Standing on the terrace of my villa, I can see the surfers bobbing in the bay waiting for a surging wave to carry them to shore. My gaze follows the curvature of the shoreline that sweeps around the bay and backs into the dense Sierra Madre jungle. It's a warm afternoon with clear blue skies and a cool breeze ruffles my hair. Another perfect day in Sayulita, Mexico.
Say-what? was the standard question when I told friends where I was going. Next was Where's that?
Mexico, I answered. Then came the typical reaction, Oh no, you can’t go there; it’s too dangerous! Ignoring their wails of warning, I flew to Puerto Vallarta where I met my driver, Eric, a 6 foot, 6 inch Mexican. His transportation is less than expected, but I climb into his battered old, purple van with a twelve-inch crack in the windshield. We drive north for a half hour on smooth paved roads to Sayulita (say-u-lita), a once-upon-a-time sleepy fishing village that has been recently gentrified, then morphed into a hot expat community. Along the way, Eric gives me a brief history. Sayulita has long been known as a haven for surfers. In the past five years, Americans have discovered it and made it their home bringing in barrels of money to pave the way. With this money, Sayulita was moderately renovated while maintaining the cobblestone streets and the town square, preserving the essence of the town. The result is a friendly community mix of Mexicans and expats. Eric continues driving on a nearly deserted highway, past thickets of jungle until we see the first signs of modernity, a gas station under construction. This is a major improvement for Sayulita because it will be the only gas station in town. For now, people must carry their own gasoline in a container with them. We drive through the town of Sayulita to my resort, Villa Amor.
Saylita Lodging at Villa AmorFrom the arched entrance of Villa Amor, a luxury boutique resort, Eric, drives me straight up to the mountaintop where my Gran Villa de Amor waits for me. The 42 open-air villas cascade down the mountain and although each one is an open-air design, each has a different layout with carefully selected Mexican artifacts. My three-bedroom villa welcomes me with 4,164 square feet of living space; way larger than my house. White linen drapes billow in the breeze as I walk to the massive wrap-around terrace. I dip my toe into the cool water of my petite infinity pool then stretch out on one of the four lounge chairs next to a plunge pool and a hot tub. My Gran Amor villa also has a large, full kitchen, dining area, living room and three bedrooms. Two of the bedrooms are modestly, but cheerfully decorated, but it's the master bedroom that steals the show. Extra large with a king-size bed romantically draped in mosquito netting, sheer white curtains, and a decorative shower and bath area. I feel a bit guilty enjoying this huge house alone, but I'm sure I'll adapt. It’s a perfect stage for a wedding.
Sayulita LocalsThe languid days are passing slowly while I explore the town, speaking to the locals and expats, discovering what a tight community it is. I often frequent Choco-Banana for their frozen bananas dipped in chocolate. On a hot summer night it is divine. The owner, Tracie, and I sit in the courtyard to chat. I am curious to find out how she ended up in Sayulita. [In Sayulita], we live in a bubble, she says. She tells me she joined a cruise ship and sailed from Canada to the USA. During the voyage, she was fired for speaking out against the ship's non-compliance with ecological systems on the ship. She was unaware then that it was the best thing that could have happened to her. With $1000, she found her way to Sayulita and stayed for three months, returning to Canada only to sell her belongings. It's been 22 years since then; It seems another world now, says Traci. At first it was tough, she admits. She sold bananas on the beach in a pushcart to make a living. She wanted to do something that wouldn't leave a carbon footprint and would be good for the local economy. Dedicated to her beliefs, Tracie recently provided all of the trash bins in town. Ruben's Deli has the best sandwiches. Their Ruben or Pastrami served on thick grilled sour dough bread could compete with the best deli in New York City. Meet Jack, a handsome youthful looking senior who has led an exciting and fulfilling life. First, he was a commercial pilot for many years, then a successful entrepreneur. Now in Sayulita, he belongs to a group called Medical Aid for Street Animals. Its purpose is to help abandoned dogs and cats suffering from medical problems and find homes for them. They also spay and neuter stray animals—all for free. And they'll assist you with the procedure for taking a pet home. The group is completely run by volunteers.
Sayulita Tour BoatsChica Locca is a father & son tour boat business. Oli and Gill left Israel in the 70's, and came to Mexico. Two years later, they set up their tour business in Sayulita. Today, they promised us whales. We're sailing out to Banderas Bay on Chica Locca, a 60 foot Trimaran. It's a new, beautiful boat resplendent in bright red cushions and multicolored pillows on the lounge deck that encircles the boat, ensuring passenger comfort. Passengers can also lounge on the wide nets to suntan. There are about 30 people on board for today's sail and half of them are a party of old school friends from Canada celebrating Darl Foobert's 30th birthday. Foobert is decked out with floaters on his arms, a crown, and a pink birthday banner wrapped around his chest topped with a big smile. This is going to be a fun trip. Guests on the Chica Locca are permitted to bring their own music, so to the tune of "Let's Get This Party Started", drinks are served and we are off, Vamonos! (Let's go!). Draped across three red cushions, I lay like a cat basking in the sun while a cool breeze flutters across my face. Ahhhh—Nirvana in perfect comfort. Sailing for an hour, I drink and nibble snacks until we anchor and squeeze on our fins, life jackets and masks. With a cannon ball splash, I land under the cool water and feel the salt on my lips. Lying flat on my belly with my face in the water, I'm ready to enter the underworld of the sea. Drifting along with the current, I hover over the seabed like an omnipotent god or a gigantic voyeur watching my little subjects float through beams of light. Beautiful yellow striped fish, thin transparent creatures, tiny fluorescent blue fish, and small, mean looking sharks slide beneath me. Time has no meaning under the sea; it is so quiet that I drift for what seems like hours. Then I hear a whistle, soft and distant. I raise my head breaking the barrier between sea and air and the noise is jarring. Humans are gesturing for me to come back to the boat and I reluctantly obey. By this time, the party is in full swing, booze and food is plentiful and the music is urging people onto the dance floor to slither down the dance pole. I enjoy watching these sexy, young people dance; it's great entertainment while I lay on red cushions popping grapes into my mouth. Someone screams. The dance stops. The music stops. Everyone runs to the port side of the boat to see two humpback whales rise slightly out of the water. Everyone emits an ahhhh or an oooooohhhat the sight of these sea gargantuans. Over the next hour, these 5000-ton whales leap out of the water, wave their fins and snort spray out of their blowholes. Everyone is trying to capture the drama on film. The captain indeed kept his promise to deliver whales to us. As we move closer to the dock and the end of our trip, the passengers seem to get rowdier and louder, maybe in an effort to continue the fun. And FUN, it is. What makes this seaside town of Sayulita so special is its people. Nearly everyone has a stake in the town and contributes to the community by actively participating in any number of projects. Its residents are happily content and very friendly, always willing to help. It's a town where everyone knows your name.
Award winning journalist, Karen Hamlin is a native New Englander who moved south to Florida and now lives near Washington DC. Karen specializes in dropping into new situations and taking the reader along for the ride. First prize winner of the 2003 and 2004 North American Travel Journalists Association competition, Karen's peripatetic travels have taken her through most of Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, China and the Middle East. Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, International Travel Writers Alliance, and Washington Independent Writers. Now a veteran world traveler, she writes for national and regional magazines. Photos by Karen Hamlin