A small Mexican village caters to surfers and anglers looking for a slower pace and great experiences.
This low-key village about 40 minutes north of bustling Puerto Vallarta doesn’t have sprawling beachfront hotels or rumbling discos where tourists do tequila shots out of each other’s navels.Sayulita doesn’t have a bunch of four-star restaurants, chic boutiques or even paved streets. But the curved sandy beach, the lush jungle, the lines of warm surfer-friendly swells and the funky, open-air restaurants attract a lot of adventuresome people from the Northwest.
Sayulita is Surf City, Mexico-style.
“We come for the surfing,” said twins Becca and Elie Meierbachtol of Portland.
“And the area is not too touristy,” Elie, 24, said as she looked over a table of local pottery. “You get a local feel.”
“The small-town feel is what I love,” Becca said.
The world-class surfing and fishing and beach exploring attracts Northwest people, but the slow-paced, close-to-the-earth rhythms of the Pacific coast town keeps them coming back.
MEXICAN SURFING MECCA
Sayulita’s famous surf, which rises from a rock river mouth reef and peels off into near-perfect right and left breakers, first attracted visitors in the mid-1960s.
The Mexican government had built the highway that connected tiny Sayulita – mostly a fishing village in those days – to rapidly growing Puerto Vallarta. Surfers soon discovered the tiny town with great waves. Surfers – always a traveling tribe – spread the word about Sayulita, and more and more visitors arrived.
Amazingly, the big hotels, chain restaurants and golf courses never arrived. There are no Senor Frog’s restaurants. Sayulita has lots of foreign visitors – and residents – but the town remains charmingly, stubbornly, delightfully Mexican.
Small stores carry groceries, vendors peddle fruit and fish from battered, cooler-equipped trucks and many residents toss their wash water out onto the packed sand-and-gravel roads.
SUN, SURF, SURPRISES
Steve O’Neal, who lives in San Francisco, visited Sayulita on impulse in mid-January, mostly because of the legendary surfing – and the warm water and sunny skies.
“I wanted to see what three hours of flying from San Francisco got me,” O’Neal said after he finished his first day of surfing Sayulita. “I love it – the great waves and no wet suit is required.”
Sayulita’s southern beach has easy waves that are perfect for beginners, while the swells breaking near the reef can challenge experts, said Nazario Carranza, co-owner of the Lunazul surf shop.
Many Mexican surfing champions grew up in tiny Sayulita, and those experts are usually in the lineup on good days, Carranza said.
Young Mexican surfers – some younger than 10 years old – paddle short boards into the crashing, usually unrideable shorebreak and manage slashing roundhouse cutbacks and quick tube rides. It’s easy to see why more Mexican surfing champions will come from Sayulita. Yet, there is room for surfers of all abilities – although beginners should stick to the south end of the beach, where the waves are gentle.
Nearby areas – a short taxi or boat ride away – offer more world-class waves. Adventuresome surfers should check with surf shops or fishing charters to find these out-of-the-way waves. Some of these breaks are great for beginners or longboarders, while others attract wave-slashing shortboarders. Those willing to explore and ask questions can find surfing riches that are not far away.
But many surfers love staying right in town.
“It is the waves that bring many people here, but it is the atmosphere they come to love,” Carranza said. “The area and town have a special charm, and many people who visit Sayulita come to love it.”
Visitors quickly discover that they’re in a real Mexican town – not a posh, polished resort. Most of the town’s streets are packed sand or gravel, although some are cobblestone. Mexican families live in small, stucco houses right next to larger homes and hotels that cater to tourists.
It’s common to see locals mixing concrete on the street or sidewalk, cutting down coconuts in local gardens or casting nets for baitfish in the surf. Fishing guides skid their pangas up onto the beach and carry catches to local restaurants and taco stands. Afternoons bring schoolchildren onto the streets – and onto the local waves.
The central plaza is the place to be in the warm evenings. Locals and visitors stroll or sit on the concrete walls, while children ride skateboards or practice handstands and other gymnastic moves.
On the beach, coconut palms sway in the evening breeze, and pelicans dive into the surf in search of baitfish.
The winter months are the dry months in Sayulita. Daytime high temperatures are in the 80 to 85-degree range, but a breeze from the ocean keeps things comfortable.
Heavy rains arrive during the summer months, and many winter expats head back to the United States, Canada or Europe.
Most of Sayulita’s restaurants are moderately priced, casual, open-air places where tourists and locals sit and eat shrimp, dorado – often called mahi mahi in the United States – and other seafood caught that morning.
Even the food carts – often a bad idea for tourists in much of Mexico – are safe and turn out delicious, simple fare, such as Rico’s tacos with sweet roasted onions and peppers.
“Rico’s taco stand is excellent,” said Becca Meierbachtol.
“And it’s also inexpensive,” said sister Elie Meierbachtol.
And even the swanky spots – such as Don Pedro’s – are open to the soft, tropical air and offer Mexican cuisine at reasonable prices.
CHASING SOME FISH
Sayulita began as a fishing town, and that hasn’t changed – despite the many small hotels, restaurants and swarms of people carrying surfboards in the streets.
Avid anglers load into pangas – a sturdy, open Mexican fishing boat – each morning and rocket off to the nearby blue water for dorado, sailfish, tuna, marlin and other big-game fish.
Beach anglers also find hot fishing for jack crevalle, snapper – called pargo in Mexico – Sierra mackerel and other fish.
Offshore boaters also see humpback whales, leaping manta rays and amazing bird life.
But the big kahuna in this little tropical town on Mexico’s tropical Pacific Coast is still surfing. Visitors surf. Locals surf. And they share the waves and streets and restaurants and shops. No big hotels, discos or golf courses here.
Just simple people having simple fun.
“This place is wonderful,” said Maggie Mork of Petersburg, N.D. “I stood up on my first wave – a great experience – and it’s beautiful here.”
All about Sayulita
In Sayulita, they run $60 to $130 a night. When they’re not in tow, Many expats from the United States and Canada rent their homes to visitors.
The Casablanca, a small, clean beachfront hotel with beautiful rooms and a pool, is $125 a night during high season, November through March. Locals say early January through February is a great time, as holiday crowds are gone and the weather and surf are great.
Rico’s taco stand is located near the town plaza every evening. Look for a circular grill, the scent of grilled onions and spices and groups of locals and tourists eating at tables set up curbside. The food is cheap, wonderful and safe.
Burrito Revolution serves massive, tasty chicken, fish, beef and veggie burritos made right in front of you at an open-air restaurant. This is a must. The staff trade jokes with customers seated at a counter in this funky spot. It is located on Avenunida Revolucion near the plaza.
The best beach restaurants are Don Pedro’s (www.donpedros.com), at the intersection of beach sand and Marlin.
At the north end of Sayulita’s beach, La Terrazoln serves up fantastic, ultra-fresh Mexican dishes in a charming, open-air platform under a palm-thatched roof.
Sayulita has good surfing all year, but the best swells – from the north – arrive from November through April. The fall and winter months are the dry season. Torrential rains arrive during the summer wet season.
Those new to the sport can learn the thrill of standing up on a wave. Many good surf schools line the beach. One of the best is Lunazul (www.lunazulsurf.com).
For charters, Captain Pablo’s is the place to go. No one can miss the boats, bustling beachside restaurant and surf school on Sayulita’s beach.
A taxi from the Puerto Vallarta airport to Sayulita – a 40-minute trip on most days – ranges from $30 to $40, depending on your bargaining skills.
Chester Allen, The Olympian