SAYULITA, Mexico — My wife and I are not all-inclusive resort types, but we're not exactly adventure travelers, either. When we talked about vacationing in Mexico, we hoped to find an uncrowded village where accommodations and food were first rate. I had seen both extremes in Mexico: the plush, high-end resorts with big hotels and little local flavor, or remote pueblas with no tourist amenities.
In Sayulita, we found our happy medium, a little fishing town that mixes village life with comfortable accommodations, even a first-class restaurant.
What's more, it's located a mere 22 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, where hordes of tourists go to sop up margaritas and American-style Mexican food and stay in one of the large, nondescript hotels overlooking the Bay of Banderas. Sayulita's enduring image for me, on the other hand, is of groups of fishermen pushing their open boats, called pangas, through the surf at low tide until they are in water deep enough to lower their outboard motors.
We found out about Sayulita from a small mention in a national magazine that described bungalows for rent in a village on the Pacific Coast. We had visions of the jungle paradise we had found the year before in Costa Rica's Corcovado National Forest.
Though I'd traveled extensively by car throughout Mexico in the 1980s, I was still a bit taken aback when my wife, Susan, and I first set foot in the dusty puebla last March. Sayulita looked run down and rough around the edges. What's more, the bungalows where we'd reserved lodging turned out to be spare, concrete blocks surrounded by houses on what seemed a crowded beach. We wondered aloud whether we should stay the entire four days we'd planned to.
What a difference a day makes.
After upgrading our accommodations to a very private, charming house built into the cliffs just outside of town, and meeting some people with whom we became fast friends after only a few days, we were sad to leave Sayulita to continue our itinerary within Mexico. In fact, we ended up cutting that portion of our trip short by two days so we could return to Sayulita.
For fishermen--or seafood lovers--the waters off Sayulita offer a bounty of sailfish, mahi-mahi, red snapper, smash mackerel, oyster, lobster and shrimp. Local boys also snorkel for octopus just off the beach. If you want to charter a panga for fishing, it'll cost about $62, though like most transactions in Mexico, the price is negotiable.
Sayulita's beach attracts other types of sporting enthusiasts as well: surfers, both American and locals, and kayakers in blue and yellow and red shells who fight for position with the surfers to ride the waves.
"The water is about 60 degrees right now in San Diego," one gray-bearded fellow told me as he paddled his board through the 75-degree ocean. "You don't even want to get in there this time of year." An impromptu polling of surfers, most of whom were on the far side of 50, revealed hometowns from California to as far north as Seattle, Wash. (Sayulita is about a two-hour drive south of San Blas, another popular surfing spot in the state of Nayarit).
The kayaks were brought here by the Rubios, a family who operates a kayak concession on the beach in front of Papa's Palapas, the three-unit bungalow on the beach where we had originally planned to stay. Guadalupe Rubio, 73, has been coming to Sayulita from her home in Pismo Beach, Calif., since 1964.
"Back then [Sayulita] had no water, no electricity," said Rubio, whom everyone calls by her nickname, Lu. Rubio acts as abuela, or grandmother, to a handful of Mexican boys who help out with the kayaks. "It was just a little jungle village."
Her 45-year-old son, Mario, spent 25 years working as a roughneck for Standard Oil in California before chucking it all last year and staking his claim as the kayak king of Sayulita. Mario's brother Mark stays in Pismo Beach, booking reservations for Papa's Palapas and private vacation homes rented out by their Mexican owners from Guadalajara and Mexico City. On a slow day, Mario will jump on one of the kayaks to help drum up business. On other days, he's organizing kayak trips to the nearby Marietas Islands, where visitors can view the marine and bird life, including frigates and blue-footed boobies. When the whales are migrating during calving season, from December to March, Mario sets up whale-watching trips. He also puts together nature walks for people curious about the flora and fauna in the jungle.
A fair number of Americans have discovered Sayulita, some of them retired teachers who have bought houses on the hill overlooking the bay, and the local real estate market is said to be taking off. Some fret that all the attention might change the place, where prices already skewed upward by the dollar-influenced spillover of its nearby big-sister resort town.
"I'd like to keep [Sayulita] the way it is," Lu said. "I'm afraid of it becoming another Puerto Vallarta."