“I’ve travelled and lived on the Pacific coast, from California to South America for twelve years now and no, there’s no place like this.” Alex said confidently when asked if there’s anywhere as laid back, charming and safe as the modest Mexican town of Sayulita.
“Escondido? Quepos?” I offered, having been to both, trying to gauge him.
“No. Not the same” he said – and he was right.
“It really is as safe as it feels.” He went on to explain. “Everyone knows each other and everyone works together. We know that we have something special here and we want to keep it that way.”
You would think he’s describing some remote mountain village, sheltered from any negative impact that tourism can sometimes bring, not an accessible fishing village turned surf town, a mere 25 miles north from the hustle and bustle of downtown Puerto Vallarta.
Sayulita, in what’s now known as Riviera Nayarit, was just that; a quiet and sleepy fishing village until the 1960’s, when surf culture brought the Californians who settled and slowly spread the word. Today, the relaxed population of just over 4,000 is a perfect blend of west coast American and Canadian expats, living harmoniously with the descendents of the same five Mexican families who initially settled the small bay, just behind the great Bay of Banderas. Their children play alongside one another’s in the streets, their family dogs running with the local packs.
Alex came to the Pacific coast of North America from northern France, looking for the perfect wave. He’s seen it all and has lived all over, until he stopped and surfed here, five years ago. Along with his Californian girlfriend Robin and their two dogs, they run a quaint cocktail and wine bar, attached to a cozy, six-room hotel I’m staying in. He explains how everyone in town is on the same page, in terms of keeping Sayulita special, if not discreet. No one here wants anything resembling the resorts of greater PVR, in fact, no building can be built higher than three stories. They are content with their dirt roads and cobblestone streets and scoff at the idea of a Starbucks or any other chain intruding. If you want that, it’s not far but it’s not here.
What you will find here is everything but and the Mexico that I’ve been looking for; relaxed, friendly, authentic and safe, with all of the comforts of home, if you need them. Locals who warmly greet you in the street, taco stands so delicious and true you’re unsure if you’re in a restaurant or someone’s backyard and a general feeling like nothing here could go wrong.
While it proudly maintains its “down home” feel, it also has style and a level of class, mixing simple handicraft stalls with one-of-a-kind boutiques, basic fresh fruit stands with wood-fire pizza oven restaurants and even sushi. The main square has beautifully landscaped gardens, the town’s only church and a playground for the youngsters. The town itself is only three or four blocks deep from the beach and surf shops and board rental operations are plentiful. Extending up into the hills, affectionately called “Gringo Hill”, is where most of the transplanted live.
I remembered Alex’s words when I unintentionally almost put them to the test on my last night there. After accidentally getting locked out of my hotel with no one to call to let me in, I sat down on the pavement in front of the hotel and realized that this may be my bed tonight. As fun as Sayulita can be, it can also shut down fast and fairly early on a Tuesday night. It was too late to look for another place to sleep, even if I had the money on me to do so.
Somewhat comfortable with my predicament and really having no options, I rested my head on a wall and closed my eyes, accepting my fate of sleeping on the streets in Mexico. I was awaken and rescued from any possible adventure about an hour later, when the only other guest of the hotel came home and let me in – thanks again, Portland dude!
When I told Alex my story the next day he just laughed and said, “Oh, you would have been fine. It has been done before. Your biggest worry may have been the lizards (over a foot long and Komodo dragon like) but most likely, some Mexican family would have found you and taken you in.”
So, is Mexico safe? Well, Mexico is a massive country. And although I wouldn’t plan a holiday to a border town, I’d say for the most part, it’s as safe as anyplace. I saw the latest laptops and tablets out in plain view in the town square, expensive cellular phones left on tables without a worry and women walking home alone at the end of an evening, comfortably. Granted, this really is a special place but much of what you hear in the media about violence and safety issues in Mexico is quite isolated geographically and generally doesn’t extend to tourists, especially if considering the amount of tourists who come to Mexico from the north.
As much as I love to tell the world about Sayulita, I do it with a heavy heart. Like many parts of South East Asia, the difference between what once was and what is now solely due to increased tourism, can be astonishing if not heartbreaking and can change rapidly. I can see why it took fifty years for Sayulita to get to the status it has now. Those who have been respect and appreciate it, while those who are lucky enough to live there, even more so. It is slowly becoming the humble “IT” spot but it isn’t overrun yet. Still, I feel like I’ve just told a big secret.
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