“Get an Insider’s View of Puerto Vallarta”

Robyn and Albert (2) Robyn and Albert            This review was posted recently on my Trip Advisor page by one of my clients who took my El Centro Walk.  I am so grateful for what she says that I just had to post it!

“My husband and I loved Sandra’s Learn Vallarta Walking Tour. It was a small group which made it feel so personal – we didn’t have to fight to hear what she was saying and we could ask as many questions as we liked. She took us on an easy walk around the city, reviewing the history, the art, and local shop vendors. It was so neat being able to see behind the scenes of local shops and their owners. We visited several very cool spots and it really set the rest of our trip up for success! The best part about the tour (besides the amazing city itself) was Sandra! She was so much fun! She knows the city and the local people so well – you really feel like you are getting an insider’s view of the city! Not only did she show us amazing native art, but she also gave us the insight on the best ceviche and candy to die for! We couldn’t be happier with our tour! Everyone should do this on their trip to PV!”

Robyn M.    Anaheim, CA

Visited February 2016


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1 (2)  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  3  4 Beans drying  5 Mexican w beans  8  6  10  9

Vanilla beans cultivated around the world originally all came from Mexico.  When Cortés came to conquer Mexico in 1519, he sent samples of the vanilla orchid back to Spain where they eventually spread to other growing areas around the world including Madagascar, Indonesia, Reunion (at the time called “Il de Bourbon”),  Tonga, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea. There are several distinct species of the vanilla orchid, the most common being Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla tahitiensis (a Mexican hybrid), and Vanilla pompona .

Vanilla extract is usually marketed as “Bourbon vanilla”, most of which is grown in Indonesia and Madagascar. It comes from the same species (Vanilla planiolia) grown in Mexico which is called “Mexican vanilla,” purely a marketing designation. The difference between the two is mostly in the processing of the Vanilla beans after harvesting. Some of the vanilla extracts sold in Mexico are stretched with tonka bean extract, which has a similar taste and aroma to vanilla but contains coumarin which can be toxic to the liver and is banned as a food additive by the US Food & Drug Administration since the 1950’s. Most reputable companies avoid this additive. Other countries have less strict regulations.

Pure Vanilla Extract is a complex flavor, comprised of approximately 300 individual flavor components all working together to create it’s rich flavor and bouquet. To produce premium pure vanilla extracts it always begins with the beans. You cannot produce high quality extracts with inferior quality beans!  It can be found in several strengths called fold:  single (1X) and double (2X) are common for the baking industry.  There is even a 60X strength available only to industrial users where excessive liquid is a problem.

Pure Mexican Vanilla has at least a 35% alcohol content and higher natural vanillin concentration. It is therefore best utilized in those items which require high heat such as baking. This allows much of the alcohol to cook out.  The balance is water.  The color is light brown from the cured beans.  Although expensive, this is the BEST vanilla you can buy in Mexico

Traditional Mexican Vanilla has 10% alcohol (90% water) and less than 1% of natural vanillin. The vanillin helps hold the flavor. Also the less alcohol makes the vanilla much more versatile and can be used for anything that calls for vanilla such as French toast, smoothies, homemade ice cream, whip cream, cookies, cakes, oatmeal, etc.

Artificial Vanilla Extract    In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla.  Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from the waste water of paper pulp and coal tar processing. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vanilla connection.


There are numerous words used to label “vanilla” sold in stores today.  BEWARE!  The cheap product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all.  It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients.  Make sure the brown bottle doesn’t contain clear “vanilla” liquid.

Natural and Artificial Vanillas are a blend of natural vanilla fortified with artificial vanillin, flavors and other “ingredients.”

Clear vanilla is artificial vanillin. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.”

Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye or caramel (carmelo) coloring.


Another clue to finding good quality vanilla extract is the price.  Vanilla is the second most expensive “flavoring” after saffron.  This is due mainly to the labor intensive growing and curing processes.

Quality vanilla beans come when the vine is grown on rich soil using good farm practices (not crowding the vines, water/moist environment and the right shade/sun).  The flower that produces the bean only appears for one day and in most countries has to be hand-pollinated. The most important part of the process is WHEN to cut the bean from the vine. This has to be done bean by bean when yellow at the tip indicating a fully matured bean with the highest concentration (2%+) of vanillin inside.

First, the pods are heated (the “Bourbon Process”) to stop growth, to prevent sugar from turning to starch and to break down the cell walls. The “Mexican Process” is to place the beans in the hot sun, wrapping them in a blanket overnight to keep them warm.  This process of exposure to daily sun then wrapping in cloth is repeated for up to six weeks. This stage develops vanillin, the main flavor component.

The next step is the drying/curing process. If the bean has been cut when yellow at the tip, the process of curing will be shorter. Additionally, there will be very little loss due to mold which occurs more often when the beans are cut “green” instead of yellow at the tip. Drying and curing go together.

Then comes maturation in boxes which straightens the pods to further enhance the flavor. It is in this last stage that Mexican vanilla differs most significantly–whereas vanilla from Madagascar may cure for about 5 weeks, Mexican vanilla will cure for up to nine months.  Beans are graded for quality and are then ready for the extraction phase.

The cured beans are ground and then exposed to heat and pressure to extract the vanilla into an alcohol solution.  Some companies are experimenting with a cold extraction process that they claim preserves the nutrients and rich flavors better than using heat.  At this point, the extracted liquid is ready for bottling.

Note:  Gracias to T.J. Harding, Puerto Vallarta orchid specialist, for his editorial help.


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310223760Puerto Vallarta’s seawall  (Malecón)  is steeped in history.  From Indians and Aztecs, pirates and Spanish Conquistadores, farmers and fishermen, stevedores and early settlers to Hollywood actors and famous politicians, today’s Malecón continues to hold a special magic over those who stroll its two mile length from Hotel Rosita past the Los Arcos Amphitheater all the way to Los Muertos Pier.  The ocean, the waves, the breeze, and the jungle covered mountains only add to the beauty and enjoyment of this important symbol of Vallarta.

As the day cools down and the sun slowly makes its way west, join Learn Vallarta’s newest walking tour as we stroll the Malecón while learning about the history and local culture of Vallarta, stories of its people, the origins and inspirations behind the many bronze sculptures, significant historic buildings, outdoor art and Huichol Indian symbology that is embedded in the sidewalk.  End at the stunning Los Muertos Pier. See a collection of old historic photos from Vallarta’s past.  A list of beach restaurants we pass is included with the walk. 

This is a two hour walk, reservations required 48 hours in advance.  Book and pay online at:  www.escaperoutevallarta.com/walking-tours3/.  Contact Sandra Cesca for further information:  sandra.learn.vallarta@gmail.com or 322-228-9365.  Cost:  $35 USD.

Meet at Hotel Rosita seawall by bronze sculpture on the north end of the Malecón, 5 pm.  M,T,F,S

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Cobblestone Streets…Charm or Curse?

11a3467910Cobblestone streets of Puerto Vallarta lend to the charm of the historic city center. Although some would call them dangerous due in part to their uneven surface and ability to form potholes, the original use of cobblestones during the early days was quite practical.

Paving with cobblestones allowed a road to be heavily used all year long. It prevented the build-up of ruts often found in dirt roads.  It had the additional advantage of not getting muddy in wet weather or dusty in dry weather. Shod horses or mules were also able to get better traction on stone cobbles.  The natural materials or “cobbles,” a geological term, originally referred to any small stone having dimensions between 2.5 and 10 inches (6.4 and 25.4 cm) and rounded by the flow of water; essentially, a large pebble.  Although the noise of riding over cobbles may seem annoying, it was actually considered good as it warned pedestrians of oncoming traffic….horse, mule or automobile!

Cobblestones are typically either set in sand or similar material, or are bound together with cement or asphalt.  Cobblestones set in sand have the environmental advantage of being permeable paving and of moving rather than cracking with movements in the ground.

In Vallarta, the making or remaking of a cobblestone street begins with the leveling of the underlying dirt.  Then comes sand.  Next parallel lines of larger stones are laid in rows, sometimes with cement holding them in place.  Rows are them filled in with the smaller stones.  Finally, sand or cement is packed around all the stones and left to settle with gaps filled in as needed.  Repair of potholes tends to be a mixture of stones, sand, cement, pulverized terra cotta, or asphalt.  In the historic area, the original streets are required to remain in keeping with the original construction, the stones having come from either the Rio Cuale, beach, or nearby quarries.

Today, walking on cobblestones has been considered good exercise depending on the distance, frequency, surface and grade. Author Via Anderson in a recent article in the Vallarta Daily News (November 4, 2014) wrote, “Find and walk on the many cobblestone walks here (in Vallarta). Walking on cobblestones a few times daily with bare feet (preferred) or minimal shoes (to protect from debris) provides stimulation to the foot musculature that in turn adapts by becoming stronger and better able to handle these forces for longer periods of time…. and may be significant in reversing aging.”

So keep on walking folks! Join one of my walking tours for even more fun and enjoyment. Maybe one day we can do it in bare feet!

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Popular Hand-drawn Vallarta Maps

PV MapWell-known cartographer Jeffrey Obser, or Mapa Jeff as he is known in Vallarta, continues to produce exceptional hand-drawn and enhanced maps of many of the Banderas Bay areas.  These maps are so detailed, indicating every street name, stairs, trails, pathways, and points of interest, that they are THE maps to have for anyone who enjoys walking. Jeff does much of his research by physically walking every inch of the area he is working on and taking detailed notes so when he gets back to his studio in California, he can produce these wonderful maps as accurately as possible.  He updates the more popular Vallarta maps annually, reflecting the changes that have occurred during the year.

Maps are coated to protect them from moisture, can be rolled for purse or pack, and can even be used as placemats or framed souvenirs from your travels around Banderas Bay.  Couple these maps with my Walking Guidebooks, and you have all you need to strike out on your own and never get lost!

If you are in Puerto Vallarta and not familiar with these great maps, you can find the most popular (Vallarta, Yelapa, Conchas Chinas, Cabo Corrientes) at my  Walk Vallarta! Learn Vallarta! booths in the Friday Marsol Market near the Los Muertos Pier and the Saturday Tres Gallinas Market #466 V. Carranza.

If you live outside of Mexico, you can order Jeff’s maps online at:  http://www.mapajeff.com


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Puerto Vallarta Artisan Markets


IMG_20150110_111458316IMG_20150110_111508052IMG_20150110_092107164IMG_20150117_095507676IMG_20150117_114013953_HDRThis time of year there are artisan markets everyday of the week where local merchants gather to sell their wares in the old open market style of years ago.  Typically there are from 40 to over 100 vendors in each market.  Strolling among the tables one can find arts, crafts, farm fresh produce, flowers, homemade desserts and culinary delights, specialty breads, organic coffees, clothes, woven scarves and embroidered purses, handmade sandals and leather shoes, jewelry of all types, fresh juices, and on it goes.  But what really makes this experience special is the people, both vendors and buyers.

I have a table the Marsol Market near Los Muertos Pier Friday mornings selling my educational walking tours, guidebooks and hand-drawn maps.  Come enjoy the friendly atmosphere, relaxed conversation, have a cup of coffee and a scone, taste samples that vendors are passing around, listen to live music, read the local Mirror or Tribune and feel the warmth and laughter shared amongst friends.

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Conchas Chinas Beach Walk

3I just recently did this lovely walk along the Conchas Chinas beaches. It is an easy walk with lots of places to stop in the shade or jump in the water to refresh yourself!  I prefer to take any south-going bus and get off at the second double arch entrance to the Conchas Chinas neighborhood.  From there, walk a bit back towards town to Easy Street on the ocean side.  Take Easy Street down to the stairs leading to the beach. (Yes this is all easy!) From there it is an easy walk, about one hour unless you stop, until you reach Los Muertos Beach.  I like to go this way rather than beginning at Los Muertos because when you reach the end, ready for a beer or some lunch, there you are with several choices to relax and congratulate yourself on another great Vallarta adventure.

Take your camera and plenty of water as there are no amenities before Los Muertos Beach. And wear sturdy shoes as you will be walking/climbing over some rocks. If you want me to join you as your guide, contact me at:    sandra.learn.vallarta@gmail.com

Go to my Photo Gallery to see this walk in pictures!  I also sell a large hand-drawn walking map of this area which shows this walk very clearly.  Pick up a copy at my Saturday Market booth.

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Oysters!! And Tehuamixtle, Mexico

025028019022Tehua swimmable beach

If you love oysters like I do then you must visit Tehua as the locals call it. Two hours south of Puerto Vallarta by car, this very small beach community, population less than 100, raises and serves up the largest and most delicious oysters I have ever eaten…and I have eaten many on my worldly travels. These are as large as your fist, juicy and succulent.  I ate 6 raw “en sus conchas” or translated “on their shells” or what we northerners call “on the half shell.”  That and a salad was all I needed…heaven. My local friend Rafa had the freshly-made seafood soup which included a half a lobster just freshly caught.

As we awaited our lunch, fishing boats began to arrive with sacks of 50 kilo freshly-harvested oysters.  Carried ashore to scales for weighing and them delivery to the beach restaurants or, in some cases, to Puerto Vallarta to the north, these were the freshest ever served to me…and well worth the wait!

Tehua also boasts other fresh fish, lobsters, and mussels in addition to the oysters.  Being a hot September day, there weren’t many in town…we were the only ones at the beachfront restaurant, tables with checkered cloths in the sand barely 20 feet from the water.  Come winter and the high season tourists, the town swells with many looking for tranquility, fresh seafood, and a few days from the city.  Next to Mayto, another beach community, Tehua access has improved as much of the old dirt road from El Tuito to the ocean has been paved…all except the bone-jarring middle 30 kilometers which have yet to be finished.

I drove from Vallarta to El Tuito to Tehuamixtle in a little more than 2 hours.  It’s an all day venture, especially if you stop in El Tuito for breakfast or dinner.  Next time I will try one of the small hotels for a more relaxing over-night stay.

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Time For A Second Passport?

US PassportA second passport can be your key to a whole new world of freer movement, expanded international investment, and greater financial flexibility. You’ll have a second “home” to return to should things take a turn for the worse wherever else you are residing. You’ll have an “escape route” of sorts. The number of U.S. citizens who either hold or who are entitled to hold a second passport are around 40 million of the 312 million Americans.

You may never have considered it, but you do have a right to become a citizen of more than one country.  (Canadians and citizens of other countries, check with your government officials.) Under U.S. law, upheld by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, holding a second citizenship does not jeopardize U.S. citizenship. In fact, the U.S. government isn’t interested in revoking any American’s U.S. citizenship. As long as an American holds his blue passport with the gold eagle on the cover, he retains his U.S. tax obligation, no matter where in the world he roams. Certainly, Uncle Sam isn’t interested in interfering with that.

Also, if you are an American, the harsh current reality is that many banks around the world do not want to do business with you any longer. It’s simply too much hassle thanks to the HIRE Act passed in 2010 and effective as of January 1, 2013.

So how does one become a citizen of another country….READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE.

Excerpted from Live and Invest Overseas News    February, 2014

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Busted in Vallarta!

005My car that is, not me!  All of a sudden as I was heading into the big tunnel, my car stopped running as though I were out of gas.  I slowly crept to the side of the road, put on my blinkers, raised the hood then tried calling 1) my mechanic; 2) my insurance agent;  3) another mechanic…..no answers. Oh right, it was Sunday.  Then I called a friend who came out to me on the bus.

Meanwhile, cars and trucks and buses are whizzing by me while having to switch into the left lane so they wouldn’t crash into the back of my car!  Then here comes a taxi….pulls up behind me with his flashers on and thank goodness his car is yellow so folks should see him before they hit him.  Now here are two Mexican guys trying to figure out what’s wrong.  I had gas, oil, water in the radiator and the battery was working.

Well long story short, they went to get the tow truck.  I had it towed to my house which is across the street from my mechanic.  Next morning the verdict:  timing belt busted.  Now its fixed and I am on the road again.  Lesson learned:  have your timing belt checked if you don’t know when it was last changed; this goes for other belts too;  have all the phone numbers of local help, including the tow company, in your glove compartment!  And don’t leave the house without money in your wallet and your cell phone working.

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