When you're on a Native American reservation in the U.S., you usually know it. Gambling and cigarettes are common, often dominant: subsistence and nomadic cultures that once had little use for money now find it near the center of their lives. Why? Because tribal sovereignty allows tribe members to compete in a modern economy that fits many like a bad suit.
If Tecumseh, Sitting Bull and Geronimo were resurrected, they'd be shocked to see the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, the gaming halls in Florida and California, tax-free gas-and-cigarette sales in New York. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, right?
Well, maybe not. I spent a day at a Native American reservation this past week, and the community seemed vibrant, healthy, satisfied and in-tune with nature. The other shoe? I was in Mexico, in an area officially designated a comunidad indigena, and known for — but not dependent on — foreign tourism. You won't mistake Yelapa for a U.S. Indian reservation — or any that I've encountered, at least — because Mexican law, and culture, discourage natives from abandoning their close-to-the-ground way of life.
Yelapa is an isolated, car-free, cobblestone-pathed village 45 minutes, via water taxi, southeast of Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco state). And the boat ride is crucial, because who would develop this little playa when Banderas Bay, where PV is located, boasts 40-odd miles of beautiful beaches? More importantly, though, Yelapa has long been protected by a centuries-old land grant: King Philip II of Spain, in 1581, officially recognized the Yelapans' long residence, and their history of peaceful relationships with Spanish explorers and militia (dating back to a friendly encounter with Hernan Cortes' cousin Francisco), by granting the locals communal property rights. Private land ownership was prohibited, and although that provision has been gotten around in recent years, non-natives may not claim or buy land here and most real estate goes without title. Yelapa, writes part-time resident and local historian Carolyn McCall, is “one of the few remaining [places] on Earth where the original inhabitants still reside on, own and control their own lands.”
Walking around Yelapa, you wonder how a village of 1,500 natives — and more than a hundred full-time and seasonal ex-pats — manage to keep it serene, uncomplicated, unhurried. It has numerous restaurants and small hotels and rented vacation homes... but its isolation, compactness and legal protections have prevented the large-scale development motivated by purely economic interests (and which has destroyed many other idyllic spots).
Here, lumber for home-building is either dragged in for miles via donkey — see the accompanying photograph — or fashioned from logs with a chainsaw. Work, in short, is more craft in Yelapa than business, meaning it's both more personal and purposeful than back home. You're not going to pollute the local stream or take advantage of a neighbor or publish nasty things on the Web (yes, the village has been fully electrified since 2001), because an exploitive deed will scar you, village-wide, for decades.
That sense of community is reflected in the village's buildings and landscape. They're built on top of one another, as in an Italian or Spanish hill town: shared walkways lead to neighboring residences, shopkeepers live above their businesses, restaurants have as few as three tables, children ride donkeys to school. Sure, there are standard, palapa-fronted tourist digs on the eastern, more touristy side of town — and between them (see photo), a four-story monstrosity (an unfinished hotel, perhaps?), complete with graffiti — but the village is better represented by its horses and friendly dogs, artists and craftsmen, farmers and laborers. Here, you see drinking water and groceries, medical prescriptions and laundry, being delivered by hand; the man on horseback greeting by name the man laying brick, who has just waved to the fisherman passing by carrying a newly caught, four-pound triggerfish.
One Yelapa website — and there are many — advises first-time visitors to “set your watch back 50 years.” That seems about right... although as I walked a couple miles up the Tuito River (the other river in town is the Yelapa, a name said to mean “where two rivers meet the sea”), I was reminded of canyon-walking in Santa Barbara, Calif., where I spent most of my teenage years. The differences, though, were significant — the river was full of (small) fish and the bird life was extraordinary: vultures, egrets, ibis, parrots, frigates, woodpeckers, hawks, herons, orioles, grackles, warblers.
The slow, small-scale development here, and the absence of cars, has clearly kept the worst of the modern world at bay, kept the native flora and fauna intact and allowed the local culture to evolve at its own pace, according to its own needs. This is one reservation I have no reservations about.