When I decided to take my teenage daughter Jane to Mexico for spring break, I asked a friend in Mexico City to recommend a less touristy area than the spots on the Riviera Maya and the coast of Oaxaca I have been visiting since the late 1970s. He pointed me to Sayulita, a town on the Pacific coast just north of Puerto Vallarta.I had never heard of Sayulita, and neither had anyone else I mentioned it to before I went. When I got there, I found out that travelers from the Pacific Northwest and Canada have been keeping it a secret from us. There were plenty of them mixed in among the many Mexican city-dwellers who spend their beach time there. Here's why you might want to join them.
It’s very easy getting there
You fly into Puerto Vallarta — American, Delta, United and Aeromexico all fly out of New York — typically with a stop in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth or Mexico City (flights in mid-May from $420). Once you get there, Sayulita is 45 minutes by car; our Airbnb hosts arranged this for us. Your driver will stop on the way at a big grocery store/bank complex so you can stock up on food, drink and money. Sayulita has a few ATMs but no big supermarkets, and many small places don’t take credit cards.
You can stay in a casita right on the beach
Sayulita has just a couple of small hotels, but hundreds of vacation homes big and small. Our place was in a complex of individual villas of varying sizes called Villas del Palmar. They were arranged in two long rows and had a gate to the street and a shared pool. For $155 a night we had an adorable one-bedroom place right on the ocean. It had an open-air living area and kitchen and a clean, spacious bedroom and bath. For large groups, there are spectacular villas at reasonable prices, some in town, some up in the hills. INFO Find rental properties on airbnb.com, vrbo.com and sayulitalife.com
There’s a view with your breakfast
Climbing the rocky escarpment at the south end of town are the 26 bungalows of Villa Amor, Sayulita’s luxury boutique hotel. We walked over for breakfast at a wrought-iron table overlooking the ocean, watching the pelicans, gulls and frigatebirds swoop and dive. No matter where you go in Sayulita, it’s all walking distance, though the people riding around in rented golf carts looked like they were having fun. INFO Villa Amor, Camino a Playa de los Muertos, from about $250 to $1,150 per night, with 35 percent discount July-September; 619-819-5969, villaamor.com
There’s a cemetery with its own beach
Just past the Villa Amor, a path leads to the village cemetery, the most charming of its kind I have ever seen. The marble tombs and statues are set at different elevations beneath a canopy of tall trees, festooned with flowers, portraits of the dead and other offerings. Just beyond it is Playa de los Muertos, the lovely little Beach of the Dead, and beyond that, hidden Playa Carricitos, where the waves crash on giant boulders and you might not see another soul. INFO Directions at sayulitalife.com
You can do nothing — or play all day
We spent our whole week in Sayulita doing very little, and loving every minute of it. But you don’t have to be a slug. Our new friend Colleen, there from Sun Valley, Idaho, with two young sons, had a glowing report on the zip-line canopy tour. A group of MBA students on a bro-cation were heading off for a mountain hike after lunch at Burrito Revolution. Other people recommended horseback riding, snorkeling and a boat trip to the nearby Marietta Islands to see the blue-footed boobie. I recommend a massage on the beach at the Nirvanna tent. INFO Find a directory of activities and providers at sayulitalife.com
You can watch the surfers — or try it yourself
Sayulita was discovered by surfers in the ’60s, and they’re still out there riding the breaks and giving lessons in their spare time. Patty Southworth, who has lived in Sayulita for 20 years and has raised two surfing champions, runs Patricia’s Surf School. She’ll sign you up over a margarita at her restaurant on the beach, Captain Pablo’s. INFO Captainpablo.com has details on surfing lessons, fishing trips, snorkeling and boat tours. The restaurant is on the beach, at the end of Las Gaviotas Street.
There’s plenty of shopping, indoors and out
Sayulita is filled with shops and galleries, and most of its streets and alleys are lined with kiosks and vendors. We spent about two hours every afternoon wandering around buying this and that, coming home with beaded bracelets and belts, jewelry made of intricately twisted wire, old movie posters in Spanish, local coffee beans, incense, harem pants and hats.
You’ll never go thirsty
There’s no Mexican vacation without margaritas and piña coladas, but here the top cocktail, sold from stands on every block, is the Michelada — Pacifico beer, Clamato juice, lime and hot sauce, with a few fresh shrimp hanging on the rim. A selection of Mexican craft beers is found at Palmar Trapiche, an excellent restaurant in a secluded tropical glade. With its fresh juices and aguas frescas, Mexico is the mocktail capital of the world. The spearmint lemonade at Itacate. The chocolate-banana milkshake at ChocoBanana. A strawberry-hibiscus drink bought from a little boy with a jug on the corner. And delicious local coffee at Café Expresso or Libreria Sayulita, the local bookstore. INFO Palmar Trapiche, Av del Palmar 10, 984-146-2990; El Itacate, Calle Jose Mariscal 8a, 322-107-0827; ChocoBanana, Av Delfín 14, 329-291-3051; Café Expresso, Av Revolución 51, 329-291-3440; Libreria Sayulita, Miramar 17a, 329-291-3382
You’ll eat ceviche, even if you’re vegetarian
The crowd of dinghies and canoes pulled up on the south end of the beach give an indication of how fresh the fish is in the restaurants of Sayulita. If you go out on a fishing boat, they’ll make you ceviche right off the hook. Because ceviche is one of my favorite foods, I was sad my vegetarian daughter was missing out. Then Sayulita’s remarkable vegetarian-friendliness came through. The cauliflower-based rendition at El Jakal (also known for coconut shrimp) was quite amazing. INFO El Jakal, Av del Palmar just north of Miramar, 322-131-3003
You can free the turtles
I’d go back in October or November to participate in the sea turtle release at Campamento Tortuguero, a hatchery where turtle nests are brought so the eggs can be incubated safe from prey and poachers. After they hatch, hundreds of baby sea turtles are passed out to volunteers who release them on the sand so they can crawl into the waves. They say it’s the cutest thing in the world. In the offseason, that honor goes to the Chihuahuas and many other adorable dogs we saw. INFO Campamento Tortuguero, Calle Sábalo 20; find them on Facebook