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Riding the Waves in Sayulita
Sayulita is known for its wide crescent beach, laid-back vibe, and seemingly endless series of perfect waves. The small town still retains the spirit of a Mexican pueblo, even though it has a liberal sprinkling of U.S. and Canadian residents. During the holidays, it is swarmed by people (like us) who transform it from sleepy fishing village to a crowded tourist mecca.
Located about 50 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport, Sayulita is easily reached by a $45 taxi or $1.90 public bus. We chose the bus, not just because the substantial cost savings fit our limited budget; but taking the bus immersed us immediately into the local culture.
After exchanging money in the airport to ensure that we had the correct bus fare, we crossed over a foot bridge in front of the airport and waited at the bus stop. We were looking for a white and green Compostela bus with the name “Sayulita” included among the list of destinations written on the windshield. A green and white bus arrived, and the small mass of people around us began surging forward to get on; however, the windshield list didn’t have the word “Sayulita.” Just to be sure this wasn’t our bus, I asked one of the men at the stop; he waved his arm back toward the oncoming traffic and replied in rapid Spanish, no, wait, the Sayulita bus was coming later. (At least, that was the gist of what I understood.) Five minutes later, we were on board the right bus, heading north.
The bus seats were soft, and the windows had curtains in case passengers wanted to block out the light and maybe even catch a few winks.
We kept our curtains, and eyes, wide open. In a new place, everything seems exciting at first, even the traffic and small shops, such as this piñata store:
Our bus motored along, soon leaving the busy streets behind and following a 2-lane road through scrubby trees. Near one town, we slowed for a long series of speed bumps. Sitting in the back of the bus, we bounced up and down and caught air a few times (not unhappily!). All too soon, we arrived in Sayulita.
Our visit coincided with the peak tourist season. Although we had originally planned to spend only 3 nights here, our inn (along with many other hotels and vacation rentals in Sayulita) had a mínimum 5-night stay during the holidays. So 5 nights it was.
On a tight budget, we had found what we thought would be a great place—2 adjacent rooms at a 3-room inn owned by a Canadian family who lived on the bottom floor. The setting seemed ideal: a local neighborhood, only a few blocks from the central plaza, and a 5-minute walk to the beach.
Our two rooms were spacious, each with a queen bed and small sofa bench:
An open breezeway separated the rooms:
In addition to the side door, each room had double metal doors that opened onto a nice patio:
The other side of the building had a common kitchen area with a spiral staircase that led to an upper terrace:
Our favorite place to hang out was a lounge area at the top:
The upper terrace also had a table and chairs:
We appreciated all of the artistic touches:
The kitchen area was also connected to an indoor/outdoor toilet and shower area that we shared with some 4-legged residents:
The surrounding neighborhood had a mixture of traditional and more modern homes.
Across the street:
To our left:
And to our right was what we came to call “the party house”:
Night was falling, and we were craving some good tacos. The inn owner gave us directions to Tacos On The Street, which served the most succulent, moan-inducing tacos and quesadillas we have ever eaten (and we have eaten a lot!).
Even out-of-focus, these photos still capture some of the tender and juicy goodness.
With tacos at 90 cents each, and quesadillas at $1.50, we feasted like it was Thanksgiving dinner—you know that feeling, where your stomach says “I’m full,” yet you can’t resist “just one more bite” because it all tastes so insanely delicious and you don’t normally have meals like this.
Tacos on the Street was our favorite place on our entire Puerto Vallarta trip, and we returned to indulge once more before we left. Divine. (For anyone who might add this taquería to their “must experience” list for Sayulita, I should note that the restaurant doesn’t serve cervezas; however, you can buy them across the street and bring them back to your table—no worries!)
After dinner, we strolled along the central streets, and I ate my first-but-not-last bag of churros. My favorite churro vendor fried up long swirls of dough right on the street and then dipped them in a coating of sugar and cinnamon:
Here he is on another day, lifting the fried dough from the vat of hot oil:
Back at our inn, we discovered that a DJ was booming disco music (and his own energetic commentary) from over the hill. Moreover, the construction of our rooms—with metal doors and window frames, single pane glass, no curtains, and large gaps around the doors—did nothing to insulate us from the sound, or to prevent the bright street lamp from lighting up our rooms. Even earplugs did not block the noise completely. The music continued until after 1 a.m., only to be replaced by a symphony of local dogs and roosters. The roosters next door alternated back and forth with roosters down the street for hours. As a light sleeper, I finally dozed off around 7 a.m.
As I’m tossing and turning during the night, I’m thinking that there is no way I can stay here for five nights. We had already paid half of our room costs, with the balance due in the morning. I’m thinking that we will just have to forfeit the unused portion of our deposit. In my travels, there have been many places where I have been kept awake at night by all kinds of sounds, but generally those places have been more rustic and much less expensive. And I had carefully selected this place because it had been promoted as "comfortable and relaxing." I’m thinking that I’m going to pack up our belongings in the morning and we are leaving!
But there I am the next morning, sitting on the lounge on the roof-top terrace, drinking my coffee, basking in the sunlight, listening to the sounds of children playing in the street and people cooking next door, watching the produce vendor drive by advertising his vegetables via a loud-speaker, and feeling the fresh seaside breeze on my skin . . . and somehow the place doesn’t seem quite so bad. Surely it was the lack of sleep affecting my brain! After talking over options with Ben, whose night had been slightly better than mine (he grew up with 3 brothers and has developed a knack for blocking out noise), we vacillated between going and staying, going and staying, and then made the crazy decision to stay put.
You make choices, and you accept the consequences without complaining. Simple as that. I will note, however, that New Year’s Eve was even more lively, as the local neighbors on both sides cranked up their outside speakers so that our bedroom walls actually vibrated until after 4 a.m. (when they turned the volume down to the level of just “loud”).
Here is the party house, enjoying a more mellow new year’s celebration the next day:
Despite the lack of sleep, Sayulita provided us with some great family memories, and we made the most of our daytime hours. In particular, the boogie boarding was magnificent, even though it got off to a slow start.
On our first morning, we couldn’t wait to get to the beach. However, the air was unexpectedly brisk, and the water was pretty rough on the main beach. We ventured over to a side beach, La Playa de los Muertos (The Beach of the Dead), where the water was supposed to be calmer and great for swimming and snorkeling.
Starting out—Sebastian, Genevieve and Ben:
The name Playa de los Muertos comes from the nearby cemetery, which we had to walk through to reach the beach.
At Playa de los Muertos, however, the water was too murky for snorkeling. The surge and pull of the current was also too strong for easy swimming, especially with the surrounding rocks. However, Genevieve and Sebastian still played on the beach and splashed a bit in the shallow areas.
In the afternoon, we returned to the main beach, where we were hoping to sign up for surf lessons. The south end of the shore was full of surf instructors trying to teach students how to stand up on a surfboard.
Here’s a cluster of instructors and students, waiting for the next wave:
We searched out the surf school that the owner of our inn had recommended, but the person working at the school’s beach booth didn’t know the schedule and told us that we should go back to our hotel and send an email to the surf school owner regarding the availability of lessons. “Really?” we asked. “We’re right here, ready to sign up.” But it was not to be.
We ended up renting boogie boards every day and having so much fun that the idea of surf lessons paled in comparison.
Genevieve, Sebastain and Ben, catching a wave:
And so we settled into a nice routine over the next three days: arriving at the beach around 10 a.m. before the crowds, renting a set of beach chairs, and then riding our boogie boards all day in the surf.
Sebastian, drying off in the sun:
We didn’t even have to leave the beach for lunch, as there was a steady stream of vendors coming by with all kinds of goodies—skewers of barbecued fish, tamales, brownies, spinach empanadas, fresh fruit, and more. We tried it all!
Genevieve and Sebastian, with their fish-kabobs:
After Sebastian took his first bite of fish from the stick, he turned to me and announced, “This is paradise!”
Yes, so it seemed. At least during the day.
The kids gained more and more confidence on their boogie boards and in their swimming skills. By the third day we were all catching waves in the deeper water, about 300 feet from shore, and riding the curls all the way in. As a family, it was thrilling. One time, the wave swooshed my boogie board on top of Genevieve, and then I felt another boogie board land on my back—it was Sebastian! All three of us rode that wave into shore like a stacked Oreo cookie. It was one of those perfect moments that you couldn’t create if you tried, what I call “a gift from the universe.” We were laughing and squealing and high fiving each other at the end. And the memory still has the power to connect us and make us laugh.
More photos of the Sayulita beach:
Along with the vendors of food, hats, blankets, shawls, jewelry, and clothing came a bit of musical entertainment by this father and his son:
On the recommendation of a local surfer, we left the beach to try scrumptious fish tacos at Maria’s—the taqueria with the blue awning and blue chairs out front, right next to the taqueria with the fancier orange awning in the photo below:
Maria’s always had a line of people waiting during the lunchtime crush. (The above photo was taken in the late afternoon, near closing time.) Here are Genevieve and Sebastian waiting patiently across the street for a table:
The tender chunks of fish were perfectly fried, and tucked into soft corn tortillas with just the right combination of spices and sauce. Well worth the wait. So much so, that we came back on another day and waited some more. Here we are at the roadside table:
Another favorite food stop was Wa Kika Ice Cream, serving up handmade cones of creamy goodness.
Making fresh cones:
On the main plaza, Choco Banana was a great place to start the day with excellent coffee drinks and breakfast:
Here are Ben and the kids, enjoying coffee and hot chocolate in the early morning hours before the town sprang to life:
Not all the places we ate were stellar, however. Just for the record, I would avoid the following:
1) The Sayulita Café:
The Sayulita Café was pricey and usually packed with tourists—2 factors that are rarely a good sign. But two of the local places we wanted to try had long lines to be seated, and our tired feet and hunger led us to this café. The food was very disappointing, as if the chef was cranking out “dummied-down” Mexican dishes—chicken mole that was drenched in a milky chocolate sauce with none of the dense richness of a traditional mole, and a quesadilla that was so bland it tasted like something you would find on a standard children’s menu at a U.S. chain restaurant.
2) Leyza Mexican Cuisine:
We chose Leyza because it offered us a chance to sit on the second floor overlooking the central plaza:
The restaurant exterior, showing our 2nd floor overlook:
While the view was great and the food not bad, the over-all atmosphere was one of a used car lot, where customers are brought in by a huckster with flashy smiles and insincere camaraderie, and then subjected to a “get ‘em in, and get ‘em out” revolving door attitude. Even now, I give an involuntary shudder at the experience.
Sayulita had a pleasant town square, and the streets were fairly peaceful during the day, even during this holiday season.
North of the central plaza, a river cuts through town:
The river can rise drastically during storms, and a major flood in September 2010 destroyed the vehicle bridge into town. A new bridge was constructed last year, with steel beams underneath and wider than the older bridge; however, it looks like the river still doesn’t have to rise too much to challenge the bridge’s structural integrity:
There was also a special pedestrian-only bridge, which we used:
On the north side of town, the road wound up a hill, with large homes on either side.
There was a lot of new development, as well as a scattering of abandoned structures.
I am always drawn to the older homes. One grand home with spacious lawns and a beach view stirred thoughts of “I wonder what it would be like to live here.”
Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with that reaction, as the owners had painted a large yellow and red sign on the upper wall announcing: “Esta propiedad pertenece a una familia Mexicana. NO ESTA A LA VENTA.” (This property belongs to a Mexican family. IT IS NOT FOR SALE.)
The town of Sayulita has undoubtedly seen some drastic changes over the last 30 years, as more and more people from the U.S., Canada, and Europe have discovered its charms. As tourists, we affect and even diminish the reasons why a place was initially so appealing. For the time being, Sayulita seems to be finding that perfect balance between accommodating new (or relatively new) arrivals and retaining its local flavor.
That balance seemed evident at the New Year’s celebration in the central plaza, where Mexican families and tourists were both out in full force enjoying the mix of traditions and activities.
Sebastian elevated himself the easy way:
The acrobatic dancers were a big crowd pleaser:
And every tourist venue must have its metallic person. In Sayulity, it was a silver-coated man, waiting his turn to perform:
We never did see what the metallic man was going to do, however, as the crowd and performers began dispersing pretty quickly after the police arrived to talk to two performers who were preparing to twirl some fire batons.
We moved over to the other side of the plaza, where some Aztec dancers were performing in elaborate, feathered costumes:
The dance was interrupted, however, by shouting and firecracker pops that grew nearer and nearer, until suddenly a man burst into sight carrying a wooden bull structure with spinning sparklers and shooting fire:
The bull frame is called a torito, meaning little bull. It is traditional for a man or boy to run through crowds of people, chasing whoever he can find, while fireworks shoot off the framework. After a few rounds, he passes the bull off to another energetic chaser.
It all seemed pretty dangerous, with the wood, clothing and feathers (not to mention eyeballs and soft body parts) in close proximity to the sparks and fireworks shooting off in different directions. But everyone remained safe, albeit cloaked in thick smoke.
And so 2011 became 2012 for us in the festive town of Sayulita.
The boogie boarding here had been incredible. We had challenged ourselves out there on the water, and the Sayulita waves had rewarded us with exhileration and fun. However, it was time to move on to our next stop—the tranquil and remote village of Yelapa. I was ready for more adventures . . . and hopefully a good night’s sleep.
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