Christine Delsol, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007
(02-04) 04:00 PST San Francisco, Mexico — By the time I got to Sayulita, on the Pacific coast north of Puerto Vallarta, it was almost too late. San Pancho was the new Sayulita, and Lo de Marco, a few miles farther north, stood ready to become the next San Pancho.
Confused yet? It’s all part of the effort by Margaritaville seekers to stay one step ahead of the new mega-resort rising on the beach in the state of Nayarit, which Mexico intends to transform into the next Cancún. As hotels rise and bulldozers rumble across the dunes, barefoot travelers whose taste runs more to fish tacos and hammocks are migrating to villages farther and farther up the coast.
To achieve Margaritaville status, a place must be relaxing but in some way stimulating; unspoiled yet equipped with good restaurants and comfortable digs; within reach of the city’s boutiques, supermarkets, clubs and ATMs, but at a safe remove from the northward march of gated resorts and luxury villas.
By all accounts, Sayulita possesses the requisite qualities. It has built up a fanatic following, as evidenced by the cries of alarm provoked by last year’s announcement that the Mexican government tourist development agency was building infrastructure for its next project, on the coast about 15 minutes south of Sayulita (see sidebar, Page G8). Veteran visitors were dismayed to learn the golf courses and lavish hotels they’d been trying to avoid were following them along the coast.
By the time my sister, Diane, and I arrived last fall, U.S.-level prices in Sayulita were crowding out the bargains. Condos and villas boasting infinity pools and New York loft decor were stacking up in the hills on the edge of town. It was still picturesque and mostly authentic, and it still had gnarly surf breaks — only now it had more lodging choices, more shopping, more English-speaking locals. Comfort had overtaken discovery.
A model village
Descriptions of San Francisco, popularly known as San Pancho (just as we know revolutionary general Francisco Villa as “Pancho”), sound much like the earlier reports from Sayulita: a small, clean village surrounded by jungle and mountains that wears its traditions on its sleeve. But it also has watercolor sunsets, a sea turtle nesting ground and possibly the best surfing on Mexico’s west coast. So we took the exit north of Sayulita on Highway 200 and bumped into town in the dark of night.
Despite the old-fashioned cobblestone that rattled our teeth, San Pancho has been a town only since the 1970s, when the fishing settlement consisting of maybe four extended families captured the fancy of then president Luis Echeverría. Echeverría swooped in by helicopter once a week or so to drink coffee and eat homemade tortillas with fishermen and farmers, eventually building a beachfront palace on the edge of today’s town.
The president began creating a self-sufficient model village. Workers lured by promises of land and a home laid the cobblestone, plumbing and electrical systems. They built houses, a church and plaza, schools and a hospital. They planted orchards and built factories to process the fruit.
Instead of garnering accolades for his efforts, Echeverría ended up fleeing Mexico to avoid prosecution for the killings of student demonstrators in 1968 and 1971. San Pancho had to take command of its own fate, subsisting on mango processing until North American tourists and expatriates started arriving in the mid-1990s.
At the turn of the millennium San Pancho’s only hotel was the Costa Azul, an “adventure resort,” started by a surfer in 1991, which offers guided kayaking, biking, surfing, snorkeling and horseback trips on the beach and in the jungle. Today, rental bungalows proliferate, and one of Pacific Mexico’s top-rated bed and breakfasts commands a hillside perch at the jungle’s doorstep, just beyond the Costa Azul.
Hotel Cielo Rojo, where we stayed, is a happy combination of comfort and economy. Recently renovated after acquiring new owners, it sports spare yet artful design with gleaming white walls, terra cotta floors, generous wooden shelves and painted bathroom tiles. A quirky collection of antique fixtures and artwork includes a headless, life-size padre at the patio doorway. Rooms are not air conditioned, but the ceiling fans acquitted themselves well during late October days that refused to surrender the mugginess of summer.
We fell into a languid routine: breakfast in the palm-shaded courtyard; a walk around town to stock up on water, snacks and sundries; then lunch under a palapa at Las Palmas, where the main street’s cobblestones disappear into sand.
Lunch pretty much finished off the day, invariably turning into hours of gossip and philosophy with other travelers and locals, broken up by dips in the ocean or walks to the end of the long, uncrowded, white-sand beach. For intermission, the lemon-yellow Vallarta Adventures jungle buggies rolled up in mid-afternoon, disgorging an unpredictable assortment of jeep safari passengers to storm the bathrooms, tank up on beer and splash in the waves.
For a small pueblo, San Pancho has a wealth of fine restaurants. La Ola Rica, started several years ago by two local women, opened for the season on our last night in town. Diane ate the justly famous carne asada and I had chicken flavored with lime, in the midst of a celebratory fervor usually seen only on New Year’s Eve.
None of our full-service dinners was more satisfying than the fare at the taco stand that sprung up each night on our street corner. The slender, serious-looking young man who welcomed us to “Tacos Miguelito” filled soft tortillas with succulent pork shaved from a spit and strips of beef from a grill the size of a foosball table. The burst of flavor made our eyes roll back, and the tab on our most gluttonous visit came to less than $3 each, including soda.
From restful to raucous
The routine left plenty of room for improvisation, which allowed us to scout a Margaritaville-in-waiting as well as sample Nayarit’s exclusive side.
Edson, our solicitous young waiter at Las Palmas, was one of the few Mexicans we met in town whose English was better than my Spanish. He had lived in Guadalajara, Seattle, New Mexico and, more recently, Los Cabos before returning to San Pancho to get away from “too many people, too many cars, too much stress.”
Edson persuaded us to explore Lo de Marco, touting its creamy white beach, pretty town plaza and dearth of tourists. Venturing another highway exit north, we walked a pristine beach even longer than San Pancho’s, waded in the surf and gathered coconuts shed by a line of palms that separate private homes and rental bungalows from the sand. At the plaza end of the beach, children body surfed under parents’ watchful eyes. We didn’t see a gringo all morning, and though there were fewer restaurants than in San Pancho, we easily found a palapa and took up residence.
We also felt duty-bound to spend an evening in Puerto Vallarta. Despite the persistent myth that San Pancho is 30 minutes from the city, it took us closer to an hour to drive each way. Still, we were early enough to sneak in without dinner reservations at Trio, an enduring downtown favorite with a Mediterranean-influenced menu and strolling musicians. Dinner was as fabulous as the setting, and it was the first time I’ve had an artichoke (as an appetizer with cheese, red pepper and arugula) in Mexico.
After dinner, we joined the throngs of families, couples, musicians, street performers, artists and thrill-seekers lining up to ride a carnival bungee swing on the malecón, or seafront. Across the traffic-choked boulevard, hawkers flung pitches at us from the doorways of shops open late. An illuminated elephant figure topped one tall building; bars and discos opened their jungle and spaceport themes to the street, looking like the dark rides at Disneyland. The whole scene, in fact, felt as surreal as Downtown Disney.
It was loads of fun — and it sucked the Margaritaville right out of us. Jouncing down our cobblestoned main street was relaxing by comparison.
Living the luxe life
To wallow in luxury — the air-conditioned, swim-up bar kind of luxury — we spent our last two nights in San Pancho at Casa Obelisco. Built in 1999 by two U.S. couples in Mediterranean villa style, it sits on a hillside north of the Costa Azul resort. It has a footpath to the beach and lies a few steps from the jungle.
Opulence was addictive. One day, we donned skirts and drove to Punta Mita, the peninsula at the northern tip of the Bay of Banderas, between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. Sign after sign hawking existing and planned luxury developments interrupted the verdant, rolling landscape. I wondered why the alarm went out only after the federal tourism agency announced its intentions, considering that Punta Mita, which dwarfs Litibú, has been taking shape right next door since the late 1990s.
So far, Punta Mita‘s queen bee is the Four Seasons (with Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course; rooms from $545 per night), the only hotel among multimillion-dollar private villas and condominiums. The St. Regis will join the party as early as this December, followed by La Solana Resort, a Four Seasons sibling. A second Nicklaus golf course is under construction.
Slightly stupefied by the groomed perfection around us, we almost missed the plain brown gate simply marked “Punta Mita.” After we asked the gatekeepers to make us lunch reservations at the Four Seasons, the gate opened to allow us to drive through more green and blue splendor to the hotel’s portico.
The two valets allowed us a few minutes to gawk at the lobby’s dizzying view of palapa umbrellas, flowering vines and endless blue water, then installed us in an electric cart for a narrated drive down to the open-air restaurant. We shared an appetizer, a salad and a grilled vegetable pizza and considered it $54 well spent. After all, the surroundings were sublime, the restroom provided linen towels and we’d been Very Important People for a couple of hours.
We asked if we could walk, rather than ride, back uphill. As the cart sped away, our escort accompanied us up the path, gently steering us away from the pool and lounge area we were desperate to see. He sounded genuinely apologetic when he explained the hotel’s commitment to guests’ privacy.
Locals appeared less distressed than visitors by development plans. Merchants hold out hope of increased business. Bill Kirkwood, one of Casa Obelisco’s owners, said he thought Litibú might even benefit the more modest lodgings in the area.
“People who visit places like Four Seasons and Litibú will eventually want to get out of the manicured environment and explore,” he said. “They want to find out about places like San Pancho.”
On our last day in town, a new sign materialized on the beach at Las Palmas, reading “Surf boards for rent.” An arrow pointed to two surfboards planted upright in the sand. When Edson came to take our orders, he admitted to being the entrepreneur.
“We don’t have anyone giving lessons in San Pancho,” he said, “but people should know they don’t have to go to Sayulita to surf.”
It was another step on San Pancho’s road to becoming the next Sayulita. I thought of the half-finished houses between the Se Vende (“For sale”) signs nailed to trees in the jungle, and the private golf course and villas going up across from the Costa Azul on Echeverría’s old estate.
Lo de Marco was looking better and better for the next trip. And from there, the reconnaissance run to Rincón de Guayabitos is only a 10-minute drive north.
If you go
All locations are in Mexico’s Nayarit state. Prices are in U.S. dollars unless noted.
San Francisco, known as San Pancho, is 25 miles, or about 45 minutes, north of Puerto Vallarta’s airport on coastal Highway 200. Taxis from the airport cost about $50 to $80.
Where to eat
Taco stands tend to be good. Restaurants we tried included:
La Ola Rica, Tercer Mundo, San Francisco. Entrees, 80-185 pesos (about $7.25-$17 US).
Mar Plata, Tercer Mundo, San Francisco. New restaurant with a Belgian chef. Entrees, $16-$22.
Las Palmas, Tercer Mundo at the beach, San Francisco. Lunch for two, 130 pesos ($11.80).
Trio Restaurant Bar Cafe, Guerrero No. 264, Puerto Vallarta. Entrees, 160-295 pesos ($14.50-$27).
For more information
Sayulita Life, (541) 359-1945 (U.S. number), http://www.sayulitalife.com/.
Moon Handbooks Puerto Vallarta, by Bruce Whipperman, has more detail on Nayarit’s coastal villages than most guides.
The online guide http://www.sanpancho.com/ is in “under construction” limbo but was helpful in its previous incarnation.
To comment, e-mail Deputy Travel Editor Christine Delsol at email@example.com.