photo: Google Maps/Marissa Pina, Vivala

On our family's yearly drive into Jalcocotan, my dad would roll down his window and decrease his speed so when people called out to him “Hey, Rico!” from the side of the road, he’d be able to wave. That’s my favorite memory about going to Mexico when I was a kid.

Jalco’s delight lies in its people, and all they contribute to life in this small, remote town. I loved walking to the Plaza and buying churros on the street corner — there are also bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and handmade tortillas! And don’t get me started on the tejuino — the best homemade drink ever created out of fermented corn. It’s known as “drink of the gods.” The sound of roosters cock-a-doodling or the gas vendor yelling “GAAAAAAAAASSSS!” on a bull-horn never bothered me one bit. It’s all part of the charm.

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Jalco is a small village near the Pacific Coast, in the state of Nayarit. It’s about an hour’s drive to Puerto Vallarta and two hours from Guadalajara. It is where both my parents are from, and where they lived before they moved to the U.S. in the 60s. I stopped traveling with my parents when I left for college, but as soon as I graduated I began my own yearly pilgrimage. By then, my parents had built a home in Jalco, which was a great treat for all of us, because we didn’t have to stay with relatives when we’d visit. After graduation, I stayed there one entire summer.

Jalcocotan, Nayarit

photo: Araceli Cruz, Vivala

I was there for so long that eventually the locals were waving to me when I passed them on the street! I started visiting places in Mexico that I'd never been. I went to Oaxaca, Mexico City, Queretaro, and Cancun. I used to fly into Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara and take a bus to Tepic an hour and half away before continuing on my travels from there. Then it all came to a screeching halt.

In 2009, I traveled to Jalco to celebrate Day of the Dead, and I haven’t been back since. It was around 2010 that I read about a huge surge of violence in Tepic —  the kind of random savagery that was usually reserved for border states. A recent report ranking the 50 most dangerous cities in the world named 43 in Latin America. Ten cities are in Mexico alone; Acapulco, Cuernavaca, Culiacán, Ciudad Juarez, Ciudad Obregón, Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Victoria, Chihuahua, and Tijuana.

Tepic (the capital of Nayarit) is not on that list, and the U.S. travel site states that the tourist area of Nayarit, and the Riviera coast, including San Blas, is safe to visit. Still, they suggest avoiding  “non-essential travel to areas of the state of Nayarit that border the states of Sinaloa or Durango, as well as all rural areas and secondary highways.” Officials speculate that the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is hiding out in his home state of Sinaloa, somewhere in mountains.

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Tepic, Nayarit

photo: Araceli Cruz, Vivala

My main fear is taking the hour-long drive from the airport in Puerto Vallarta to my parents' house. My dad reassures me that traveling to Tepic is completely safe, and he often visits Jalco from California  throughout the year. It might be safe for a man, but for a woman I’m not so sure. Some of my family members, who live in Mexico have been affected by this new wave of violence. Two cousins, who live in separate states in Mexico, were shot. The wife of another cousin had family members abducted while they were on vacation. Thankfully they were retrieved safely.

One of the coolest things about the drive from Tepic to Jalco is the windy roads that go up and around through the lush green mountains of Nayarit. The hike up to the cemetery that sits atop Jalco is also a thing of beauty. It’s filled with so much history of these people, my people. Each tombstone — varying in luxury from marble mausoleums to little crosses made of sticks — has its own story and its own family tree, serving as a continuum of an ending waiting to be revealed.

I see countless Instagrams of celebrities traveling to Mexico. Even President Obama’s daughter visited Oaxaca not too long ago. Still, I’m reluctant to stray from the tourist areas to visit the remote city of Jalco that I miss so much.

When I think of true peace, I remember long days at La Playa Los Cocos and laughing with my huge extended family. We’d eat fresh grilled fish tacos, ceviche, and, as the name implies, coconuts from the palm trees! The vendors split them open right there on the beach.

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But the one thing I miss the most is just being at my parents' house: My mom cooking refried beans and frying sliced-up plantains while my dad chopped up mangoes that he got from his mango trees and all of us goofing off about people’s nicknames (i.e. Greñas, El Pato, Jackie Chan).

Next year...for sure, I’ll go back.

La Playa Los Cocos, Nayarit

photo: Araceli Cruz