Carnival Splendor Again: The "City and Tropical Jungle Escape" Tour in Puerto Vallarta

Early spoiler: there is no escape.

For three months now, almost four, I've had a review of this tour on the "Sticky Notes" app on my desktop. Actually, I have at least a couple of reviews - each more heavily neutered in an attempt to get it posted in the shore excursion review section at Carnival's site. (I have a problem with word counts. You'd never guess, right?)

It's a shame I don't have the first-impulse version, heavy on snark and allusion (deluded words for "whining," some might say) and light on the proofreading, the kind of thing I'd usually post here, because Carnival won't accept my cut-down version. They say my review breaks the rules because it contains names... even though the rules clearly say that names may be used so long as they are first names only.

I suspect - and you all know by now that I'm a Carnival cheerleader first and a critic second - that Carnival simply didn't want to have a negative review be the first review of this tour. (I should revise and resubmit, I know, but look how long it's taken me to write about a cruise in April? I've got to stop cruising just so I can get back to babbling about other things, instead of feeling bad that I haven't finished the cruise report and thus not writing anything. Update: I looked at Carnival's site and saw that the two reviews there are one-star. So, I wrote another version - a brief version of what's below - and submitted it. Fingers crossed.)

Anyway, below is one of the versions. I've added photos and commentary that I kept off the original review lest it distract from my point. (Apologies for not letting the same editing wisdom guide my typing fingers here.) My advice to you is to not book this tour unless you really don't care if it runs as described. Otherwise, get Carnival to agree in advance to compensation if you can prove, with photos, that the tour is misrepresented.

Puerto Vallarta - Tour Tickets for 'City and Tropical Jungle Escape'

(Composed the same evening we came home, mid-April 2011.)

Today I stepped off the beautiful Carnival Splendor, caught up on the latest John Heald blog, and found out that we can now write excursion reviews on Carnival's website. What timing! Let's start with the "bad news," as they say - the only excursion I've ever regretted, and one that has still had both me and my husband grumbling since we were in Puerto Vallarta just three days ago. (Well, grumbling as much as we can when not heartily enjoying the rest of the cruise, of course!)

First, forget what you read about this excursion online or in the "Fun Ashore" guide once you board, both descriptions of which will talk about "time on your own" to explore the city square and an "optional nature walk" as well as a duration of three hours.

Also forget what you will see on the colorful brochure available from the TravelEx display on the Shore Excursion desk, which mentions swimming in beautiful pools by the river in the foothills of the jungle.

Don't, however, forget to read your ticket, which is the only place that will say, "closed toe shoes required." We asked the Shore Excursion desk about this new information; they said to ignore it. I say to keep it in mind if you don't like sand in your shoes.

You can read all of the above referenced descriptions for yourself. You can also do what I did, and look up reviews and photos for the El Nogalito restaurant - I'm sure that, like me, you'll be looking forward to a relaxing, scenic visit as soon as you see the lush landscapes.

So here's what actually happened, both the good and the bad:

We waited in a little tent on the Puerto Vallarta pier for our bus to be ready, which I thought was a nice touch. (Especially if you've ever queued up in the sun for half an hour, e.g., Acapulco.) The tour left right on time at 9:15, which I definitely appreciated. We had specifically booked a short tour so we could have plenty of time to relax in the spa while most people were off the ship.

Our first stop was downtown. Instead of being allowed the specified "time on our own," we were aggressively told, over and over, by the tour guide Jesse to "keep up with the group" and "don't go off on your own." This was disappointing because we've been to PV before, and this time we really just wanted to bop into a little cafe near the downtown square while everyone looked at the church on one side and the beach statues on the other, but the driver had moved the bus to an unknown location, so the "time on our own" evaporated and we were forced to follow the group.

Jesse hustled us to the malecon (boardwalk) just in time (cough cough) for a performance group (the admittedly impressive "flyers") to ask us all for donations and try to sell us flutes. We stood there for 10 minutes while they walked around and around our group, triple-checking that no one wanted these things. We then saw them perform. The performance was neat, but being a captive audience and spending so much time standing in the direct sun waiting for the "huckster" portion to end was not.

Here is Mike's skeptical face as we grew tired of waiting:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Mike's Early Skeptical Face

And here are the flyers:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Flyers

Performance over, for the next ten minutes we were led past a few boardwalk statues, past the city hall ("that's the city hall on the left"), through the church (120 seconds, tops), and then along the streets to where the bus had moved.

I liked this internet kiosk, which we hadn't noticed on the last trip:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Jesse Points Out Internet Kiosk

Jesse did stop to point out a school and talk a little about the school system, which was interesting. He was a friendly man who seemed earnest in what he presented, and I think he had the grace to show discomfort as he knew some people were not happy, so I don't know how much of the blame for this trip falls on him, and how much falls on the operator. (Later the operator - according to Carnival - completely blamed Jesse. But, you have to wonder...)

Something else I missed when we were at the church last time - a statue to Isaac, Your Bartender.

Puerto Vallarta - They've Built a Statue to Isaac, Your Bartender

The school Jesse talked about:

Puerto Vallarta - Primary School

For the entire now-mandatory tour of downtown, everyone was repeatedly told to hurry up, keep up, and so on, with stragglers (usually older passengers walking at a normal pace) getting directly addressed to walk faster.

We got back on the bus, drove around the block, and went to Marino y Marino "Jewerly" (sic). Here Jesse announced that we would spend 25 minutes in the shop and could look at the fire opals. (Suddenly all his earlier chat about the pretty opals of Mexico made sense. What didn't make sense was when he said, "Australia also has opals, but ours are much prettier." Um, Jesse? Tons of Aussies in our tour group, if you hadn't noticed? Way to earn a tip.)

This "jewerly" shop was the low-rent equivalent of the Diamonds International stops on some tours. This was not the Plaza Genovesa advertised in the tour description with its "many small shops and a number of restaurants". (Quotation from Googling around.) There was nothing to look at other than a similarly run-down pharmacy across the street. We stayed on the bus while the driver drove in circles - I think we got the better tour.

Here's the pharmacy:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Shopping Stop

And here is the "jewerly" shop:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - So-Called 'Plaza Genovesa' Stop

At this point we were a little disappointed, but more in a shoulder-shrugging, eye-rolling way. We'd been to PV before. We were mostly interested in taking in the scenery and some snacks at El Nogalito. It was just a three-hour tour, after all. Enough to say we tried something new, then we could get back to the thalasso pool.

After 35 minutes (there's always time to earn more of a kickback?), we headed to El Nogalito. How was the tour described again? Oh yes, the chance for an optional nature walk along the river or, if we preferred, we could buy snacks at the restaurant and hang out there. The latter sounded like a great deal. All of those vacation photos from independent travelers were the carrot to keep me from getting grumpy over what was so far a somewhat sleazy tour.

We turned onto a dirt road off the coastal highway and almost immediately stopped. "I hope you don't mind the sun!" yelled Jesse. Huh? I thought. Actually, this pale chick who gets sunburnt just driving the car around does mind the sun. "Your tour description mentioned the sun, right?" (Um, no.) "Okay! Hope you brought a hat!" Jesse continued. "We're going to walk a short way through here, then get back on the bus and ride to the restaurant."

Well, I had sunblock, and he did say a "short" ways. We decided to get off and see whatever there was to see in this "short walk." It looked like we might cross the river or something. That could be nice.

It was not nice.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - MANDATORY 'Nature' Walk Begins

First Jesse led us by a large yard of caged chickens. "For fighting," he explained proudly.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Cock Fighting Pens. Nice.

Look, I can roll with the "when in Rome" cultural sensitivities as well as the next person, but, c'mon. It's a bus full of mostly Australians and Americans. Cock fights? Pretty offensive in OUR culture. And since we're the guests (the paying guests), I don't think that's something that needs to be advertised. (Although, come to think of it, this wasn't advertised, was it?)

Then Jesse pointed out a clump of banana trees and a clump of bamboo trees in the middle of a dirt parking lot with a few outbuildings around it.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - See, Here's The Jungle. Enjoy.

It was like going to the tree zoo, except it was more like some sad tree zoo from the days before zoo reform, which is my way of saying that I've seen lusher, fuller displays at the local nursery... and I live in Las Vegas. You know, the desert.

Around the corner a man was waiting for us. Jesse turned the tour over to his friend, who invited everyone to sample his different kinds of tequila. Oooookay. Which tour are we on, again?

It turned out that we were on the tour where you sit for 40 minutes - yes, 40 minutes - by a cash register as you watch an ever-dwindling group of people take "just one more shot" and learn yet another toast in Spanish.

Now, I will admit that we're not really drinkers (Mike not at all and me rarely), so we weren't thrilled over the detour, but it added a little local color, and it distracted me from the sad burro tied up under a tree on the other side of the lot, waiting for photo opportunities.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Sad Burro Waits for Your Sad Photo Op

Five minutes of unadvertised tequila tasting, and I wouldn't have complained, and I'm sure most of the passengers were pleased to suddenly have free booze foisted upon them.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - And This Went On for 45 Minutes

But, as I said - FORTY MINUTES LATER (I took a lot of photos with time stamps) - we were still there, and by now all but a few people were sitting around, glumly staring at nothing, waiting for the host to feel confident enough to point out the cash register so we could get the inevitable sales objective met and be on our way.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Reaction to Undisclosed 45-Minute Sales Pitch

Finally we started to walk across the dirt lot to a bridge over what I realized was the river - a trench with a lot of dusty grey rocks.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - The River in April

True, no tour has any control over the weather, but a disclaimer might be in order here. ("Conditions may be significantly less "tropical" at certain times of the year.")

Was the bus waiting on the other side? No. We walked in the sand along the dry riverbed for ten minutes as Jesse pointed to trees and mentioned some of their uses. Hold on, was this the "optional" nature walk? I don't know which was more irritating: that we'd been forced into what was advertised as an optional nature walk, or that the "nature" walk was less interesting than a slow meander down most people's driveway.

Admittedly, there was briefly a pretty part:

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Admittedly, Something Pretty Showed Up

We walked back across the river(bed) and up a gritty slope to the waiting bus.

I checked the time - guess what? We were due back on the ship in five minutes! Argh. But could it get worse?

(Oh, one should never ask that.)

Anticipating that all would be "right" soon as we finally got to our last stop, I was encouraged as the bus turned in to the little (and very pretty) town of El Nogalito. Jesse spoke of the many things offered by the restaurant: fresh seafood, quesadillas, "wonderful guacamole - very creamy," and a combination plate for ten dollars with a "variety" of snacks. He spoke of exotic drinks but also the option of soft drinks in a can, two dollars each.

We'd skipped breakfast, so this sounded good. I wasn't happy about the tour going into overtime, the near-hour spent trying to sell us tequila, the skeezy stop at a store that was not the Plaza Genovesa, or having to march around downtown in the kind of tour group we usually aim to avoid, but put a little salsa and fresh Mexican cheese my way, and my happy face usually wins out.

We arrived at the restaurant, only to be ushered to one side where a display of seafood was set up. "Don't sit down! Don't sit down! You must come here first to hear about the menu!" both the restaurant host and Jesse cried.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - El Nogalito - No Sitting Until Sales Pitch Is Over

The host pulled back a cloth to reveal a fish/seafood platter (then, for the remainder of the "presentation" used his other hand to swat flies off it), which we could get for $52. He pointed out each type of fish. This went on for several more minutes than was necessary. Then we were allowed to take seats.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - El Nogalito - No Menus, Just $54 Seafood Platter, Fajitas, or $3 Soda (Or Booze)

As we wandered to a table, I noticed that there was a bit of water in the riverbed here by the restaurant... along with a lot of trash - advertising banners, plastic bags, etc. My photo looks overexposed, but the area really looked that faded and bleached.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - More Water in River, but Trash, Too

As the waiters came around to take orders, everyone near us asked after the "creamy guacamole" Jesse had spoken of. "No, only seafood platter," they were always curtly told.

When I said that we didn't care for fish/seafood, I was told that we could get fajitas. Guacamole? No. Quesadillas? No. Combo plate? No.

(But if we ordered an alcoholic beverage, we could get chips and salsa. No thanks, especially not after watching all of the flies land in the open salsa bowls on every table - including tables that sat empty until the next tour came.)

We asked for a couple of Cokes, being thirsty by now and not having much else to do for the next "45 minutes to an hour, we'll see how it goes," as Jesse put it.

Great.

Some people ordered the available food, but most stuck to drinks and sodas. I saw the fajitas served to someone at the next table and... yeesh. Granted, I didn't taste them, and I'm the first to point out that "authentic" Mexican food is different in every region, but what she was served looked like wet chicken salad with a couple of tortillas. If grilled vegetables and meat are a gringo tradition, then viva el norte.

After an hour of playing homemade crosswords and jumbles on a piece of paper with my husband (it was so desperate that I suggested ripping the notebook into 52 pieces to make our own "prison deck" of cards), a waiter came over and shook my husband's can of Coke to see if it was empty.

"I guess it's time to pay," said my husband. "Four dollars, right?" "No, six dollars," said the waiter. "Three dollars each." "Tell him Jesse will pay!" I cheerfully advised my husband, but being the non-confrontational people that we are (hey, we just wanted to avoid drama and get out), my spouse only repeated "Six? Not four?" a few times before handing over the cash with a boggled grumble.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Another Hour of Sitting

Jesse finally said it was time to go. With the exception of one easy-going table that had ordered the seafood platter, we led the stampede to the bus. (But not without hearing Jesse tell the people at the table to take their time and not rush. Argh!)

About ten minutes later, everyone was on the bus and we began the short trip back to Puerto Vallarta. More than once Jesse picked up the standard stack of comment cards and looked around at us before setting them behind his tip basket, where they stayed.

Puerto Vallarta - City and Tropical Jungle Escape Tour - Comment Cards, Not Distributed

Jesse asked who wanted to be let off in Puerto Vallarta instead of returning to the ship. "Where would you like to be let off?" Everyone described places by the boardwalk. "Great!" replied Jesse. "We will let you off at a good place, only two, two-and-a-half blocks away!"

And so we got to see the "Jewerly" shop again, as that's where the bus stopped to let off those who wanted to spend more time in PV. Nice.

That morning we had hoped to be back on the ship around 12:30, maybe by 1:00 with traffic, with some nice Mexican snacks to tide us over. Instead, it was nearly 2 p.m. and we hadn't eaten all day. Plus, we'd been lied to, subjected to shady business practices, forced to attend a long tequila tasting (not even a proper tequila tour), and pretty much had spent five hours taking a tour other than the one we'd purchased.

When we told the Shore Excursions desk the next day, the clerk's reaction was, "Wait, are you sure you were on the City and Jungle Escape Tour?!" Like I said a jillion words ago, she contacted the tour operator and they expressed the same dismay and amazement over the misplaced hour spent hawking tequila plus the short shrift given to following the tour's description.

Carnival gave us a 25% refund, but really, I just wanted the time back, not the twenty bucks. I like a good war story (and blog post with plenty of photos - but that will come later), sure, but I'd rather have spent that time relaxing on the ship. (Or being on the tour that was described.)

Even if what we went through sounds like a fun tour to you, I advise you to think twice. We didn't get what we expected. Who knows what you'll get?

03 August 2011 |



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