Note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Mexico. This is the second of two columns from the trip.
STONE ISLAND, Mexico – It’s a shame that so much of the news about Mexico is bad. Drugs and cartel violence give the impression that it’s an unwelcoming and dangerous place.
That can be true in parts of Mexico, including the state of Sinaloa, where I spent a recent vacation. The Sinaloa Cartel is Mexico’s most powerful organized crime organization.
What rarely makes headlines, however, is that visitors often experience warmth and hospitality that’s exceptional. Sometimes over-the-top exceptional. It happened to us in a little place called Isla de la Piedra. Island of the Stone.
One of our neighbors at the place where we were staying recommended a restaurant there called Carmelita’s. He went on to add that the jungle road that led there was a little daunting, which was an understatement. It was under construction and in places all but non-existent. In a couple of spots, we were in mud up to our hubcaps. And those were the good spots.
We were hoping to make it there by sunset, but it wasn’t to be. The road, obviously, was one reason. The other was that the plastic cup I was holding in my teeth while trying to buckle a back-seat seatbelt cracked, drenching me with Cuervo and OJ. The only thing that didn’t get soaked was my hat. That meant going back to change, and by the time we got to the restaurant it was closed.
“Is the place next door open?” we asked some people who were still chatting at a table there.
“No,” one of the women replied. “All the restaurants are closed. People come here mainly for breakfast and lunch and spend the day on the beach. By this time, everyone’s gone.”
Her name was Anna Hayden. She and her husband, Gary, own Carmelita’s. We told them why we were late (spilled drink, car-eating road). After hearing our story and seeing our crestfallen expressions, she spoke briefly in Spanish to her husband and another woman at the table, then turned a thousand-watt smile on us.
“No problem,” she said. “We are closed, but for you we are open. I’ll go call Carmelita.”
Carmelita is the matriarch of the family. She’d gone home for the day, but in five minutes she was back. Anna put a tablecloth on a table and took our orders.
We were, as you can imagine, impressed. I’m not saying this sort of thing doesn’t happen at home, but it hadn’t happened to us before. I’ve arrived at stores, restaurants or other businesses just after closing any number of times and apologetically been turned away. And that’s okay. Too late is too late; closed is closed.
But not at Carmelita’s, at least not on this night.
While Carmelita and Carmelita Cecilia, Anna’s sister, were in the kitchen cooking our dinners, Anna told us her family’s story:
Anna is the daughter of the Carmelita who was cooking dinner and the granddaughter of Carmelita’s mother, who was also named Carmelita – obviously a popular name there. (I’m not using their full names because they’re only slightly shorter than the Gettysburg Address.) The first Carmelita started the restaurant in 1938. She grew up in California and came to Stone Island on a vacation with her family in1936. It was a stopover on their way to Guadalajara. At least that’s what it was supposed to have been.
They stayed a month, during which Carmelita met her future husband, Rodrigo. Rodrigo was working to build a jetty in the Stone Island harbor. When the rest of her family left for Guadalajara, she stayed. She never went to Guadalajara, never went back with her family to California. She was then 16.
It’s not hard to see why she stayed. The place is beautiful now – sandy beach, gentle surf, a smattering of homes and businesses. Its population, Anna told us, is about 8,000. But in 1936, it was an undiscovered paradise.
“There were about 20 people here then,” she said.
Carmelita was bewitched by the beauty and tranquility. (Rodrigo, the strapping jetty worker, may also have been a factor). She soon became popular with the people who lived there and the occasional visitors.
“They were happy to have someone who spoke English,” Anna said. “My grandmother earned some money by making tortillas and selling them.”
She also found time to marry Rodrigo. Together they opened Carmelita’s, little suspecting that they were launching a family business that would span three generations and continue into the next century. Carmelita died in 2011 at 93.
In 1996, a young American blew into town on a Jet Ski and came to the restaurant in hopes of finding a bathroom. No one seemed to be around so he helped himself to the facility. On his way out, he ran into Carmelita, told her how much he liked the area and said he hoped to start a Jet Ski business there.
An enterprising idea, but there was a problem.
“He was an American, and you have to be a Mexican citizen to start a business here,” Anna said.
That would have been the end of it, except that Carmelita had a granddaughter – Anna – who was studying law in the U.S. She reluctantly agreed to help the newcomer who was passionate about starting a Jet Ski business. In the process, he became passionate about Anna.
“He asked me out three times,” she said, laughing. “I said ‘no’ every time.”
“Three times she turned me down!” Gary Hayden added, feigning outrage. “But I don’t give up easily.”
They were married within a year.
It wasn’t long after that that Carmelita began to receive offers for her property.
“Pacifico Beer offered her a lot of money,” Anna said. “I told her she should be happy, but she started to cry. She wanted to keep the business in the family.”
Gary and Anna talked it over and made an offer of their own. In 2007, they took over the restaurant and a nearby hotel. They expanded the hotel, now a popular place for tourists on a budget.
“It’s a lot of work,” Anna said. “Gary handles the bookings and a lot of the other things at the hotel. I work in the office (she got that law degree) and help in the restaurant.”
It doesn’t take long to see that Carmelita’s is something special. We went back two nights later for a family-style dinner with a group of about 20 Canadians who were staying at the hotel, and seldom have we met a happier group of people. The same went for the locals who passed by. To a person, they smiled and waved. The place seemed to radiate happiness.
When we left, Anna hugged us as if we were old friends. The cartels and anything resembling violence seemed far away.
Until then I’d been thinking that maybe we’d been to Mexico too many times, that maybe we should try someplace different next time. The Bahamas, perhaps.
“Come here,” Gary said as we headed for our car. “I didn’t give you guys a hug yet.”
“Don’t be strangers,” Anna added. “You have our e-mail and our phone number. Call us any time.”
Bahamas? What was I thinking?
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.