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Location Scout: Inside 'Survivor'

October 13, 2005
0511_survivor
Bill Inoshita/CBS

After eight years, we still can't get enough of the reality game show Survivor. We talked to the show's executive producer, Tom Shelly, about what he looks for when he scours the planet, bugs and all. "When it comes to our scariest wildlife moment, it's a tossup between the lions in Africa and Australia because of the snakes. King cobras are common and we saw quite a few of them. Australia has something like nine of the ten world's most deadly snakes."

What makes a good Survivor location? What features do you look for?
The big thing we look for is beauty. And we want a place to have a sense of isolation for the experience of the survivors, and for the audience. It should also conjure adventure.

Is it getting harder to find remote locations?
There aren't as many deserted islands as you'd think. You go to locations that look great. The problem is that they're already developed with houses and condos, because they're so beautiful. It's hard in general to find isolated places.

How much has the wildlife altered the show?
Depending on where we go, it's definitely a concern. In Kenya, it was very real. There were lions and water buffalo, which are extremely dangerous. We let them (Survivor contestants) know they're out there. We give them very specific instructions, but we don't do anything other than educate them. Snakes are very dangerous. Crocodiles are a very real thing in Guatemala. Right now, the contestants are on a lake that's filled with crocodiles.

What, in your opinion, is the show's most outrageous/memorable moment?In the Pearl Islands, when we were about to maroon the survivors. As we were filming and bringing them on a boat from Panama City, we came across a group of humpback whales--they were so close! Seeing these whales breeching right off the side of the boat was amazing. We were with a guy who has sailed for years and he said he'd never seen anything like that.

Then there was the time in Kenya at the Masai Mara filming survivors who won a challenge in a hot air balloon--they saw a lion catch a wildebeest. The opportunity to see something like that is so rare.

What's the one thing no 'Survivor' should be without...
Honestly? I would say a mindset: determination and being able to adapt. Being able to not get freaked out by the fact that you're in the middle of a jungle with noises, animals, creatures, and weather you've never experienced before. If you're able to adapt to that, you've got a huge advantage.

Any hints on the next location?
No! We reveal it at each season's finale.

Survivor is on Thursdays at 8 P.M. EST on CBS. cbs.com/primetime/survivor11/

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Inspiration

Ghosts of the Sierra Madre

All I can think about is the egg in my backpack. My friend Cristina and I are hiking in the Sierra Madre mountains to the stone circles at El Quemado, a sacred Huichol Indian ground. The word around Real de Catorce, where we're staying, is that an egg will stand on end if placed within the circles. But first you have to get the egg there--which means no slipping on the rust-colored shale. At almost 10,000 feet, the air is clean but thin, and I begin to regret taking the steep shortcut to the top. "Do you think we're cheating?" wonders Cristina between breaths. "I mean, the Huicholes make month-long pilgrimages on foot to come here." The thought occurs to me that our little adventure may in fact be cursed. I wasn't the first person to get that feeling about Real de Catorce. In the late 18th century, so the story goes, a cowboy was toasting tortillas when he noticed a stone melting near the campfire. It was silver. Opportunistic Spaniards rushed into the area, and Real became Mexico's second-largest source of the precious metal. At its peak in 1898, Real had a population of 40,000. Evidence of the boomtown days is everywhere--intricate wrought-iron balconies, old photos of well-dressed matrons displayed in hotel foyers, arched Moorish entrances to mines, and, if you believe in ghosts, the spirits of prospectors who met their fates in the lawless town. As another story goes, a priest planted a series of crosses up in the hills to get the people to repent. When his efforts failed, he cursed the town to ruin. Silver production fell off steeply in the early 1900s, and by mid-century Real was crumbling and largely deserted. Modern-day Real was "discovered" in the 1970s by an Italian hippie on a quest for mind-blowing peyote, the tomato-shaped hallucinogenic cactus. Counterculturists from around the world followed. Today, the town is home to 1,500 residents who proudly celebrate the "confusion of cultures": towheaded children of "los hippies" tend goats with local elders; a Swiss expat grows lettuce for restaurants, many of which are Italian (though pizza toppings include artichoke-like cabuches, the pickled blossoms of the biznaga cactus); a couple from Buenos Aires entertains kids with rides on an ATV. Even one of the shamans is Italian. Tourists seeking adventure and mysticism have been slowly turning up. Real isn't especially beautiful--on the surface. But amid the crude cobblestone streets and ramshackle architecture are elegant stone buildings and gorgeous churches. And the atmosphere is relaxing, to say the least. There are no banks or ATMs, horses and mules are still a main mode of transportation, and siestas are taken seriously. Some visitors come with one thing in mind: tripping on peyote. They brave its bitter flavor and endure extreme nausea in the hope of tasting higher consciousness. The Huichol believe that this altered state helps them commune with Kauyumari, the dancing deer deity who ensures that pilgrims on peyote don't experience thirst, hunger, or fear. No one in Real gets busted for eating peyote, though these days it's not easy to come by--the hillsides nearby are picked clean. To discourage backpackers from dipping into the Huichol peyote supply, and to keep everyone "happy," locals have been considering cultivating a special grove. Just getting to Real is a challenge. We drove through a hardscrabble village, past sparse clusters of yucca palms, before rising into the Sierra Madre. Finally, we reached the mile-and-a-half-long Ogarrio Tunnel, the sole route into Real. Carved at the turn of the 20th century, it's only wide enough for one-way traffic. A tiny man waved us onward, after getting the all-clear by phone from the other end. Things were fine until we skidded over the well-worn stones and nearly ran into a wall where the tunnel unexpectedly turns. We emerged into the sunshine, only to hear a loud thud. A group of Mexican boys had jumped on the car, giving us the standard welcome for new arrivals. They made their way to the bumper, surfing like pros and guiding us up steep stone streets, past donkeys and abandoned buildings. Our hotel, El Mesón de la Abundancia, is the center of town, in the middle of the main drag, Lanzagorta. The sidewalk in front of the hotel is a nexus for tourists, where 20-something locals with dreadlocks peddle puka-bead necklaces, and where guides, many of whom have barely sprouted chin hairs, offer tours. Gaby at reception handed us a massive, old-fashioned room key while a suit of armor looked on from the corner. Our room was charming, with stucco walls; high, wood-beamed ceilings; and bright, scratchy Mexican textiles. We shared a terrace with two couples from Canada, who immediately advised us to close our windows at night because the animals in the street make a lot of noise. Before dinner, we went for a walk. "This rock is magical!" a man shouted from his doorway. He had long black hair and wore sandals made from old tire treads. "Try it--pruébalo." He introduced himself as Renato, an Aztec medicine man and owner of the fossil and amulet store we were standing in front of. I slipped off my flip-flops and placed my bare feet on a giant quartz crystal. He instructed me to rub my hands together while he put eucalyptus oil on my neck and temples. After 10 minutes, my arms ached from the rubbing and my head was light, but clear. "Ves?" he nodded. "Sientes la magia?" I had to admit, I did indeed feel the magic--or at least profoundly relaxed. I floated back to the hotel for the quintessential Real de Catorce meal. As if on cue, the lights went out in the middle of tangy chiles rellenos and fettuccine al pesto. Guests screamed, then giggled, as waiters fumbled to light candles. After a creamy, rum-laced wedge of pastel de la abuela (grandmother's cake), we slunk off to bed. Even with the windows shut, the bray of a donkey woke me just before dawn. The owner of El Mesón, Petra Puente, had invited us for morning coffee and ghost stories. A Frida Kahlo lookalike in Calvin Klein jeans, she regaled us with tales of characters such as the Rag Man--he supposedly blew out the lanterns that people used to carry through the Ogarrio Tunnel. More than a few times, she reported, guests at El Mesón have felt something tugging at their sheets in the middle of the night. Even Cristina, who grew up in Mexico hearing tales of local hauntings, cringed. "There are no rules here, probably because we're so isolated," Petra explained. "Even the ghosts do whatever they want." As the days unfurled, another bit of wisdom from Petra rang especially true: "There's an art to doing nothing in Real." At first we wondered how to fill our time, since it's possible to see the sights in an afternoon--the 1888 Plaza de Armas with its old-fashioned gazebo; El Palenque, a ring used for cockfights and concerts; the abandoned mint (Casa de la Moneda); the church (Iglesia de Guadelupe) and cemetery on the edge of town; and the main church (La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima). It didn't take long to fall into the natural rhythm. Our walks became slower. We checked out what was playing at the Cine Club, which shows works by indie filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, but never sat down for a movie. We lingered in shops, at the stalls selling candied spaghetti squash and My Pretty Ponies, and over beers at our favorite café, La Esquina Chata. We chatted up everyone: a woman from New Zealand who'd been traveling for four years; three friends from Aguascalientes who stumbled on Real by accident; a guy from San Antonio who told us how he heard footsteps behind him in the desert but never saw a soul. We found ourselves contentedly watching the shadows lengthen to reveal giant folds in the valley below. "When was the last time you spent half an hour watching birds?" Cristina asked one afternoon from a rooftop hammock at another place we stayed, Hotel El Real. One day, we decided to explore the surrounding hills--in particular, the pueblo fantasma, a tiny ghost town vacant since the old mining days. Petra put us in touch with tour guide Don Boni. Before heading out, he showed us a photo of what looked like a miniature Machu Picchu, with beautiful terraces of avocado trees. It was Real de Catorce in 1898. Don Boni claimed to be able to accommodate up to 25 people at a time in (and on top of) his brown 1958 Jeep Willys. It looked like a prop from The Night of the Iguana. He told us he'd been driving the vehicle since he was 12 and had never had an accident--a detail that calmed me down only slightly as we set out on the narrow roads overlooking dizzying precipices. "How do you say 'vertigo' in Spanish?" I half-joked. He smiled and masterfully pumped the clutch with his dusty cowboy boots, but I couldn't stop imagining the brakes giving out--and us tumbling hundreds of feet into the ravine in a massive ball of twisted metal, brush, and dirt. "One American woman was so scared she grabbed my hair and wouldn't let go," he said. With my heart thumping, I confessed that I didn't have the stomach for the ride either, and closed my eyes for the three-point turn. Ten minutes later, a thunderstorm rolled in, and I took comfort in the fact that my wimpiness had saved us from being stranded. Cristina and I ducked into an Argentinean-owned restaurant, El Malambo, for empanadas de picadillo stuffed with cinnamony beef, olives, and raisins. I slept well that night--until 3 a.m., when the dogs began to bark, joined by a chorus of donkeys and horses. We had decided to save the main church for our last day. La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima receives thousands of Catholic pilgrims each October; they come to pay homage at its statue of St. Francis, beloved protector of animals and patron saint of the poor. We walked down the aisle of the cool, well-tended church and admired the unusual wooden floor, designed so that it could be replaced piece by piece if parts deteriorate. We were drawn most of all to a room adjacent to the altar. It's covered, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of little devotional paintings called retablos. The paintings ask St. Francis for help healing gastric ulcers, returning stolen trucks, and understanding the "mysterious illness that killed my cows." Some were naive scenes painted on tin, others near-masterworks on cardboard. More modern dilemmas were illustrated on velvet or came on paper from ink-jet printers. The egg is intact, as far as I can tell. And then I notice a goat mocking us from a ridge above--and sure enough, I lose my balance. But I can't bear to look inside my bag, not yet. The trail levels off, and we pass a donkey. I wonder aloud if he's related to the one keeping me up. Cristina says her grandmother believed that when animals make noise at night they're communicating with spirits. Things finally made sense: Real was loudest--and most filled with ghosts--around 3 a.m. As we approach the stone circles, I reach into my backpack, hoping for the egg but finding shell shards and warm yolk. "I guess we just have to believe," says Cristina. In a way, I already do. The road to Real The nearest airports, in Monterrey and San Luis Potosí, are a three-hour drive away. Turn off Hwy. 57 (Pan-American Hwy.) just north of Matehuala and follow signs to Real de Catorce (by way of the village of Cedral). From Matehuala, it's 40 miles to Real, but the drive--over windy, cobbled roads--takes at least an hour. Once you've passed through the Ogarrio Tunnel, you're there. Lodging El Mesón de la Abundancia Lanzagorta 11, 011-52/488-887-5044, hotelabundancia@hotmail.com, doubles from $55 Hotel El Real Morelos 20, 011-52/488-887-5058, hotelelreal.com, doubles from $51, includes breakfast weekdays only Food El Mesón de la Abundancia Lanzagorta 11, 011-52/488-887-5044, chiles rellenos $5 La Esquina Chata Lanzagorta 2, 011-52/488-887-5060, focaccia sandwich $4 El Malambo Lanzagorta at Allende, empanadas de picadillo with salad $2 El Cactus Plaza Hidalgo 3, 011-52/488-887-5056, cabuches pizza $3 El Tolentino Teran 7, tortilla chips and guacamole $3, margarita $4 Activities Don Boni's Jeep Willys Tour Contact through El Mesón de la Abundancia; from $20 for two hours Cine Club El Café Mañana, corner of Morelos and Constitución, $1 donation

Inspiration

The Sea Islands of Georgia

Day 1: Savannah to Tybee Island My husband, Michael, and I land in Savannah around lunchtime. Georgia's First City, as Savannah declares itself, is architecturally awesome--and maddening for drivers. Tour buses slowly crawl around historic squares. Tourists cluster in the middle of the street to peer at the impeccably restored 18th- and 19th-century houses. We have to go through town to get to our evening's destination, Tybee Island, so our plan is to park, fortify with some food, and get on our way. Our first attempt at finding barbecue is unsuccessful. We make do with a black-eyed-pea sandwich at B. Matthews Bakery; it's a delicious approximation of a spicy falafel. I pocket a chocolate-chip cookie for the 18-mile drive to Tybee. Georgia's most developed island feels kind of like Atlantic City meets Coney Island--a little shabby, but that shabbiness often translates to a retro charm. The Basta family runs the Georgianne Inn, three houses in from the beach, and the adult son Nick is our enthusiastic host. We borrow two cruiser bikes, and Nick gives us 10 minutes of pointers. Tybee's tides are remarkably low, so from mid-afternoon until sunset there's at least 50 feet of packed sand to play on. The southern side of the beach, beyond a long pier, has high winds, which attract kitesurfers, kiteboarders, and old-fashioned kite fliers. For dinner, we head over to The Crab Shack, a Tybee institution whose motto is "Where the Elite Eat in Their Bare Feet"--but which we'll always remember as the kind of establishment where patrons bring their own beer cozies. Calling it a shack is either false humility or wishful nostalgia--it's more like a Crab Complex, with cutesy signs (DRINKING TO FORGET? PLEASE PAY IN ADVANCE), Jimmy Buffett on rotation, and a Gift Shack. We put our names on the waiting list and visit the man-made Gator Lagoon, where antsy kids are poking at baby alligators with sticks. We order salty snow crab; a low-country boil of shrimp, potatoes, and sausage; and steamed oysters, which arrive unshucked. The food is good, but I'm otherwise engaged. There's a garbage can embedded in the center of each of the tables, and for some reason this excites me. No sooner has Michael shucked an oyster than I've tossed the shell into the pail. When our waitress comes to clear, I proudly declare that I've taken care of it for her. Day one  Lodging Georgianne Inn1312 Butler Ave., Tybee Island, 800/596-5301, georgianneinn.com, from $65 Food B Matthews Eatery325 E. Bay St., Savannah, 912/233-1319, black-eyed-pea sandwich $6 The Crab Shack40 Estill Hammock Rd., Tybee Island, 912/786-9857, low-country boil $13 Day 2: Tybee Island to St. Simons Island By 8:30 a.m., there are 20 people waiting for a table at The Breakfast Club, a squat stucco house two blocks from the Georgianne. Joseph Sadowsky, an alum of the Culinary Institute of America, was recruited by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette to cater their wedding. He's pretty great on less fancy fare, too. I have a spicy homemade sausage patty with poached eggs and buttery grits. The low-ceilinged room, with sticky brown plastic tablecloths, isn't built for lingering--just as well, considering the line outside. Highway 17, the main scenic road tracing the coast, doesn't offer much to look at until we put some distance between us and Savannah. But by the time we reach Riceboro, we're breezing under a canopy of live oaks. At South Newport, we pull off the two-lane highway to see what's billed as the smallest church in America, the Memory Park Christ Chapel. The 56-year-old nondenominational church--open 24/7 and rentable for weddings--is just 10 feet by 15 feet, with seating for only 12. A sign asks visitors to shut the door tight when leaving, which turns off the lights. I follow the instructions, perhaps too much so--the church is still rattling as we walk back to the car. Most of the islands connect to the mainland by causeways. Getting to Sapelo Island, however, requires a 30-minute ferry from Meridian across the Intracoastal Waterway. It could just as well be a time machine. When the Civil War came, the heirs of a big plantation owner, Thomas Spalding, abandoned the island, their cotton and sugarcane plantations, and many slaves. The isolation allowed the former slaves, originally from West Africa, to sustain their own self-governing community and their own language, called Geechee. To this day, 57 descendants live on Hog Hammock, a 434-acre spread. Tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds bought the island in 1934 but didn't mess around with Hog Hammock; he breathed new life into an existing mansion and established a wildlife area that's now run by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The island also has a marine institute operated by the University of Georgia. To get access to Sapelo you have to have a reservation, either for a tour or at one of the island's two inns. (Before you board, you'll be asked who'll be greeting you on the other end; no name, no go.) I'd booked a tour with Yvonne Grovner, who runs trips five days a week for the Georgia D.N.R. Yvonne grew up on the mainland; she met her husband, a Geechee, in high school and moved to Hog Hammock once they got married. During a three-hour drive, Yvonne introduces us to other residents and points out the pastel, one-story shacks, most of which are abandoned. We see ruins of an old sugar mill, miles of deserted dunes on Nannygoat Beach, and the exquisitely faded Reynolds mansion. It looks like a double for the one in the 1998 movie of Great Expectations. When Yvonne moved to Hog Hammock in 1980, there were more than 100 people; today, there are about half that. Fifteen school-age kids take the ferry each day to go to school; as they get older, there's not much to keep them on the island. One person she takes us to meet is Cornelia Bailey, who runs the bar (The Trough) and the gift shop (The Pig Pen), where she sells shells and Yvonne's handmade sweetgrass baskets. Michael asks Cornelia if she's always lived in Hog Hammock. "Is there anywhere else?" she says, with a wry smile. The ferry ride back is lulling, the horizon interrupted only by green reeds and salt marshes. We drive south toward Brunswick, and then over a causeway. St. Simons Island is a world away from Sapelo. Kids in fluorescent flip-flops march giddily along the main drag, while dads golf and moms go shopping. We hunt down one of the island's five tree spirits--droopy, somewhat spooky faces that were carved into live oaks to commemorate sailors who died on boats made from St. Simons trees. (The easiest one to find is on Mallery Street, next to Murphy's Tavern.) At Zuzu's, a '50s-style diner adjacent to the pier, we share a root beer float. It suitably ruins our appetites, so all we need for dinner is a bowl of thick Brunswick stew--shredded chicken, ground pork, corn, and okra--at the nautical-themed Blackwater Grill. Day two  Transportation Sapelo Island ferryLanding Road, off Hwy. 99, 912/437-3224, cr.nps.gov/goldcres/sites/sapelo.htm, $2 round trip Lodging Sea Palms5445 Frederica Rd., St. Simons Island, 800/841-6268, seapalms.com, from $129 Food The Breakfast Club1500 Butler Ave., Tybee Island, 912/786-5984, two eggs and sausage $5.50 The Troughno address, Sapelo Island, 912/485-2206 Zuzu's119 Mallery St., St. Simons Island, 912/ 638-8655, root beer float $3.50 Blackwater Grill260 Redfern Village, St. Simons Island, 912/634-6333, Brunswick stew $5.50 Activities Memory Park Christ ChapelHwy. 17, South Newport, no phone Georgia Department of Natural Resources912/485-2300, half- or full-day tour $10 Shopping The Pig Penno address, Sapelo Island, 912/485-2206 Day 3: St. Simons Island to St. Marys Rice was the most common--and notoriously brutal--crop in coastal Georgia: Slaves who worked the soggy paddies often caught malaria. Following the Civil War, not many rice plantations survived. On a tour of the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation in Brunswick, we learn it was one of the few that did, in part due to a pair of savvy sisters who turned it around by converting it into a dairy farm. A terrific thunderstorm erupts right as we arrive on Jekyll Island. The Georgia coast has a subtropical climate; humid summer stretches well into October, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. We take shelter on the wide porch of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, formerly the clubhouse commissioned by J.P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt, William Rockefeller, and Joseph Pulitzer, who were all part of the Jekyll Island Club, which owned the island in the late 1880s. Jekyll Island, including the hotel, was purchased by the state in 1947. I rock in a white wicker chair and admire the sailboats. For all its former wealth, Jekyll is much more casual than St. Simons. Beyond the historic district, the interior is family-friendly and modest, with mostly small ranch houses. It would be sacrilegious not to play some kind of golf, so during a break in the storm, we squeeze in a round of miniature golf, then head back to Highway 17. By the time we reach St. Marys, it's past 9 p.m. and the sleepy town is in full R.E.M. We check into the Spencer House Inn, a huge pink Victorian run by Mike and Mary Neff. Our huge top-floor room has a four-poster bed and a claw-foot tub. But the real draw is a DVD player; we borrow Friday Night Lights from Mike and Mary, who say it's one of the few DVDs in their collection that they were able to agree on, and settle in for the night. Day three  Lodging Spencer House Inn101 E. Bryant St., St. Marys, 888/840-1872, spencerhouseinn.com, from $100 Activities Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation5556 Hwy. 17, Brunswick, 912/264-7333, gastateparks.org, $5 Jekyll Island Miniature GolfCourse 2, Beachview Dr., 912/635-2648, $5.30 Resources Jekyll Island Visitors Center901 Downing Musgrove Cswy., 877/453-5955, jekyllisland.com Day 4: St. Marys to Savannah St. Marys is where you board a ferry to Cumberland Island, which is run by the National Park Service. Thomas Carnegie owned the island in the late 19th century, and now wild horses and turkeys run free amid the ruins of his mansion. The sole lodging, the posh Greyfield Inn, is a mansion built by his widow; it was the site of the Kennedy-Bessette reception. Only 300 people are allowed on Cumberland each day, and it's wise to reserve months ahead for the 45-minute ferry. Yesterday's rain messed up the ferry schedule, and there's no way to see the island and make our flight. So we look into renting a kayak from Up the Creek Xpeditions and walk around St. Marys. It's the prettiest town of our trip. Day four  Activities Cumberland Island912/882-4335, nps.gov/cuis, $4, round-trip ferry $15 Up the Creek Xpeditions111 Osborne St., St. Marys, 912/882-0911, upthecreektrips.com, kayaks $40-$60 per day Finding your way Causeways link most of the islands to the mainland, and in all but one case, they're free. The exception: There's a $3 daily car fee to visit state-owned Jekyll Island. The ferries to Cumberland and Sapelo islands depart only a couple of times a day, so plan your schedule in advance, and be sure to make the ferry back to the mainland. (There aren't any places to buy food on Cumberland, so bring your own lunch and water.) And when driving back up to Savannah, Highway 95 may seem like the speedy route, but it can take over three hours when the traffic is bad, which is often.

Inspiration

Why Haven't You Heard Of...Yelapa, Mexico?

For years, the tiny fishing village of Yelapa was the refuge of Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, and other cosmic caballero types who gathered in search of lonely beaches, cheap tequila, and readily available hallucinogens. Only fairly recently have more mainstream travelers begun looking to the 2,000-person town as a quiet antidote to the condo complexes and American chain stores closing in on Puerto Vallarta, 20 miles to the north. The speedboat ride between Puerto Vallarta and Yelapa, from one end of Banderas Bay to the other, takes 45 minutes. Behind the beach where boats land is a village of steep paths, randomly laid out. Children skitter about in their underwear, some bearing velvety hibiscus blossoms, which they sell for $1 apiece. The only sounds are the surf crashing and the jaunty rhythms of conjunto music pouring from the squat, pastel houses. Because the small town is hemmed in between jungle and ocean, Yelapa has no roads or cars. There are very few phones. And there are no street names or maps. But there's also no need to worry. It's the kind of place where someone will point you in the right direction. Most locals, whether Mexicans or expats, are on a first-name basis. Take Enrico, the handsome French baker who moved to town last year. (His real name is Henri, but no one here can pronounce it.) Enrico has become a regular sight most mornings, wandering about in his white apron, selling miniature fruit pies for $1. A community bulletin board in the middle of town reads TODAY: BANANA MUFFINS AND CINNAMON ROLLS. There's no indication of where to find them. The implication is, if you're in Yelapa, you already know--or someone will be happy to help you. Your first stop should be the Vortex Café, where the friendly owners seem to know everything about Yelapa, in addition to serving great huevos rancheros ($6.50) and strong Mexican coffee. In fact, Yelapa has a few terrific restaurants. Mimi's Café, in the center of the village, is low-key and charming, with a handful of umbrellaed tables in a courtyard, and fiery chile rellenos ($6). Given the town's unpretentious vibe, the sophistication of the menu at La Galería may come as a surprise; Tatiana Moreno Greene concocts Nueva Mexicana dishes such as chicken mole crepes, and plantain cakes filled with goat cheese and peppers ($7). Also unexpected in such a small town: There's something to do at night. On Wednesday and Saturday evenings, the entire expat community takes to the dance floor at the Yacht Club, where DJs spin a rotating mix of salsa, reggae, and hip-hop. By day, the action, such as it is, centers on the beach. Yelapa's one large stretch is divided by an inlet. The Big Beach on the northern end is where day-trippers from Puerto Vallarta go to drink overpriced Coronas at a handful of thatched-roof restaurants. Hotel Lagunita, the more affordable of Yelapa's two bona fide hotels, has whimsical banana-yellow bungalows, morning yoga classes, and a beautifully landscaped pool. Long-term travelers lay their sarongs on the small beach (La Playita), which is far more peaceful, marked only by the Yacht Club. If you've tired of Yelapa's offerings, ask for Sefarino; he'll take you on a day trip to Las Marietas islands, where the beaches are even emptier, save for a colony of blue-footed booby seabirds. And Ramon Díaz is your man for a horseback tour of the jungle; he'll lead the way to wading pools under a waterfall shaded by Jurassic-size ferns. The village of Yelapa, while charming, is no competitor for Mexico's colonial towns, with their gracious churches and town squares. And the beaches aren't exactly world-class. They're narrow and short, and the sand is somewhat rough. To get a taste of what makes this place so alluring, you have to follow the rocky path that runs along the ocean to La Punta ("The Point"). On your way, you'll pass Casa Isabel: four lovely, distinctive palapas, and a main house with a well-stocked library and a collection of Huichol Indian art. The owner, Isabel Jordan, is a longtime Yelapa resident and a self-taught expert on Huichol culture. Further on, other privately owned palapas get more elaborate, almost grand. For $75 and up, you can rent one with two or three stories sporting a view of the ocean that stretches into infinity. There are no concierge services, 300-thread-count sheets, four-star restaurants, or multitiered swimming pools--just the sound of waves crashing somewhere in the dark beneath you, and the sense that although not a thing in this raffish little town has been planned, there is something improbably, haphazardly perfect about it. Transportation   Water Taxi Jack Playa de Los Muertos pier, Puerto Vallarta, 011-52/322-209-5022, yelapa.info/jack.html, round trip $18 Lodging   Hotel Lagunita 011-52/322-209-5056, hotel-lagunita.com, from $50   Casa Isabel no phone, yelapa.info/isabel.html, from $35   Palapa rentals 011-52/322-209-5096, palapainyelapa.com, from $25 Nightlife   Yacht Club on La Playita, no phone

Inspiration

Niagara Can Still Make Me All Misty

By the time I was growing up there in the '70s and '80s, Niagara Falls had ceased to be the honeymoon icon of yesteryear. The region was economically depressed and famously polluted. Forget the 1953 Marilyn Monroe movie Niagara; my experience was better captured in the 1982 made-for-TV movie Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal. The chemical dump, which the government declared a hazard in 1978, was right in my family's backyard. Though I happily escaped from the city about a decade later, I return for visits all the time. During the '90s, while the rest of the country was booming, Niagara seemed to sink deeper into a slump. Factories closed, storefronts were boarded up, and unemployment soared. It's only been the past few years--after some much-needed cleanups--that things are begining to improve. Now when I go back, I find myself in the middle of big crowds of tourists, rediscovering what makes the place so great. There are actually two towns named Niagara Falls: the one in New York, where I grew up, and the one across the river, in Ontario. The grass is greener on the U.S. side, thanks to a state park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. I've always been amazed at how close you can get to the Falls. In several spots, the edge is just a few feet away, with a guardrail that's only waist-high. I remember being a teenager, gazing into the churning rapids while listening to the Cure on a Walkman, dreaming of a more exciting life--like the one on the other side of the border. Niagara Falls, Ontario, had all the action: year-round amusement parks, wax museums, neon lights. As I grew older, I amended that list to include better music, stronger beer, and a lower drinking age. A couple months ago, I brought my boyfriend, Chad, along to visit my family. The big news on the U.S. side is the Seneca Niagara Casino, in what used to be the convention center. But we figured we'd get a better return on our money at Twist o' the Mist, an ice cream stand next to the Rainbow Bridge. It's only been around for 11 years, but there's a retro charm--the building is shaped like a squat soft-serve cone--that the rest of the town is missing. Locals and tourists line up for oversize scoops of flavors like Super Hero, a mix of cherry bubblegum, lemon, and blue raspberry. Chad and I rode the elevator down to Niagara's most famous attraction, the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right to the grandest crashing point, Horseshoe Falls. I hadn't been onboard since high school, and I was sad to see that the sturdy yellow slickers have been replaced with blue, cellophane-like ponchos that made us look shrink-wrapped. But I was grateful for the protection at the turnaround, where it felt like we were in a typhoon. We did our best to blink through the billowing mist, while watching courageous geese dive for fish. It really is awesome. Niagara may have lost its top-tier reputation in this country, but it still carries international appeal. Throughout the years, the area has drawn hordes of South Asian tourists, and its popularity has caught the attention of the local population, with savvy entrepreneurs opening curry stands near the Falls. On our boat ride, Chad and I were impressed with the number of nationalities aboard. One Syrian family told us that because of stricter visa laws since September 11, they weren't allowed to cross over to Canada. (That, along with the new casino, could explain a surge of visitors on the U.S. side.) For Americans, the passage over the border remains a breeze--answer a few quick questions at the tollbooth and you're in. We planned to spend the night in Canada. All my life, I'd seen advertisements for heart-shaped whirlpool tubs, yet I'd never experienced one firsthand. Before settling into our motel, the Chalet Inn & Suites, Chad and I took a spin around Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls' version of Times Square. As a kid, I used to test my bravery at Canada's many wax museums. I'd force myself to shake hands with Frankenstein or get up close to gory historical scenes; I'll never forget Marie Antoinette's grisly beheading. I credit them for instilling in me a keen love for all things kitschy or macabre, like luaus and zombie movies. Our visit coincided with the reopening of Louis Tussaud's Waxworks. Louis was the great-grandson of Madame, and his wax museum was the first one in town. Admission is $11; if you're in a silly mood, it's worth every penny. The glass barriers are gone, so now you can casually mingle with the assorted celebrities, examining every waxy pore on John Candy, Celine Dion, Pamela Anderson, and several versions of Mike Myers. (Canadians love nothing more than reminding people which stars are Canadian.) Despite the fun we had at Louis's place, we found Clifton Hill a bit overwhelming. Every inch of the short, steep strip is occupied by a splashy billboard or neon advertisement. It's hard to find a restaurant--or anything else--that isn't part of a franchise. We opted for one of the more charming ones, Montana's Cookhouse, a Western-themed smokehouse that serves decent barbecue. Other than the wax museums, the Canadian side does have one thing going for it: the better view. Rainbows are a constant, and at night giant lights turn the Falls all sorts of colors. I was happy to see that the leaf-themed cast-iron guardrails are still there--I remembered them from the Marilyn Monroe movie, and they're one of the few remnants from the city's golden age. That and the heart-shaped tub: As we fought our way back to the motel through the throngs, it became more enticing with every step. Lodging Chalet Inn & Suites 5577 Ellen Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 866/287-1110, chalet-inn.com, from $49 Food Montana's Cookhouse 5657 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 905/356-7427 Twist o' the Mist 18 Niagara St., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 716/285-0702 Activities Maid of the Mist Niagara Falls State Park, 716/284-8897, maidofthemist.com, 30-minute tour $11.50 Louis Tussaud's Waxworks 5907 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont., 905/374-6601, $11 Seneca Niagara Casino 310 Fourth St., Niagara Falls, N.Y., 877/873-6322, senecaniagaracasino.com

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