Expat writer Keph Senett scores a mellow boat tour in one of Mexico’s major tourist cities.

SERGIO JUNIOR STANDS confidently at the prow of the panga. Although we’ve taken turns up there today, he’s the one who’s been working.

For me, the platform at the bow of the skiff is like a carnival photo booth where, instead of dressing up like a gunfighter, I throw my arms wide and whoop, “I’m king of the world!” He politely chuckles. I’m guessing he’s heard that one before.

We’re on the water in the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags, also known as Banderas Bay), 350km west of Guadalajara on the Pacific. The municipality straddles two states — Nayarit and Jalisco — and spans ~80km of coastline, bordered by Punta de Mita in the north and Cabo Corrientes in the south, with international beach destination Puerto Vallarta midway between them.

Photo: benfff85

Along with Vallarta’s club and beach culture, the area’s marine life lures a steady stream of tourists into the Bay with their swimsuits and fishing rods and cameras every year.

And there’s nothing wrong with that; this city is sustained by the 3.8 million people who visit annually. But by the time I’d been here three months, I felt like I’d met every one of them. I was ready for something more laid back, and that meant an alternative tour.

Locals know the way to get things done in Vallarta is face to face, which is how I found Sergio Junior’s dad, Sergio — a friend recommended him. From his home beach in Mismaloya, Sergio takes small groups on day trips in the Bay. It’s a family business (his brother also owns a boat), but he works alone except on weekends when Sergio Junior’s not in school.

Today’s a Saturday, so Sergio Junior’s spending his afternoon at the front of the Galilea while his dad sits in the back, relaxed in board shorts, a long-sleeved tee, and dark sunglasses on a buoyant lanyard.

“This is my office casual, amiga.”

If it weren’t for his hand, perpetually in motion as he corrects the trim and nudges the throttle, you’d think he was like me, on vacation in the sun.

***

My day had started in Puerto Vallarta, where I caught a southbound bus to Mismaloya, a 20-minute journey on a winding mountain road adjacent to the shoreline.

The highway runs through a series of condominium-heavy communities, and though it’s the dry season, the fences are loaded with honeysuckle and the sills overflowed with bougainvillea. These are gardener-kept grounds.

Like many of the tiny towns along Highway 2, there’s not much more to Mismaloya than a single road flanked by stands where people sell sun hats, tacos, and excursions.

The moment I stepped off the bus, I was approached by a man in dusty jeans and a cowboy hat.

“Water taxi?” The way he’d casually fallen into step with me made me bristle.

“No gracias,” I said. “I’m already booked.”

“Con quien?” The man ambled alongside me as I walked to the beach.

“I’m with Sergio,” I told him, and was surprised when he reached out and clapped me on the back.

“He’s my brother,” he said, smiling.

When we reached the beach, Sergio dropped the hose he was using to wash salt water off a pile of swimming fins and stepped forward to shake my hand.

Our palms met and I was surprised by two things: one, his hands were enormous and rough, like bear paws. And two, he’d initiated a series of complicated hand-holds, a friendly “welcome to the club” of a handshake. Like any good lead, he escorted me through the moves with such deftness that afterwards I beamed, surprised by my own dexterity.

When I pulled a wad of cash from my shorts and started counting out his fee, Sergio waved his hands. “No, no, no,” he laughed. “You don’t pay the guitar player before you hear his song. How do you know if you’ll like it?”

***

Photo: waywuwei

Now, several hours into the day, I swivel on my seat to face the rear of the boat. “I’m liking this song, Sergio!” I holler over the wind.

We’ve already hit Los Arcos — a group of granite rocks hollowed into tunnels, it’s a protected marine preserve and a key nesting ground for pelicans.

There, dozens of the behemoth birds swooped overhead as we spat into our snorkel masks to prevent fogging. Once in the water, Sergio pointed out starfish, manta ray, cornetfish, and blowfish, and showed me how to hand-feed the clownfish by making a fist around a slice of bread.

Afterwards, we’d sped down the coast, Sergio reciting the names of the beaches as we passed. “We call this one Lover’s Beach,” he shouted, pointing to a secluded sandy cove surrounded by drooping palms, heavy with coconuts. “Two go in, but three come out.”

I’m replaying this joke in my mind when Sergio suddenly sits up and hoots, dropping the outboard’s throttle arm. Sergio Junior’s pointing out over the bow, his arm straight like a musket. Sergio stands, and his eyebrows emerge from behind the frames of his shades. Aside from a faraway smudge in the sky, I see nothing.

When Sergio sits down and opens the throttle, the sudden velocity jerks me into my seat. Their excitement is contagious. I face the wind and grin uncontrollably. I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on.

Photo: ChrisDag

The Galilea skips over the waves, churning the space between us and a point on the horizon. Sergio kills the throttle and all the noise stops except the frantic cry of pelicans. At first I think that’s what he’s brought me to see. The birds are circling, then folding their wings tight as they torpedo through the surface of the water. More often than not, they come up with a fish.

I’m absorbed in the show — the jockey, the dive, the convulsion as the fish swims down the bird’s neck — when Sergio says simply, “Amiga.”

I turn. There are dozens of dolphins leaping in pairs and trios, traveling towards us at wild velocity. Sergio restarts the motor and we move. The dolphins catch us and race by the bow. They jump out of the water and dive again, swimming alongside the hull with precision.

They seem close enough to touch and I’m about to try when I look up and see hundreds of meters of ocean, all teeming with dolphins.

When we reach the edge of their feeding ground, Sergio U-turns and stops, idling. We watch — Sergio, his son, and I — as the entire school tears towards us, surging and diving, showing themselves off in the sunlight.

After several long moments, as their play ends and they return to feeding, Sergio asks, “Did you get that?”

I look at my camera, forgotten on the seat beside me. “I think you’re going to have to take me out again.”

Tour

Galilea – Sergio Lopez Nuñez (044 322 139 2499, sergio.commismaloya@hotmail.com)

Cost – Depends on season, number of people, and activity. The boat rate, which will be ~2400 pesos (~$190 USD), includes up to six people. Snorkels and fins provided.

Sergio runs day tours, snorkeling, fishing, and whale watching trips. Choose your activities, and Bahía de Banderas destinations like Los Arcos, Las Animas, and Yelapa. Call in advance to plan your day and negotiate a rate.

Food – Your route will determine your choices, but best bets include Manguitos for fresh seafood and “the pie lady” for sweets in Yelapa, a sundowner drink at any of the beach bars in Las Animas, and dinner at Las Gaviotas (owned by Sergio’s sister) on your return to Mismaloya. Note: Sergio’s boat comes equipped with an on-board cooler and ice, so pack a lunch and drinks.

Photo: prayitno

Transportation

Bus – Catch a bus at the corner of Constitucion and Basilio Badillo, Insurgentes and Basilio Badillo, or Aguacate and V. Carranza.

Look for the following place names painted on the windshield: Boca, Tuito, Botanical Gardens, Mismaloya. Expect to pay around 7 pesos ($0.56 USD) to get to Mimaloya from Puerto Vallarta. Note: Don’t trust the sign. Always ask the driver if they’re going to your location.

Panga – Also known as water taxis, pangas are small boats with outboard motors used for touring, and to commute between communities. Note: For an extra fee, Sergio will pick you up and drop you off at playa Los Muertos — super convenient for those staying in Old Town or El Centro.