Words by Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
Photos by Brian Niles Outlaw Partners Video Director
Locals in Sayulita, Mexico, have a saying that you come for a visit but you stay forever.
A small fishing and surf town of approximately 4,000 residents, Sayulita is set in a cove between Punta Mita and San Pancho, 26 miles north along the Pacific coast from Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Nayarit.
The surf break is a two-minute stroll from downtown, where white and burnt orange, adobe-style buildings line cobblestone streets. Early in the morning, the plaza comes alive, the smell of fresh coffee and baked goods filling the warming air.
The Huichol, Nayarit’s indigenous people, sell colorful art, dolls and handcrafted bowls, jewelry and blankets around the square. Dressed in their traditional white, loose clothing embroidered in bright red, yellow and blue stitching, the Huichol are originally from the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains in the northeastern corner of Nayarit.
A block west, surfers of all abilities catch the Punta Sayulita break in front of Captain Pablo’s Restaurant. Here, ex-pats Paul Southworth, aka Pablo, and his wife Patricia operate an all-things-adventure shop adjacent to their eatery. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, the couple guides surf and snorkel expeditions, as well as sport and fly-fishing trips, and also rents out sea kayak and stand-up paddleboards.
“We got rid of all our credit cards and said, ‘let’s just simplify,’” says Pablo, 63, a former steelhead fishing guide.
The Southworths moved to Sayulita 17 years ago, when the area was sparsely populated, still a secret from the California, Colorado and Oregon visitors who now frequent its vacation homes and hotels.
“Sayulitais changing, but it’s still in its infancy,” Pablo says. “We grew with the town.”
Taco stands chock-full of the day’s catch grill sizzling tuna and mahi mahi steaks on nearly every street corner. Between them, restaurants with full menus attract dinner guests with sunset ocean views and thatched roofs. Miles of sand beaches beckon hikers with their low-tide rock formations and palm-covered bluffs.
There’s a sense of calm in the air here, there’s room to breathe.
In the heart of downtown Sayulita, Hotel Kupuri is just steps away from the plaza’s restaurants and shopping. Open since 2011, its broad, private courtyard and pool surrounded by tall palms provide peace in the village center.
Kupuri’s 22 rooms surround the courtyard’s three levels, each one offering wi-fi, air conditioning and sophisticated decor. But the real goods are on the upper tier: The honeymoon suite spans half of the third floor, with a king-sized bed, flat-screen TV and deck overlooking the pool and courtyard.
On the adjacent rooftop patio, a bar and dining area offers an eclectic cocktail list and panoramic views of the ocean and town.
“When you come into Kupuri, you feel unplugged from the whole town,” said operations director Vitorio Jove. “Here, you can rest, you can really relax.” hotelkupuri.com
El Palacio/Casa Milagros
This world-class estate has seven bedrooms and 11 bathrooms between its two vacation properties, El Palacio and Casa Milagros. Set on miles of private beach, the elegant villa also boasts a large swimming pool, an infinity pool, and a hot tub on the moon-viewing deck.
Complete with a game room housing card, pool and air hockey tables, Palacio – at 8,000 square feet – has three floors with four bedrooms, each with its own flair. Next door, Milagros offers three unique, king-sized bedrooms inside a 2,500-square-foot living space; French doors open onto a patio overlooking the pool, which in turn overlooks the Pacific. sayulitalife.com/palacio, sayulitalife.com/milagros
Choco Banana. Located on Plaza Sayulita’s north side, Choco Banana has been baking fresh bread and muffins daily since 1991, while serving up a mean cup of coffee, and vegan and vegetarian options. Three (smallish) breakfast burritos will cost you 65 pesos (about $6.50 U.S.), but don’t miss the iced coffee (complete with coffee ice cubes), and the signature chocolate-covered banana topped with granola, candy sprinkles or coconut shavings. sayulitalife.com/chocobanana
Café el Espresso Sayulita. With prime seating on the plaza’s south side, Café el Espresso’s broad menu offers exquisite eggs Benedict and French toast, as well as a variety of fruit smoothies. Try the large latte, and the servers will artfully draw an elaborate puppy or rabbit in the foam. sayulitalife.com/elespresso
Sayulita’s taco stands serve up some of the tastiest, most traditional fish tacos in the world. An affordable means to a quick lunch bite, you can find them almost everywhere in town.
A few favorites:
Aqui es con Maria. Especial: Tostados aguachile (spicy lime-based salsa)
Naty’s Cocina. Especial: Pollo chipotle tacos (chicken chipolte)
El Itacate. Especial: Carne asada tacos (grilled steak)
Tierra Viva. Owner Daniel Velazquez epitomizes the Sayulita vibe with relaxed, outdoor dining, excellent service and eclectic, creative food. Chef Luis Benitez’s flavor influences range from the Caribbean to Oaxaca to Veracruz. Specialties include chicken mole, fresh mahi mahi and char-grilled tuna, but manager Hector Belmonte says not to miss the chili rellenos. “It’s something classic that anyone can make – my mom makes a great one – but we have one of the best.” tierravivasayulita.com
Miro Vino. When Luca Romano moved to Sayulita from Perugia, Italy, he brought his love for fine wine and his palate with him. In Miro Vino, he created al fresco dining among tall palm trees, serving some of the finest food in Nayarit. Beef carpaccio, filet mignon in a cuitlacoche sauce, fresh snapper and wood-fired pizza round out this culinary experience. Oh, and the wine list will knock your flip-flops off. mirovinosayulita.com
Wet a line/Hang 10. Catch mahi mahi, tuna and sailfish with one of Captain Pablo’s fishing tours, and any local restaurant will cook them up on the spot. Or rent a surfboard or standup paddleboard from Patricia’s Surf Lessons and Board Rental. Professional instructors will teach you the intricacies of riding a wave at the Punta Sayulita break. captainpablo.com
Blaze a trail. Stroll 15 minutes from downtown Sayulita to Playa de los Muertos, the beautiful local cemetery. Fresh flowers adorn brightly painted crypts and lead to a beach hidden by rock outcroppings. Smaller waves are perfect for kids, and the secluded area is just right for a quiet read in the sun.
Be at one. Yoga Los Sueños, located in the Hotelito Los Sueños, offers a number of classes for you to find your Zen, including Morning Flow, Vinyasa Flow and Kundalini. Vanessa Morrett, one of five instructors, will put your mind and body at ease with her gentle teaching style and expansive knowledge of this ancient practice. hotelitolossuenos.com
Groceries: Buy them in Puerto Vallarta after deplaning – prices are better and selection is broader.
Getting there: To get from Puerto Vallerta to Sayulita, either hire a ride with Jose Ramos Taxi Service (sayulitalife.com/ramos-taxi), or take the bus ($3 U.S.; cross the footbridge over Highway 200 and grab a seat.) Either way, use this time to brush up on your Spanish.
Around town: Rent a golf cart to get around Sayulita; it’s easier than toting ice and food from town to your casa by hand. (Email Sayulita Golf Cart at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Haggle: Street vendors in Sayulita are savvy, and it’s perfectly acceptable to negotiate for a fair price.
Precautions: Sayulita is reasonably safe, but it’s wise not to flash money around or travel alone at night. Also, maintain a reasonable state of sobriety.
When to go: November through May is dry in Sayulita, with high temperatures averaging around 80 F. June through October is the rainy season, with hot and humid conditions.
This story was first published in the winter 2013/2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.