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Surfing and Sea Turtles in Sayulita

A trip to the Riviera Nayarit and one of Mexico's hippest surfing villages.

I traveled to the Riviera Nayarit, the name for the north coast of Puerto Vallarta, to give a talk in Sayulita, a coastal village known for its artsy surf vibe and boutique and gallery lined streets.

After a short flight from San Diego to Puerto Vallarta, I was immediately whisked away by Darrin Polischuk, a filmmaker who I first met when he lived in northern Baja. 

“The surf should be fun,” he said.

Half an hour after my arrival Darrin and I were surfing 2-4' rights and lefts with a few friendly locals somewhere on the way out to Punta de Mita, a theme green headland that forms the northern terminus of Bahia de Banderas.

The waves were similar to Church’s at San Onofre.

“When we first arrived here a few years ago we knew it was the place for us,” said Darrin, who lives in the area with his wife Paulina and two children. “And we’ve been here ever since.”

The tropical foliage and white sand beach reminded me of Kauai and the southeastern coast of Australia. 

After an hour and a half session, we meandered through the rainforest on a small highway north to Sayulita.

Upon our arrival, Darrin dropped me off a few blocks from the beach at the brightly colored Petit Hotel Hafa, which is owned by Christophe and Marina Mignot.

“Marina, the kids and I came to Sayulita after traveling many years on a sailboat and living in Portugal,” said Christophe, who is French. “We were looking for an easy living place with surf sun and culture. The family loves it!”

Marina has installed a little boutique on the ground floor of the hotel with surf and nature inspired art and jewelry. 

The following morning, I walked around the corner from the hotel to the Café El Espresso Sayulita.

After sipping a double espresso with just the right amount of foam, I strolled down to the beach to check the surf.

Local fishermen were readying their pangas for a day of fishing.

The operators of surfboard rental companies were setting up their boards and umbrellas.

With a mellow cobblestone reef point in town, Sayulita is the perfect destination for beginning surfers or surfing families.

I first visited the town a decade ago with my wife Emily and our two budding surfer sons.

My oldest son Israel had just learned to surf.

“I got my first barrel in Sayulita,” he remembered. We spent the entire weekend surfing and playing in the waves.

The town really hasn’t changed that much since then, just more boutiques, galleries, hotels and great places to eat.

It was too windy to surf, so I walked over to meet Kevin Roberts of Punta Sayulita who grew up in Coronado and is developing an Indonesian/Hawaiian style residential village just south of town.

Kevin was the host for my lecture that evening and is one of the organizers of the 3rd Annual Punta Sayulita Longboard & Stand- Up Paddle Classic to be held next month.

“Over the past two years, the Punta Sayulita Classic has developed into one of the premier surfing and stand-up paddle events in North America,” he said.

“The event has one of the deepest international fields competing head-to-head in longboard and stand-up paddle (SUP) surfing contests as well as an array of exciting offshore SUP distance races.”

Later that day Darrin picked me up again to search for surf, and once again the wind didn’t cooperate.

Just a few miles north of Sayulita, we turned into San Francisco (the locals call it San Pancho), an earthy coastal village that has become a new-age destination.

Huichol women in brightly colored dresses sold jewelry on the tiny malecon. They were surrounded by beautiful murals depicting the town’s agricultural and indigenous legacy. 

We visited the Entre Amigos Community Center, a brightly painted brick building in the middle of town.

Local children were reading in the public library and working on art projects.

“We focus on classes, lectures, art, community projects and education,” said Nicole Swedlow, Executive Director of Entre Amigos. “The center was community designed, is community driven and has become a gathering space and a place of tremendous positive energy.”

After my evening talk on conserving Baja’s coastline and a showing of the documentary The Baja Wave Document at Punta Sayulita, I sat down to dinner at a restaurant on the town’s colorful plaza with Paul Van Fleck, a photographer.

Paul is a longtime friend from Coronado who had previously lived in Imperial Beach and Todos Santos in Baja.

He keeps a small studio in Sayulita and as well as a place in Puerto Vallarta.

“I love surfing here,” he said.

Prior to catching my flight home the following day, Darrin drove me to another surf spot on the road out to Punta de Mita.

After a short walk through a tropical forest, we emerged on to the beach to find  waist-high surf and glassy conditions.

Darrin and I shared waves with a few tourists on longboards and sea turtles swimming around the reef.

It was a good omen and a great way to end my short time surfing and exploring in and around the magical coastline of Sayulita.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife. He is the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias and Saving the Gray Whale.

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