Two nights were all I had budgeted in PV. Any longer and its allure starts to thin. The town gets on your nerves. All those trinket peddlers and serenading Los Ponchos wannabes. But it's a great gateway. The Bay of Banderas sweeps through the states of Jalisco and Nayarit in a 27-mile arc from Villela in the north to Corrales in the south. Its secret beaches and tangled hills hold all the clues to what PV was like 40 years ago.
Sayulita, 26 miles up the coast, was a picturesquely impoverished fishing village when the first brave American surfers appeared there in the early seventies. The jungle was so dense (and full of scorpions and wild parrots), they basically had to hack their way to what would become known as one of Mexico's most sensational boarding waves—1,000 feet long on a normal day, 1,600 on a good one, and with swells that top off at eight feet. Everything changed when the highway that connects PV and Sayulita was finished in 1998. U.S. license plates were seen for the first time. Tourism gave villagers the means to trade their burros for horses, and then their horses for cars. The really decisive year was 2003, when the foundations were laid for Villa Amor, a hulking 33-room "luxury" hotel that made its Californian developer, Rod Ingram, possibly the least popular person this side of the Sierra Madre. Residents succeeded in blocking the project for a while, but Ingram ultimately prevailed, taking advantage of the slack system then in place to push it through. Villa Amor would never have a chance today. Anticorruption under President Vicente Fox, the one-time Coca-Cola delivery truck driver, is huge, a man who just paid $1 million for 1½ acres on the water in Sayulita told me. Gone are the days when you could flip the building inspector a $20 bill to look the other way. Now, he says, the inspector would flip you in jail before sunset.
For better or worse, Sayulita has grown into one of those high-low places where you can drop $1,800 on a leather-and–baroque pearl Les Gazelles necklace in a boutique where the merchandising is as edgy as Barneys', then waltz out past a real estate office with the Christie's logo and have the best fish taco in the world from a cart on the street for 85 cents. Sayulita's streets are dusty, exhausted, bedraggled. The village is definitely not for your stepmother, probably not for your in-laws, and, sadly, not for you if you are not enchanted by these traits. Those who are have nice things to say about the locals. As one American put it, they greet you before you greet them, and unlike the native populations in other parts of Mexico, such as the states of Durango and Guerrero, they don't make you feel like a foreigner, an outsider, a gringo. People who move to Sayulita are drawn by the leveling mix of ages, incomes, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Everyone converges on the sand to ritually toast the sunset: the fishermen, the fishermen's wives, their children, the surfers, the dropouts, the deadbeats, the beach bums, the retirees, the newly arrived nobody can remember anything identifying about except that they have gobs and gobs of money.
Like the tacos, Sayulita's other street food—flan sold by a young mother at a card table; chicken marinated in orange juice, mayonnaise, garlic and chiles and grilled by Yolanda on Calle José Mariscal—is safe, cheap, sustaining, and delicious. The village wakes up around eight (rather early, I thought, for such a lazy place) at Choco Banana, located on the main plaza downwind from the butcher's shop, where a cauldron of pigs' organs bubbles ominously outside the front door. Choco Banana has luscious breakfast burritos, the frozen specialty that gives the place its name, and morning surfer-watching that is as hot, er, as the coffee. Even at this hour, someone on the square is usually blowing softly on a saxophone, while at a stand opposite the café a Huichol Indian plies his shamanistic art: reptiles rendered in infinitesimal, vividly colored beadwork.
Strips of mahimahi coated in a dark beer–and-garlic batter fill the handmade stone-ground–masa tortillas at Sayulita Fish Taco. The pineapple-and-mango salsa here is so crazy-good, no one can be bothered to notice that a taco costs four times what it does on the street. The guy next to you at Sayulita Café could be a Mexican-food geek on a molcajete azteca odyssey. Piled into a volcanic-stone bowl, the dish combines beef, chicken, chorizo, panela cheese—and cactus, the whole bathed in a dark, smoky chipotle sauce. Sayulita entered a definitive era of no looking back with the opening of El Espresso coffee company, whose owner does not hesitate to call herself a barista, and Fiambala, an Argentine steak restaurant with a real Argentine chef and tables set out in a pretty garden courtyard. The Cuban salsa band and flamenco guitar duo at Don Pedro's are better than the food. And who but tourists, for heaven's sake, are buying the hibiscus wine at Los Sabores de Sayulita, an entire store devoted to the stuff?