Hotel Hermosa

by Jane Westaway / 05 January, 2008
Pineapple, shrimp and sandflies in a scruffy corner of Mexico.

I stumbled from the bus into a hard glare. The sun banged on my head, pounded up from the concrete. Afternoon heat had exploded over San Blas. Our few fellow passengers had fled the barren plaza and, as the ancient bus sighed and settled from its trial by mountain, it occurred to me we might never get out of here.

Even now, 20 years on, guidebooks have little to say about San Blas. This Mexican fishing village might be less scruffy than it once was, but it's still nowhere your travel agent would know of, let alone recommend, despite its prime location on the Pacific coast, halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán. But foreign visitors still come, for the prodigious wetland birdlife - 400 species of gulls, herons, cranes and others - and the renowned surf.

We were in San Blas because Jay had asked me where I'd like to spend my birthday and I said the beach. So this was all my fault. His silence said he thought so too.

Our guidebook suggested quitting the "charmless" town for the "quirky" Hotel Hermosa, so we set off on a gruelling, dust-eating trudge. My pack felt twice as heavy as when we had left LA.

San Blas was founded more than 200 years ago and, in its heyday as the centre of Spain's Pacific trade, was home to 30,000 people. A hillside "fort", built in 1770, was actually a counting house for the town's oriental sea trade. And the ruins of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary once contained the bronze bells that inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write, in "Bells of San Blas",

... in vain

Ye call back the Past again;

The Past is deaf to your prayer!

Out of the shadows of night

The world rolls into light;

It is daybreak everywhere.

The poet himself never came here. Movie star Lee Marvin did once, but all reflected glamour left with him. The words over the cemetery gate translate as, "Here begins eternity. All worldly grandeur is vile dust."

Our vile dust goes on and on, out past the town and through the gloomy depths of a coconut plantation. I don't know if we're Not Speaking, or just not speaking.

Suddenly the road ends, blocked by trees. A drive sweeps up to a huge concrete structure, whose two wings look like welcoming arms. There's a spacious lobby, a moderne reception desk, a bell. A dreamy-eyed clerk suggests that he and Jay go in search of a vacant room.

Alone in the lobby, I begin to notice less-reassuring details: the thoughtfully arranged chairs teeter on rusty legs; a restaurant sign hangs lopsided outside a room piled with carpet and disembowelled mattresses; a fine layer of sand and dust coats every surface; and across the floor marches an army of long-legged ants.

Outside, verandah posts are laden with crimson and purple bougainvillea. But what looked like inviting lawn is actually coarse weed. The swimming pool yawns, its bottom littered with coconut husks. The tennis courts' asphalt has heaved and split.

Eventually we heft our packs and mount an elegant staircase strewn with broken furniture and paper. Most of the rooms off the balcony are also full of junk, though some contain a more personal mess - sleeping bags, packs, sneakers.

In our room, an unspeakable smell issues from the toilet. The bed sags. Cockroaches seem inevitable. But when Jay opens the shutters, the sea is at our feet and sunset fills the room.

Half a dozen people have assembled on the balcony outside, and when we peer out, they invite us to join them for a smoke. They're ageless, these fellow guests, also somehow stateless and genderless: faded clothing hangs loose on loose tanned bodies, dreadlocks and bead bracelets. The joint circulates, another is lit. It's hippie happy hour.

Except that they don't seem happy. Nor was their invitation warm; in fact, I sense disdain. When I ask why one is struggling to ignite a coconut husk, I'm sent an appraising glance or two but no one answers. Soon we remove our uncoolness from their presence. And, since we brought no food out from town and there's none to be had here, we share a squashed avocado and retire to bed.

Sometime in the small hours, I'm woken by a harsh quarrel on the balcony. "For Christ's sake, what d'you expect if you come barging in?" It's instantly recognisable as the voice of the loosest, most tanned of the happy-hour brigade - she from whom all standards of cool seemed to emanate. Her voice, tough enough to cut steel, makes me want to reach across the dip in the bed for Jay. "Go on then," barks a raw male voice, "go back in there and f--- him. Why should I care?"

A nasty laugh, a banged door, then silence. Until I wake again. Something indefinably tender is slipping through the screens: the world rolling into light.

Jay wishes me happy birthday. We throw on our clothes and escape, out onto the non-lawn, past the parched pool and careless tennis courts, down to the beach, to rig my brightly coloured birthday hammock in the shade of the palapas, the beach shades whose dried leaves flap and clack in a sandy breeze. We run into surf warm as whipped egg white.

Breakfast is a monstrous pineapple. Jay cuts it on a wobbly table on the balcony and ants navigate the streams of juice. I eat wedge after wedge, until my mouth is raw, my lips swollen. The happy-hour brigade emerge, stretching and yawning, frowsy with sleep and dope. And sex. I try to guess which poor man said, "Why should I care?" but none of them looks as though he does.

Coolest Woman appears with a man we haven't seen before. He is gleaming black, wearing a rainbow-coloured woollen hat in spite of the heat, and swigging from a beer bottle. To my astonishment, he speaks to me: "Throw some of that pineapple on the wall down there and you'll see an iguana before the end of the day." More to reward his courtesy than in hope of attracting unlikely wildlife, I throw down my last precious slice.

Coolest Woman and Black Man swap lazy observations about the hotel. "Every year people get worked up about buying this place," she says, firing up a fat joint and inhaling greedily. "Big mistake."

"Yeah?"

"They mixed concrete with sand from the beach instead of bringing it out from town. So everything's corroding. Twisting and buckling. One day it'll all go down. Just like that." She snaps her fingers with satisfaction at the prospect.

Even now I don't know if she was right, but it does explain why the worldly grandeur of this once swish resort was on its way to dust, one step up from sleeping on the beach. Some years later, a clutch of gringos would squat in the hotel's top floor, in rooms knocked together to create apartments with fabulous views, daily water shortages and power cuts. But in 2002 San Blas was hit hard by Hurricane Kenna, prompting many inhabitants to decamp inland to Tepic, the state capital, and knocking out hundreds of roofs and trees. The hurricane may also have blown down Hotel Hermosa.

We walk a mile along the burning sand to some tables and umbrellas. A boy slashes the top from a green coconut and hands it to me with a straw. We crack open dozens of pink shrimps to suck out their sweet, salty meat.

The day is endless then suddenly nearly over. Jay is grabbing my hand, rushing me along the balcony, down to the beach. The sun looms out to sea like a burning stone. He's laid out four graded piles of firewood on the silvery sand. Seeing them, I realise he's thought all along that this place was his fault, not mine. He sets fire to the finest twigs, places the next pile on top. They smoke, then billow and crackle. He uncorks Californian rosé he's carried for six weeks, just for this occasion, and we slurp it from the bottle.

My arms and legs are prickling and, after one or two blind swipes, I see I am encrusted with tiny sandflies: these are the jejenes we've read about - infinite, voracious, unstoppable. Jay piles on more wood in the hope that the smoke will drive them off, and I realise these are what last night's smouldering coconut husk was all about.

Up there on the balcony they're lolling in their less-than-happy circle as the joint goes round, and gazing down at us - the great uncool, drunk now, eyes tearing, swatting wildly, not just speaking but laughing as we career round and round our fire.

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