Please forgive my extended absence from this blog. I have been mired in school-work. The good news: the high school speech and debate team I coach fared very well at the state tournament (one team took 6th) and I’ve got most of my peers, students, administrators, and community members convinced that I’m a competent, caring teacher. That’s what I’ve been doing for two months. Well, that and yoga. And learning how to salsa dance (more on that later, I promise). And of course, surfing.
Which brings me to this post’s topic. I was fortunate enough to travel to Mexico for spring break a couple of weeks ago. I have been planning this trip in my head for years, before I ever bruised my ribs on a surfboard: surfing with my girlfriends in some tropical paradise–experience not necessary. Last fall I made initial inquiries and three brave souls signed up. (For some reason I’m known among my friends as the crash-and-burn type?)
We settled upon Sayulita, Mexico. Two of my girlfriends had learned to surf there and spoke glowingly about it.
Sayulita is just over twenty miles north of Puerta Vallarta and is accessible by bus for $2. The bus is chicken-free but bumpy-full. If the bus isn’t your thing, you can hail a taxi for $50 if you catch it from the airport, $30 if you walk across the street and hail one.
Sayulita is being gringified, but it’s still Mexico. There’s no all-inclusive here: we rented a house on the beach (appropriately called, “The Beach House”) for $50/night per person. The Beach House is actually a compound and we rented the Upper Garden, which had no windows and no clocks and some ants. It was awesome. My friend Robyn remarked that with its curved “walls,” pink and green decor, and banana leaves for windows, that it was straight out of a Woody Allen film. I concurred. Kim, who’s used to all-inclusive Mexico, immediately reacted with, “I love it!” Fifty feet separated our front door (glorified shutters) from the beach. This meant easy access to cold beers in our frigde but it also meant loud nights from club music and neighborhood dogs. We had a full kitchen replete with a thirty-foot curvy island, a bathroom with tiles and wooden stakes instead of walls, and a lounging area along the entire sixty-foot wall.
The beach was right outside our door. It was in a bay and had three restaurants that jutted out into the sand, onto the beach, and many more patios overlooking the water but encroaching upon beach space. It was crowded. This former sleepy fishing village where Mexicans go to vacation was overrun with pasties like me on Spring Break. You realize when you’re abroad how much time Americans spend complaining and stuffing their faces.
Vendors come at you constantly, charging $1 per donut or tamale–the same can be had just a block or two away for half that price. The water is not the limpid blue of the Carribean but is inviting nonetheless. This beach had no less than five surf shops, a masseuse, and a bevy of restaurants, all serving cervezas and margaritas.
Get to the beach by 9am to claim your territory. The umbrellas and palapas are owned by the restaurants just behind the rentable umbrellas and chairs–usually to the tune of $10 a day. Not a bad price for shade in tropical paradise, especially when your dermatologist’s warnings about skin cancer are resonating in your head. Again, the obnoxious Americans will plop down right in front of you, obscuring your view. They can’t help it; it’s just what they do.
The main goal was to surf and that’s what I did. My first full day there I rented from Duende Surf Shops for the unbelievable price of $40/day. I know what you’re thinking: $40 is a lot for a surfboard for one day. Once again, I concur. I rented, as I always do, a nine-foot Sunspot, the foam core boards that everyone learns to surf on. I was determined this week to take the training wheels off, but Duende would not rent me a fin.
So I rented the Sunspot, got up twice in a row, no problem, and traded in the styrofoam for a beautiful eight-foot board whose design was fashioned after bamboo hardwood floors. I wore my rash gard all day and thank God because after surfing for about four hours in the tropical Pacific, this Irish girl was burned. Badly. Back of legs and that area between my rash guard and the top of my bikini. After I took a two-hour siesta post-surfing on the curved lounge of our place, I spent the next two days trying to ease the burn and the pain that came with it. I would also spend the next two days out of the sun.
Back to surfing three days later. This time I rented from Lunazul, which was half the price of Duende. I rented from Lunazul because the owner there was the most helpful as I tried to track down a wetsuit so I could still surf with my raging sunburn. None are to be had in Sayulita, by the way. He directed me to the Coral Reef surf shop in Bucerias, just a few towns south of Sayulita. I REALLY wanted to surf but I also REALLY wanted to not drop another $100 on a wetsuit when I had one at home, hanging blithely on my bedroom door. I opted to stay out of the sun for two days and read and enjoy Pacificos.
Why, do you suppose, does Duende charge twice as much as the other surf shops? Well, they have the best variety of surfboards. They also take the best care of their surfboards. The Duende surfboard had been freshly waxed and had none of the sand-cum-wax grime that graced the top of the Lunazul board, which irritated and scraped my already sunburnt thighs, stomach and ribs. Caveat emptor.
The Beach Breaks–Sayulita boasts two beach breaks. Toward the southern end of the bay is the beginner break where lessons take place. It’s a scary place because there’s no surf etiquette and tons of kids are splashing around the water’s edge and in harm’s way. Up north is the intermediate break. The breaks are about 50 yards out and are impossible to paddle out to with those Sunspot boards. In fact, getting over the waves was my biggest obstacle. I had no problem catching waves or standing up but I was so exhausted by the time I paddled out that I would have take a good five- to ten-minute rest before trying to catch a wave.
My surfing experiences, if you can recall, have been mostly limited to Northern California where the water is cold, the sets come in quickly, and the waves crash hard. Sayulita, in contrast, had lolling sets with 10-15 seconds in between that are paddleable and ridable. Although I was able to catch waves, I was never able to officially drop in. I would wait for the wave to crash over me, swallow my panic, then stand up in the whitewater. (My friend Robyn noted that I was able to catch a six-foot wave doing this!) I would then turn and ride the wave almost all the way into shore, angling south when I could because the shoreline in front of the intermediate break is rock-ridden.
Sayulita is very beginner-surf friendly. I was able to move up rungs on the surfing skills ladder in a matter of days. My friend Kim was able to stand up on her board within the first half-hour of her private lesson ($40).
Our first night I convinced Robyn to go to Don Pedros, an upscale restaurant with tables right on the beach where you could kick off your shoes and scrunch your toes in the sand if you so desire. Don Pedros was having salsa night and since I had been taking lessons for a few months, I was anxious to show off my new skills. We paid the $4 cover charge (which can be avoided if you enter from the beach–so do it) and listened as the ten-piece salsa band did its thing: huge percussion section, trombone, cow bellist, you name it. The music was awesome. Alas–no one was interested in dancing with the Irish gringo. No matter–I taught Robyn a few salsa basics, plopped down $8.50 for a shot of Don Julio tequila and tried not to feel rejected. If you go to Don Pedro’s, enter from the beach and order only beer. Plus, bring a dance partner. Guaranteed fun.
Because we were traveling with an eight-year old, we didn’t really check out the party scene. Kim and I had Pacificos our second night in Sayulita at El Capitan, which features Popeye on the front of its menu. El Capitan is located right on the beach, just next to Patricia’s surf kiosk.
Our third night marked the apex of our partying. Because I was sunburnt I was a little more liberal with my cerveza-imbibing that I would have been had I been surfing. We had a little maragarita party at the casa that night, invited some Americans over, and Kim and I went out to a club around the corner that had live music (it seems that just about everyone does). We made fast friends with the waitress and her friends, who happened to be the local pickpockets. At least I found someone to dance with.
The rest of our evenings we spent doing movie night with the portable DVD player the eight-year old had insisted on bringing along. God bless her. I watched Chicago (the best musical I’ve ever seen) and the same bits and pieces of High School Musical 2, which oddly enough, takes place in Albuquerque.
The Town and Its Restaurants
The town boasts a plaza where vendors hawk their wares, taxis take you places, and break dancing breaks out at midnight. All around the plaza are restaurants whose prices, unfortunately, did not seem to be on a Mexican scale. Standard Mexican food ranged from $6-$12, with seafood platters occupying the upper regions of the price scale. None of the food was fantastic and the service was slow. Some places will tell you that 18-20% tipping was standard, although I know from the friends we made at El Capitan that the natives still only tip $1-$3 dollars.
Our best meal in Sayulita was our last. It was a taco stand that had a full, roasting pig on a spit. The stand is located a block north of the bridge that separates one side of town from the other. It’s just over the bridge from the ballfield, which is where the bus drops you off. The tacos are $1 each and are unbelieveable. We were the only gringos eating there and we each ate three tacos.
Sayulita, In Retrospect
I would absolutely drop another several hundred dollars to revisit this original little town. Here’s some things I would do differently, however:
1. Get a quieter, cheaper place away from the beach.
2. Buy a cooler for the week and save on eating beach food.
3. Bring my wetsuit (the water in March is almost cold enough to warrant one anyway) in case of another sunburn.
4. Explore the town a bit more–stay away from the plaza, where things are busy and overpriced.
5. Rent my surfboard for the entire week instead of daily and negotiate for a better price. Most surf shops don’t open until 8 or 9AM and some of the best, uncrowded surfing can be found in the early morning hours.
6. Invest in some zinc oxide for sun protection.
Check out sayulitalife.com for more info.