By Joy Hepp
Christopher French searched all along Mexico’s Pacific coast for his own little slice of paradise. He was offered beach-front property in San Blás near Puerto Vallarta but after slapping at mosquitoes he realized he didn’t want to be dealing with the little blood suckers all of his life. He was about to give up when his father-in-law took him to an enchanting little hideaway that residents of the state of Nayarit had been using for a weekend getaway for ages.
“I knew I couldn’t control the mosquitoes at the beach,” he says.
Thirty years ago no one had heard of the West Nile Virus, but they had heard of Calamine lotion.
When French finally set his sights on Santa Maria del Oro, he knew his search was over. The 170-foot-deep crater lake located between the cities of Nayarit and Guadalajara seemed like the perfect place to settle down from his travels. Not only was the view breathtaking, but there were no mosquitoes to be found.
“It seemed like a good place to raise a family,” he says.
So, he used the $20,000 he had saved from working as an electrician in Australia and bought the parcel of land traversed by butterflies, parrots and arching palm trees overlooking the glistening lake.
“There was nothing here; we had to push the road through ourselves,” he says.
When he fixed the place, he named it Koala Bungalows, moved his young family in and opened up for business. That was 30 years ago. Aside from a few new neighbors, nothing much has changed. French, who is actually an Englishman and originally came to Mexico as a backpacker, still offers adventurous travelers cabins and camping grounds for as little as 50 pesos per person per night.
While he may have been one of the pioneer inhabitants at the lake 30 years ago, nowadays French isn’t so lonely. After the toll highway from Guadalajara was completed, he says, wealthy investors have come in and snatched up property for weekend jaunts in this paradise only two hours away from the city. While this may dishearten some hardcore naturists, it’s good news for travelers who are looking for an extra level of luxury.
In addition to Koala Bungalows there are two other lodging options. There’s the newly opened and highly posh Lago Escondido that offers all-inclusive luxury rooms starting at $175 per person per night. There’s also the more classic Santa Maria Resort that resembles a Swiss chalet.
By no means is this a party destination. This is just fine because all of the true fun happens during the daytime. Hikers can trek out to the Chichicastla waterfalls where time and erosion have left natural rock bathtubs to relax in.
French can also arrange for an area tour guide to take you to nearby villages of indigenous Huichol artisans who are famous for their brightly colored beaded artwork and “ojo de venado” – good luck amulets.
There are plenty of activities in and on the water. French rents out kayaks at varying rates and the water is clean, temperate and great for swimming. If you don’t have the means to rent your own speed boat, don’t be afraid to make friends. Offer up a Corona and you might just find yourself skiing along the water with your new pals.
The area’s biggest fans however, are likely to be looking toward the heavens. Ken Wassik, a Canadian birdwatcher who makes the lake his home six months out of the year, has compiled a detailed list of the more than 200 species of birds that can be spotted around the lake. On the list are at least six kinds of hummingbirds, two kinds of parrots and 10 flycatchers.
French traveled for many years before finding this glimpse of Eden. Lucky for us, he’s not a stingy man.
Leaving from Guadalajara, take Highway 15 North to Tepic. Drive 100 miles until the Santa Maria del Oro exit, which you will take to the town of Santa Maria del Oro (7 miles). Drive straight through town, then begin the 7-mile descent to “La Laguna” (The Lagoon). If you have time to make a side trip, the famous “pueblita” of Tequila is just off the highway.
52 (31) 1264 3698
Hotel Lago Escondido
52 (33) 3647-2131
Santa Maria Resort
52 (311) 214.6834