La Manzanilla, Mexico: The warmth of sun and friends

  • The view toward the ocean at Casa Maria en La Manzanilla.

I love Mexico. LOVE IT. The sun, heat and white-sand beaches take me back to Hawaii, where I grew up. The art is amazing, and the food makes me swoon in delight. I go whenever I get the chance.

I hadn’t been since we started our full-time adventure in The Epic Van more than three years ago and was in dire need of a fix. So, we decided to get out of The Epic Van, take a vacation from our endless vacation, and spend last Christmas with the Castelazo family in La Manzanilla, Mexico, a small fishing village on the Pacific coast south of Puerto Vallarta. We celebrated the holidays early with family and friends in Scottsdale, left The Epic Van in mom’s driveway, and jumped on a plane.

Our connection with the Castelazos began when our son, Nate, was in the second grade, and met Campbell, Jackie Castelazo and Brian Scott’s son. Nate and Campbell have been best friends ever since, and I fell in love with all of them, including Carson, Campbell’s sister.

Jackie’s mother, Maria, an American, married a Mexican man she met in California and raised their six children in Mexico. She lived in La Manzanilla, where she had a multilevel home with several apartments to rent. The family also has property on the beach, with palapas, tables and chairs, hammocks, showers and bathrooms, a perfect place to soak in the sun. (If you want to stay, you can visit their website at

The village, a growing magnet for Mexican and Canadian tourists, has a lot of struggling families. Maria helped the village get a school and a clinic, and her home served as headquarters for supplies after a tsunami hit in 1995.

Maria wanted her grandkids to create an arts camp for the La Manzanilla kids, so one summer we took five moms and 10 middle- and high-school kids down to lead a week of camp (art, music and dancing) and then took our kids on a week of sightseeing. The summer camp adventures were a major hit and continued until Nate, Campbell and Carson were in college. One year, our side trip was Mexico City, with stops at the National Museum of Anthropology, the Frida Kahlo Museum in her Blue House, and the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. Another year, it was the Yucatan, where we swam in the clear waters of the cenotes and visited the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. And more than once, we visited San Miguel de Allende, which may be one of my favorite places on earth. Over the years, we got to know and love all of Jackie’s siblings and their families and friends.

Maria passed away several years ago, and Jackie’s sister, Lucero, runs the rentals with help from her siblings. They all have vowed to gather in La Manzanilla every Christmas with their kids and friends. We were lucky to be included.

La Manzanilla was as beautiful as I remember. Whenever we tell people we go to Mexico, they ask if we are afraid, a question I can’t even fathom, because La Manzanilla is a tropical paradise with iguanas, families playing on the beach, a mangrove preserve with crocodiles and rare birds, and places to eat chilaquiles with your toes in the sand.

Primi, a family friend who runs the preserve, took us on boats through the mangroves and pointed out all the amazing migrating birds. Tomas, Jackie’s brother and an excellent photographer, loaned me his long lens to get some good pictures I’ll share in my next post.

After breakfast, we would wander down to the family palapa on the beach for competitive games of beanbag cornhole, lunches of octopus salad and naps in the hammocks. Sometimes we’d buy fermented drinks from the beach vendor, or baked coconut balls, or sometimes we’d wander to the paleta stand, where cousin Dianna would load up a cooler full of delicious frozenness.

Some nights we ate dinner under the palapa on the upper floor, and played Loteria, the children’s picture bingo game. At the white-elephant gift exchange, about 30 people howled as favorite items were swapped and stolen. Other nights we would eat tacos or tamales from street vendors on the town square.

On New Year’s Eve, while the youngest cousins wandered through the fair in town, we played Continental, a card game new to me, and listened to fabulous Mexican music from a playlist created by Lucero’s son, Carlos. And on Friday, we bought folk art at the weekly market.

Lucero carries on her mother’s generous charity, buying children’s shoes through donations and giving them to needy kids in La Manzanilla and nearby communities. We went with her on a couple of trips I’ll share in another post.

I can still close my eyes and drift back to the hammock under the palapa on the beach, the sounds of the ocean lapping at the shore, a belly full of tacos, a heart full of love and laughter.

And Nate has a permanent reminder of the trip, a tiny kitten, rescued from the crocodiles by the people next door at the beach. The kitten, named Coco, became Carson’s constant companion and she flew it home to LA. But because her house is small and her boyfriend and other cat not too excited about the addition, she generously gave it to Nate, who is now the proud papa. He did, however, change Coco’s name to Killer Mike, in honor one of his favorite rappers.


  1. Reply
    Keven April 5, 2018

    Wow! Sounds fab. Thx for sharing! We too love México, the further south you go the better!!!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols April 5, 2018

      I agree.

  2. Reply
    Meredith April 5, 2018

    Such fabulous memories! Miss you!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols April 5, 2018

      Miss you, too!!

  3. Reply
    David April 6, 2018

    Your love of the place comes through in every sentence. Great descriptions of food and friendship. What a gift to have these friends.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols April 6, 2018

      So true!

  4. Reply
    DIANNA Mayberry April 7, 2018

    Wonderful post Judy! You captured it! So great to see you there. Hope we can all do it again soon !

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols April 7, 2018

      Thanks, Dianna. We loved every minute. And, yes, definitely, we will do it again!!!

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