This Hidden Gem Is A Mexican Paradise

I’ve spent plenty of time in Mexico, but I’ve never been anywhere in Mexico that I’m dying to return. The areas I’ve stayed have felt too touristy and artificial. I’ve spent time in Cabo, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and more. When I travel, especially to new countries, I like to experience the actual culture of an area opposed to the touristy things. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll mix in some touristy stops like The Bean in Chicago for example, but for the most part, I’d rather spend the majority of my time exploring like a local, shopping like a local, eating like a local, drinking like a local — basically, I want to live like a local. I love getting immersed in the culture. After all, what good is it to travel if you don’t leave having experienced a deeper piece of the culture of the area you traveled?

After this last trip, Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico is definitely my favorite place I’ve been in Mexico. I’m dying to return. As I laid on the beaches of Sayulita, I thought to myself more than once, I could live here. I could sell my things, get my dogs, find a way to make money and be completely content. It’s the kind of place that makes you realize what truly brings you joy in life and helps you reassess your priorities.

I was fortunate to get a last minute invitation to a group trip to Sayulita. There was a group of 6 going. They had already found a great AirBnb and were all set. I only knew one person I was going on the trip with but I can get along with anyone so I just jumped at the chance to check out a new place and have a cool experience. I love saying yes to all of the experiences that come my way. I met the rest of the group when we all landed in Puerto Vallarta. They are a great bunch. We quickly said hello then met our driver who was transporting us from Puerto Vallarta to Sayulita. I recognized much of the scene from Puerto Vallarta after being there about 10 years prior. We drove about 15 or 20 minutes and stopped at the large super market. The driver told us we’d want to stock up here because there were no large markets in Sayulita. We split up in groups of three and each had our lists of deliverables. We had a breakfast chef secured for each day of the trip so all we needed to focus on was lunch, dinner, snacks and any drinks and alcohol we’d want at the house. We stocked up on things for salads, hamburgers, steaks, chicken, veggies, sandwiches, and all kinds of snacks and water. We made sure to get champagne for mimosas, tequila, vodka, and plenty of Mexican beer to hold us over. After we checked out, the cart guys quickly walked us over to our already full van that was loaded with luggage for six people. They managed to hit an expert level of packing Tetris with the grocery items and somehow managed to fit all three cart loads of groceries into the already packed passenger van.

We hopped back in and finished the rest of the hour-long drive to Sayulita. It’s a winding road through jungle hills. You’ll see occasional motorbikes jetting by, dump trucks working off the main highway road and some concrete structures along the way - some of them are houses, some businesses. As we pulled into Sayulita, it was quickly apparent that it’s a fairly bustling little town. We drove over the cobble stoned streets, saw the multi-colored flags hanging across the top of streets, dogs lazily walking along, little kids sitting atop motorbikes with their parents or siblings, golf carts, farmacias (pharmacies) are in pairs or even groups of threes down almost every street, there are little hole in the wall restaurants and taco stands but there are also pretty restaurants or ice cream shops dotted in between.

We wandered from one side of town to the other and made our way up a somewhat sketchy looking rock and dirt hill up to our villa. As you head up the hills you see the gorgeous mountainous jungle in the background and stunning villas dispersed among them. We pulled into a gated area and went up a very steep rock and concrete driveway. Our villa was the first on the right. We unloaded then checked out the place we’d be staying. The property is built into a hill. It’s a concrete open, ocean-facing, open-open-air property. It’s in a very secure, private, gated community. There are multiple steps of stairs on each level. You head up the stairs to the first level where you find a gorgeous blue infinity pool with a terrace. Just beyond that is the beautiful large kitchen and dining area. The next level has a bedroom, balcony and TV room. The next level has three bedrooms - two of them have king beds (one being a beautiful master), one of them has a double bed - each room has its own balcony and bathroom. The next level is a lovely hang out space with two hammocks, bar and bar stools, coach seating, chairs, various balcony view areas and a thatch roof. It’s a dream. The space is truly gorgeous. Although it is open-air, each of the bedrooms have air conditioning that thankfully works like a dream. There were actually a couple of nights I got too cold.

Omar, the property manager quickly got us settled. He gave us all of the keys, gate codes, wifi, etc. One thing many people don’t realize about many places in Mexico or other countries is that you can’t flush toilet paper in many of these areas. You must dispose of any and all toilet paper into a trash bin. Not all AirBnb properties send a maid everyday but thankfully, at this location, they sent a maid everyday to refresh and make beds, supply extra towels, empty waste bins and more. We tended to be up around 7:30 or 8 in the morning and head down to see what the breakfast chef had for us to eat and the maid would arrive about the time we were finishing and get started as we were heading out for the day. She was in and out and we hardly knew she was there, other than to find perfectly made beds, fresh towels and various little cleaning touches.

Our first day we got to the house mid afternoon so we explored the property, and hung around the house, getting settled in, having some drinks and getting in the pool. Thankfully, the crew had remembered to bring music speakers so we had plenty of music to fill the space. As you sat on the terrace or in the pool and looked out across the jungle and then to the beach, it was captivating. It’s truly paradise. There are few places I’ve been, other than the jungles of South Africa or the canals of Venice that have captivated me the way this place did.

That night we ventured into town for dinner. Earlier on the ride in, we asked Gio, our driver, for a recommendation on places for dinner and he suggested Emiliano’s. After some time at the house in the sun, we deduced to venture into town and check it out. We had rented a six-person golf cart from Roy’s Golf Cart shop in town. He had it waiting at the house when we got there. While there are many cars and motorbikes in the town, you will see a ton of golf carts and it’s all you really need to easily get around. I was shocked with how well the golf cart handled the hills and steep areas leading up to the house.

After a short drive through town, we found Emiliano’s. We sat street side at the little restaurant and sipped on margaritas and had some pretty great ceviche. I think I had ceviche every day we were there. I’m also quite certain I could live off fresh ceviche. For my entree, I had a shrimp dish with a mix - half garlic and half smothered in a local favorite called diablo sauce. The ceviche, margs, and shrimp were great but I preferred the garlic shrimp rather than the smothered. To me, as an American, the diablo sauce seemed like a spicy tomato paste. It was okay but definitely not my favorite. I noticed that type of style on many menus throughout the area so I think it’s a local favorite.

That night we drove and walked around the city. It was Ash Wednesday so there were a lot of people leaving the churches and cathedrals. We hopped into a few places to have a drink or listen to some local live music before we headed back to the villa. We ended up just hanging out, drinking, chatting and laughing before we all crashed.

Day two, we headed to the beach. Two of the guys wanted to surf and the rest of us were looking forward to relaxing on the beach. After we pulled down our drive we just had to make a few turns and we were at the beach. We pulled onto a block that allowed us to park the golf cart and walk right on to the beach. We walked onto the beach and immediately heard a spunky local inviting us to rent wooden sling chairs with an umbrella for the day. He was golden brown with a surfer hat, no shirt, low hanging board shorts, insanely ripped and had a great smile. He looked like a typical beach town surfer. He introduced himself as Felipe. We told him we’d be back after we walked down the beach and checked the rest out. He warned us we wouldn’t like the other end. We wandered down the beach for about half a mile or so. We heard many other similar offers. We even got into a brief altercation with a really rude local trying to pull a bait and switch on us over some chair and umbrella rentals. As we headed down that direction of the beach, we noticed it got quite a bit louder and busier. It seemed like this was where the majority of the tourists were.

Turns out Felipe was right, so we went back to his section of the beach. He quickly got us three sets of chairs, umbrellas and little wooden tables. He jumped into customer service mode and asked how he could help us. Felipe was extremely warm and welcoming. He asked if we wanted him to send out a waiter from the little restaurant and bar behind us. We ordered ceviche, Mexican beer and margaritas. Felipe helped those who wanted to surf get set up with a board rental and gave them pointers on areas to stay within and where they’d find the best surfing. The waves were crashing hard. I’m not a surfer but the guys surfing and Felipe said it was prime surfing conditions. There were a ton of surfers in the water, even with it being a Thursday. I’m presuming there were quite a bit of locals that day. As it turns out, Sayulita is known for its surfing. It also turns out Felipe is a pretty well-known surfer (we checked him out online after our breakfast chef said Felipe has travelled all over with his surfing). Felipe also happens to be part of a group known in the area as Sayulita Vigilantes. He said years ago there used to be a lot of crime and bad things happening, so a group of about 50 vigilantes are certified and allowed by police to “patrol” so to speak. One example he gave us was someone getting their iPhone stolen. Felipe yelled at the guy to give it back as he took off running and when he didn’t, he chased him down, got it back and held the guy for police. Felipe said he’s trained in mixed martial arts and that helps him in those situations.

That second day seemed to establish our trip routine we followed over the duration of the trip - breakfast from Daniel, hanging poolside with a mimosa with music playing, late morning/early afternoon heading to the beach, in the afternoon around 2 or so, we’d head back to the villa and grill up something for lunch, hang around the house and pool, some of us napped, then we’d get ready and go explore the city and have dinner. A couple of us also started a morning walk down the hill and into town to get in a little movement and explore the city some more. The first day we walked to the bookstore that wasn’t far, some of the other days we walked through the pop-up market stands or we’d walk down the pharmacy for various items.

One thing we all really liked, was hanging out with the locals on the beach. We really got to get an idea of the people and culture because we spent time around them, soaking it in. We met Felipe’s girlfriend over the weekend with his dogs, Luna and Papito. We also met his brother and sister-in-law (she’s from Ventura, California) and their two precious little tan, blond boys who were two and four. It was great to see them growing up on a beach, running around, playing in the water, hanging out in the sun. It was really cool to see that it wasn’t just tourists hanging out, but there were so many locals just hanging out like they normally would be. On the part of the beach we were on, there were so many helpful and kind people. Sometimes the waves there are really intense and strong, which is why it’s good for surfing, but that is bad for those who are just swimming or hanging out in the water. We saw this lady get taken out by a wave with her shoes in her hands and Felipe ran down to help her. The town and the beach just had a really cool vibe. Everyone was quick to give us recommendations or suggestions on what to do or where to eat.

When you’re laying on the beach, much like most places in Mexico, there will be people coming up to sell you things. Everything you can imagine from food, sunglasses, blankets, wooden handmade items, and more. We all ended up buying knock-off designer sunglasses from one of the vendors. They look and feel just like my real ones but they were about $20USD which makes them perfect for the beach, pool, lake, or the like incase they are lost or broken. I bought a beautiful hand-woven beach blanket while I was there. I’m not person who likes buying tacky souvenirs like knick-knacks. I’d rather have an item from a place that I will use and it will bring back memories of my trip like a piece of art. I am regretting not buying one of the beautiful handmade wooden bowls with gorgeous bright cobalt blue flowers. It would have made a great serving bowl.

Having Daniel, the breakfast chef, was one of the best ideas. It ended up being about $140 per person for 5 days of breakfast. He always started breakfast with fresh oats, a few kinds of yogurt, toppings, freshly made marmalade, toast, and a beautiful fruit plate. We’d start with that and then he’d serve us a great local Mexican breakfast such as Huevos Rancheros, egg and chorizo burritos, and similar dishes. He made a dish with a baguette style bread, a layer of beans and then cheese and chorizo. He said it was a local favorite. It was great and I’d never had anything quite like it. Everything he made was fantastic. We had a couple of picky eaters with us so they also requested he also make eggs, bacon and pancakes a few days in addition to our other items. He also served us the most amazing freshly squeezed juices. The majority of the days it was freshly-squeezed orange juice, which we tended to add to champagne for mimosas but then the other was a fresh carrot juice which was very refreshing. When I complimented him on his incredible strawberry marmalade he made us, he told me it was really simple to make and told me the recipe. He said the reason he learned to make the fresh marmalade was brought on by a desire to have healthier, more organic, less processed food for his children and so he began making them fresh marmalade among other things. It was so nice to wake up to breakfast being made and be able to just sit at the outside table as we had our coffee, mimosas and breakfast and planned the day.

Our first night and morning in Sayulita we thought we were hearing a really alarm. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. The next morning when Daniel was preparing breakfast, he told us it was the chachalaca birds. They are huge and loud. They almost look like a female peacock (the peacock without the pretty feathers) mixed with like a turkey or chicken or something. They fly and launch themselves across the tree tops. We had some chasing each other overhead as we were walking to town one day. You can hear them across the entire valley.

I think our favorite restaurants were Don Pedros and Tacos El Talivan. Both of them were very different vibes. Don Pedros was a more romantic, upscale restaurant on the beach. We sat out on the “patio” in the sand and enjoyed hearing the waves roll in. The first time we went was at night for dinner so they also had a great couple performing live music. The food was incredible. They have a great bread they serve with an olive paste. I pretty much ate fish the entire trip and I had a mahi-mahi fish filet with vegetables. Their calamari was also excellent. One of the group had their lobster ravioli and it was incredible. Tacos El Talivan is a little hole in the wall taco joint but it has the most incredible Mexican street tacos. Probably some of the best I’ve ever had. You can walk in and be seated inside at one of the few tables. There was a small bar behind that with a little boy helping prepare drinks - he was grabbing cocktail glasses, popping tops off beers, it was crazy. He was probably 10 or 12. They cook the tacos out front of the building on the street on a little grill. It was insanely cheap. For two people, we had 5 tacos, a margarita, 2 bottles of water, a bottle of coke and it came to $11. It was our cheapest meal but also one of our favorites.

We spent most of our time exploring the town, laying on the beach or hanging at the incredible villa but we worked in beach-side massages and a sunset whale watching tour while we were there too. One group of us had their massages at a white tent massage place on the other side of the beach closer to Don Pedros. They all said they were incredible. Their massages were $25 for an hour. The other two of us had a massage down by Felipe’s area at a purple tent massage area. Our massages were great. My massage therapist’s name was Luis and he was fantastic. Ours cost about $31 per person for an hour. I left my bathing suit bottoms on but removed my top. They kept me covered with a little towel and closed the curtain while we were undressing and redressing but re-opened it during the massage so we could feel the ocean air blow through. Between the relaxing ecaulyptus aromatherapy, the very talented hands of the massage therapist and the sound of the waves crashing, I was in pure bliss. If you’ve never had a beach-side massage, I highly recommend you do.

We went on to a sunset whale watching trip on our last night. We opted for the 3 hour tour rather than a five or six hour cruise. To be honest, we called it early on the three hours. I think we made it an hour and a half or two hours. Many of us just needed to run to the restroom and we had been lucky enough to see so many whales, we didn’t feel like we were missing much by calling it early. Given what the tour included, I was a little surprised by the price. It was a little over $100 per person. The tour included a sunset whale watching cruise, snacks, beer and wine. The snacks were primarily hummus, crackers, charcuterie and similar items.

Our tour guides were Yayo and Junior - they were great and put up with our rambunctious group. They let us connect our music and play it through the boat speakers. All of the boats were so tightly jammed together when we got there and I saw no way for our boat to get out to the water given all of the ropes and boats. I was shocked when they “crashed the boats.” Junior said that’s how they do it in Mexico. They literally push apart the boats and squeeze between two boats, rubbing up along both sides as they push the boat out and through. It was definitely entertaining. We didn’t go out terribly far, probably a 10 to 15 minute boat ride, and we were seeing incredible majestic Humpback whales almost immediately. I went on a whale watching trip in Cabo and I hated it. It felt like we were causing them stress, chasing them down with numerous boats. Here in Sayulita, it felt much better. There were only a few boats out in the water, we didn’t chase them down, we just kind of eased along and sought them out. Their calving season is from November to March so we were just on the cusp. They were there having their babies then they would swim back to San Diego and Alaska. Apparently, the moms only keep the babies with them for three months then they part never to see each other again. Talk about sad. We saw a group of three - mom, dad and baby repeatedly. We also saw a few solo whales. Watching them come up for air, blow water out of their blow hole and then flip back down into the water was incredible. One group of whales was a little more playful than the others and it was really fun to watch them interact. I wish I could have seen down below to see their massive bodies and what they were doing. I love watching their tails flip out of the water as they plunge back into the water. They are truly magnificent creatures. It’s crazy to think about how large they are. It was also cool to see how relaxed they were swimming around. They don’t really have any natural predators so they don’t seem as concerned with their surroundings as other marine life.

On our final morning we had breakfast courtesy of Daniel and then we headed to the airport. On average, you want to plan to leave the area three hours before your flight. It takes about an hour to get back to the airport. We already had our driver arranged from the trip into town which made it very simple. The AirBnB manager popped by as we were about to leave. He had the AirBnB owner with him. She was a lovely lady from Canada. She told us she was in town for some upkeep and updates. She gave us some insight on what it’s like to have an ocean-front, open-air property in Mexico and how it’s going. She loved hearing that I had coincidentally found out a couple of my friends had stayed there previously in that same property a couple of years prior. Small world.

I don’t know when I will stop talking about my Sayulita trip but I don’t imagine it will be anytime soon. I was truly totally captivated by the place and people. It’s a little slice of Mexican paradise like I’ve never experienced. I can’t recommend this destination enough and I hope you add it to your travel list. So for now, until I return, I will daydream about the laying on the beach, watching the waves crash around me.

Recommendations while you’re in Sayulita:

- Rent a golf cart

- bring a music speaker,

- get a beach-side massage

- go whale watching (during calving season Nov-March)

- go find Felipe’s part of the beach

- Stay at an Airbnb or property rather than a hotel (here’s the link for the property where we stayed)

- Plan ahead with a driver to and from the airport

- Get a chef, at least for your breakfast

- Go experience the town both at night and during the day

Recommended places to eat in Sayulita:

  • Tacos la Talivan

  • Medusas

  • Emiliano’s

  • Don Pedros



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