Sayulita, Hippy-chic Mexico on the Pacific Coast
A new charter flight to Puerto Vallarta has put Mexico’s Pacific coast within easy reach from the UK. But don’t hang around in the big resorts – head north for laid-back beaches and boho shops, whale-watching and rodeos
As the dozen Mexican cowboys knelt down in Sayulita’s dusty rodeo arena, crossing themselves as they prayed, the 14-piece band cranked up its trumpet fanfare and an irate bull was dragged in front of the crowd and readied for action.
The first challenger balanced precariously on the fence before leaping on the animal. The bull thrashed wildly, throwing him to the ground in seconds before the cowboy was dragged away as the band blasted on regardless.
We winced, but the crowds – dressed to impress, the men in pristine cowboy hats and girls in skin-tight jeans and stiletto boots – whooped as they downed cans of Corona Light sold from old ice-filled buckets and waited for the next bout of man versus beast.
The hippy-chic coastal town of Sayulita, on the west coast, which mixes Mexican country culture with Pacific surf, boutiques and cool bars, is off the radar of most British travelers. It was discovered by free-range surfers in the 1960s, but savvy travellers can now use a new charter flight with Thomson, from London Gatwick to Puerto Vallarta, just 45 minutes’ drive away through lush jungle, far from the all-inclusive resorts.
I was here with my partner and two children, aged five and seven. The day after the rodeo, we wandered down to Sayulita’s magnificent swathe of beach where surfers and paddle-boarders drifted lazily in the early morning glow, waiting for the ideal wave to peel in, as a haze drifted over the sand and the palapa-thatched roofs of clifftop villas blended in with the palms.
A bikini-clad girl casually teetered up her long board to “hang ten”, while a squadron of pelicans swerved past and a handful of fishing boats putted out to sea. Its beach break has long made Sayulita a surf mecca, and surf schools stack their boards on the sand each morning as they open for business. It’s also big for stand-up paddleboarding, and the world championships were held here in May.
In the shady plaza, faded bunting fluttered as indigenous Huichol people in embroidered suits set out their beaded jewellery. A pick-up truck shattered the peace as it clattered along the cobbles, blaring its sales pitch for strawberries from a megaphone taped to the roof. There’s plenty for shoppers in Sayulita: stylish Origenes (Calle Marlin 2) sells leather bags in vibrant tangerine, crimson and apple green, intricately hand-embroidered bedspreads and striped baskets woven by prison inmates, while Boho Wheels’ bike-top shop pops up at night to sell handmade jewellery and purses.
Revolucion del Sueno (55 Calle Manuel Navarrete) does a roaring trade in kitsch T-shirts featuring Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, alongside bright throws and bags. Nearby, Artefakto (Delfin #15) stocks unusual ceramics, art and textiles from around the country.
On a mission to find Sayulita’s best street food, we queued for chicken mole tacos at hole-in-the-wall Naty’s Cocina (Calle Marlin 13) before enduring mind-bendingly spicy aguachile prawn tostadas at popular stall El Rinconcito (Avenida Revolucion and Rio Zarquito), perching on plastic stools while gringos swerved past on golf carts.
To work off the pounds, we trekked through the jungle from Sayulita to sleepier San Pancho, a few miles north, scrambling over fallen trees and following a stream through dense foliage. Giant termite mounds and thick vines helped distract the kids’ from their endless “Are we there yet?”. Apparently we weren’t, and after an hour we were somehow back where we started so opted to drive the few miles the next day instead.
San Pancho, with its hipster cafes, galleries and bohemian shops, operates at a lazier pace than Sayulita, and the bars on its quiet beach are perfect for trying micheladas (spicy bloody marys made with beer, tomato juice, lime, chilli and salt) while watching pelicans plummet into the surf.
Some evenings the cowboys come to town, prancing their immaculate horses up the main road with cans of beer in hand and their girlfriends on the back, while a band belts out tunes and elderly couples dance in the plaza.
We made it back to Sayulita in time for tequila cocktails blended with roasted jalapenos and ginger at Escondido (Calle Marlin 45A), before swaying on swings outside Atico hookah bar (Calle Mariscal, Unit 18) sipping smoky mezcal with chilli salt.
Next, crisp calamari at Los Corazones (Calle Jose Mariscal 15A) and a nightcap at Petit Hotel Hafa’s unselfconsciously cool Le Zouave bar (Avenida Revolucion 55), where the French owner was holding court. If you want to be close to the action, Petit Hotel Hafa (doubles from at $50) makes a great budget base – all scarlet-walled, boho chic with a Mexico-meets-Morocco theme, simple rooms and roof terrace.
For seaside accommodation, Casablanca (two-bedroom suites for four with kitchen from $95) is a good family option, with a pool and near the Campamento Tortugero Sayulita turtle camp , where they protect eggs from poachers and where visitors can help release the tiny newborn olive ridley sea turtles when they hatch (from November-February).
Elsewhere, the ocean views from the villas at Siete Lunas (doubles from $175) above nearby Playa de los Muertos are spectacular, although the vertiginous plunge from the horseshoe-shaped pool could prove hazardous for kids.
The ocean around Sayulita is prime whale-watching territory during the winter months and it’s easy to glimpse enormous humpbacks cruising down the coast on their annual migration as you sit on the beach.
Hoping for a close up, we set off early one morning on the 17-metre Ally Cat yacht for a sailing trip to the rocky Marieta Islands, a Unesco biosphere reserve also known for its blue-footed boobies. As we headed across Banderas Bay, a mother and baby humpback arched alongside before a huge whale breached in front of the catamaran. The captain dropped a microphone overboard and the low groan of whale song reverberated.
“It’s a macho one, it sounds like Chewbacca,” said one of the crew. At the uninhabited Marietas islands, we swam past preening blue-footed birds through a cave to a hidden beach, catching snippets of whale song as we snorkelled to the boat. Giddy on mai tais, we lounged at the bow watching dolphins loop past, feeling like extras in an 1980s pop video.
Back on dry land, we spent a couple of days exploring the coast just south of Sayulita – careering along dirt tracks to wild Playa Carricitos, driving along a river bed to deserted Playa Patzcuaro and swimming at tranquil Los Muertos, where bonfire smoke drifted among the graves at the colourful cemetery nestled in the jungle – until we were finally beached out.
Pestered by the kids for more cowboy action, we drove to the laidback Lo de Marcos, 20 minutes’ away, to meet Antonio Aguirre, with his well-groomed moustache and huge sombrero, who took us horse riding (+521 322 121 4254, $10 an hour for beach/jungle rides) along lush tracks in comfy western saddles while extolling the virtues of Corona Light and armadillo skin “scratchings”.
People scattered as we cantered back along the beach, the kids yee-hawing as their arms and legs flapped wildly, and we made a date with Antonio for the upcoming rodeo at his ranch. The bright lights and busy all-inclusive resorts of Puerto Vallarta might not have been far away, but this felt like another Mexico entirely.
• Thomson (thomson.co.uk) flies to Puerto Vallarta from Gatwick and Manchester from £439 return. Sayulita is a 45-minute drive from the airport. The best time to visit the Pacific coast is between November and May, before the high temperatures and humidity of the rainy season