Bringing a destination wedding within a family’s reach

An undated photo of an oceanfront pool at the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Punta de Mita, Mexico. The Frugal Family columnist, her husband and infant daughter manage to attend a friend’s destination wedding at a luxury Mexican resort and still keep to a budget. (Freda Moon via The New York Times)
An undated photo of an oceanfront pool at the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Punta de Mita, Mexico. The Frugal Family columnist, her husband and infant daughter manage to attend a friend’s destination wedding at a luxury Mexican resort and still keep to a budget. (Freda Moon via The New York Times)

Rolling down the window of our hulking SUV taxi for the mustachioed guard, I felt a flash of anguish. My husband, infant daughter and I were at the entrance to Punta Mita, a gated community and hotel complex occupying 1,500 acres of the Punta de Mita peninsula 25 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “We’re on the list,” I told the gatekeeper in rusty traveler’s Spanish. After waiting an awkward few moments, we were granted access to a private road lined with meticulously groomed medians, planted palms interspersed with bougainvillea and golf-cart crossing signs.

As we drove in, a truckload of landscapers was being driven out, crowded in the back of a flatbed, like a small-scale deportation. Tim and I glanced at each other. What was this place? At the hotel, we were greeted by a butler, ushered into a chauffeured cart and escorted through the terraced property to the pristine beach below. I felt like a dignitary.

We had come to Punta Mita for a three-day beach fiesta celebrating the marriage of a childhood friend and her sweetheart of many years. It was a party I felt strongly about attending. One of my favorite people was marrying a charming man in my beloved Mexico, and I was determined to go. But after their original venue fell through, the wedding party was booked at the luxurious St. Regis, where the rack rate for a room was more than $500 (and the discounted group rate wasn’t much less). For our two-writer household, the parents of an infant, it was a challenge — an exercise in logistical acrobatics, in budgetary gamesmanship.

Fortunately, plane tickets from the San Francisco Bay Area, where we live, to Puerto Vallarta are often less than $500. And while I knew the couple hoped all their guests would stay at the same hotel, I booked a considerably more modest room at Hotel Meson Punta de Mita, just outside the resort’s gates in the small town of Punta de Mita. We could visit during the days and quietly sneak away in the evening. It felt tacky, but at $80 a night, it also meant we could stay six nights instead of three.

Almost since the moment I learned I was pregnant, I had pictured my daughter’s first trip to Mexico. I saw myself chasing her around a village square — surrounded by multigenerational families and the polka beat of Norteño — until well past a reasonable bedtime at home. I fantasized about introducing her to the broad expanse of Mexican food, the monarch butterflies in Michoacán, the ruins of Cantona and the apartment in Mexico City where Tim and I had lived briefly.

But during our time in the “Riviera Nayarit,” as the coastline of Nayarit state is marketed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had traveled thousands of miles and somehow landed on a particularly photogenic corner of Orange County. It was disorienting. Still, I loved that my friend and her groom had planned their wedding in a place far from the staid setting of a church. I loved that Mexico means as much to them as it does to me, even if this Mexico wasn’t my Mexico.

I was, of course, prepared for mishaps and hiccups. Nobody expects the first international trip with an infant to be carefree. And even before takeoff, we had made the kinds of mistakes that lead budget travelers into trouble: Waiting too long to start the passport process for my daughter, which meant having to pay an extra $60 expediting fee, for example. Or not realizing that while Delta Air Lines doesn’t charge for an “infant in arms” plane ticket, we’re still responsible for the not-insignificant tax the Mexican government charges for every foreign passenger.

Then there are routine catastrophes, like my then-8-month-old Roxie needing an all-hands-on-deck clothing and diaper change just as our Lyft car arrived, predawn, to take us to the airport. Already running late, Tim and I spent 20 minutes scrubbing Roxie with wet wipes on the seat of a parked car, in the near dark, while our driver paced. The gratuity on this degree of patience is not optional. And it’s not cheap.

Unanticipated expenses notwithstanding, we had made it to Punta Mita. At the welcome dinner, servers in white guayaberas circulated with platters of barbecued meat and bottomless bottles of Mexican wine. Long tables were set up on a beach planted with tiki torches. For dessert, there was a fire pit and a s’mores station.

Unlike the rocky shore at the town beach, the St. Regis had immaculate sand. While the public beaches were crowded with families, stray dogs, surfers, snow birds and hawkers selling everything from flan to mass-produced tchotchkes and handmade stuffed animals, the resort’s beach was tranquil. It was beautiful, if character-less.

Even so, unanticipated costs continued. Having traveled widely in Mexico, I’ve come to prefer public transit and hired drivers to rental cars. But unlike elsewhere in the country, on the Nayarit coast the cost of taxis rivaled those in Manhattan (950 pesos, or about $52, for the 20-mile trip from the airport to our hotel; another 100 pesos for each 1.75-mile taxi ride between our hotel and the St. Regis). We would have been better off renting a car, as the bride’s sister did, through Gecko, a local company with relatively affordable rates (though still significantly higher than those of similar companies in the United States) and free airport pickup and drop-off.

After three days of floating with Roxie in swimming pools, eating paletas (Mexican-style ice pops) and bonding with our fellow guests over tamarind margaritas, the wedding day arrived. Unsure what to do about child care for the ceremony and reception, I had counted on there being veteran parents, moms and dads who knew what they were doing and with whom, I hoped, we could share a babysitter or take turns watching one another’s children. There was passing talk of my friend connecting us with the few other families making the trip, but I was reluctant to bother her with parental-matchmaking in the weeks leading up to her wedding.

In the end, planning ahead seemed like more trouble than it was worth. So I put my faith in the travel gods. But ultimately there was only one other couple — the bride’s sister and brother-in-law — who brought their toddler to what, I began to worry, was not meant to be a family-friendly affair.

It was embarrassing. But because the bride and groom are gracious — and because so many of their friends have children (albeit children surrendered, wisely, to caregivers for the weekend) — our missteps were greeted with humor and kindness. Nobody, it seemed, had seen an 8-month-old behave so well in the face of such incompetent parents.

On the Saturday of the wedding, the rest of the guests took a shuttle from the hotel and Tim, Roxie and I caught a ride with the bride’s family. We bounced along a rough road in the back seat of their rented pickup before reaching a private house outside Sayulita, a half-hour or so north of Punta Mita. A Swiss Family Robinson-esque mansion built into a hill above a sweeping sandy beach, with a bridge of unmilled branches and a large amoeba-shaped infinity pool, it felt like an extravagant treehouse in the palms.

Tim and I settled on a plan: He would skip the ceremony, sitting with Roxie in a balconied room while I watched my friend walk down the aisle. Afterward, we would put Roxie down to sleep in her PeaPod, an ingenious pop-up tent-bed I found on Craigslist, nearly unused, for $40. We could keep an eye on her — via the modern miracle of smartphone baby monitor apps — while we ate dinner, sipped tequila and danced to wedding DJ classics.

The ceremony was on the beach, with the Pacific putting on a show in the background and the sun scorching overhead. It was gorgeous and to the point. Afterward, a line of mariachis appeared from nowhere, erupting in a wall of sound. Our small crowd retreated from the heat into a clearing in the palms, where a dance floor, bar and open-air banquet hall had been erected for the occasion.

As everyone else was sitting down for dinner, Tim and I changed and shushed Roxie and got her ready for bed. Just as her eyelids fluttered to sleep, we discovered that our monitors, which relied on Internet access, weren’t able to connect. For the first time in four days, we were out of range. There was nothing we could do. At 8 months, Roxie was determined to join the party.

Tim strapped her to his chest, her wispy curls overflowing from the canvas carrier. We held our breath through speeches and prayers, silently pleading with Roxie to keep quiet. (She did.) But as the night wore on, drinks were downed and the dance floor filled with 30-somethings on reprieve from responsibility, nobody seemed to mind our tiny wedding-crasher. At one point, I looked over and saw the bridegroom and his friends — fellow men of accomplishment, MBA-holders with serious jobs — serenading Roxie to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

It may not have been the Mexico of my memory, but some travel isn’t about the place you’re going. It’s about the people you’re traveling for. By that measure, our Mexico trip was a triumph — and we still managed to keep our baby up way past a reasonable bedtime.