Praise be, we have almost reached the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel! As vaccinations continue, opportunities for international travel are looking more plausible than they have in over a year. While some borders remain closed to the United States, a slew of young travelers are flying south to Mexico, which is open to the U.S. under strict health screening protocols (with the international US-Mexico border seeming poised to open wide soon).
Tulum and Cabo San Lucas are well-known hotspots for young adventurers and are seeing travelers return in droves. But there’s another Mexican destination and longtime surf haven that’s we want to give shine to today… We’re talking about Sayulita — a beach town in the small West Coast state of Nayarit. A vibey, nicely paced beach and party paradise.
Directly along the Pacific Ocean, Sayulita stretches across an arch in the coastline. The vibrant and lively town is adorned with saturated colors on every building, streetcar, and beach umbrella in sight. Not to mention, the sea of colored flags that hang over the center of downtown like a whimsical jungle canopy. The beaches are plentiful and feel uncrowded to a large degree. The lush landscape just beyond the town is all palm trees and dense jungle.
Am I gushing? I’ve been to many places in my short 25 years, and this was easily one of my top 10 travel experiences. Is that assessment overly influenced by the fact that it was the first time I left the country in two years? Maybe so. My eagerness to hit the road (responsibly) post-COVID was massive. But I’m telling you: it was a wonderful trip.
For a complete 2021 guide to Sayulita – from where to stay, what to do, and how to best prepare for COVID-19 travel protocols – read on below.
PART I — What To Do
Sayulita offers sunshine and high temperatures year-round, so spending at least a few hours on the beach (per day) is a must. The main beach area is within walking distance of most hotels and downtown, making it easy to go back and forth if you forget your sunscreen. And trust me, even if you normally don’t burn, you need it. The sun is strong here. Literally, my skin was still peeling off like a snake for two weeks after my trip. Sorry for the graphic mental picture, but wear your SPF, okay?
Also make sure to pack some pesos in your wallet because there are always local vendors walking on the beach selling jewelry, hair-braiding, and trinkets to bring home as souvenirs. It’s a good idea to head to the beach on an empty stomach, as many of the seaside hotels offer lawn chairs and umbrellas to sit at as long as you order food or drinks. Get some guac in your stomach before downing a margarita because they don’t skimp on the tequila-to-lime juice ratio in Sayulita.
A short 10-minute walk into the neighborhood outside of downtown leads you to Playa Los Muertos. It’s another beautiful beach adjacent to a graveyard that’s filled with breathtaking memorials to honor those who have passed. I know, walking through a graveyard on vacation sounds a bit macabre. But it gives you insight into longstanding Mexican traditions and is a nice chance to reflect on the heritage of the place you’re visiting.
Lastly, surfing is a must in Sayulita and it’s a great spot to learn. There are a variety of waves — from beach breaks for beginners to rock-reef breaks for more advanced surfers. Rentals are available all along the beaches, as are lessons. Intermediate surfers will be happy with the board selection, too (there’s more than just foam beginner boards on offer).
Here’s what else to do during your stay:
Once you get your sunbathing and beachside margarita (Or two. Okay, three.) checked off the to-do list, head to the vibrant downtown area. There are a plethora of shops and galleries along the palm tree-lined calles that sell artwork, pottery, clothing, and everything in between. With about 45 locally-owned shops, including Sayulita’s first boutique jewelry shop Sayulita Sol Jewelry, downtown offers a diverse collection of merchandise all within a four-block radius.
Whether you’re into one-of-a-kind paintings or looking to up your style game, you’re sure to find at least one shop to your liking.
If sunbathing and shopping doesn’t sound exhilarating to you, not to worry. Sayulita serves up a platter of activities that appeal to adventurer-seekers too. In town, you’ll easily find a variety of boat tour excursions available. One option takes you on a trip to a secret beach (literally, you have to swim through a cave to get to it — though IG popularity has decreased the “secret” aspect), called Marieta Island. Others take you snorkeling, fishing, and even whale watching.
If you’re someone who loves nature and animals, you’ll be blown away by the massive beauty of the whales that get only a few hundred feet from your boat. I may or may not have screamed several times due to the irrational fear of them hitting the bow, but it was totally worth it. The best times for whale watching are December through April, so make sure to plan your trip in this timeframe if it’s a must on your Sayulita bucket list.
Food Lover’s Paradise
You’re sure to work up an appetite after a long day of shopping and beach-going. Fortunately, there are a ton of delicious restaurants nearby to satisfy your cravings. ChocoBanana is a breakfast lover’s heaven, ideal after a long Saturday night at the beachside bars. For a classic coffee shop vibe, head across the way to the family-owned Café El Espresso. I went there almost every morning of my trip, and it was exactly the calming energy I needed before starting my day of adventuring. Plus, the almond milk latte and fruit platter did a great job of curing my tequila-induced hangovers.
Lunch is best enjoyed on the beach. Captain Pablo’s offers the ultimate casual cantina experience with an ocean view. There’s no shortage of guac or tacos on the menu. If you’re looking for a reason to dress up and head somewhere a bit more intimate, take a walk to Si Señor. With quiet seating overlooking the water, the dreamy ambiance and attentive waitstaff set you up for a romantic dinner.
Bar Hop Deep Into The Night
Despite the town’s laidback style, avid partiers will have no problem finding a place to dance and drink in Sayulita’s nightlife. You’ll hear music everywhere from the downtown bars to the beach. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find a live band or DJ in the sand after dark. This is where I thrived, although anyone who witnessed my dance moves might beg to differ.
Looking for a casual drink or two? Walk to Escondido Bar in the heart of downtown. It specializes in signature craft cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients. If you don’t want to miss a big game while on your trip, the colorful sports bar called Barrilito Sayulita is the perfect spot to watch. I can’t say I’d prefer to watch sports on TV when I can watch hot surfers on the beach, but… you do you. For an all-night rager, Coco’s Beach Club might be your best bet. Friday nights at Coco’s are a Cumbia-themed party with live music and dancing. This is also a nice spot to enjoy a cold one on the beach during the day.
PART II — Where to Stay
Just about anyone can find accommodations they’ll love in Sayulita. Properties range from hostels to resorts, each location offering its own unique character. If you want to be near all of the fun, then staying in or close to downtown is recommended. This makes everything walkable and convenient (if you stay in town and want a beach-centric trip, there’s no reason to rent a car — although car rentals in Mexico are famously affordable).
Travelers on a Budget
If you’re a young or solo traveler on a budget (hey, me too!), check out the Selina Hotel. It’s a hostel-style hotel with shared bunk quarters or individual rooms, which is what I stayed in. However, there are shared bathrooms on each floor, no matter what room style you go with. Bring flip-flops if you’re a germaphobe.
Selina Hotel offers group activities like yoga classes, surfing, and a common pool area, making it easy to stay active and meet other travelers throughout your stay. I loved getting a quick Vinyasa flow in the mornings to offset the nonstop damage I did on chips and guac. (Yes, I know I keep bringing up guacamole. I’m still thinking about it.) The best part is the property’s prime location in the heart of Sayulita, just steps from the beach and downtown.
Secluded Resort Life
Fun fact: Bachelor in Paradise filmed in Sayulita, Mexico. I know this because I will shamelessly admit that I’ve watched every season…and applied to the show (twice). If you want to live out your reality TV dreams, stay at the Playa Escondida hotel. This is also a great choice if you want something a little more secluded. It’s still only a short 15-minute walk from downtown, but you’ll have more privacy and it’s much quieter at night. So you can fall asleep to crashing waves instead of the bustling bar scene.
If you want to stay directly by the water, book a room at Hotel Peix. The property has its own private bar and beach area, so you won’t need to go anywhere to put your feet in the sand. Plus, some rooms also come with a private balcony. This is an ideal hotel for surfers who plan on hitting the waves first thing every morning and want to see the break as they plan their day.
Getting There and Getting Around
Many COVID-19 restrictions are lifting and the world is slowly making its way back to “normal.” However, it’s still important to be safe and prepared when it comes to traveling. With international trips specifically, there are especially strict requirements for flying.
Travel Precautions and COVID-19 Tips
While it isn’t required to show a negative COVID-19 test to fly into Mexico from the U.S., it’s obviously a good idea to do anyway. Once you arrive in Mexico, you’ll have to fill out a COVID survey in order to exit customs and leave the airport. You can either print this out before your trip or fill it out online.
Important: You have to show proof of a negative COVID test to get back home to the U.S. Therefore, it’s a good idea to figure out your exact plan for testing before you leave. Some resorts will do instant testing for their guests, so make sure to ask about this before booking your stay. They will likely have a local health official come to perform the test, and you’ll get the results back in about an hour. There is also testing available at the airport, but this can take a while and risk you being late for your flight home.
Transportation to Sayulita
To get to Sayulita, you’ll first fly into Puerto Vallarta. The airport is less than an hour’s drive from Sayulita, and the one-lane road takes you through scenic jungle views. As mentioned, it’s best to take a cab versus renting a car for a trip like this because everything is within walking distance once you make it into town. Luckily, it’s super easy to find a cab right outside the airport. The cost is about $70 in U.S. currency.
Pro Tip: Don’t let any airport employees stop you on your way out. They’ll likely try to upsell your car ride with additional luxuries and pit stops along the way (I learned this the hard way). Head straight out the doors and opt for the cabs out front. If you do plan on venturing out of Sayulita, there are a ton of cab drivers lined up in the main downtown square that can take you wherever you need to go.