Originally created 02/05/06

Sayulita: Mexican paradise down a rutted road

SAYULITA, Mexico - The sky lightened to pale blues and pinks over the lush green hills as fishermen pushed their skiffs into the sea, started the outboard motors and headed out with their nets.

From the third-floor balcony of Villa Amor, Sayulita's boutique hotel, the Pacific Ocean appeared pale green. In the distance, the first few surfers paddled out at dawn. They were beyond the fishermen, the main swimming beach and the collection of seaside cafes and shops that would open in a few hours.

The evening before, my wife and I shared a drink on the private balcony before going down to dinner. We were the only guests under twinkling outdoor wicker lanterns at Villa Amor and saw our food prepared in a wood-fired oven and on an open grill.

"This is the best pizza I've ever had," my wife said. The thin dough was hand-rolled, topped with tomato sauce and fresh basil. The red snapper was caught that day. We lingered.

Now she was asleep in the deep quiet room, nestled under a quilt and beneath mosquito netting. A ceiling fan ruffled the air. Two geckos clung high on the walls. My footfalls made little sound crossing the cool hard floor as I slipped out to surf for an hour before breakfast.

Last summer, GQ magazine put Sayulita on its short list of couples' getaways, for its surf culture and the inexpensive but opulent rooms at Villa Amor. It was romantic, the hotel pleasurable, the surfing accessible. But you had to be OK as gringos in a rutted-road paradise.

It took about an hour, maybe two, to see the town square and most of the shops. Only one took credit cards. Twice we checked e-mail at an Internet cafe. Some Spanish would have been helpful. You needed cash. Dogs roamed everywhere, indifferent to people. While it was charming in a free-spirited way, nobody picked up after them.

Many people were friendly, but like anywhere on or off the beaten path, not all the locals loved you for being there. One afternoon, a muscular teenager coming out of the water gave me a hard look and made an obscene gesture. An hour earlier, two guys gunned their boat onto the sand and over part of our towel, which may have been left in their customary parking spot. They didn't explain.

Others were genuinely kind. Later as we left the beach, another man shouted after me, "Amigo!" In his hand, he held the suntan lotion we'd forgotten.

"Gracias," I mumbled, and he smiled, adding, "De nada" - it's nothing.

By several accounts, the surf first attracted Americans to the village 25 miles northwest of Puerto Vallarta. Almost a decade ago, the new two-lane highway through the jungle began bringing more visitors. Some bought and refurbished modest houses or built villas on the hillsides overlooking the crescent-shaped cove. Real estate prices rose, though it remains a fishing village.

Even in the low season of late September, the surf break, maybe 50 yards across, got busy in the afternoon with a dozen or more pretty good surfers, including several Mexican kids slicing sharply across the waves on short boards. Stragglers stayed into the twilight. That spit of brown sand and the rocky bottom beyond it guaranteed the steady stream of nicely breaking waves a few feet high.

Some of the small cafes wouldn't open until October when the high season began. The staff at the 35-room Villa Amor said they'd be filled up then as well.

The stucco hotel at the south end of the cove was simple, elegant, appointed with native art. The staff was uniformly gracious. We spent hours on our balcony, reading novels, talking, gazing out. There was construction under way, but work had stopped.

With taxes, we paid $123 a night for the room with a balcony, upgrading from the $88 ground-level room that opened right onto the narrow coast road, which was cobbled only along the hotel. Occasional cars, pickup trucks and pedestrians moved slowly.

One afternoon, we walked up the dirt road, past the ornate graveyard in the jungle and down to the other swimming beach. It was Sunday, and dozens of families had come in cars and pickups to spend the day playing in the sea and picnicking. Tejano music blared from a tape player.

Every morning, I took a nine-foot foam-top surfboard from the collection kept for Villa Amor guests and walked the quarter-mile to the surf break at first light. It was a beginner's board, at the uncrowded beginner's hour, and after a few rides I walked back.

In the afternoons, the better surfers included a slender, middle-aged blonde, who paddled out slowly and took many graceful rides all the way to the sand on her long board. One man went out with a Jack Russell terrier standing erect on his board, turned and caught a wave, and rode back with the dog hanging 10. It jumped off, waded ashore and the man kept surfing. We called the dog Cortez.

One morning, an American from the hotel was teaching his wife to surf, and she was getting the hang of it. Later they rented a skiff with a guide to find more remote spots and didn't return until dusk. We'd met them our first evening, watching the blazing colors of sunset, and saw them once at dinner when rain poured off the thatched roof of the hotel's outdoor restaurant.

There were four couples among the eight tables that Sunday night. By Monday, it was just us. We left after four nights, spending the fifth in Puerto Vallarta, where we caught up with the world on CNN and shopped before flying home.

If You Go...

SAYULITA: http://www.sayulitalife.com or http://www.sayulita.com.

VILLA AMOR: Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico; http://www.villaamor.com. By phone, (011) (52) 329-291-3010. Rooms $85 to $350 a night plus 17 percent tax, less in summer and more during the Christmas season.

GETTING THERE: Fly to Puerto Vallarta, and then take a taxi, $40-$65. The hotel can arrange ground transportation in advance.


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