Finding sand—and surf—in Mexico's hottest new beach town.
The cool, choppy water of the Pacific swells below me. Frothy waves crash behind me, in front of me—all around me. I breathe in deeply, my stomach pressed against the smooth fiberglass of a longboard. I’m waiting for the perfect wave and the perfect chance to show myself that I can do this.
Although I’ve lived in Boulder for 10 years, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, a 15-minute car ride from the beaches and cool waters of Lake Michigan. Considering my upbringing, I’d always fancied myself a water baby. Take me to any lake on the planet and I’ll be the first to dive right in. Even living here in the mountains I’ve found water to splash around in—creeks, reservoirs, and high alpine lakes. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered, recently, that I’m absolutely terrified of the ocean. Waves send me running for the sand like a small child.
And that’s exactly the reason I’ve squeezed myself into a wetsuit and am balancing, helplessly, atop a surfboard in the waters off of Mexico. I wish I could say this was all my idea—that I’d planned this trip and signed myself up for a three-hour surf lesson with the sole purpose of overcoming my fear of waves. But I didn’t. My husband did. A born surfer, Tim has dreamt of acclimating me to the salt water ever since our Hawaiian honeymoon revealed my phobia. And so he’s chosen Sayulita, Mexico, as the setting for my stand. This small surf break 21 miles north of Puerto Vallarta has been making waves as a tourist destination for Americans—and especially Coloradans—for the past few years. The theory is that by the end of our three-day weekend I will be comfortable in the ocean.
Lying on this board, I have to admit I’m skeptical.
As far as beginner surf breaks go, Sayulita is hard to beat, particularly if you’re looking for something easily accessible from Denver. The picturesque fishing village 45 minutes north of high-gloss Puerto Vallarta became an international surf destination in the last five years—after the Mexican government paved a highway through the thick jungle, making the town’s pristine bay accessible to anyone adventurous enough to rent a car and make the mountainous trek.
But there’s more to the town than just the waves; its romantic hillside casitas, beautiful sand beaches, and inventive Mexican restaurants offer plenty of diversions for the nonsurfer set. Which is precisely why we’ve chosen this place. If I chicken out on the surf lesson (a very real possibility), at least we’ll still be in a beachy paradise.
Nearly everything in town rests within walking distance of the beach. Quick-service taquerias, surf shops, fruit markets, and the occasional tourist boutique dot the bustling main square. And while the town maintains a relatively authentic vibe—locals still gather in the square after dark to chit-chat—the tourist presence is obvious. Internet cafes, luxury spas, and espresso bars have popped up to serve American tastes. The line at the Choco Banana coffee shop is always 10 deep (but the muffins are worth the wait). What you won’t find here, however, is a Cancún-style party scene. Sayulita’s sleepy nightlife wears a decidedly casual ambience. Tourists are too tired (in a good way) from their daytime exploits to muster up more than a night out for fajitas and a Corona at the Sayulita Cafe before retiring to their villas.
Sayulita’s tiny town leaves little to be desired, but people here come mostly for the beach: a secluded bay with clear-blue water and colorful fishing boats tied up along the shore. It’s busy, but never crowded. During high-sun hours, kids splash in the water, couples lather each other with sunscreen, and the occasional retiree holes up on a towel devouring a Tom Clancy novel. But people-watching comes as a secondary distraction here in Sayulita. The waves—beautiful, endless, one- and two-foot rollers—grab your attention and rarely let it go.
Before the highway, Sayulita used to be a secret spot for American surfers. Now it’s been discovered. On a busy winter weekend, the bay evokes something out of a 1960s surf movie: countless bikini-clad beginners wobbling on their longboards, sporting big-toothed grins. It’s not the least bit intimidating, not in the way that Hawaii or Costa Rica can be. This is where the people come to learn.
Because of Sayulita’s relaxed personality, the fishing-village-turned-beach-town doesn’t attract the fancy SoCal clientele. Sayulita’s target demographic is twenty- and thirtysomething American adventure travelers looking for an off-the-beaten-path escapade. And that means it’s an alluring vacation destination for outdoor adventure–loving Coloradans, and lots of them flock there. By chance, we saw three people we knew from Boulder during our three-day trip. “People call this town Boulder by the Sea,” says Javier Chávez, a 27-year-old surf guide from Guadalajara and our go-to guy for the weekend. “This town is really outdoorsy, just like Colorado.”
Chávez runs a company called Wildmex, an adventure-tourism business that offers surf lessons and camps, plus fishing and kayaking outings, yoga classes, and even mountain bike trips in and around Sayulita. He has set me up with Michelle Richards, a Canadian longboarder who’s been tasked with acclimating me to the ocean. When she’s not traveling the world to compete in surf competitions, she works for Wildmex, teaching beginners like me. Over the years Chávez and his team of teacher-guides have shown my husband several surf breaks in the area: windswept beaches with names like Burros and Punta Mita. “There are other breaks I like to surf, too,” Chávez explains to me as we sit on beach chairs in front of Villa Amor, our beachfront hotel. “But I’m not going to tell you about those,” he laughs. “There are a few places we Mexicans have to keep secret.”
I’m secretly hoping that Day One of our vacation—filled mostly with beach time and margaritas—never ends, because Day Two is surfing day.
But Richards, my surf instructor, arrives at the hotel the next morning as scheduled, surfboards stacked high atop her van. She leans out the window and yells in a Canadian accent, “I hear someone here wants to learn how to surf!” Yep, that’s me…I guess.
Before we begin the lesson, I confess my wave phobia. Richards doesn’t seem surprised—she’s clearly run into this before with her students—but she doesn’t seem the least bit empathetic. She taught herself to surf in the freezing-cold waters of Nova Scotia. She’s not the kind of person to let a little fear get in her way—or mine.
We start our lesson by standing on the beach and watching the waves. She talks to me, pointing things out. Here’s how a wave breaks. That’s when you’ll want to paddle. See, a wave won’t hurt you…unless you let it. Then, lying on the beach, next to our boards, we practice popping up—an all-important move when you go from lying on your board to standing and riding the wave. Then, she decides I’m ready for the water.
A few meters offshore, I lie on the board letting waves pass underneath me. The waves are tiny; they’re so small, in fact, that Richards is able to stand in the water next to me and hold my board in position. The hardest element for me is the paddle—getting my scrawny arms around the board and into the water takes Herculean effort. But with enough coaxing and practice, I’m mastering it.
“You’re ready,” Michelle says. “Let’s catch this wave.” I spin the board around and watch the approaching wave over my shoulder. Somehow, the formerly tiny waves now look colossal. “Not yet,” she cautions. “I’ll tell you when to go. OK now! Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I’m paddling like a madwoman. “Now stand up,” she screams. And I do—before immediately falling over into the churning, frothing wave. The lesson goes on like this for hours: me standing up on the board for mere seconds before crashing into the water. But…it’s OK. After every fall I realize that I’m not dead in the water. I’m actually just fine. In fact, I’m having a great time. I’m a terrible surfer, but I’m enjoying it too much to be afraid.
That night we head back to the Sayulita Cafe to celebrate my accomplishment. With sun-kissed cheeks and at least a gallon of water in my ears, I wolf down a plate of hard-earned fajitas. “So?” Tim baits me with a smile. “Alright,” I admit, “waves aren’t that scary.” Surfing, it seems, is a sport that even this landlocked Midwestern girl with a fear of the ocean can conquer. I will certainly surf again. But, if given my choice, I’d still choose the calmer waters.
IF YOU GO: Frontier Airlines runs direct flights from Denver to Puerto Vallarta. Sayulita is 36 miles north of the Puerto Vallarta Airport, along Highway 200 (a 45-minute drive). You can catch a taxi or bus from the airport (fares range from $20 to $70, depending on the number of people), or rent a car (try Europcar). Villa Amor (www.villaamore.com) features 33 beachfront villas with room rates starting at $150 during the winter season. Book a surf lesson or mountain bike trip with Javier Chavez's Wildmex Sayulita Adventures (www.wildmex.com). Surf lessons cost around $40 per person.