mexico's Pacific Coast in the state of Michoacan is a flirtation with surrender; you can become quickly lost in the hypnotic rhythm, the dance, the flavor and the aroma of this dreamy place.

There are no taxis or schedules here, only the wind right off the beach as I dine on shrimp with garlic and water it down with a cold pina colada. There are no walls to this cafe, just rough posts holding up the thatched roof while the wind teases the mind; the floor of the dining area is just the bare sand beneath a shelter of palm fronds. The cool wet sand and absence of walls provide a welcome reprieve from my other life within the confines of concrete and sheet rock.

A guitar player performs for diners sitting farther out on the beach under a small umbrella-shaped bohio shelter, and older men sell colorful hammocks. Their days seem simple and unwavering, filled with the struggles of living and the laughter of friends and family.

Pelicans glide just above the waves, one of them making a hard dive into the water and immediately resurfacing with a fish. The comical but ravenous bird struggles with its prey flopping frantically in its enormous beak, then the bird devours it whole.

I'm glad I can take my dinner at leisure, thanks to the fishermen like the one nearby who throws his shirt over his shoulder and rolls up his nets after a long day at work. The ocean, such an intoxicating presence for me, is his workplace; I wonder if his life is any less stressful than mine. He may not think so.

I arrived at Playa Azul after first traveling by bus 145 miles from Morelia to Lazaro Cardenas. This steamy port city, just a few miles up the coast from Playa Azul, was once called Melchor Ocampo; it was changed to Lazaro Cardenas after a steel mill was built here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The city of Lazaro Cardenas, named after a popular Mexican president who served during the 1930s, is a hot, wet, busy place, with humidity so thick you almost feel like you're drowning. There was no central bus station there; instead, many small bus stations moved people about like ants going about their own daily grind. I imagined them heading off to some hidden gem I had yet to discover, another piece of reality I needed to explore.

The streets were crowded with vans bearing names like La Mira, Guacamayas, and Truchas on their windshields. I caught a blue van to Playa Azul; the vehicle's bare metal floor, wooden foot rest and torn plastic upholstery released me from the isolation of movement; they bore, instead, the stories of the generations that had passed through the van, a mobile crossroads of intersecting lifelines. The distance was short, but the trip took awhile as the driver made frequent stops for other passengers. The trip took me past homes nestled amongst stands of feathery coconut palms, banana trees, mango groves and dwarf Poincianas covered with a confetti a bright orange blossoms.

The van slowed as we entered an area where the ocean seemed to permeate; there was a stillness and a silence that bore the ocean's kiss, and I could feel the tensions of urban life releasing their grip.

This was Playa Azul. Little did I know of the hidden jewel I would find on this routine side trip. Coconut and almond trees lined the streets. Teenagers swung in hammocks, and children played in the air spiced with the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt as I neared the ocean.

I liked this feeling of surrender. I had made no plans, I had no idea what I would find here and didn't know if I would find any hotel rooms available. It was a feeling of infinity, the possibilities boundless both for spiritual escape and practical necessity, and I found the timeless quality invigorating.

I checked into the Hotel Del Pacifico on the road running parallel to the ocean. The hotel provided me with a good firm bed, hot water and a ceiling fan, with a window facing the Pacific; paradise for only $15. The view was blocked only by the line of thatch-roofed cafes along the beach.

What else could I possibly ask for? This simplicity is the dream that lingers in my mind in my other life back home where I face the daily battles of traffic, cranky city officials and high blood pressure; they do nothing for me except remind me how beautiful life can be elsewhere.

I walked about town visiting some of the many markets that sold a menagerie of beach items. Onyx wind chimes carved in the shapes of seahorses and birds made music in the summer breeze while shoppers browsed through stalls of orange-flowered dresses with tassels that sold for about $11. Shirts with mantras like "Frogs, Beer and Fun-Playa Azul" and "Dolphin Paradise" sold for varied prices.

Those foolish enough to forget their swimsuits could buy swimming trunks for $10 and bikinis for $15. Tables along the streets sold a menagerie of reminders of this idyllic place, including conch shells and mounted coral priced at $6.

I was surprised to come across Hotel Playa Azul, an upscale place for those wishing to enjoy the solitude without giving up the creature comforts of an air conditioner and television. Single rooms cost $53. The hotel wrapped around a pool and a courtyard filled with coconut trees, crotons, hibiscus and Mexican Esperanza covered with yellow blossoms. Guests and visitors could dine at Las Gaviotas, a restaurant that served chicken fajitas, cognac, lobster and other dishes.

However, I preferred to take my dinner down on the beach, at a cafe called Enramada Yupancky (Enramada means woven branches, probably referring to the thatched roof), which is where I'm sitting now. I look over the intriguing menu which reveals some other tantalizing dishes, such as the mysterious octopus cocktail, ceviche, deviled red snapper and the ubiquitous but ever-popular pina colada.

Activity surrounds me. A woman sells shell necklaces, another colorful buckets. In the surf, pale green waves rise and fall as they did long before any of us arrived here. Occasionally, one rises as if in slow motion, starting off as a ripple, then rising, growing, heaving, higher and higher. Just when it seems it will never stop, it breaks, curls and crashes into white foam like the grand finale of some great symphony.There's a sense of freedom, being here at the edge of the Pacific, knowing there's nothing between me and the Polynesian Islands. I wonder how far the wind has traveled before it reaches me, whose dreams it has touched, whose sails it filled, what tastes, flavors and fragrances it has passed.

I wonder if perhaps, if I let go for just a moment, clear my head and cut the strings, the ocean's breath could pass on to me some of what it has seen, touched and learned in its many travels. Perhaps the breath of the ocean is like a pilgrim, a student, ateacher, always listening, always passing on what it knows. With the glow of the pina colada still lingering in my mouth and satiated by the shrimp and garlic, I explore the market places some more, then return to the cafe and lounge in a hammock until the sun goes down. I take a walk on the beach under a quarter moon until some dogs run me off, then return to my hotel where I sleep better than I have in a long, long, long time.

Posted May 2007
Quoted prices are not exact. Because the exchange rate as of this posting is just above $10 pesos to the dollar, I'm rounding it off to that amount.

From Morelia to Lazaro Cardenas: (Last updated May 2007)
Take the Purhepecha Bus Line at 7:20 a.m., 11:20 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. The ticket is about $23. From Lazaro Cardenas, you can take smaller vans up the coast to Playa Azul and other locations.

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