The Palapa Files: Home Sweet Tilapia Pond

And then we went from partying on the piazza of a pseudo-Moorish palace to camping in the dirt in a defunct tilapia farm. The tilapia farm in question is located behind Chito’s restaurant, about a kilometer from Tenacatita beach, on the coast of Jalisco. Since the failure of the tilapia venture, Chito has been busy building a campground on the site, replete with palapas, a volleyball court, and supposedly showers, though we never exactly saw that dream materialize. I shouldn’t complain though. Even though his project wasn’t finished, Chito very kindly allowed us to stay in one of five prototype palapas, a few doors down from the camp of our old friends Chile and Mary Anna.

Palapa restaurant with pond and palm trees


It’s been years since I flew to Mexico and I had worried that our camp would be rudimentary. Due to my near-frantic obsession with kitchen equipment, Chelsea and I had stopped in Vallarta to pick up some additional supplies: a tub for washing dishes, a dish-drying rack, a tin grill for fish, a funnel for a primitive coffee set-up, an extra pan, and an ice pick. “We’re going to be camping in the dirt like savages,” I muttered, surreptitiously adding a spare spatula to our growing pile of purchases.

My concern was wasted. Even though we arrived in the midst of their hectic preparations for a  giant party and memorial pig roast, Chile and Mary Anna were quick to drum up surplus gear, including a massive wood table, sleeping pads, and a nice tent. My sainted mother provided us with the cooler I had requested, and our friends Roberto and Bettina stopped by with another cooler, a bucket, and other useful odds and ends. That night, as we sat around drinking keg beer and watching the pig fat drip into the fire, I casually mentioned to Chile that I couldn’t find any petates in the nearby town of Rebalsito. He whipped out his cell and called our friend Dave in La Manzanilla, who promised to bring some petates to the memorial party the next day. Yes! We’d have flooring. Ah the miracles of modern life…A cell phone call from a remote area gets me the hand-woven reed mats I want for my dirt floor.

Chito's campground, Tenacatita

photo by Jenny Hannah Roche

In two days, Chelsea and I were living the high life. We had three hammocks, three tents, and a functional coffee set-up. I’d been extremely skeptical when Chelsea proposed making a stove out of a beer can. I am very serious about my coffee, and I was not willing to accept much of a margin of error on the stove front. But Chelsea has always been a reliable sort (and I didn’t have any money for a fancy one-burner stove), so I agreed to the proposition, dubiously. As it so happens, the stove worked fine for our purposes. (It runs on high octane rubbing alcohol, 93% instead of the more common 75% variety. The stronger stuff is difficult to find in Mexico, so bring extra if you plan on traveling with this stove set-up.)

Beer can stove sitting on top of our new portable grill. Coffee!

Beer can stove sitting on top of our new portable grill. Coffee!

A palapa camp in Mexico, with hammocks and kitchen

Home sweet (somewhat messy) home

In addition to morning coffee duty, I actually managed to fry eggs on it, using the ultra light-weight pan we’d picked up in Vallarta. (My precious cast iron pan, which I’d lugged all the way on the states, proved too large to balance on a flaming aluminum can.)

Life at “Palapa Telapia” soon settled into a (semi) peaceful routine. Wake before sunrise and pour rubbing alcohol into beer can. Try not to set yourself on fire. Attempt to regulate six inch flames. Accidentally put fire out. Try again. When water is finally boiling, pour through filter propped in plastic funnel. Drink coffee and watch bird life over swamp and tilapia ponds.  Slap bugs. Ignore surrounding construction zone. Watch Chelsea emerge from her tent, looking groggy and complaining about another night of “crocodile anxiety.” (We discovered two crocodiles, one rather large, living in the ponds.) Eat tortilla with avocado. After a significant amount of morning loafing,  pack mini cooler, and ride (borrowed) bikes out to the beach.

By the time our friends Jenny and Aradia arrived a week later, we were feeling pretty damn civilized. I’m not sure they agreed. “See,” I said proudly, lifting a cracked bucket out of a murky barrel of water, “Chito even brought us a shower!” I decided I’d wait before I mentioned the crocodiles.



5 Responses to “The Palapa Files: Home Sweet Tilapia Pond”

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  1. Lorena says:

    Not to mention that Chelly’s restaurant, on the far side of the talapia pond serves some of Mexico’s best Shrimp Cocktails and Camerones aljillo.

    • churpa says:

      Lorena, I don’t think we had a single interaction in Mexico that did not somehow involve the phrase “shrimp cocktail.” I’m sorry you didn’t get to enjoy the ones we had in Perula. Miss you!

  2. Shiloh says:


    Just have to tell you that I lugged an old newly restored small cast iron frying all the way to Kenya this time and believe me I am very happy I did. Lugging that extra three pounds halfway around the world was totally worth it. I’ve learned that stainless and aluminum are no match, especially when it comes to making breakfast.



    • churpa says:

      Good man, Shiloh. When Aradia showed up, she brought a propane one-burner, so I was able to use the cast iron on that, and of course I was glad that I’d brought it. I can barely cook in a stainless steel pan…

      See you on the flip side…

  3. Luv your tale of adventuresome camping at Tilapia Pond!