Frigatebirds hover above the ocean like glamorous vultures. The pelicans, formidable grey beasts, catch their prey with a speed and precision that’s stunning to watch. During sunrise swims, birds bombard the blue-silk surface of the Pacific all around me. It’s an alarming, exhilarating spectacle.
Early mornings in Sayulita are my time to commune with nature. I wake with the roosters and the local donkey that likes to bray at the start of each day, along with several dogs and the guard goose honking at the condo down the hill. In the water, often it’s just me and a handful of surfers, one of them riding a board with his pet staffy. Most humans are likely still sleeping off last night’s Margaritas.
Spend a few days in Sayulita and life slips into an inevitable rhythm set by the metronome of the waves. This drowsy seaside commune of 5000 on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, about an hour’s drive north-west of the frenzied resort city of Puerto Vallarta, via the jaguar-friendly jungles of the Sierra Madre foothills, is not a destination for those who crave clubs and partying. It’s a place to come to if you value new connections and conversations, long lazy days and long hazy nights as well as a general rebalancing of the spirit. It is a place where, as s one local friend puts it so perfectly, “you have more time for life”.
Sayulita’s main beachfront street is called Pescadores (“fishermen”), a reminder of all there was here until the perfect little surf break and hypnotic beach-meets-jungle vibe first fired boardriders’ imaginations in the late 1960s.
Its growth since then has been remarkably contained and the town still has the laid-back feel and buena onda – good vibes (the literal translation is, fittingly, “good wave”) – that have lured visitors in the decades since. In 2015 it was designated a pueblo mágico (magic town), a title bestowed on Mexico’s most picturesque and characteristic towns, but the recognition doesn’t seem to have altered its identity greatly, apart from alerting more Mexicans to its charms.
Sayulita is most popular between November and February when sun-chasers descend from Canada and the United States (many keep holiday homes here) and the main beach is a sea of bright umbrellas and pay-to-splay sunlounges where hawkers ply their wares – fresh fruit on sticks, Huichol Indian handicrafts – from breakfast until sunset.
By April and May the peak has subsided and the heat of high summer is still a few weeks off. In some respects this is the ideal time to appreciate Sayulita’s charms: the cobbled main plaza lined with crayon-coloured buildings; the streets draped with papel picado folk-art bunting; and the palm trees and thatched roofs that define the town as much as its surf break and beachfront bars. It takes time to get the measure of the place, to pace its pathways and meet its vendors; to wander its wild coastline until yours are the only footprints in the sand; to sample the many eateries and bars and decide which ones bring you the most pleasure.
Where to eat
- Casa Gourmet (48 Calle Jose Mariscal), just a few blocks from the beach, is a boulangerie and pâtisserie where expat Parisian baker Bruno Konieczny turns out pastries so plump and delectable-looking, so sticky and sweet that sometimes you have to brush sugar-woozy bees from them before taking a bite. It’s also one of the few places where early risers can get a coffee at 7am.
- Mary’s (36 Avenida Revolución) is a simple café known for its exceptionally fresh fish tacos and ceviche. Not to be confused with Maria’s, a roadside stall also on Revolución and also famed for fish and shrimp tacos.
- La Esperanza (12A Calle Jose Mariscal), started by Byron Bay expat Lucy Mejía Elliott and her Mexico-born husband, José Mejía, ticks all the cold-pressedjuice-quinoa-salad-veganchocolate-mousse boxes.
- La Rustica is open all day and most patronised for its tequila-based cocktails and woodfired pizzas, including the La Sayulita topped with pepperoni, ham, mushroom and green pepper.
- When the heat closes in, head straight to Wa Kika ice-cream shop (40 Avenida Revolución) for paletas – fruit icy poles – and fresh juices.
Where to stay
- Casa dos Chicos is a holiday rental comprised of two buildings on a hilltop, each two storeys tall and flanking a pool fringed by tropical gardens. Its four breezy, colourful bedrooms are decorated with appealing Mexican minimalism. The twin rooftops are crowned with thatched palapas – open-sided pavilions – of kitchen and bar on one side; lounge, hammocks and rooftop spa on the other, linked by an aerial walkway. It’s tree-house living, Vogue style, with 360-degree views of jungle, ocean and the palm-shaded houses of Sayulita below.
- One of the first hotels built in this former fishing village, Villa Amor is still home to its most inspiring views. Set on the rocky shoreline at the southern end of Sayulita’s bay, 10 minutes walk from the town centre, most of its 31 villas open to the endless sea. Its oceanfront restaurant and bar is magical at night.
What to do
- Playa Centro’s gentle waves are fine for beginners but about half-a-dozen more challenging breaks are within 30 minutes of Sayulita. Playa La Lancha, near the resort enclave of Punta Mita (part-owned by business magnate Bill Gates), is popular with surfers and reached via a short hike along a jungle path.
- If the main beach looks too busy, walk to the southern end of Pescadores and follow the path past Villa Amor to Playa de los Muertos, the Beach of the Dead, named for the cemetery en route. This half-moon beach of boulders and shade is compact, with lively waves ideal for bodysurfing. In between sets, salt-crusted and sun-dazzled on the sand, keep an eye out for local sellers of cold drinks and trays of just-grilled mahi-mahi and shrimp.
- On Fridays, organic farmers’ market Mercado del Pueblo springs up on Avenida Revolución.
- In the winter months, the Bay of Banderas becomes a humpback nursery with acrobatic whales leaping from the sea. For up-close encounters, tours depart from Punta Mita.
- There are also daytrips to the Marietas Islands, a protected biosphere and home to dozens of seabird species, including blue-footed and brown boobies. If you book well ahead and purchase a permit, you can swim through a rock arch to arrive at beautiful Hidden Beach in the interior of one of the islands.
- Don’t miss Playa San Pancho (San Francisco Beach), a short cab ride north. It’s even sleepier than Sayulita but on Sundays it comes alive with families enjoying their day off. There’s usually a band playing and people of all ages splashing in the surf. Take a seat at a bar, order a drink and stay until the sun dips low over the jungle, casting this entire scene in gold.