CHACALA, Mexico - Sure, there's a great beach here, fresh fish, tall palms, and only about 400 locals to share them with. But listen to the "testimonials."

"You wouldn't believe the snakes. Snakes as big as your head," says Ben Laird, a Wisconsinite who bought a vacation home here last year.

"People are poisoned in Chacala every day," deadpans Richard Laskin of Hornby Island, British Columbia, who has been coming here for 10 years.

"Are you sure that was a whale?" asks Laskin's friend Stu Reid, looking seaward. "Could have been drums of toxic material."

Then, having good-naturedly done their best to deter people from invading their winter haven, the three go back to their tropical idylls. Laskin and Reid dig into their breakfast at the Mauna Kea Cafe, one of about 10 restaurants in Chacala, as they gaze down upon a canopy of green, a deep blue sea, and a few dozen commuting pelicans.

The truth about Chacala is indeed intriguing, especially for a traveler who wants to meet Mexicans while vacationing in Mexico, who likes his coconuts straight from the tree, who doesn't need the bright lights of Los Cabos or Cancun.

Chacala, a village 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific Coast, is built around the beach, a handsome half-mile crescent of sand, backed by jungle. At the southern end of the beach, gentle surf murmurs over black volcanic rocks. In the middle of the crescent, a half-dozen palm-shaded restaurants serve fresh fish and shrimp (and keep a machete on hand for those new-fallen coconuts). To the north, two dozen battered fishing boats are tied to a modest dock.

In town, several lodgings have popped up in the last few years, most offering ocean views, modest amenities, and nightly rates from $50 to $90. A little farther north, more than two dozen luxury vacation homes, some of which rent by the night, have gone up in a gated compound called Marina Chacala.

What sets Chacala apart from so many other modest but growing Mexican beach destinations is this: Thanks to the arrival of three hippie siblings here at the end of the 1970s, the town is awash in social experiments, many of them built around the idea that locals and tourists need to meet and learn from one another.

Under one 11-year-old program, called Techos de Mexico (Roofs of Mexico), six villagers have added upstairs rooms and terraces, most with ocean views, none more than a five-minute stroll from the beach. When not snapped up for the season by wintering Canadians, most of these rooms rent for $22.50 to $60 a night.

Tourists can volunteer for community projects, attend yoga or meditation seminars, or learn Spanish as guests at a 24-year-old beachfront retreat called Mar de Jade (pronounced Hah-day), which in winter is usually priced at $120 to $135 per person per night, double occupancy, meals included.

Other visitors and expatriates have bankrolled a community library, paid for improvements at the elementary school, and developed a scholarship program that underwrites the transportation, books, uniforms and other education costs of more than two dozen. (The public schools in Chacala stop at secondary school, and high school diplomas are as rare as air conditioning.)

But you don't have to volunteer. Instead, you can spend $50 a night on a hotel room with an ocean view and lie around. Or spend $625 a night on a mansion that sleeps 10 and lie around in splendor.

You can take a $10-per-person boat trip to snorkel by the rocks off Chacalilla Beach. You can fish for dorado or sierra, or surf at La Caleta Point. You can kayak between rock formations and secluded beaches, go birding in a mangrove swamp to the north, or drive half an hour east to the petroglyphs at Alta Vista. You can ride a horse through jungle to a secluded beach or drive about two hours into the hills and see Lake Santa Maria, in the caldera of an ancient volcano.

Or you can stroll on that grand crescent of sand.

"Some nights, the sunsets just tear your heart out," says Andee Carlsson, who moved here three years ago from Washington state. Carlsson, who rents a room in one of the Techos houses, says she came because it was affordable and the gardening was year-round, and she stays because "the people here make me feel good. People just help you out, and you get to help people out."

Until the first paved road connected the village to Highway 200 seven years ago, the only way into Chacala was by dirt road or boat. Now, business is picking up, and the occasional RV, rental car and taxi has joined the local traffic, including the cab that delivered me to my lodgings at dusk one day.

It had been a 90-minute ride from Puerto Vallarta, and my first thought, rolling into town, was, "Uh-oh." Two blocks of dirt roads, sleeping dogs and ramshackle storefronts. That was the commercial district.

Ah, but then I stepped onto the beach. It was nearly empty, with a slight breeze blowing. The tall palms, the quiet, the loop of the beach between rocky points - this was a landscape to banish worry. In the restaurants along the sand, a small band of Canadian snowbirds lingered over seafood and beer. A little way up the beach, 20 RVs were parked in the palm grove, their owners paying $5 a night for the privilege.

I know, I know. In your daydreams of tropical paradise, there are no RVs, except perhaps your own. But Chacala is fetching and comfortable, not fancy and immaculate.

"It's still real Mexico down there," said Laird, he of the imaginary snakes, gazing at the town from his hilltop home in Marina Chacala. "Chickens at your feet. And everybody knows everybody."

Yet, it's growing by the day, and there's all this experimentation.

By many measures, Chacala's modern history began 27 years ago, when Laura, Om and Jose Enrique del Valle arrived from Mexico City in pursuit of an implausible dream: On a patch of land at the southern end of the beach, they would build a retreat for foreigners that would boost cultural understanding and support a rural medical clinic.

Operating out of an old school bus, they put up eight rooms with shared bathrooms, with light provided by candles and lamps and refrigeration by ice blocks. They called it Mar de Jade.

The partnership didn't last, but the business has. These days, Mar de Jade could pass for a rich man's vacation compound. Surrounded by gardens, it has 30 rooms, a spa, a couple of meeting rooms, a shaded patio that seats 50, a palm-shaded pool, a prime spot on the beach - and a medical clinic in nearby Las Varas that often draws volunteers from the medical professionals and students staying at Mar de Jade.

Laura del Valle, a 56-year-old physician raised in Chicago and Mexico City, owns Mar de Jade and runs it with her 21-year-old daughter, Angelica. These days, they house mostly med students and other volunteers in summer and mostly vacationing couples, families and groups in winter.

Laura's half-brother, Jose Enrique, has carved out his own niche on 21/2 acres next to the compound. Drawing on his background as a builder, civil engineer and tour guide, he and his wife, Carmen, built and opened Majahua, a four-room boutique hotel, spa and restaurant on a jungle slope, in 1996. Pronounced Mah-hawa and named for a jungle tree, it's the only lodging in town where you're likely to hear American jazz on the stereo, to order a Mediterranean salad, or to wash your hands in one of those stone-bowl sinks you see in design magazines.

To many in town, Jose Enrique del Valle is best known as the coordinator of Techos de Mexico. Started in 1996, inspired by the work of Habitat for Humanity and largely bankrolled by donations from the north, it's a construction-loan program to connect villagers with tourists and their dollars.

The program has built four houses and expanded three others, spending $4,000 to $9,800 on each project, splitting revenues between landlords and the loan fund. Three landlords have already paid off their loans, including Concha Velazquez, who said her family had been dependent on her husband's uncertain income as a fish merchant. They opened Casa Concha in 2001, paid off their loan three years later, and have expanded to three rental rooms.

More activists have arrived in the Del Valles' wake, including Susana Escobido, who runs the Mauna Kea Cafe with her husband, Poncie, rents out a few rooms by the month, and sells homes in the Marina Chacala development. She also is cofounder of Cambiando Vidas (Changing Lives; www.chacala.org), which spends about $40,000 yearly to boost schools, underwrite a learning center, and fund scholarships. Twenty-seven local youths are studying on scholarships, from eighth-graders to college students.

"The Nayarit coast is just exploding, whether we're ready for it or not," Escobido says. "We want to make Chacala a community of entrepreneurs."

A tourism boom might boost local living standards. But repeat visitors and locals say that if the world learns more about this place, the world will elbow its way in, change it beyond recognition, and cut the locals out of the action.

So, plenty of eyes are watching the state-owned RV park at the edge of the beach - where a would-be buyer has proposed condos - and Marina Chacala, where unbuilt lots are priced at $200,000 and up. The developers have made enemies by blocking locals' access to a small beach that had been public.

Still, Escobido contends that some of those home-buyers could be the village's next philanthropists.

"They don't know it yet, but they're all going to be participating," she said.

Chacala

Chacala is 60 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific coast.

Places to stay

Chacala Vacation Rentals

011-52-327-219-4067

760-300-3908

Several luxurious houses in the gated Marina Chacala development are available for short-term rental, from $150 a night for a one-bedroom unit to $625 for Villa Tesseri, which includes a house and guest house, sleeps 10 to 12, and features a swimming pool and a commanding view.

Majahua

011-52-327-219-4055

Four suite units (one has two bedrooms and two bathrooms) in a pair of buildings on a jungle slope down to the beach. Uneven paths make it risky for children and anyone with mobility problems, but the secluded setting and spa attract yoga groups and other escapists. Breakfast included. $110-$300 per suite per night.

Mar de Jade

011-52-327-219-4060

1-800-257-0532

Thirty units, neighbored by garden, pool and beach. Units do not have phones or TVs, and most are fan-cooled, although air conditioning will be added to a few rooms this year. Family-friendly. Spa facilities. Three kayaks. Meals included in rates. Winter rates $110-$135 per person per day, based on double occupancy, or $135-$180 per day for singles.

Casa Chacala

Golfo de Mexico Street

Opened three years ago with six units and a pool. Has air conditioning (a rarity), and word is that televisions are coming. Doubles begin at $50.

Hotel Paraiso Escondido

Golfo de Mexico Street

The largest and newest of several hotels in the class of Casa Chacala. Eighteen rooms; doubles start at $70.

Techos de Mexico

blogspot.com

Rooms cost $22.50 to $60 a night. Most include kitchenettes and terraces with ocean views; all are within a five-minute walk of the beach. Housekeeping, telephone access and billing practices vary. Not much English is spoken.

Places to eat

Majahua has a pebble floor and no roof, but it is the fanciest restaurant in town. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Main courses, $6-$13.

Las Brisas, beachfront, is a favorite with English speakers. Main dishes $5.50-$18.

Mauna Kea Cafe, on Los Corchos, just off Islas Marias, is a breakfast spot. Prices: $4.50-$7.

For information

Mexico Tourism Board

310-282-9112

SOURCE: Los Angeles TimesEndText