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Bend Bulletin Article

Secret’s out

Mexican beach town just the right speed for family vacationers

By Anne Aurand / For The Bulletin

Published: April 26. 2009 4:00AM PST

The waves break right in front of the town of Sayulita, Mexico. While we were there, the waves were fairly small, perfect for a beginner surfer. There are several surf shops on the beach where you can rent boards and buy a surf lesson.

SAYULITA, MEXICO —

It is a typical afternoon in Sayulita. Fluffy clouds have moved in, tempering the heat perfectly. Frigate birds and pelicans soar overhead. Iguanas scamper in the foliage nearby.

We lounge in the sand under a thatched roof canopy. My 3-year-old daughter scoops sand into a plastic bucket and pours it over her feet. My parents and I sip icy margaritas and watch my husband run across the hot sand and dive into the Pacific Ocean for a quick swim.

My objective was to create a relaxing family vacation that would make my daughter Adi happy, because when she’s happy, everyone is happy.

Renting a house on the beach with a pool in Mexico felt a little self-indulgent; we’ve always been the backpacker/camper types. But after three years of camping with a kid, I wanted something easy and comfortable with minimal logistics.

I found it in the 2,200-person town of Sayulita, sandwiched between jungle-covered hills and clean sandy beaches, 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. We visited in early April.

Originally a tiny fishing village, Sayulita was discovered by surfers some 30 years ago. Now, tourism and a community of international retirees have spawned cafes, shops and galleries.

But it’s still an authentic, humble and relatively safe place to escape crowds and aggressive vendors.

It’s not a nightclubbing, heavy drinking, see-and-be-seen party town. You can walk everywhere on the beach or the narrow, bumpy, dusty dirt roads; no need for a car.

And, I’d heard from friends that it was a great place for kids.

“The Mexican culture really adores family and children and that is incredibly evident when traveling there,” Bend jewelry designer Erin Hasler had told me after her family’s trip.

“People in restaurants were fantastic with (my daughter),” Hasler said. “In the states we almost always got the evil eye when we entered with a 2-year-old, but in Sayulita, people were excited to see her and would cater to her needs more than ours.”

Recent news accounts of drug cartel-related violence — concentrated in border towns — hasn’t affected Sayulita, according to locals and my own observations. I saw one empty police truck parked in the same spot downtown all week. The only crime I heard of while we were there was the theft of electronics and cash from an unlocked beachfront house nearby.

Before you go

Planning a trip to Sayulita is easy and fun. The Web site Sayulitalife.com, owned by a 30-something couple who also live in Bend, is a must-use. It includes information about everything from exchanging money to transportation to doctors. It has a business directory and maps. It hosts a “forum” for discussing everything from rental houses to running trails, which I used before I went.

Sayulitalife.com owners Ian and Kerry Hodge lived in Bend and worked for Web companies when they took a surf trip to Sayulita about 10 years ago. Soon they moved there, but they return to Bend annually where they still have property. They’ve run a couple of businesses in Sayulita, but now the Web site is their primary livelihood.

Who goes to Sayulita?

“It used to be the backpacker looking for off-the-beaten path. It’s still attractive to that person. But also for seniors, young couples, singles and families,” said Ian Hodge.

“If you like high-rise hotels and spotless floors, if you can’t handle rural Mexico, then rural Mexico is not for you. If you can’t handle waiting for your meal a little, or will get upset if one plate comes several minutes before the others, it’s not for you. Everything is not always in perfect order and neat and tidy. But you can rent a high-end home with cooks and staff and eat in the high-end restaurants and find some of that.”

His tips for success? Drink lots of water (filtered, not from the tap). Wear sunscreen. Relax.

If you’re considering a visit, look at lodging early. Hodge advised planning six months ahead of the trip, and up to 12 months for travel during busy holidays such as Christmas or Easter.

It was Rental Agent Tamra Koch at Avalos Sayulita Realty (www.move2sayulita.com) who found me the last available two-bedroom house on the beach with a pool, and answered questions about everything from electrical outlets to coffee filters.

Our lodging, Casa Chachalaca, was a two-story house with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It was one of three homes that share a pool, located on the quiet north end of the 2-mile-long beach. The house included a kitchen, all basic necessities, wireless Internet, maid service and a safe where we could lock up passports and cash.

And its views were phenomenal. From my second-floor bedroom I overlooked the pool, the ocean, banana and palm trees. A quaint arched footbridge in front of our yard led to the beach.

Accommodations range from camping to low-budget bungalows to high-end luxury homes. Koch said most hotels lack full kitchens and families often prefer renting houses where they can cook meals.

Bend mom Hasler shares one lesson: “Really research the house you’re renting and be sure to let them know that you’re traveling with a child.” She had rented a second-floor house that had no railing or walls. They had to move, and pay for both places.

Enjoying the fine things

From the Puerto Vallarta airport you can spend $2 on a bus or up to $75 for a cab to Sayulita. We aimed for the bus but ended up with a $35 cab ride; cheaper taxis can be found by the bus stop, out of the airport.

Make sure the cab driver knows where he’s going. Sayulita in reality isn’t as simple as Sayulita on a map. Businesses and homes are crowded on narrow roads, and streets signs are rare.

Everything from grocery stores to pharmacies to surf shops can be found around the park-like central plaza, when you have the time and energy to meander.

But after a long day of traveling on the day we arrived, I was thrilled to go directly to our house and find the delivery service came through. For $20, a delivery service I found on Sayulitalife.com brought all the food and drinks we’d need for a couple of days. We dropped our bags, opened cold beers and cooked quesadillas with fresh tortillas, avocado and salsa.

After a day of serious lounging around the idyllic property, we ventured out.

There are plenty of things to do in Sayulita, albeit on a mellower scale than all the organized activities available in Puerto Vallarta.

The walk from our north end of the beach to town was less than a mile, and we did that daily. With a 3-year-old, the journey was slow; all those waves to splash in on the way.

Several mornings I went on short runs, exploring town. Gringos jogged on the beach and the roads every morning, which made me feel safe running on my own. I found another beach — Playa de Los Muertos — accessed through the cemetery on the southern end of town. I investigated little roads that led into the jungle where the shade made running in the tropics a little more bearable.

My husband and I left Adi with my parents one day and hiked north until the beach ended. There, we scrambled over a rocky cliff and into a network of single-track dirt trails through the wooded hills. The trails dropped us on another long, beautiful sandy beach where we saw only six other people.

Another day I took a surfing lesson from a local surfer while my husband rented a board. Sayulita is a perfect place for a beginner like me: small waves in shallow water where I could touch the sand when I fell. I struggled a little with a language barrier. My instructor said things like, “If you do (indecipherable words) you will be in a hospital.” Fortunately I didn’t do that. Instead I rode numerous waves, didn’t get hurt and had a blast.

There are sufficient options if you like to be busy: zip lines, horseback rides, snorkeling tours, ATV rides. But my family was mostly interested in spending time together, reading our books and eating.

Since we did a lot of our cooking at home, we certainly missed some good restaurants. For a high-end dining experience, Don Pedros on the beach came highly recommended, (www.donpedros.com/en) but we opted for cheaper places. We enjoyed the appealing flavors of chile rellenos at Sayulita Café, just off the plaza.

We agreed our favorite dinner was at the funkier Sayulita Fish Taco (www.sayulitafish taco.com). Climbing that rickety metal spiral staircase to the second-floor dining room that overlooked the town’s central plaza made it interesting before the tasty tacos even arrived.

For breakfasts we enjoyed Chocobanana: satisfying food on the plaza. But we loved Rollie’s for smoothies, coffee, pancakes and a charming “workshop” by Rollie — a retired school principal from California — on the proper way to eat a pancake. “It’ll change your life,” he told my husband. Not sure about that, but he did eat there three times that week.

On our final day in Mexico, we visited old town Puerto Vallarta for a taste of the bustle and crowds and culture in the mega-resort city known for discos and parasailing.

We had a fabulous brunch in a bright, airy beachfront restaurant in the heart of the original part of the city, called época (also owned by an Oregonian, Kurt Sinner, www.epoca-pv.com). The restaurant, like many, offered on-sand service under thatched-roof canopies, for enjoying food and people-watching.

But the afternoon in the city confirmed our choice of the serenity of Sayulita.

I feel old, having traded in nightclubs with the crowds for nightcaps with the family. I feel happy, being OK with that.

Anne Aurand can be reached at akaurand@gmail.com.

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