Last winter, our 15-year-old daughter, a landlocked surfer, discovered a town an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, that was described as a “bohemian surf village with good, steady waves.” We hadn’t yet set our summer trip, and because we’re a family on a tight budget, we tasked her with finding a place that we could afford. Then, maybe, if the airfare wasn’t crazy, we’d consider it.
Since the kids were old enough to conveniently travel, every other summer we’ve taken trips to the Caribbean. We’ve visited the Bahamas, St. Croix, and Belize twice. On these trips we stay at Airbnbs/Vrbos to get a feel for the local culture. Me and my wife always dream about one day moving to the Caribbean. And maybe we will. I think spending part of life apart from the grind of America might make for some peaceful living. And isn’t that really what all of us want? It’s been my experience that the happiest people live in beautiful places with no access to Walmart.
But I digress. Thanks to Cozette, we weren’t heading to the Caribbean—we were going to Mexico’s west coast.
I had no idea what to expect from ten days in Sayulita. After all, Mexicans speak Spanish—and in all the other places we’d gone, English was the primary language. Yes, even Belize (until 1981, Belize was British Honduras.) So yes, my biggest reservation wasn’t the homeowner’s note that, “The water might run out, but will be filled within a day.” Nor was it, “Be prepared for intermittent power outages.” For me, it was the comms barrier.
So we left Charlotte at 6 in the morning, transferred in Atlanta, and boarded a nearly 4-hour flight to Puerto Vallarta. In PVR, we rented a truck. After running the gauntlet of vendors at the airport, we met our driver who took us down some back alleys of the bustling seaside city and to the rental place–where I got a crash course in Mexican traffic patterns, and how to navigate the mountain roads chock with construction. I was pretty ok driving the 5-speed pickup out of PVR and through the mountains, but my confidence took a nose dive once we entered Sayulita.
There are no road signs in Sayulita. None that we could tell, anyway. Oh, and Google Maps was hit-or-miss along the town’s cobblestone streets. As such, for about an hour we were lost in the town of 5,000 –with a bed full of luggage, and groceries that we picked up on the way. At one point we ended up on a narrow street that actually dead-ended onto the beach–forcing us to ask (in English) other drivers to back up so that we could get onto the main road (they all did. not only without any problems, but mostly with smiles.) We navigated dirt roads with potholes the size of Buicks. We went down a couple roads the wrong way. And then, we came to a road with a 45 degree angle. Somewhere up there was our house. We just knew it. I slowly ascended and squeezed past a work truck, only to find that the road dead-ended. When I saw this, I hit the brakes. Which was the exact wrong move. After a moment I tried going forward, but the truck wanted to go backward. Tires spun. Rubber burned. The parking brake barely held back the force of gravity. Everyone got out of the truck to lighten the load. Still, no dice. Then my wife, who speaks no Spanish, somehow convinced the men we passed on the way up the hill to help. I figured they would simply move their truck so that I could slowly back down the hill, but no—six or seven Mexican dudes got behind my truck, with my family standing next to them, and when they were in position they yelled, “Ve ahora!” I slowly released the parking brake and clutch, pressed down on the gas, and with one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear I thought, “I’ve been in Mexico three hours and I’m about to kill people.” Tires spun, rubber burned, but then the tires caught and the men let out a cheer. I turned around at the top of the dead end, and, embarrassingly, nodded to the smiling workers on the way down.
We discovered that our street was actually thirty feet to the left of the one I just nearly had a heart attack on. When I climbed that hill, I didn’t take my foot off the gas the whole time—pulling into the narrow parking slot at the front of the house like I was landing a Jump Jet on a Carrier. I’m guessing.
The bones of my knuckles poked through the skin, and the whites of my eyes were bloody from sweat, but when I stepped into the courtyard of the house and saw the view over the town and Pacific for the first time, the stress from 10 hours of traveling, and especialy that 45 degree hill, melted away.
“This place was within our budget?” I asked Tina. She nodded and smiled. Our hostess, who lived on the property with her daughter and husband, told us this was their low season. As it usually is when we travel to the Caribbean in July.
The house was gorgeous. You can see all the imagery here. I’d never stayed in anything like it. Every window in the place was like a painting. And that’s all I’m gonna say about that because I could go on and on and there’s more to talk about. (Also, here’s a video.)
For the next eight days we immersed ourselves in the local culture the best we could. We ate, played, and shopped alongside locals. We were inquisitive and respectful. And while language was certainly an issue, it was nothing like the barrier I envisioned leading up to the trip. Thanks to Google Translate, and a willingness to at least attempt to use Spanish, people were kind and accommodating. And sure, most folks spoke more English than we spoke Spanish, but there were some times when zero English was spoken, and we still managed to get by.
As I mentioned in a social media post, there were a lot of things that didn’t live up to American standards. For example, water. You couldn’t drink it, but even worse—it would sometimes run out and you’d have to wait for the water guy to refill your supply. Likewise, the electricity was sketchy at best. And every night we’d lose it three times for two seconds each time, as the overworked local grid would reach max capacity and reset. When this would happen, a cheer would rise from the village below.
There were other things too, like no wifi or cable. I mean, you could get those things in Sayulita, but the house we were staying in didn’t need it. The place had only one TV, in the master bedroom. I hooked it up to an old dvd player so that we could watch a few of the dozen or so movies on the bookshelf before falling asleep. Note to self: You don’t ever have to watch Love Actually again. Ever.
Some nights, as we lay in bed with the soft glow of the village and stars outside, we could hear children playing somewhere in the distance—their laughter rising up through the palm trees like a dream.
Then one night as we were checking in on our phones, there was a loud BOOM. My imagination immediately went to a worst case scenario where a bomb exploded or a transformer blew, but my wife just turned to me with a smile and said, “Fireworks!” Sure enough, there was a celebration in town, and for fifteen minutes we were treated to fireworks. It was magical.
The ocean in this part of Mexico is clean and crisp with steady, righteous waves. We visited several beaches during our stay— from the main beach in town, frequented mostly by Mexican families on vacation, to a beach on the edge of the jungle with the most violent shore break I’ve ever experienced, to a secret surf spot twenty kilometers away that offered my daughter (the landlocked surfer) the opportunity to ride crystal blue waves for hours. (If you ever go to Sayulita, you’ve got to surf. And when you do, visit El Punto Surf School and ask for Felipe. He’ll hook you up.)
The food scene in Sayulita is ridiculously good. I saw the hashtag #FoodieHeaven used more than once. The food is authentic and delicious. I was surprised that seafood was so abundant, but did not complain. Everything was local, organic, and fresh. There was even one place between Sayulita and the secret surf spot that had the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Hell, I lost four pounds on the trip mostly from not eating carbs like I do in the states. (Except fresh tortillas. I ate plenty of those.)
The architecture in Sayulita is stunning. No, there are no great sculptures like in Europe, nor are there modern high rises, rather it is authentically Mexican complete with thatched huts and a color palette so vibrant that it looked like a Skittle’s factory vomited on the town. But what made it special is that these extraordinary colors blended seamlessly into the natural landscape. As such, Sayulita was the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
This was no Club Med trip. It was better. We were able to experience what it was like to live in a place so different from our own. Even in our small sample size, it was clear to us that the people of Sayulita loved where they lived. And that love was evident … in everything.
Sayulita, Mexico is like a 5-star all-inclusive resort–but rather than an exclusive getaway for wealthy jet setters, it’s designed for artists, musicians, foodies, surfers, dancers, dreamers, hippies, aquaholics, and lovers of nature (and dogs.) The Mexican government calls Sayulita, “Pueblo Mágico,” which means “Magic Town.” It certainly cast a spell on us.
I’ve had a week or so to digest the trip, and have dreamt about it every night since. We’ll definitely be back. The only things I missed while we were there were my dogs and my bed. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll go back for more than a vacation. Both of us work remotely, so it’s certainly doable. That is, if we can get past the “luxuries” of America that we pay so dearly for with our time, money, and energy.