Cabo Corrientes: If you’re there, are you lost?

by / Monday, 02 June 2014 / Published in blog
The secluded beach at Playa Amor, Mayto


May 5, 2014

tierralta mapEl Tuito, Jalisco, Mexico – Cabo Corrientes is one of those vaguely heard of places where nobody ever goes because… well, where is it? And how would you go there? And why?

Literally, Cabo Corrientes means “Cape Currents.” It’s the defining end point of Banderas Bay west of Puerto Vallarta where the bay finally gives up its apparent attempt to swallow the Pacific. Look at the map – you’ll see that as the bay opens and yawns to the southwest, its lower prognathous jaw begins to fall away at the tiny coastal town of El Chimo.

At the very end of this lower jaw is the town of Corrales where the old lighthouse is located at the Cape. Also called Cabo Corrientes is the municipality that includes about 75 kilometers of beautiful and rarely visited beaches, beginning with the entire lower jaw of Banderas Bay and ending along the Pacific Coast as far south as the town of Villa del Mar.

From Vallarta itself, you can’t quite ever see the last bay-defining point marked by the old Cape lighthouse at Corrales. You can occasionally see that far end of the bay on a clear day from the opposing upper jaw at Punta Mita, whose residents are generally too happily distracted by golf to be much interested in aquatic geography.
The term “cape” usually implies that when you round a specific point or promontory, you are entering a different world (as in “Cape of Good Hope”). If you begin in Vallarta and head west in a small panga, moving along the lower bay past Yelapa and then past Chimo toward the Pacific, you may technically still be in the bay, but you are now out of sight and out of mind.

Past Chimo, you are at a kind of geographic and psychological tipping point. Ocean swells now rise and fall with their own remorseless rhythm, indifferent to your condition. At that point, you have lost the bay’s protection. And if you then round the cape and head south along the Cabo Corrientes shoreline, you can feel the profound difference between a defined bay and the open, endless Pacific domain.

Banderas BayOf course, all bays are defined by their partial closure against wind and water. The Bay of Banderas is just such a protective zone. Its orientation denies direct admission to most hurricanes. But it is large and deep enough (maybe 3,000 feet) to offer a complete oceanic environment with enough aquatic scale for humpback whales, giant manta rays, tuna, dolphins and marlin.
There are times that Banderas Bay seems like a relatively safe theme park for seafarers who don’t really want to go to sea. In fact, Banderas Bay seems to have been artfully designed for vacations and retirement. It appears to have been invented for people who believe they have suffered enough, so bring on the paradise, now, please.

But if you drive 25 minutes west from Vallarta along coastal Highway 200, you will cross into the Cabo Corrientes municipality just past Boca de Tomatlan. You are, in a sense, rounding the cape by land. The road abruptly leaves the coast, swings due south and inland toward the town of El Tuito in the foothills of the Sierra Cuale Mountains.

The winding road climbs into the pine and oak forests and you will begin to notice that, by contrast to the dense human landscape of Vallarta, there is just a thin scattering of people in the small clustered settlements along the road. You are in Cabo Corrientes.

A look at the Cabo Corrientes lighthouse at Corrales

The current keeper of the old Cabo Corrientes lighthouse at the very end of Banderas Bay is a man named Hector Hernandez. He says it’s true what we had heard, that the lighthouse was powered for decades by fuel carried by donkeys up the 200 meters of steep elevation. But now, it shines out stronger than ever in its 110 years of service. As Hector notes, the faro was built during the last days of the Porfirio Diaz regime. Today, it beams into the night from a battery storage system powered by solar panels. Hector says the light can be seen 30 miles away.

The place where no one’s there

Given the remarkable technological advance at the lighthouse, it’s a little strange that the nearest gas station for Corrales, the tiny lighthouse town at the cape, is back in El Tuito. And in fact, there was still no functioning gas station even in El Tuito until earlier this year – after nearly 500 years as a trading town.

Hector Hernandez, The Lighthouse Man #2

Cabo Corrientes lighthouse keeper Hector Hernandez

Today El Tuito is an attractive municipal center of some 4,000 people. The exterior walls of the old shops around the plaza are all colored with an ochre mix of local clays. The new gas station is finally open, partly to fuel the vehicles that now make their way on passable gravel roads from El Tuito to the beautiful Pacific shores that very few people have seen.

Cabo Corrientes and its open Pacific coastline have formed wide, sweeping, scalloped beaches that are more temperamental than Vallarta’s grand old bay. In fact, most of the beaches along the Cabo Corrientes coast are much easier to reach by car than by boat. If you know the simple, common sense driving routes that take you from El Tuito through the rugged mountain landscape of Cabo Corrientes, you can easily arrive at a world of wild, untouched beaches that seem quite unrelated to the domesticated waters of Banderas Bay.

After about 45 or 50 minutes on the road from El Tuito to the coast, and you’re there.

When you first reach many of these beaches, something seems missing. Then you note that there is not a single palm tree in view. Instead, there is a Sahara of rolling sand dunes and a scattering of small, roughhewn houses just inland from the beaches. One of their measures of age is the ancient, brilliant tree-sized bougainvilleas still co-existing with the human residents after generations. These rugged old plants sprawl over roofs, shouting out their defiant colors in the sun.

Cabo Corrientes is not a land of ease. How people survive here, well, it’s a question that seems to have something to do with how few of them there are.

To get to Cabo Corrientes

The town of El Tuito serves as the jumping off point, the hub in the wheel for reaching all of the untamed Pacific beaches of Cabo Corrientes.

ccbeachesOnce in El Tuito, it’s your choice for a destination: Mayto? Tehuamixtle? Corrales? Villa del Mar? There are a dozen or more such towns along this nearly empty coast, each more windblown, more sun struck and less self-conscious than the last.

Of course, there are none of the efficient Vallarta-style Margaritaville beach installations that may recall your misspent youth in the hotel zone on Banderas Bay. But there are friendly outposts along Cabo Corrientes – rustic old handmade restaurants on the water serving cold beer and superb seafood. Fresh oysters, lobster, red snapper with garlic – all caught that morning or during the night. And now there are a few modest hotels scattered among these miniscule beach towns. Mayto has two small but comfortable hotels.

Cande’s, a famous restaurant in Tehuamixtle, rents rooms and there are several other modest “Tehua” rentals available with views of the bay.
Cande, himself, is easy to identify: He is the guy in the hammock at the entrance to his restaurant. His three attractive daughters wait tables and run the business. The seafood is glorious and the beer is icy cold. It’s not all austerity and rip tides in Cabo Corrientes.

4 tehuamixtleBut when you walk on one of these incredible broad Pacific beaches, alone, you will question whether all of humanity might have just recently moved on to some even more impossibly beautiful and remote location. At times, there just seems to be almost no one there. There will be the occasional lone fisherman sorting through his nets at the edge of the surf. A man placidly riding a horse with no apparent destination. Two men doing something to an engine in a rusted truck on a dirt road that meets the intensely blue sea.

In the somnolent hamlet of Naranjitos (population 94), a woman saw us stopped along a dirt road near the water. She then also stopped her car, restless kids in the back seat, because she assumed, smiling warmly as she called out to us, that we were lost. She wanted to offer us directions to somewhere. In her view, being lost was the only possible reason for our being in her town. If we were there, we must be lost.

Measuring absence: Population densities

The “Municipio de Cabo Corrientes” seems much too large to be a municipality (which in Mexico are entities that function like counties with a measure of independent governance). Puerto Vallarta is also a Jalisco “municipio,” but it has less than half the area (680sq kms) of its municipal neighbor, Cabo Corrientes, to the southwest.

Playa del Amor, Mayto #7
Cabo Corrientes has a population of only 10,000 people scattered over its entire 1,540 square kms for a density of just 6.5 persons per square km. The much smaller Vallarta municipality now has more than 250,000 residents or about 375 persons per square kilometer which is about 58 times the density of Cabo Corrientes, its larger municipal neighbor to the south. And, that greatly understates Vallarta’s real density by excluding the many thousands of non-resident vacationers that fill the hotel and condo rentals for much of the year.

This contrast in contiguous populations is roughly equivalent to placing Massachusetts (density 331) alongside of New Mexico (density 6.6) as if they were right next door to each other, as is the case for Vallarta and Cabo Corrientes municipalities. The density contrast between Vallarta and Cabo Corrientes is extreme anywhere in the world, especially for neighboring entities that share a border.

As you enter the Cabo Corrientes municipality headed south on Highway 200, you are almost immediately in a population density of single digits, much closer to Mongolia’s which may have the lowest density of any country on earth. Mongolia has only 2 people per square kilometer compared to 6.5 in Cabo Corrientes. The US, with all of those wide open spaces of the West has a density of 31 and Mexico is at 57.

Population Density Per Square Kilometer
Mongolia: 2.0
Massachusetts: 331.0
New Mexico: 6.6
Cabo Corrientes Municipality: 6.5
Puerto Vallarta Municipality: 375.0
United States: 31.0
Mexico: 57.0

For some people, low density may weaken their aesthetic response to places with scant signs of human presence. I may be attracted to these empty spaces in the world. But there are obviously millions and perhaps billions of people whose preference is for a dense coating of humanity – a kind of Coney Island of human concentration.

On the shores of Cabo Corrientes, people seem to have been replaced with wonderfully water cut rocks. At Playitas, there are stone menageries sculpted by the waves that look like a stampede of vaguely African imaginary animals, suddenly frozen just before reaching the surf. By contrast, Banderas Bay seems to carry on the romantic dream that the bay itself somehow cares about the people who line its gorgeous postcard shores, all set about with coconut palms. Cabo Corrientes, on the other hand, is an environment that does not seem to even notice us much. Cabo Corrientes still seems distracted by its own more desolate and lonely beauty, perhaps because it is simply not accustomed to being seen by anyone at all.

The Mexican Tourism Board on Cabo Corrientes

Along the coast of Cabo Corrientes, around 75 kilometers in length, you’ll find a set of paradisiacal beaches of fine, white sand, abundant vegetation and spectacular cliffs. Some of these beaches have barely been explored, making them ideal for those seeking to go deeper into the wilds of the Mexican coast and forget the noise and pollution of the cities. A great variety of fruits are grown in the fertile soil of Cabo Corrientes: mangoes, papayas, banana and coconuts are the main crop, and a number of enticing local dishes are prepared using them.


dkimballDavid Kimball is a retired journalist and businessman. For 12 years he researched and wrote Special Supplements on Mexico for Business Week Magazine in Mexico City. About ten years ago, he began assembling the land parcels now called Tierra Alta, an eco-development for cabins located in an oak forest just outside of El Tuito. His wife, Xochitl, now leads the development while Kimball gradually shifts his attention to the hammock on his cabin deck. He can be reached by email at kimballdavid(at)hotmail.com. Learn more about the Tierra Alta eco-development, at TierraAltaTuito.com

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