SAYULITA, Mexico — Our tickets said "Sayulita," but a long-distance bus ride to the Mexican beach town ended along the side of a busy highway.
We could either wait for a local bus, the driver explained, or walk the mile into town.
"You can do it," he said, glancing at the wheels on our suitcases, and pointing the way to a two-lane road.
I wasn't all that surprised. This was Mexico, after all. Or was it?
It's a question I asked myself over the next two days, as my husband, Tom, and I explored this popular beach town along a rugged stretch of Pacific coastline north of Puerto Vallarta.
Part of what's known as the Riviera Nayarit, Sayulita has long been a favorite destination for people from Seattle and Portland, but it's no longer the secluded surfing town it was a decade ago.
The little community of 4,000, many Americans and Canadians with second homes in the hills, has become an "'it' town," said Marshall Fox, a retired teacher from Portland. He had pulled over and offered us a ride after the bus dropped us off, pointing out his favorite taco stands and restaurants as we road to town along dusty Avenue Revolution.
Sayulita's three main streets, none more than a five-minute walk to the beach, are lined with shops selling surfing gear, silver jewelry and hand-tooled leather purses. Tourists sit on brightly painted benches on the town square, typing on laptops. A few steps away is a sushi shop, an Italian bakery and a French restaurant. There's no Starbucks, but a sprawling corner cafe called "El Espresso" can satisfy a craving for a white mocha.
"It reminds me of a college party town for people over 40," said Mel Heywood, 30, the manager of a costume supply shop in Portland. She and a friend spent a week here relaxing at the Moroccan-themed Petit Hotel Hafa, where guests meet on the rooftop deck to sample tequila and trade restaurant tips. "Our biggest decisions most days were whether to read a book or take a nap."
Safe and friendly, Sayulita seems perfect for anyone seeking a low-stress beach vacation away from the mega resorts. But can you come here expecting to experience the flavor of real Mexico?
I asked Rollie Dick, 70, a retired California school principal who moved here 11 years ago with his wife, Jeanne, and opened Rollie's restaurant across from a butcher shop.
In a visor and flip flops, Rollie wanders among the tables, pouring coffee and offering newcomers one of his special pancakes.
"Sayulita was a sleepy little Mexican fishing village," he said. "If I had my druthers, I'd rather it stay a little fishing village, but I know that's not possible."
Sayulita may be a tourist town, but it's not a tourist trap. Mexican families live and work here, and much can be gained by taking time out to observe everyday life.
"Watch a baby get a bath. Watch someone wield a machete," Rollie suggested. Most of all, "Smile and say hello, even if your Spanish isn't so good."
We followed his advice, staying on the lookout for glimpses into the local culture while enjoying the easygoing atmosphere in a town where everyone aims to please.
A cafe named ChocoBanana would seem like an unlikely place to start, but a sidewalk table at this popular expat hangout is a front-row seat on the sights and sounds of Sayulita waking up.
I ordered the $5 huevos rancheros breakfast special, tuned out the background music, and listened as women swept the square with plastic brooms. A man singing "Gas! Gas!" into a megaphone drove through town in a pickup stacked with propane gas canisters. Trucks rumbled by piled with fruits and vegetables.
Otilio Carillo Murillo, a Huichol Indian, sets up here every day around 7 a.m. In his white embroidered shirt and pants, it would be easy to take him for just another souvenir seller, but Murillo is a skilled artisan who spends hours creating intricate animal figures with colored beads he plucks one by one with a toothpick and embeds in a mold covered in beeswax.
Two blocks away is Playa Centro, Sayulita's main swimming and surfing beach. Sink into the sand on a deck chair and sip a fruit smoothie at Breakfast, or order a fish platter at El Costeno, Sayulita's oldest beach restaurant. Watching the surfers is the main event, but the vendors provide an entertaining sideshow. Enterprising locals make their living hawking hammocks, trays of coconut muffins and armloads of hand-woven purses and blankets.
More secluded is Playa de Los Muertos, popular with families for its gentle waves and waters protected by huge rocks. Those who know about it get here by strolling along the beach and cutting up the hill to the cemetery, or walking through the forest on a jungle path.
"To understand Mexico, you must eat here." So advises the Lonely Planet World Food guide to Mexico. French pastries and Argentine steaks aside, Sayulita's locals can be counted on to satisfy a craving for authentic street food.
We became nightly regulars at "Bakery Jolanda," where Betty Cambrano and Gabriel Lopez sell homemade fruit empanadas out of the back of a truck.
At Playa de Los Muertos, Azucena Mamya sells refreshments from a portable kitchen she sets up each day under a palm tree. Her specialty is "platanos fritos," bananas fried in a skillet of boiling oil, then split and topped with strawberry jam and sweetened condensed milk.
In town, tourists line up at Sayulita Fish Taco, a bright yellow, multistory restaurant started by a Californian years back as a corner taco stand.
Articles in newspapers and travel magazines have made a balcony table here the "it" town's "it" spot. But waits can be long, and there's now an extra charge for its famous mango salsa.
More fun and a better bargain were the $1 tacos at El Crustaceo Cascarudo, an open-air cantina run by the Ruiz family along the river at the edge of town.
A man in leather chaps was shoeing his horse the afternoon we sat down at a picnic table. We watched as he pounded in nails and measured the shoes.
Stop here, and you might find Mrs. Ruiz weaving a straw basket for her homemade tortillas. We chatted with her son, Daniel, while his brother, Osvaldo, squeezed oranges under a picture of Saint Martin, the Roman soldier who cut off part of his cloak to clothe a beggar.
The sun was out. A pickup truck rumbled by filled with colored mops and brooms for sale.
It was just as Rollie Dick said. Real life was all around.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Sayulita, in the state of Nayarit, is 25 miles north of the Puerto Vallarta airport. Taxis cost about $50. The public bus is $2 and takes about an hour to reach Sayulita. Local buses go directly into town. Long-distance buses stop 0long the highway.
LODGING: If you're staying for a week or longer, consider renting a condo with a kitchen, a beach bungalow or a house away from town. Bed-and-breakfast inns and small hotels are available for shorter stays. See www.sayulitalife.com for listings.
We stayed at the Petit Hotel Hafa, a stylish six-room boutique hotel in town. Rooms have exposed brick walls and large bathrooms. In-season rates range from $50 to $85 ($20 more if staying two nights or less). Air-conditioning is $5 per night extra. Call 011-52-329-291-3806, or see www.hotelhafasayulita.com.
Also in town, and more suited for families are the Aurinko Bungalows with kitchens and sitting areas. In-season rates range from $81-$127. See www.sayulita-vacations.com, or call 011-52-329-291-3150.
WHERE TO EAT: Our favorite was Cafe Leyza on the square. Try the chicken mole made with dark chocolate and sesame seeds ($12) or the chile relleno stuffed with shrimp ($8).
Rollie's and ChocoBanana satisfy tourists' cravings for pancakes and granola. El Costeno on the beach won my vote for most romantic nighttime setting (Think strolling mariachi musicians and $10 shrimp platters).
For a casual home-cooked Mexican breakfast or lunch, visit the Ruiz family at El Crustaceo Cascarudo on the river near the bridge on the edge of town.
TRAVELER'S TIP: Take a taxi to San Francisco, also known as San Pancho, a few miles south of Sayulita. It's a quieter, less-developed town with shops, art galleries, restaurants and a wide, uncrowded beach. http://sanpancholife.com.
MORE INFORMATION/SAFETY: See www.sayulitalife.com for information on hotels, beach house and bungalow rentals; activities and current happenings.
A U.S. State Department travel warning urges Americans to take precautions when traveling throughout Mexico due to high instances of drug-related violence. Tepic, the capital of the state of Nayarit, was the scene of recent gang shootings. Beach resort areas such as Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta have been free of trouble, but the State Department advises tourists in Mexico to visit only legitimate businesses and stay away from places where criminal activity might occur. Details at http://travel.state.gov.