Sayulita and South Nayarit

This article is from the May 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
South Nayarit, Mexico’s Finest Coastal Villages

by David Simmonds

With more than 6,000 miles of beaches, you could spend years exploring all the possibilities in Mexico – searching for that perfect place, the one where you could maybe spend a few years, grow your hair, shuffle around daily in shorts and sandals, take up the guitar…home. And, since I’m sure I have overlooked and missed a few fine settlements in my 30-year search for what is commonly called paradise, I don’t think I have neglected many of them. One thing I know for sure is this – Mexico’s west coast between just south of Mazatlán and all the way to Zihuatanenjo is where I’d recommend that you look for your town.I know that many of you are partial to the Yucatán coast with its incomparable turquoise sea and fascinating Maya culture. There is surely much to like there, but I see a future of too many people invading too few miles of beach. That=s good for tourism, but it’s not where I=d like to hang my hammock.

And then, more and more of you are finding the mystery and remoteness of the Baja peninsula (hugging the amazing Sea of Cortez) a perfect hideaway. If I weren’t so partial to the tropics, mangos and natural shade, Baja might be my first choice. So, I have to stick with the west coast of the mainland, and more specifically, the villages just north of Puerto Vallarta, in the adjoining state of Nayarit.

One of Mexico’s smallest states, it is bounded by Sinaloa, Durango, Jalisco, Zacatecas and the Pacific Ocean. Nearly half of the state’s 900,000 inhabitants live in the inland capital of Tepic, home to a growing population of expats who enjoy the near-perfect climate and relatively slow pace of life.The area was originally populated by the Cora and Huichole natives who dominated the majestic mountains of the Western Sierra Madre. After the fall of the Toltec Empire, the Coras broadened their empire, expanding into present-day Zacatecas. In the sixteenth-century the leader of the empire was King Nayarit who established an independent Cora kingdom.

In 1592, Friar Miguel de Uranz ventured to the area. Born in Jerez of a Castellón father and an Indian mother, Uranz established a friendship with King Nayarit. He gave Nayarit a sword, a letter of recommendation, and made arrangements that the King be baptized and be given the name Francisco. In return, Nayarit relinquished no land grants nor gave any aid to the Spanish. In time, the entire mountain region came to be known by the name Nayarit, which is now the name of the state.

Today, Nayarit grows more varieties of tropical fruits in the lush landscape than any other state, in addition to being the leading tobacco grower in the country, accounting for 75% of national production. Mexico’s largest tobacco firms, Compania Tabacalera Mexicana and La Modema are headquartered here.

The many green valleys carved into the mountains reminds me of Hawaii, with the mostly rocky coast blessed with many lagoons and sandy bays. Best of all, it hasn’t been overrun with tourist-oriented development and remains much as I found it thirty years ago, when I first drove my old VW bus down from San Diego during summer break from college with my old childhood buddy, Tom Dawson, now a Tempe, Arizona, dentist.

The tropical fruits include avocado, mango, papaya, banana, tamarind, melons, coconuts and citrus. Sugarcane, corn, beans, tomatoes, and chiles are also cultivated in abundance throughout the region. Gold, silver and lead are mined and processed and account for over 30% of the state’s commerce.

The main fisheries are centered around the San Blas area where aquaculture has been introduced to great success in the production of oysters and shrimp.

The largely remote and inaccessible mountains are home to the 20,000 Huichol and 10,000 lesser known Cora. The Huichol have, more than any other indigenous group, maintained their culture, dress and religious practices. Peyote is still used in that regard, seemingly without government intervention. Time spent in these native cultures illuminate the sharp contrast with the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, just a day’s drive away.

As you drive north from Puerto Vallarta, shortly beyond the airport, you pass into Nayarit, where you wind your watch back one hour (at Río Ameca), the one on your wrist as well as the one between your ears. You soon arrive in Bucerias, always a nice diversion from the mania that has become Vallarta, but now maybe a little too close to be considered out of the way. It does, however, have several miles of beautiful sandy beach, populated with various palapa seafood restaurants well-stocked with cold cervezas. Reasonably priced hotels can be easily located, as well as ocean-front vacation homes. But again, it’s a little too close to PV to be one of my favorite options. (Note: I still like PV very much. You just have to understand that it is now a large city with all that implies)Heading north a few more miles brings you to the Punta Mita turnoff, rapidly on its way to complete meltdown as the developers are lined up, backhoes in hand. I saw an aerial view of the new Four Seasons resort out on the point stretching from one side to the other. Others are sure to follow. Oh well, let’s keep rolling a little farther north on Hwy 200 and at a turn-off just 22 miles from PV airport you will see a sign for Sayulita, which translated from an ancient dialect means “unpack your bags and buy property, now.”

The term “undiscovered” no longer applies to this idyllic little town, although I am surprised it hasn’t changed more since I first rolled in a quarter century ago. It still has the prettiest little bay accessible by auto I have had the pleasure of camping on and the locals don’t seem too irritated by the gringo population that has bought up some of the better lots. You often hear Sayulita compared to the PV of 30 years ago, but I was in PV back then and it was bigger and more developed than Sayulita is today.The town is located some two miles down the road from the turn-off at the highway, putting you out of earshot from the buses and trucks that haul cargo up and down the coast. This is a key ingredient for any settlement that carries the paradise reputation. The only loud noises you want to hear are those of the wind and sea during a seasonal chubasco. Or maybe the trumpet from a mariachi band on Saturday night.

I would say that the hills surrounding the town will act as a natural deterrent to overdevelopment, but it hasn’t slowed down PV, where the hills will someday be completely covered with homes. For now, the new construction in Sayulita is tasteful and manageable, with most homes blessed with incredible views to the sea.

Daily life around town is slow-paced unless you want it otherwise. They seem content with the basic necessities with the knowledge that Vallarta is nearby enough to reach on short notice if you just have to have a latte at a cybercafé. Of course, the convenience of being close to a full service resort town will someday also contribute to the overflow growth/destruction – sooner or later. But for now, it’s nearly perfect.

Around the same time I first went to Sayulita, so did Adrienne Adams (Tía Adriana), also hailing from the San Diego area. Looking for a radical change from her life as a real estate broker, she decided to make the move. The beauty of the village convinced her she could do this, although she had no real plan in place other than the belief it would all work out. The still in-progress result is Tía Adriana’s Bed & Breakfast & Hillside Retreats. Located a short block from the main beach, the three story brick B&B has evolved into the perfect retreat, especially for first-timers, where Tía can entertain and advise you as if she’s known you for years. First-timers tend to become regulars, as evidenced by the people I talked to on a recent visit. All of the very comfortable rooms are filled with art, much of it provided by her talented daughter, Lynn, who specializes in hand-painted tiles.

Tía spent her morning recently showing me around town and the nearly completed hillside addition to her operation. The Mediterranean-style multilevel structure is where she lives on one level, with the remainder available for room rentals. The view is incredible and the open air design provides a “one with nature” feel that is appropriate year-round in Sayulita, even in the rainy season.

A bit more rustic in design, but heavy on sporting activities, is Papa’s Palapa’s, on the beach and just around the corner from Adriana’s. With a nice, rolling surf break just offshore, Papa’s rents surf kayaks as well as offering fishing, kayak tours, surfing expeditions, snorkeling, jungle hiking and mountain biking along miles of untouched tropical beaches. Each rental unit has two levels with queen size beds on each level, and a full bath with shower on the lower level. The upper level has ocean and mountain views, again with plenty of fresh air.

Several restaurants provide a good variety of fare, although fresh fish is the predominant option. I have eaten at the ocean-front palapa restaurant, El Costeno, several times, and have always had terrific meals. Fried oysters are the best, if they have them. Just south on the beach is the more elegant Don Pedro’s, serving very good Mediterranean tropical cuisine – and the nightlife in town.

Just three miles farther north past Sayulita is the turnoff for San Francisco, another small village that hasn’t seen the gringo influx that Sayulita has. If Sayulita is sleepy, San Francisco is in a coma, which isn’t so bad, actually. And if you ask any of the locals anything about San Francisco, they may or may not respond, since they call it San Pancho. In the 1970’s, President Echeverria decided to turn the town into a model village/resort experiment, but, in spite of building an ocean front villa for himself on the edge of town, the plan never materialized. (In Mexico??)Many of the more popular coastal towns, large and small, are situated on protected bays (Pto. Vallarta, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Barra de Navidad), shielded from the strong Pacific waves. San Francisco isn’t, which may ensure its relative anonymity for years to come. Its present economy is centered on mango production, selling beers and tacos to the surfers who come for the waves, and as the host town for the neighboring resort, Costa Azul. As a matter of fact, in a look around town, I couldn’t find any other hotels.Costa Azul is advertised as catering to eco-tourism and adventure travel, but seems equally attractive as a place to do nothing but eat, drink and lie in a hammock. I have talked to several people who have stayed there and each of them enjoyed their time immensely. There were especially good reviews of the various activities offered – sailing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, horseback riding, surfing, fishing and diving.

The hotel grounds are very nice without being at all intrusive to its surroundings. The open air palapa restaurant serves excellent food as well as providing a lively meeting place to meet others over an adult beverage or two. They offer several different room packages focusing on various activities, including a honeymoon package where one day a guide takes the two of you to an offshore island, unloads you, a picnic and gear, then splits for several hours while you, presumably, get to know your new life partner in nature. Which sounds like either a great idea, or possibly an eco-nightmare, depending on the…elements.

That night, if you’re still married, a candlelit champagne dinner is served for you on the beach. The five nights in the honeymoon villa, participation in all adventure and eco-tours, all meals, beer, wine and taxes runs $1,200 per couple. Which is really a pretty good deal if you’ve checked prices for similar offers these days. They also offer a Kids Adventure Package, an Adventure Package, a Surfer Package (Corky Carroll Surf School), and an American Package, as well as room-only rates which start at $75US per night.

This is a very nice place and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a resort different from the traditional Acapulco-esque highrise.