Seattle’s Winter Getaway Secret, Sayulita, Gets a “Magic Pueblo” Makeover

Sunny little Sayulita, Mexico, would seem a world away from cloud-capped Seattle, but Alaska Air must still make good money keeping travelers shuffling between the two.

Sitting down for dinner at Los Afortunados, I fall into conversation with strikingly sultry brunette who perks up when I say I’m visiting from Seattle. “I used to work at Kell’s!” she says. Arranging some whale-watching at Riviera Nayarit Magical Tours, I discover that booker Enrique used to live in Federal Way. Out on the Chica Locca trimaran, in fact, I’m handed a bottle of Costco’s Kirkland water.

On my mid-January trip, I am also handed a cloud of construction-raised dust as Sayulita has just been designated a “Pueblo Magico” by Mexico’s secretary of tourism, making it one of over 50 towns that have been selected because they occupy some symbolic spot in tourists hearts. In Sayulita’s case, that spot has been, since the 1960s, lodged firmly in surfers’ hearts, and through a wonderful symbiosis, Sayulita has grown from a small fishing village to a slightly larger (pop. 4,000-5,000) surfing-fishing village that is mostly free of tacky tourism, but which speaks English startlingly well.

Perhaps this is thanks to the insular nature of surfing, and an agreement to keep the “good spots” quiet, but it’s also true that elsewhere in the “Riviera Nayarit” you can find all the luxe resort your pampered heart desires, so there’s been little reason to go tearing up Sayulita’s dusty cobblestones and replacing its tiny hotels, taco stands, indie art galleries, and yoga and massage and surf gear shops with despoiling chains.

Neither is that the aim of the Magic Pueblo program, but the surprise construction and its barriers to pedestrian traffic have hurt a few of the local businesses, and prompted the closure of at least one. The author of Sayulita Blog writes, “Said goodbye to a Blue Iguana owner Rick as he is about to close and return to Canada. Who will feed the iguanas?”

When it’s all done, by end of March 2012, Sayulita will have a renovated main plaza, utilities below ground, street lights, more sidewalks, and select pedestrian-only areas. It was rumored that the main street, Revolucion, would be pedestrian-only, but I can’t find official confirmation of that. On the health front, the federal authorities promise the “rehabilitation” of Sayulita’s entire water system, which I personally support, for what I suppose is the usual reason (i.e., drinking too much tequila and deciding to “risk it” on tap water for the subsequent dry mouth).

If that seems, to States-side eyes, like a lot of work to be done in a short time, I can vouch for a commendable haste, made possible by throwing a small army of construction workers at the project. Blocks of sidewalks are jack-hammered up in hours, the chunks carted away in trucks by day’s end. (I can’t say for sure, but the combination of heat, humidity, and variety of dusts may be behind the ferocious asthma I develop over my stay, only partly beaten back by Advair and albuterol.)

As for me, I have a good view of all the unsleepy excitement from my hotel just between Revolucion and Calle Jose-Mariscal: the Petit Hotel Hafa, run by Marina and Christophe Mignot. Sunset Magazine has rated them one of the West’s best romantic getaways, which as a solo traveler I can’t vouch for, even though I try my best to look available. In fact, I’m almost sure a couple breaks up while I am there, but you can’t blame the Moroccan-themed décor.

Sidebar: Everyone in Sayulita seems to surf. Christophe is from Perpignan, and if he’s not working on the hotel–they’re expanding to a seventh room from six–he’s surfing. Emma, who works in reception and at the associated jewelry/gift shop, surfs, and she’s from Ontario, originally.

Hotel Hafa is a bewitching mixture of handmade and found decorative touches, and simplicity: There’s no phone, no TV. Most of the rooms have A/C, but you have to request the remote control to run it ($6 per night). Large fans overhead, with their own quirks of noise production, are free, and you can stick your head in a mini-fridge if you need a cold more bracing. That said, there is free WiFi that extends through most of the hotel–I even get a few bars on the rooftop terrace where I pass out for a daily siesta. (The terrace also comes with a selection of on-the-house tequilas, though, for the record, that is not why I am passing out daily.)

I know next to nothing about Sayulita before arriving, and the staff directs me around town all week without complaint, even drawing me, by hand, a map of where to get chile rellenos my first night there. (That’s also when I have my first brush with an Ugly American, a woman who tells the proprietor of the charming restaurant that “I don’t like Mexican food.”) They also have opportunity to point out the pharmacy and Dr. Moy’s office across the street, where the closest ATM was, and where I can have laundry done. The beach I manage to find on my own, since it’s only two blocks away. They do not, however, warn me about the Land of the Giants-sized grande margarita at El Costeno, which is why I am now the owner of a hammock sold by a beach-strolling vendor.

I flew into the airport at Puerto Vallarta, and took a taxi to Sayulita, overpaying ($60)–the Sayulita taxi driver who takes me back charges me $40. I meet plenty of people who’d just taken the bus, which is a far more reasonable $2ish, but I always feel terrible about taking up extra room on public transit with baggage. The trip doesn’t seem to be much faster via taxi, if that’s a concern. A Canadian couple I chat with on the third story of Leyza’s Restaurant & Bar–30 feet up turns out to be where the cooler marine breezes blow–tell me the bus took them less than an hour. They are staying in Puerta Vallarta and have decided to bus out and back for a day-trip.

My day trip was suggested by one of the resort hucksters at the airport; they form a phalanx as you try to exit, shouting vaguely official requests at you to see if you’ll stop. I almost made it through when this well-dressed young man stepped up and asked if I needed a taxi, which I did. He led me over to a counter, and proceeded to give me 15 minutes of actually very sound sight-seeing advice before mentioning that he had a tip on an all-inclusive resort that I could visit, and perhaps put a deposit down on for my next trip to what he called the “blue-collar” Riviera.

He suggested, in his spiel, visiting Las Islas Marietas for snorkeling. The Marietas are a nature preserve, so you can’t go on them, but there is a cave you can snorkel into. I take a combination whale-watching/snorkeling/booze cruise ($75ish). We meet up in Sayulita at 9:30 a.m., and return around 6 p.m. From Sayulita, we taxi to La Cruz marina, where we embark on the Chica Locca. It’s a little more party-boat than I care for, but they provide meals and an open bar, and I have no complaints on the whale-watching score. If you bring binoculars, you can use them on the birds of the Marietas, as well as whales.

I slightly regret not going horseback riding, which you can do, as well. I have a feeling it’s a good way to see the unpaved countryside without dying of heat exhaustion.

Mainly, people come to Sayulita to surf, or learn how, and quite a few stick around for the 300 days of sun per year. The beach is home to an assortment of surfing instructors, and the waves closest to the downtown area are also nicest for beginners. Sergio, from the Sayulita Surf School, was quoting me something like $35 for an hour of lessons, plus the use of the board to practice for an hour or two afterward. (It’s something of a trick to exceed the $35 price tag in Sayulita–my hour-long deep-tissue massage at Nirvanna Spa & Massage, at $55, finally broke the barrier, but it may not have, because I paid in pesos and the exchange rate has been favorable to the dollar.)

If, like me, you find the ocean constantly conspiring to drown you, there is still a great deal of entertainment to be had watching the surfing action from the beach, which is colonized by various chaise lounges, chairs, and beach umbrellas. I never actually find out who owns all this beachy largesse, if it’s public or provided by restaurants and bars back up the beach, but when I sit down to see if anyone will pester me about renting time, no one ever does. You are, however, likely to attract the interest of prowling beach vendors, who besides hammocks will try to sell you shirts, hats, jewelry, art, pipes, and–if you go for the pipes–marijuana and cocaine, and it is intimated, anything else in that line.

My week is, of course, far too short. I am just figuring out the rhythms of Sayulita life when it’s time to pack up. One morning I wake a little before sunrise and go for a walk in the blessed coolness–I’m wearing just shorts and a T-shirt, it’s not at all cold, but when I stop in at El Espresso (I am from Seattle, after all, and I’m not on vacation from americanos), the staff are bundled against the chill in sleeveless down vests. El Espresso quickly becomes a morning ritual, actually, because in addition to pouring some great espresso, they have free WiFi, just like cafés back home. Even more like back home, I discover the man typing next to me at the bar is working on a screenplay.