When I first travelled to México, I landed in Léon, far from the ocean, and made my way to Guanajuato, even further from the sea. It was 2010 and I was travelling under many naive assumptions about México, chiefly that everyone spoke English. That first night in Guanajuato, when me and my taxi driver were winding up and down through the underground streets, I remember feeling more than a little lost, bouncing between the lights and the music and the throngs of people on the streets, freshly dumped and utterly out of my element.
“No Español?” my cabbie said.
“No.. Un po d’italiano? Français?” I asked, hopefully.
He just shook his head and repeated “no español.”
The next week, I found myself in the quiet coastal town of Barra de Navidad, just a few hours south of busy Puerto Vallarta. In Barra, we danced in the surf under the light of the moon and looked out across the bay to Malaque during the day. Nothing was going when we were there, just a quick closeout beach break. As I watched the waves crash before heading back to Guadalajara, I resolved to come back to México when I wasn’t on the clock for a research project, to seek out the quiet beach town life I’d gotten a glimpse of in Barra.
I didn’t think it would take me so long, but four years later I boarded a flight at an ungodly hour in the morning, headed to Puerto Vallarta with four friends from Vancouver. A van picked us up at the airport, took us to the grocery store where we stocked up on everything we thought we could possibly need for the next ten days, then started the two hour drive north to the town of Sayulita.
Sayulita is no hidden gem, there isn’t much that’s secret about the area anymore. I had received a lot of second-hand advice about the area from friends who’d made the pilgrimage before me, and a friend of one of the guys in our house that had surfed right in town and graciously emailed all of us pictures of his eye infection and matching chic IV drip courtesy of some poor local sanitation.
Here’s a fun fact about México: the sewage situation is privatized, and the “new” sewer system was outdated before it was finished. Sayulita’s population is nearly 3 times greater than predicted, and as a result, when there are the local holidays, the sewage system overloads even more than usual. A few weeks prior to our arrival, Sayulita had hosted a surf competition of sorts when the town population spiked quite high from its barely sustainable 4,000. So that should paint a fairly odour-heavy picture for you.
There was a little river that ran past the treatment facility that left little to the imagination about the state of the water. As a result, we never actually went into the water at Sayulita. Instead, we wandered around the state of Nayarit seeking waves, a common theme on most of our surf trips.
There’s a general rule about international surf trips booked more than a few weeks in advance – the swell is never what you hope for. And for the first day we were there, neither was the weather.
The house we had rented was beautiful and bright and had a large patio behind the house that looked out into a lush garden. The first day it rained hard and the swell was nonexistent, so our local guides, Chris and Agustin, called off the trip we’d had planned for the day and we stretched ourselves out from the flight in a backyard yoga session. That back patio saw many yoga sessions, hammock naps, and ukulele jams during our stay.
In the town of Sayulita, banda music plays from sunrise to sunset on speakers placed strategically to make sure that you are never out of earshot, which I imagine is fine if you don’t loathe banda music. But it’s all part of the charm of Sayulita. From the rainy streets to the beer league baseball, local life in Sayulita is charming and vibrant.
When things got going again, there were plenty of waves to be had in the surrounding area. La Lancha has a nice, forgiving beach break, and everyone who didn’t get absolutely worked at the Cove in Punta de Mita said it was incredible. Had I not gotten absolutely worked at the Cove, I’d probably say the same.
For anyone that has ever surfed in the area, these spots are all standards, they’re not hidden or free of crowds. For a slightly different taste of Nayarit, head about two hours North to Platanitos where you’ll find Playa las Tortugas. You’ll already know it’s magic since it’s literally translated to Turtle Beach near Little Bananas, which is like something out of a crazy dream as far as location names go.
Emerging from the thick of the brush along the path, you’ll find yourself on a ledge overlooking the beach, and you must do your best to keep breathing, so you don’t faint and fall down the cliffside from the sheer beauty. It’s like your dad’s tropical stock photo screensaver. You must also remember to shuffle step if you’re going to be walking in the water so as not to mess with the local wildlife, as one of our friends did when he curbstomped a stingray stepping off of his board. It’s a long walk back up with one foot out of commission, and while your friends do love you, I guarantee they don’t really want to have to push you across the river mouth on a longboard.
After you nurse your stingray wounds, be sure to enjoy a drink on the beach, and looking up at the houses dotting the hillside, wonder why you didn’t book to stay here instead of bustling Sayulita. When you get home to Sayulita though, after a day at Playa las Tortugas, when you’re knee deep in horchata, fruit popsicles, and your housemates are whipping up margaritas, everything will feel so good, you’ll even swear to the Virgen de Guadalupe that you’re really coming around to the local banda obsession.
Four years on from that first trip to México, I felt that my return was (in spite of my poor performance at the Cove) altogether triumphant. Far from the lost girl trying to mangle together French and Italian to find her hotel, watching quick close-outs, four years later I was bargaining competently in Spanish, and feeling at ease amongst the lights and the noises of Nayarit – even the banda felt familiar.