An hour northwest of Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico, Sayulita is often called pueblo mágico, or, “magic town.” This part of Mexico truly has a special magic to it that’s worth experiencing firsthand. It’s a lively, hip beach town full of dreadlocked surfers, hippies, yogis, and a bunch of misplaced Americans cruising around town in golf carts. All perfectly blending in with friendly locals. No need for a car in Sayulita, it’s a fantastic walking town. However, if you are feeling lazy, golf carts can be rented everywhere. The town is tiny and tightly packed together with uneven cobblestone lanes. The streets are decorated with colorful handicrafts made by the locals who take a great deal of pride in their small pueblo. There is a strong sense of community among Mexicans and transplants, and fortunately the feeling of ‘Old Mexico’ still remains.
Sayulita oozes color and action. Despite being a tiny town, it somehow packs a punch. Upon arrival, it can be visually overwhelming to the senses. It took me some time to truly begin absorbing and processing the sensory overload scene. As our travels continue, we’ve learned it’s difficult absorbing and getting a genuine feel for a new city or town in a short period of time. Yeah, you can see a place in a day or two, but for us, that’s just not enough time. It seems to take us about two days to become fully observant of all the little things going on around and get into the rhythm of things. Our general rule now, is to try and stay a minimum of 7 days in a each new place before moving on. That seems to be the magic number. However, in Sayulita, I could definitely see us getting into a routine and hunkering down for an even longer period of time.
Many seasoned travelers discovered this place years ago when it was a sleepy fishing village. It’s becoming a super popular travel location as word gets out about the laid-back atmosphere, beautiful natural setting along with the abundance of nothing to do. The downside of this popularity, as with all good places, is having to hear the construction going on everywhere.
Upon arrival, I could immediately tell this town has changed significantly in the last 10 years. It most probably morphed from a quiet, artsy hippie town to a true tourist destination having to accommodate the dreaded day trippers. Back in the day, I believe Sayulita was a hotspot for location independent digital nomads looking for a unique and inexpensive place to base. Today, the popularity of the town along with rapidly rising housing costs appear to be be flushing out all the location independent travelers.
With locals and tourists out wandering about, they are joined by a slew of amazingly happy, healthy and peaceful looking stray street dogs who also have the freedom to simply roam around town just like us humans. And, that is precisely what we did during our full week in Sayulita. We roamed around having nothing whatsoever on our agenda, which is quite rare for us. We kept busy taking in the vibrant scene and constantly stopping to munch on a wide variety of amazing tasting Mexican food. We simply relaxed and absorbed the daily local life which proved to be the most ideal game plan in Sayulita.
The Friday Farmers Market was fun to wander around. A visit to a local vendor whom I nicknamed, the “Cake Lady” is a must. She sets up shop selling a slew of the most kickass super moist home baked cakes on the corner of the main town square every evening at 6 PM. A huge slice will set you back only $1.50. Apparently, the secret is out as I later discovered that the Cake Lady was written about in the travel section of The NY Times. Every single night we filled our bellies with a great mexican dinner followed up with a huge slice of cake. We then proceeded to fall into a sugary food coma and simply pass out into the hammocks on the deck of our Airbnb house.
Besides the abundance of awesome taco joints (El Itacate, Bichos, Naty’s, El Ivan, Tacos Gaby), I sniffed out the best street side grilled chicken stand. After years of travel, let’s just say I have developed a keen eye on locating the best street side vendors and hole in the wall joints. I saw a crowd of locals queuing up on a quiet dead end laneway (Calle Gaviotas Sur) and that was my cue to get my ass in line. About $5 bucks for a whole chicken, a side of seasoned rice, hot tortillas and the most outstanding homemade coleslaw which was unusual to see served in Mexico. This cole slaw was right up their with the Kinpin’s famous slaw at Camp Echo Lake.
There are tons of bars and restaurants in town with the formal dress code of shorts and flip flops. My kind of place. The bars are a bit more subdued on the weeknights but on Saturday night the town is so alive with locals dancing on the cobbletone streets to the music. So much fun, great energy…….a good place to be.
Beach Scene –
Unfortunately, the main beach (Playa Sayulita) situated on a sweeping cove with nice backdrop, is clustered with shitty plastic lounge chairs/old umbrellas, taking away the open space and detracting from the natural beauty of this beach cove. Thailand had a similar problem in the past with their world renowned beaches until the government stepped in and made it illegal for vendors to lay out rows of chairs/umbrellas on their sandy beaches. This made a huge difference in Thailand and the Mexican government should take the same action on some of their popular beaches. Being savvy globetrotting beach goers who are blessed with the natural instinct of sniffing out good shit, we discovered two (2) alternative beaches which were more serene areas to chill and away from the crowds clustered on the main Sayulita town beach.
1) Los Muertos Beach – Simple 10 min. walk along the coastline from the main beach.
2) Playa Carricitos – My favorite. 20 min. walk thru jungle to fantastic isolated cove.
SAN PANCHO – (aka San Francisco)
We could of easily day tripped to San Pancho from Sayulita being only a 15 minute drive away. However, we made the executive decision to stay several nights in San Pancho in an effort to fully take in the local action. This may sound silly but San Pancho offered us a completely different Mexican town experience. I had heard from fellow travelers that if we wanted more tranquility and are ok with skipping the bars and the busier Sayulita scene, then head to San Pancho. The town is perfectly designed to be laid back but still had a good live music scene at the local bars. After all the nonstop ‘moving about’ we engaged in during our two months so far in Mexico, San Pancho was another perfect place to have absolutely no agenda whatsoever.
There are no high-rise hotels. The cell signal barely works, even in town. There’s only one important thing to do in San Pancho, and that is to relax. Nowhere to be, no schedule to maintain, no alarm to set. Simply get lit on your super strong morning coffee brew at Cafe Paraiso, throw in an amazing homemade brownie and then just take in all the laid back local action wandering aimlessly along the cobblestone streets. There is a nice sandy beach in town and some great restaurants to keep you busy. By the second day wandering around this tiny town, you will begin to recognize all the friendly faces along with the mucho chihuahua dogs roaming the streets, as they did in Sayulita. Dogs doing their daily shit just as us humans are doing our daily shit. We timely arrived to take in the Tuesday Farmer’s Market in the central square to enjoy the atmosphere and local band playing in the market. If you get to Sayulita/San Pancho in November & December, you can see the turtles released into the sea which is supposedly quite a sight.
PUERTO VALLARTA –
It has been about 25 years since the first time I visited the main port of Captain Stubing’s ‘Love Boat’…..Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta has transformed over the years with so many new construction projects. Usually good places get spoiled over time but Puerto Vallarta has retained its charm despite seeing an inordinate amount of retired American gringos outnumbering Mexicans. Many of the locals have been displaced because they probably could not resist taking the generous monetary buyouts offered to them by the American gringos. Many of the old ramshackle homes in the Old Town are now gone. The entire Romantic Zone has been revitalized with some cool looking, mid-rise Mexican style casitas having sprouted up within a 3-4 block radius of the beach.
There are a few areas to stay in Puerto Vallarta and choosing the right area will make a big difference in your experience. The Marina area and Hotel Zone in Northern Vallarta is home to the big resorts with all the creature comforts & amenities, but lacks atmosphere. The most happening area in my opinion, The Old Town (aka Romantic Zone), clearly not designed for the large resorts was in the thick of the real action that we desired. It is easily the best choice to base with its’ vibrant nightlife and wide variety of restaurants. The house special fish at the popular Joe Jack’s Fish Shack was spectacular. Being a big fish guy, I have never had a fish seasoned and prepared this way. We splurged a bit and chose to base for a week in an Airbnb located in a real cool (San Francisco-like) hilly section built into the hillside. The Airbnb balcony was perfectly positioned for some incredible sunsets and also overlooked the popular Los Muertos Beach in town.