Mexico: Painting and Dancing on the Pacific Coast

In Boca del Tomaltan, a slow pace and time to paint, dance and relax

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Painting plein air style in Boca de Tomaltan, Mexico at the Casa de los Artistas. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Painting plein air style in Boca de Tomaltan, Mexico at the Casa de los Artistas. photos by Max Hartshorne.

My partner Mary loves to paint. Her kind of painting takes her and her oils out into a landscape….she paints from real life, not from photographs.

It was her interest in plein air painting that brought us to the coast of Mexico, to a small fishing village called Boca de Tomaltan. Here is where we found the Casa de los Artistas where a Massachusetts couple, Bob Masla and Monica Levine, have created an idyllic space to be creative, dance and to enjoy the wonderful culture of Mexico.

Oh, and they also employ a cook named Ruby who prepares wonderful breakfasts and lunches using recipes and ingredients of her Huichol Indian heritage. One day she taught us how to make tortillas!

View of the Casa across the Rio Horcones.
View of the Casa across the Rio Horcones.

The Casa, as it is known, stands beside Banderas Bay, in a cove that’s trafficked by many water taxis, who arrive from Puerto Vallarta, ten miles up the coast, and Zodiacs bearing boatloads of cruise ship passengers who disembark for excursions to a jungle Zip line. Other younger passengers dress in school uniforms to commute here from other villages and go to school. Boca is a busy place and watching all of these passing water taxis, fishing boats and the passing parade of people on the beach is one of the great pleasures. It’s tonic for a restless, plugged in American to simply sit, and watch, and do nothing at all. People here are really good at that.Inside orange three-story Casa, which was built with the assistance of a San Diego-based architect friend who lives a few doors down, is designed for both comfort and to provide spaces for the many activities held here. On the top floor is the wide open painting and dancing studio, where there are hundreds of tubes of paint, many easels, a dramatic open air view of the ocean and the Rio Horcones, and the busy village across the river.

listenradioHere is where painting classes are held. Each week during the season from January through May, a different session is held. One week it may be a salsa dancing workshop, where an instructor is brought in and the morning’s education is focused on how to properly dance in the Latin style.

Other weeks feature well-known watercolor or oil painters, who often attract their own following. “It’s a place where artists can come and get in touch with the intuitive part of themselves, where the technical instruction is of the highest caliber and the diversity is apparent,” explains Bob Masla. “I want everyone who comes here to leave with the idea that he got to jump into the unknown, taking a course that pushed the envelope and stretched the boundaries a bit.”An Exercise in Art

Water taxi passing by on the Rio Horcones, a familiar site up on the balcony of the Casa on Mexico's Pacific coast.
Water taxi passing by on the Rio Horcones, a familiar site up on the balcony of the Casa on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

During our visit, Bob brought the entire group of eight up to the painting studio, even though everyone except Mary wasn’t actually an artist at all. But as Bob explained, everyone has something inside them, a little bit of an artist, and it’s worth exploring what we could come up with.

Hey, it was fun trying to create art, to me it felt like an unflexed muscle. We took charcoal and began simply by writing in large letters, strokes that came to the very edge of the paper. This became the templates for us to be a little more creative, using these lines we embellished and played around…and before too long, some actual art was emerging from the hands of a group of non-artists.

We kept on at it, pushing new lines, blurring our charcoal, and as Bob went around to each of us, he helped us tweak and stretch and keep trying out new ways to make it, well, art. It worked. After we had all worked on our charcoal projects, and had a chance to critique each other’s work, we picked them all up and Bob lay them down on the floor. When all of the charcoals drawings were put together, then reassembled and then moved around a little more, it created a pretty decent looking piece of work. It was a great example of tapping an un-used part of our own creativity.

A week at the Casa takes guests not only into places where they barely realized they might have talent, like making art, but out into the surrounding countryside for three excursions that were highlights of our trip. The Casa is located down the highway from the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, yet the village of Boca de Tomaltan is not at all the typical tourist trap like the bigger neighbor up the coast. One night we went shopping for Mexican clothing and strolled the Malecon walkway, and then dined in a fancy seaside restaurant in Puerto Vallarta.

Monica Levine and Bob Masla, our hosts during our visit to a dance and painting workshop week at the Casa in Mexico.
Monica Levine and Bob Masla, our hosts during our visit to a dance and painting workshop week at the Casa in Mexico.

On the trip from the airport, we passed some dramatic rock outcroppings off the coast, which we learned are called Los Arcos. One morning we took a motorboat trip out to see these rocks up close, and it also provided us with a glimpse at some of the stunning four and five-story houses that have been built along the rocky coast. One of these big houses once belonged to director John Houston, and a pink gigantic structure was once lived in by actress Demi Moore

Diving into the Pacifi

We joined Bob, Monica, their three children and our group in two speedboats and dove into the warm Pacific water. Some of us donned masks and snorkled near the Arcas, watching schools of yellow fish dart past.

Then we motored over around the bend from Boca to a beautiful deserted beach called Colomitos for a picnic. As we approached the beach, we saw the makings of a restaurant that is being built on the rocks. So far there was only one house nearby but in the years to come there may be more people here. For now, though, we had this glorious small arch of sun and sand to ourselves. That is until the enthusiastic boatload of Mexicans from Puerto Vallarta were disgorged, laughing and silly, onto the beach.

Breakfasts are a special part of the Casa experience. Every day it's different, all cooked by the Casa chef, Ruby, a Huichol Indian.
Breakfasts are a special part of the Casa experience. Every day it’s different, all cooked by the Casa chef, Ruby, a Huichol Indian.

After we had eaten and some were relaxing in the sun, many in our group ventured out into the surf. Mary and I joined them, and I reflected on how fun it was to be swimming as a group, together. The three couples and the two singles had all merged into a group of friends who really wanted to be together out there in the ocean. To me it said that we had bonded, we had become real compadres, and this is definitely one of the major advantages of traveling as a group.

Mary’s painting took place in the morning. She’d set up her easel right outside the apartment that we stayed in, which is adjacent to the Casa. There on the little veranda, as she applied oils to her canvas, the neighborhood kids would come around and gather near the easel.

They wanted to see what the Senora was painting, in between their days-long games of tag. Their friendliness echoed that of the entire village….everyone in Boca is laid back and takes a casual approach to life and doesn’t sweat it. Despite the fears that many have about Mexico and its drug wars, none of this affected us in the least, and throughout the week we felt safe and welcomed.

To me it was an inspiration to see so many little kids running and playing tag, and to have not a video game or a joystick anywhere in sight. Yes, this was the way we used to play before our electronics-dominated children emerged among us.

Another excursion brought us into the mountains about an hour north of the Casa to the village of El Tuito. El Tuito is the home of many Huichol Indians, famous for they peyote rituals and their unique works of art. We climbed up from sea level to about 2000 feet into the Sierra Madre mountains and the terrain changed from palm trees to pine forests.

Salsa dancing lesson at Casa de los Artistas, Boca de Tomaltan, Mexico. Max Hartshorne photos.
Salsa dancing lesson at Casa de los Artistas, Boca de Tomaltan, Mexico. Max Hartshorne photos.

Here we got a chance to sample some of the cookies and breads that are baked in clay ovens. The town is a magnet for other tours from Puerto Vallarta, and still, we felt like we had it to ourselves on the sleepy day we visited.

A 99-Year Old Welcome

On the way to lunch at a raicilla distillery, we passed a house on a driveway where we had to open a gate. A friendly elderly woman was cooking handmade tortillas on the porch, and she waved, asking us if we would like to come have a taste. Her husband was a spry man aged 99, and he proudly stood with his great granddaughter in front of a rustic bedroom with a date over the door, 1895.

Their house was simple and looked out on fields of corn and of agave, the green variety which is used to make this tequila-like liquor that’s only found here near Puerto Vallarta. The grandaughter ran out of the house through the fields, toward another house at the edge of the clearing.

We continued chatting with the friendly elderly couple and sampled more tortillas hot off the stovetop. Before we had gotten the gate open, the little girl returned on her bicycle with a gift of cookies for us.

Out to Dance

During our visit, we got a chance to get to know our fellow campers well, all of whom were brought to the Casa by their strong affinity for the salsa dance instructor, Liz Nania. She teaches a wide variety of different dance styles in the Boston area. Her Out to Dance attracts many in the lesbian and gay community and she’s a popular teacher.

While the group wasn’t made up of as many painters as we might have liked, they more than made up for it by their outgoing, fun attitudes and by the fact that they were all, to a person, fun to spend time with.

Max Hartshorne and Mary Gilman.Hosts Bob and Monica are warm and join the guests on all of the meals and excursions, yet also give everyone the freedom to do just what they like. It’s a good mix of instruction and pure relaxation.

The beauty of this Mexican coast, the wonderful food, friendly locals, and even learning a few new salsa steps made us very glad we had made the connection with the Casa.

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.