Vanlife diaries #46: Puerto Vallarta & Yelapa, Jalisco to Sayulita & San Pancho, Nayarit Mexico
After mum’s wedding in Puerto Vallarta and so much celebrating with family, we are back on our own and exploring how we do best— in our little home on wheels! This week, we hung around PV long enough to take in some of the best sights before scooting north through Riviera Nayarit to soak in our final moments on the Pacific Coast.
What we’ve been up to this week
Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
Although we’d been in Puerto Vallarta (well, technically in the neighbouring Nuevo Vallarta) for the entirety of last week, we did precious little exploring beyond the resort in an effort to spend as much time with family as possible. And so we started this week by getting out and about in Jalisco’s sparkling port city!
Unlike other resort destinations around Mexico that don’t really offer much more than just a sunny holiday, Puerto Vallarta itself is beautiful and something of a hotspot for arts and culture on the Pacific Coast. Cobbled lanes wrap through the city, tacos sizzle street side in Zona Romantica (the very lively gay district), and sculptures dot the Malecón that winds along the beachfront.
There’s even an island inhabited by cats, and it doesn’t get more cultured than that.
One of the main goals for this week was to establish a rough itinerary, if not for the next 5 months of mainland Mexico then at least for the coming month. The more we see of Mexico and the more I read about what’s to come, though, the harder it is to choose just a single route through the country!
On 2 separate days, we hauled my laptop into a spacious local brewery and, with 15 tabs of Google Maps and as many travel blogs open on my screen, I did my best to narrow down a plan.
I have no doubt it will change shape many times, but there was a definite satisfaction in sitting down at Pancho’s Takos (sailing in just 10min after opening to avoid the line) and digging into what truly are some of PV’s best spit-roasted al pastor tacos topped with pineapple… and knowing that we have months of THIS in front of us.
Another of our favourite spots was Parque Lazaro Cardenas, which is currently being covered in colourful mosaics and intricate tilework by an excited group of locals.
No matter where we wandered, we always found ourselves drawn back to the kaleidoscope benches, whether it was to sit and watch a full rock band perform on the nearby street corner or drink a large glass of the local specialty, tuba, made from fermented sap of the coconut palm and mixed with spices, chunks of apple, and nuts.
We explored bustling markets, admired city parks, and ate our weight in delicious food for several days before we felt we’d even done some semblance of justice to the city. And when we finally had, we drove a short distance south through the jungle to Boca de Tomatlan and hopped on an inexpensive water taxi to explore what some have called ‘the last true beach town in Mexico’.
The jungle meets the sea on a small beach in northern Jalisco, a place where the land has remained indigenous-owned for generations and whose people have staunchly opposed development from the large hotel chains and super-resorts that crowd the beaches in nearby Puerto Vallarta.
Even today, there are no roads to reach Yelapa— the nearest town is a 7hr walk along a dirt track (which is entirely washed out in the rainy season) and the only way to get supplies is by boat. Life is simpler here, but that’s exactly how the locals like it.
And yet, the secret is certainly out. Every day, a dozen water taxis carrying passengers to the beach in Yelapa depart from Boca de Tomatlán, a majority of them Mexican tourists exploring their own country, but a few gringos like us hoping for a glimpse of something that hardly seems to exist anymore.
The beach is lined with chairs and umbrellas, seafood restaurants built only a few steps from the water as iguanas saunter past bright family-run hotels with chipping paint. All the simple charm of a beach town from many decades past.
In the words of a friendly parasailing instructor, who returned home after travelling through Canada, the US, and all of Mexico: ‘I’ve seen the world & now I think there’s no more reason to leave Yelapa’.
After setting sail myself and seeing the incredible landscape from above, digging into more than a few mezcal margaritas on the sand, and diving under the clear waves as the sun set, we easily succumbed to the charm of Yelapa ourselves. It may not be the hidden gem it once was, featured heavily on travel blogs and itineraries, but there’s no denying that it has indeed retained much of its original charm.
And on this particular day, it was delightfully quiet, beach chairs and umbrellas easily outnumbering people 10:1. It’s an atmosphere you won’t find on the jam-packed shores of PV, and well-worth the trip.
Punta Mita & San Pancho, Nayarit
Back in our van and satisfied that we’d done Puerto Vallarta up right, we headed north out of Jalisco on Friday, detouring to spend the afternoon at a white sand beach in Punta Mita.
It was my 28th birthday, so Dan put together a picnic lunch and we relaxed in the sun with all of my favourite treats before continuing the rest of the way to our final destination.
We’d driven through all of Riviera Nayarit, the jungle paradise just north of Jalisco, en route from Mazatlán several weeks ago, and had seen enough to know that this was worth coming back to.
For my birthday, I had chosen the bohemian surf village of San Pancho (the widely accepted nickname for San Francisco), which by all accounts is the smaller, less touristy sister to the well-known backpacker hotspot Sayulita.
We wandered beneath a rainbow of flags and past trendy shops to one of the two lovely restaurants on the beach, this one cranking out live music and inventive cocktails as the sun set over the ocean.
Our dinner was every bit as remarkable. El Gallo, a local-favourite outdoor restaurant built around a hundreds-of-years-old tree, welcomes a live salsa band on Friday nights and all the young inhabitants of San Pancho and even many from nearby Sayulita crowd the courtyard until it’s standing room only.
By luck, we managed to score the end of a communal table, where we dug into the most incredible enchiladas we’ve yet had, stuffed with huitlacoche, an edible corn fungus that has been consumed by Aztecs for thousands of years and that has recently re-emerged as something of a delicacy in modern Mexican cuisine— even earning the nickname “corn truffles”.
You’ll be excused for thinking it doesn’t sound terrible appetising to eat what is essentially a fungal disease affecting corn crops, but huitlacoche has a meaty texture and earthy flavour very similar to mushrooms and is actually an excellent source of protein and amino acids. This happened to be the first time we’d encountered it in Mexico, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last— huitlacoche is sure to become a staple!
The second discovery we made at my birthday dinner at El Gallo was pulque curado, a beverage made from blending pulque with just about any fruit you can imagine.
For the uninitiated, pulque is another significant Aztec contribution to modern Mexican culture, a fermented agave sap drink considered to be the ancient precursor to tequila (which is made from the piña or heart of the agave plant), but that more closely resembles a mix of beer and kombucha— slightly thick, lightly effervescent, and extremely low in alcohol.
Pulque sugars ferment in a matter of hours, meaning the beverage has a remarkably short shelf life and a penchant for spoiling (read: always fresh and endemic to central Mexico!). Indeed, it has been a staple of not only local cuisine for thousands of years but also an important part of pre-Hispanic culture dating back at far as 200CE. Since its origin, pulque was considered a sacred beverage, “the nectar of the gods”, only to be drank by high priests and emperors— or as the final rite of those about to be sacrificed.
With the fall of the Aztec empire and the arrival of the Spanish, pulque was rebranded as a common man’s drink and much of the mystique and sanctity surrounding its fermentation was lost as the total number of pulquerias in all of Mexico fell to double digits. But in recent decades, pulque has experienced a grand revival— young generations of Mexicans are once again embracing this sacred beverage, if not in the original ritualistic way then certainly as something trendy and different!
Two enormous components of my love for travel are food and culture, intertwined in Mexico in a way that elevates the taco to religious status and that awards beverages a 2,000-year backstory. In many ways, this is the richest country in the world, steeped in legend and ancient practice that influences modern life like no other place I’ve been. It seems only fitting that I should spend my birthday digging into not one but THREE Aztec legacies (oh yes, there’s more).
That same night at El Gallo, we also stumbled upon another delicious piece of history with tepache, a lightly alcoholic beverage made from fermented pineapple rinds (and occasionally other fruits, such as guava) and sweetened with raw cane sugar.
Dating back to pre-Columbian times, tepache (which means “drink made from corn” in Nahuatl, the predominant Aztec dialect) was traditionally brewed with maize, but modern iterations have incorporated fruit for a sweet yet distinctly funky beverage bursting with character!
Since it’s only fermented for a few days, tepache is relatively low in alcohol (~7%) and drinks like a fruited beer. We were so impressed by the Tepache Sazón we had in San Pancho that, when we spotted the warehouse driving out of town, we whipped an immediate U-turn.
We managed to pick up 6 full bottle for 50p ($2.50) each AND learned that they are planning to export to the US this year, so keep your eyes open and prepare to be impressed!
We wrapped up the week in Sayulita, whose bohemian flair and good vibes are every bit as palpable as people say. In the evening, the central plaza crowds with backpackers and expats as house music pumps from local bars and breweries, a buzz of activity as everyone congregates over drinks.
We may have seen it in particular swing over the weekend, but a pair of English girls we met in a taco line assured us that this is what many people come to Sayulita in search of— nightlife and community in what is considered to be one of the safest cities in Mexico.
It should also be said that there is another side to Sayulita, and perhaps more in-keeping with its original charm as a surf haven and hippie paradise. The beach is always crowded with surfers and sunbathers, but as the sun begins to set, plenty of groups bust out a guitar and a joint without a worry in the world.
Drum circles and dreadlocks are as commonplace here as drunk Germans and doof music, and I suppose that’s to say that Sayulita has a little bit of everything for everyone.
Although we preferred the less touristy atmosphere of San Pancho, we had some seriously wonderful food in Sayulita (including an impromptu al pastor taco crawl) and definitely enjoyed our time scrambling around the rocks to discover hidden beaches.
Throw in a $25USD massage on the beach, and we have nothing but love for these 2 trendy little towns that put Riviera Nayarit on the map!
Where we stayed this week
- Street parking in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco (free; 17 Jan)
- Parking outside the Comfort Inn in Marina Vallarta, Jalisco (free; 18-20 Jan)
- Street parking in San Pancho, Nayarit (free; 21 Jan)
- Street parking in Sayulita, Nayarit (free; 22 Jan)
- Street parking in San Pancho, Nayarit (free; 23 Jan)