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The rain had finally stopped. I looked out the window of the bus and took in the scenery around me. I could see blue skies in the distance ahead of me and was surrounded by lush green jungle.Earlier that morning, I had boarded the bus in Guadalajara in a rainstorm, ready to get out of the city after a couple of wet and grey days. I would have spent more time there, but was put off by the heavy rains. So I decided that it was time to head to the beach.Even though I spent many months in Mexico, exploring Mexico City, Veracruz, Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Isla Mujeres, somehow I had never made it to the Riviera Nayarit, the Pacific’s counterpart of the Riviera Maya.The Riviera Nayarit is a 200-mile stretch of coastline between the historic port town of San Blas and Nuevo Vallarta, the new part of Puerto Vallarta, a major cruise ship port. In between, you find small beach villages, colonial towns, luxury all-inclusive resorts, lots of jungle and hidden bays.Since I didn’t have all that much time, I decided to check out three places along the coast: Sayulita, a popular surf town, San Pancho, a laid-back beach village, and Puerto Vallarta, where I could get both: my city and my beach fix, because even though I love beaches, I tend to get restless quickly when there’s not much to do except for lounging in the sun.My first stop was Sayulita, where the bus dropped me off four hours after leaving Guadalajara, on the side of Highway 200 which follows the coast all the way down to the Guatemalan border. I went from being freezing cold in the morning (wishing I had brought a jacket on this trip, which I hadn’t) to being drenched in sweat as I walked to my guesthouse in the midday heat.Sayulita slowly appeared in front of me – colorful houses perched on the side of a green hill, and little houses now replaced the trees on both sides of the dirt road I was walking down. My guesthouse was not right in the center of town, but I didn’t mind that; I like seeing how the locals live.Once I reached my guest house, I didn’t waste much time: I checked in, put my bikini on and went straight to the beach, which was just down the road I was staying on. After the chilly days in Guadalajara, I soaked up every ray of sun. I walked along the long, white sand beach, watching the families that were picnicking on the beach, and taking in the surfers.
Situated in a bay, Sayulita gets quite a few waves, which is what most visitors seem to come here for: to surf. There are several surf schools around town, and whenever I went for a morning run on the empty beach, the ocean was already filled with surfers. After a while, I turned left onto a street lined with palm trees to explore the actual village.Sayulita looked beautiful. Houses that were painted in bright colors, and with Mexican fiesta flags waving in the wind, spanning across the streets. I could see immediately why it had been declared a ‘Pueblo Magico’, a Magic Village, a couple of years ago by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism.The ‘Magic Village’ program was introduced in 2001, when the first few dozen villages were awarded this title, which is confined to Mexican small towns and villages that offer visitors a magical experience. This can be through natural beauty, historic relevance and cultural riches – Sayulita was awarded the title thanks to its stunning natural beauty but also because of its distinct architecture, cobblestone streets, the well-preserved bright white church and the little town square, the zocalo, a typical feature of Mexican villages.It was more touristy than I had expected – at first glance I counted more foreign restaurants along the streets than Mexican eateries and walked by several high-end boutiques, but that didn’t take away from the charming atmosphere of the village.While ‘touristy’ often turns into high-rise hotel complexes and all-inclusive resorts (which is what I’d find in Puerto Vallarta a few days later), Sayulita has managed to maintain its small town character, where Mexican mom-and-pop food stalls exist alongside the fancier restaurants, which are run by expats.Overall, I found that most of the restaurants and shops seemed to be owned by foreigners, and over the course of my stay I learned that it was actually surfers who discovered this place around twenty years ago – and back then, there were no villas in the hills, whereas now you see many thatched roofs peeking out between the palm trees.After trying to find the entrance to Sayulita’s co-working space (I surprised to find out that there even was one!) without success, I made the Yah-Yah coffee shop my ‘coffice’, typing away on my laptop in between my beach sessions every day. In the coffee shop I was told that a lot of people seem to come for the entire winter, after spending all summer working in North America in seasonal jobs. A surfer’s dream life, I guess.I spent a few days working on my tan, hiked up the steep hills for stunning views over the bay and hiked to a couple of beaches outside of town – Playa Los Muertos, Beach Of The Dead, which is just south of town, an easy walk following a dirt road along the beach, passing the fishing boats and the fancy ‘Villa Amor‘ Resort at the very end of the bay before the road turns up the hill. Here, you pass a colorful cemetery, where candles are lit up on the graves every night, and when you descend the hill on the other side, you’re already at the small beach – probably named after the nearby cemetery. It is kind of neat to think that the deceased have their own beach here – a pristine one no less.This small beach in between two sets of rocks is less rough, the waves aren’t crashing against the shore like they do in the main bay, which is what attracts most people to come here. Still, compared to Sayulita’s town beach, there aren’t many people around.The second beach I visited took more of an effort to get to. I set off on the same route that led me to Playa Los Muertos, but followed the winding road along the coast, even though I never saw the ocean. I could hear the waves though and followed the sound of the sea, sticking to the right every time there was a fork in the road. The road was hilly and unpaved, offering vistas over the thick green jungle to the left, and I rarely saw any other people or cars. The walk itself was already worth it for me, getting away from the crowds and the city noise and taking in the jungle with sounds of monkeys, frogs and insects.I almost missed the little handwritten wooden sign near a concrete wall on the right side of the path which read ‘Playa Carricitos’ and pointed to the right, where a narrow path led along the wall down towards the ocean. I followed the path and three minutes later I was stepping onto a remote beach with golden sand, like Playa Los Muertos set in a bay, but much larger and wider, and most notably: completely deserted.I looked to my left and saw a couple laying in the sand on the far end of the beach, and to my right, there was another couple at the far end of the beach. I couldn’t believe that there weren’t more people here, considering how close we were to Sayulita – I’d walked for about 45 minutes – and how amazing this beach was. While Playa Muertos is calmer, Playa Carricitos has rough waves, rougher waves than the beach in town even, which is why I only walked into the ocean but didn’t go for a proper swim.On the southern end, there’s a house on the top of the cliff – I couldn’t figure out if it was a private home or a hotel – and there’s a small abandoned house in between the trees that line the beach. Other than that: nothing. I felt like I’d discovered a secret beach that I had (nearly) to myself, and I spent a couple of hours there just watching the waves crashing against the shore. I was even hesitant about mentioning it here, for everyone to read, but decided to share this little gem because of what happened when I returned a week later.After a few relaxed days in Sayulita, it was time for a city break: I was meeting a friend in Puerto Vallarta, about an hour south of Sayulita, and was curious to see how the city would compare to Sayulita, before returning there together.The bus traveled through the jungle for about forty minutes before the first buildings came into sight. It felt like a different world from the village I had just left: modern skyscrapers, a cruise ship port where two massive ships were lined up, a golf course, casinos and shiny new malls. It was a shock to the system after my slow beach days.Luckily, as the bus moved further south along the busy, congested road, the skyscrapers became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared in the rearview mirror. Instead, white colonial houses with colorful doors and windows came into sight. By the time I got off the bus, we had passed a couple of historic churches and I was walking to my hotel on a cobblestone street, past blooming hibiscus trees.I liked this part, the Old Town, of Puerto Vallarta, much better, and never ventured over to Nuevo Vallarta – why would I, because here, I found everything I needed: plenty of restaurants, several bars right on the beach, plenty of art galleries, even a microbrewery.This part, Viejo Vallarta (Old Vallarta) is also where most of the gay bars and clubs are located, because PV is not just a popular vacation spot for families and retirees, but it is also the gay capital of Mexico.
There are gay bars, clubs and saunas on every street, it seemed, the one below the apartment I was staying carrying a big sign that said ‘Only Men Allowed’.I was wondering if I should feel discriminated, a feeling that rose over the week when I saw plenty of tour agencies around town advertising gay-friendly tours with two men holding hands, usually not wearing anything but tight speedos and showing off their toned bodies.Where were the women? If PV was such an LGBT-friendly destination, there sure had to be some venues for lesbians? I looked into it and was surprised when I found that while there were a few mixed bars, there was only one girls – specific venue in PV, Apaches Martini Bar. However, when I swung by for a drink, there were, yet again, only gay men.I also only ever saw one lesbian couple, whereas I couldn’t go anywhere without stumbling upon gay couples or groups of friends on vacation together. Where were all the lesbians? Maybe it’s time for me to open a women-focused B&B in the Zona Romantica?The beach down here, Playa de los Muertos, is said to be the best beach in all of Puerto Vallarta, so I made the right decision by staying all the way down in the Old Town, also called ‘Zona Romantica’. It is also here where the malecon begins, a 12-block oceanside promenade which is filled with people at any time of day, and which for me turned out to be great for running.One morning, before it got too hot, I ventured up into the hills, which make for a gorgeous backdrop for PV (as most people call it) and stumbled on small residential houses, overgrown with bougainvillea, squeezed between new condominium complexes. It was interesting to see how old and new co-existed here.Banderas Bay, one of the largest and deepest bays in the world and covered in lush green vegetation, is also just such a gorgeous backdrop that I forgave Puerto Vallarta for having a Señor Frog’s right down on the malecon (the only thing Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have in common, by the way).I made a daily visit to the new pier, la muelle de los muertos, a futuristic-looking structure in the ocean that overlooks both the beach and the bay, part of my routine, because I loved the views from up here. Sometimes during sunset, a bunch of local kids came to jump off here, at least 20 meters over the water, which always drew a crowd.When my friend arrived in town a couple of days later, I moved from my first apartment, housed in one of the old buildings, into one of the brand new condo buildings, to treat myself to a fancy place for a change.
We had found an incredible deal on Booking.com for a top-notch apartment in a modern building, the Pinnacle 220, which did not only come with brand new appliances (even a washer and dryer, a BBQ on the balcony, a bar, a kitchen with a stove & oven) and two bed rooms, but also with a nice rooftop pool. Going up there for a sunset pre-dinner drink was my favorite part of the day, and we loved it so much, that we extended our stay for a couple more nights.I came to appreciate the amenities of city life in Puerto Vallarta – fast wifi, a large number of restaurants to choose from, enough bars for a margarita crawl and a fun night of beer sampling at the Los Muertos microbrewery.I also attempted my first SUP session in the ocean (rather than a calm river where I’d done it before), which turned out to be much more difficult than it looked, and then I was ready to return to the tranquil and slow life of a beach village.Back north I went, this time with a travel buddy in tow, and this time my destination would be a bit further north than Sayulita: San Francisco, better known as San Pancho. Ten or fifteen minutes after dropping off a bunch of tourists headed for Sayulita, I was dropped off again on the side of Highway 200, and we walked into the village where we had booked a room in a small hotel. My first impression was that San Pancho was very sleepy compared to bustling Sayulita, and what a difference from Puerto Vallarta!We followed the main road down to the beach, which, similar to Sayulita, was set around a long bay. This beach however, was much wider, and in my opinion not as picturesque as Sayulita’s main beach. There were less people though, and most of them seemed to be surfers.The main difference to Sayulita? Here, there were only a couple of boutique hotels, no high-end resorts like in Puerto Vallarta, and it seemed that there were primarily private rentals. There weren’t any bohemian shops like in Sayulita selling leather goods and high-end jewelry. San Pancho felt much more like a truly Mexican village, even though there were a couple of coffee shops and restaurants that were clearly geared towards gringos. The golf court on the edge of town seemed completely out of place – apparently a president who was very fond of San Pancho and came here regularly had it built in the 1970s.We spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach and toasted to our first day in San Pancho with a couple of beers while the sun set over the ocean in front of us, and while watching the many surfers who’d come out for a sunset surf, showing off their rad skills.The next day, we set off to do something I’d wanted to do in Sayulita when I stayed there the week before: a jungle hike between the two villages. The path wasn’t described very well, and I found somewhat confusing tales from people who got lost somewhere along the way and turned back, and others whose trip ended in front of a fence or a closed gate. We were determined to at least give it a try though, and to make things easier, we decided to start in Sayulita, where most people seemed to set out on the hike, and hopefully end in San Pancho in time for another epic sunset.We had downloaded some of the hike descriptions onto our phone and off we went. The path through the jungle was as scenic as I had hoped it would be. At times we’d end up high above the ocean, seeing the dark blue of the Pacific shine in the distance, before the path turned into the jungle again.I was also hoping to spot some wildlife, but sadly we weren’t very lucky – unless you count the Yellow Orb spiders that nearly caused me a panic attack as wildlife.Eventually we got to a road fork and instinctively turned right where we could hear traffic on the paved road, but upon reaching it we weren’t sure anymore and turned around again to try the other path, even though it said ‘private property’. That’s how we got to the gate that we had read about, which luckily was open and led to a gorgeous estate (some accounts mentioned it was the mansion of a Mexican ex-president). The estate sat on the top of a hill, to its right a small beach, and to its left we could see San Pancho beach.A guard slowly walked towards us as we were trying to figure out how to get to the beach and San Pancho which was indeed blocked by a fence. The guard told us we weren’t supposed to be there, but he pointed to a small door inside the fence which was open, saying we could go through there but not come back. I was relieved that the door was open because the fence was much too high to climb it and I really didn’t want to turn back.We celebrated our successful hike with a couple of beers while watching yet another superb sunset. So far, all of the sunsets along the Pacific had been stunning, and I vowed not to miss a single one while I was here.After a couple of days in tranquil San Pancho we headed down to Sayulita which felt now, after relaxing in this tiny village, like a busy, big town. It’s funny how quickly your perception can change.I was excited to introduce my friend to El Itacate, a hole-in-the-wall taco stall that had gotten the approval rating of Thomas Keller, the Michelin star carrying chef at the famous The French Laundry, and a place I ended up returning to over and over again after I first discovered it.We made watching the spectacle that are the sunsets our nightly routine, we bar hopped in the evenings, and I wanted to show off Las Carricitos, the isolated beach I’d found on my first visit. But when I arrived at the place where a week prior the sign had been, I noticed that it was gone! Had I not taken a picture of it the first time, I would have thought I’d imagined it. Instead, there was a brand new fence blocking access to the hill that leads down to the hidden beach.A worker, who saw my confused face, explained we should follow the road a bit further and go down there. The hole in the fence we climbed through was probably not supposed to be an entrance, but we sneaked through it, and just like during my first visit, there were only a couple of other people, and we had the beach nearly to ourselves.We frolicked in the waves, watched the sunset and walked back into town. Again, I am not sure if I want to tell anyone about this beach find, but since it seemed as if they were making accessing it even more difficult, I don’t even know if there’s still going to be any access to it in the future.Since Sayulita is not only a popular surf spot but also has excellent Stand Up Paddling conditions, so good that the first ever StandUp Paddle and Paddleboard Championship (WSUPPC) was held here in 2015, I decided to get out on a paddleboard again while here to work on my SUP skills. While I don’t think I’ll ever take part in a championship, I enjoy SUPing so much that I’ll try to always incorporate it into beach vacations from now on. Since I can’t lay on a beach for too long anyway, it’s perfect for me. I get to hang out in the ocean and be active at the same time.After bidding my friend farewell, I was torn about staying a few more days in Sayulita or returning to Puerto Vallarta. Even though I preferred the vibe in the small beach town, I felt that the amenities in Vallarta were better. In Sayulita, it was a constant struggle to find decent wifi. There were no air-conditioned coffee shops to work in, and writing in temperatures in the 90s is quite a challenge. The running route in PV along the malecon was better than the hills in Sayulita. And there were more vegetarian restaurants in the big city.When my bus approached Puerto Vallarta this time around, I wasn’t appalled by the skyscrapers and malls, knowing I’d not be spending any time there anyway. Instead, I’d be enjoying the charming Old Town again, and the best beach in PV, Playa Muertos. I’d be able to sit on the new boat pier and enjoy the views over Banderas Bay, devour amazing vegetarian food at Salud (still my favorite veggie place in PV) and maybe even take advantage of the air-conditioning at Starbucks. Because sometimes touristy places aren’t all that bad.Now that I know both of Mexico’s most popular rivieras, the Riviera Maya and the Riviera Nayarit, I think I still prefer the Riviera Maya. I’ve always loved the Caribbean Coast more than the Pacific (also in Costa Rica) and I love the cenotes along the Riviera Maya, plus of course the people its named after, the Maya, and all their stunning ruins on the Yucatan.
However, I loved beach hopping along the Riviera Nayarit, and I hope I’ll get to explore more of that coastline in the future – San Blas for example is supposed to be amazing, and I haven’t made it to Yelapa near PV, which was highly recommended to me.There’s always more to see, and so I say: Hasta Pronto, Riviera Nayarit – See you soon.