Flying Into a Hurricane

Our day began bright and sunny in Los Gatos, California, as we made our way along the 15-minute drive from our friends’ house to the San Jose airport.

We had a particularly fun and jam-packed summer break in the U.S. this year with loosening Covid restrictions and getting to see some family and friends we haven’t seen since our last pre-Covid visit to the States in 2018.

Now it was time to head back to our home in Mexico. But not Sayulita — a new home for us in a new town an hour up the coast. At least, that was the plan.

We were particularly excited about moving to Chacala. We liked Sayulita, made some great friends, and had a lot of fun. But things had gotten too crazy and crowded for our tastes and we were ready for a new adventure and a slower pace in a small beach village.

We were certainly giving up some amenities moving to Chacala, but gaining others, as is always the case with one of our moves. Lori and I were excited by the prospect of being able to easily walk everywhere in town, living within a 10-minute stroll of one of the nicest beaches in this part of Mexico, the boys each having their own bedroom (plus an extra room for work and guests), AND something we’ve never had — a small in-ground swimming pool all to ourselves.

I had been following a storm system off and on slowly making its way up the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The day before our departure, it didn’t look like it would affect us much. By that time it was still a slow-moving tropical depression and most of the models had it making a straight line from Cabo Corrientes to San Blas, bypassing Chacala.

At the time we arrived at the airport, the situation in Mexico had changed. We didn’t know it at first, but the hour flight delay out of San Jose of all places for a nonstop flight with Alaska to Puerto Vallarta made it pretty clear something was not quite right.

Our suspicions were confirmed when none other than the Captain, himself, came out to address us in the waiting area at the gate. Never a good sign, and in my decades of taking countless flights across the globe, this was a first.

His talk went something like this:

“I’m sure most of you have been following the current weather situation down in Mexico. First off, I just want everybody here to know that our number one priority is getting you all safely to your destination. We’ve spent the past hour discussing the situation with our colleagues here and in Puerto Vallarta, and we have every reason to believe we can land you safely into PVR. If things change while we’re in the air, we have more than enough fuel to divert to San Diego.”


[long pause]

“Once we do our job getting you safely on the ground in Puerto Vallarta, it’s important you understand what kind of situation you’ll be entering into. You will be getting off the plane in the direct path of a Category 1 hurricane.”


“Again, if we don’t think it’s safe to land, we won’t. But once you’re on the ground, you’ll need to move quickly.”

The Captain thanked us for our patience and disappeared through the gate. And without missing a beat, the ground crew started the boarding process.

In hindsight, it seems crazy we even boarded the plane at that point. But in the moment, we didn’t have a lot of options. Earlier, they offered to gate check our carry-ons so 95% of our stuff was already on the plane. If we didn’t take this flight, it could be several days before the next opportunity if they close the airport.

Also, Lori and I flown enough to know that airlines tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to weather (sometimes too conservative). I’ve been diverted numerous times over the years in the summer months heading back and forth from the East Coast due to weather.

In terms of what to do once we got there, we had a sturdy concrete house waiting for us a two hour drive north of PV and a trusted driver waiting to pick us up at the airport. Provided that we stay ahead of the storm, we’ll be well out of its way in Chacala by the time it passes out at sea.

When they closed the cabin doors, the flight was 100% full. Not a single passenger opted to sit this one out.

Flying into a hurricane. That’s a first. Travel’s all about new experiences, right?

We figured this would be as good a flight as any to let the boys binge watch some jungle builder videos. They didn’t seem to let on that they had any idea of what was going on today, or it didn’t seem to bother them much, at least. Mid-way through the flight I did remind them that things could get a bit bumpy when we start descending through the clouds. Living in Southeast Asia, Noe was used to bumpy plane rides. As long as Riley had his jungle builders videos, we didn’t think he’d notice much either way.

I, for one, expected a wild ride into PVR for the ages. I made sure to get our immigration paperwork finished well in advance and checked the boys’ seat belts every few minutes as we got closer.

With twenty minutes left before landing, we descended through the thick, whispy clouds. A light rain sprayed the windows, the engines throttled down, and the cabin became eerily quiet as we gently descended. No turbulence, no gusts, no nothing. Smooth as silk, almost like we weren’t moving at all.

Suddenly, the water appeared below. I was surprised how low we were already. The plane made a hard bank to the left, and moments later we were on the runway. Smoothest landing I can remember.

Our attention turned to collecting our things and getting through immigration as fast as possible.

At the time we had no idea how lucky we were to land in Puerto Vallarta. Our flight landed at 4:18pm and the eye of the hurricane was just southwest of the airport off of Cabo Corrientes.

A few days later when cell phone service was restored, I looked up the stats for PVR when we landed, which confirmed what I had suspected. We were the last flight to arrive before they shut everything down.

They even diverted an Alaska flight due in at the same time. My assumption is that plane would have had less fuel to divert coming from Seattle instead of San Jose, but who knows. Regardless, we made it by the skin of our teeth.

But that all of course was simply the beginning of our little adventure. Hurricane Nora was nipping at our heels and we needed to get north and out of the way.

Thankfully, immigration was a breeze (they seemed to be doing the bare minimum in terms of questions to get everyone through), our luggage was waiting for us at baggage claim, and everyone had already cleared out of the infamous Shark Tank. They even let us take the luggage trolley from baggage claim all the way to arrivals (they usually don’t).

When we emerged from the airport, it was already pouring, and the wind was kicking up. The palms were lashing about and trash flying in every direction.

Fortunately, Samuel was already there, front and center, waiting for us. In all the mayhem we had somehow forgotten how much stuff we had with us and that his car was not a shuttle van, but we made it fit.

Traffic on Highway 200 headed north was pretty slow by this point and weather conditions were deteriorating fast.

The original plan was to make the leisurely two hour drive up the coast to Chacala. But it was quickly becoming apparent that might not be the best decision.

We also needed to factor in Samuel’s safety, of course. His home was just north of Puerto Vallarta and we didn’t want him to get stranded two hours from his family for who knows how long.

Plus, we were already getting reports of mudslides on the highway between Chacala and Sayulita, so we knew Chacala was no longer in the cards today.

Sayulita, however was less than an hour away. It’s also where most of our stuff was, and where are friends were. We knew if we could get to Sayulita, we’d weather the coming days much better than being holed up in a hotel in Nueva Vallarta or Bucerias.

So, that’s where we headed.

On the way, I suggested that Lori reach out to Ignacio to see if we could stay at his Airbnb on the North Side. It’s where we ended up a year ago after landing in Mexico and finding out our long-term rental had fallen through, so it only seemed fitting. Fortunately, Ignacio’s place was available.

Coming into town, we passed our old street where we had lived for the better part of a year. A bit flooded, but that was the norm in the summer months. Sayulita isn’t known for having any sort of serviceable drainage, and Calle Placencia was far worse than average.

We checked in and got situated. The boys had their snack on the front steps waiting for the impending doom to unfold.

I took advantage of a brief lull in the weather to make my way back to our old house on foot to grab a few things and move everything off the floor in case of flooding.

Wedged in a bowl between the Sayulita River and a couple of culverts, this particular section of Calle Placencia is prone to flooding. The forecast wasn’t calling for that level of rainfall, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

Making my way back into town, the winds and rain whipped back up and things started to get hairy.

When the palms started to crash down and zinc roof panels began to detach from houses and hydroplane across the now flooded streets, it was obviously time to seek shelter.

Returning to Ignacio’s place, I learned that power and cell service had cut out while I was away. We’d have neither for the next two days.

During the next break in the weather, Lori went out this time to see what she could scramble up in terms of food. There weren’t a lot of options at this point.

Lori managed to run into the last open bodega just as they were closing up shop and buy the last two cups of ramen and whatever snacks they had left that didn’t require refrigeration or large amounts of cooking.

Fortunately, we had quickly stocked up on a bag of snacks at Oxxo before leaving the airport. Still, our options were fairly limited, especially given that we had no idea how long this situation would last.

Half-jokingly, I asked her to bring back a few beers if she came across some. No luck at the stores.

The next item of business was to fire up the stove and heat up some water for the noodles. But the stove had electric ignition and we couldn’t find a lighter in the house. Ignacio wasn’t around and we had no way to contact him. Lori said she’d run down to bodega to see if it was open to get a lighter.

The bodega was closed, but she passed a small group hanging out on her way back to the house who had a lighter she could borrow. Lori saw they also had a six pack of Pacifico and asked them where they got it from. They said the store was closed but offered her one. She declined, but they insisted.

I whipped up the noodles and we all scarfed them down faster than it took to make them. We put the boys down for their sleep, which didn’t take long (it had been a bit of a long day). When all was quiet (and dark), Lori and I popped open the Pacifico and reflected on the ever-so-slightly crazy and exhausting day.

We followed the boys’ lead and went right to sleep.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

I’d like to say we had the best night’s sleep ever, but far from it. No electricity of course meant no AC and no fans. The house doesn’t get a lot of ventilation and mosquitoes were out with a vengeance. And, it was extremely humid as you might imagine.

We found ourselves up early with no place to go. The winds had died, but the streets were flooded, and the rain was coming down in sheets.

But we were hungry, and dead set on finding the one place in town serving food (if it existed). Besides, what else were we going to do?

So we took our tired and hungry brood and headed out into the Zombie wasteland of post-storm Sayulita.

Hurricane Nora topped out at a Cat 1 with 85 mph winds. There was quite a bit of debris and some superficial damage to buildings, but nothing too serious. The biggest issue at this point was electricity, communications, and minor flooding. We weren’t in any danger, but life was far from ideal at this point.

After walking around for the better part of an hour, we found the one place in town serving food. We discovered this 30 minutes ago, but the vast number of patrons waiting for food made us push on and look elsewhere. Finding no better option, we returned and waited it out. Some three hours after we left the house, we finally fed our bellies.

With happy bellies, we made our way back to the house…slowly.

The Sayulita River, bone dry most of the year, rushing to the sea (with half the town’s trash and sewage).

Because internet and cell service had been out for the past 18 hours, few people in town had any way of knowing what road conditions were like headed north. Once we started seeing taxis again, we would ask them if they knew, but taxis were no where to be found. A good indication that we probably wouldn’t be leaving Sayulita today.

With not much else to do with ourselves, we headed back to the house. Noe passed out right away for a long midday nap.

Though we were staying less than a mile from our old house, we had no way of knowing what the status of our old neighbors (and our stuff) was unless we hoofed it there ourselves.

So, after nap time, we made the trek up to Calle Placencia together to check things out.

This many utility trucks in one place is typically a good sign that we’ll get some power and/or cell service back up soon. Or, it could mean that things are worse than expected and we’re in for a very long haul.

In actuality, it would be another 7 hours or so before power and cell service was restored, which happened some time in the middle of the night when we were awakened by all the lights going on at once.

We made our way to Calle Placencia and were greeted by the scene below.

A huge tree had fallen over, taking the sidewalk and half the road with it, completely blocking access by car. If you’re curious, you can scroll 17 photos up for a “before” view.

Still, we were determined to make it to the house. We had made it this far, after all. And there really wasn’t much else to do at the moment.

Easy does it.

We met up with our old neighbor and property manager, Halo, and her son. Unfortunately, circumstances were a bit suboptimal for running around and playing at the moment.

We took a look around the old house, which had faired pretty well, considering.

I went and took a peek at the raging river behind the property. While it wasn’t cause for concern yet, it didn’t give me much relief either. Another few inches or so, and we’d have a river running through the back yard.

But the waters were receding, and the rain was forecasted to taper off. So we crossed our fingers and hoped everything would hold out for another day until we could collect our stuff and head north.

Afterwards, we thought we’d check to see how things were on the other side of Placencia. It’s a through street, so there are two access points. On the one side, the access point is currently blocked by a large tree. I assumed the other side was still likely passable. A bad assumption on my part.

That’s supposed to be a road running from left to right. Instead, a river runs through it. It was becoming increasingly clear we’d be moving up to Chacala in the coming days with only 50% of our things. The other half, we’d have to return for at a later date.

No visit to Sayulita with the kids would be complete without a stop to say ‘hola’ to Jazmin, Riley’s pal and sitter (and second love, after mommy) when we lived here.

So what now? We’re in wild and fabulous Sayulita. Feels like we should head to the beach!

On second thought, maybe that isn’t such a great idea right now. Though some people apparently think it is.

A lot of people, in fact.

In late July when we packed up our belongings and prepared to move out of Sayulita, we wondered if we were making the right decision. Sayulita on a sunny day in early summer is a hard place to leave. Coming back to all this slammed the door on any concerns we had, making it that much easier to say goodbye.

Monday, August 30, 2021

By Monday morning, most of normal life had returned to Sayulita. It’ll be a while until they get the beach cleared, and perhaps even longer until I’d want to swim in the water around here. But shops and restaurants are up and running again. And most importantly for us, so are taxis to Chacala.

While we couldn’t get a taxi to the old house, we were at least able to hoof the important things up and over the downed tree, up the hill, and into the back of the van.

It was sweltering hot this morning and by no means a pleasant task, but we’re finally loaded up and on our way north after a 40-hour delay.

That’s not to say that our time in Chacala got off on the right foot either. Far from it. But we’ll get to that in the next post.

Later that evening, we left the house and made the 10-minute walk into town and down to the beach.

Any remaining misgivings we had about the move and leaving Sayulita instantly melted away once we realized that Chacala had been completely unaffected by the storm.

We were welcomed by a pristine beach and crystal-clear water, a seemingly picture postcard slice of paradise. We could certainly get used to this!

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