Sayulita, Mexico has become very popular and it's quite understandable - it's so cool! But unfortunately, the town - and it's visitors - sometimes pay a price for that popularity.
2010 : Discovering Sayulita
The first time I visited Sayulita was in 2010, on a bus from Puerto Vallarta. We were staying in PV for the week and had heard that Sayulita was a can't-miss little town, so we carved out a whole day to visit and explore that area. The town is located just 25 miles north of Puerto Vallarta, and the bus was quite full. There were tourists on board, but also many locals who appeared to be making yet another routine trip north heading back home after visiting the big city of PV. In fact, across from us on the floor, sat a small cage with live chickens in it!
When we arrived in Sayulita, we immediately understood the appeal. It was fricking adorable. Quaint, very colorful, and each person we met was so friendly. We talked to a local shop owner, who told us there was no bank in town, and no post office. Locals had to go into PV to do those things, and things were kept very simple here.
As we explored we saw families lounging on the beach and sitting along the streets in the open cafes, happy music floating through the air. The beach was also pretty small, and the homes, shops, and restaurants were all tucked in close together.
All four of us just loved it and were sad when it was time to return to our bus later in the afternoon to head back to Puerto Vallarta. We all made ourselves a promise we would return again someday, for a vacation dedicated to that one little town.
2019 : Revisiting Sayulita
When my friends began looking for a location for a group vacation in Mexico, I piped up immediately. Sayulita!!! I'd been waiting for years to return, and this was the perfect time. We found a gorgeous compound located up in the hills and booked it. Finally, I would get to see it again, and for an entire week this time! Of course, I hoped it was as I'd remembered. I mean, I'd just swore to all my friends it was paradise! Would it have changed?
Well um, in some ways, no. But in others, YES. Did it still feel quaint and colorful? Absolutely. Were people energetic and friendly? Definitely!
A River Runs Through It
Sadly, Sayulita's popularity has been its downfall. It simply was not built to sustain all of its frequent visitors, nor could city planners (if there really were any in the first place) have predicted its popularity. Because of this, it has developed a pretty significant sewage issue. Ewww. The sewer system just cannot handle the large amount of human waste, and it runs along the town river, which then dumps into the ocean right at the swimming area. On some streets, it's essential to take care where you step; if you come across a small stream, it's vital to avoid it because that's definitely not clean water you're walking through. The smell of sewer is strong in some areas, a constant reminder that things are not quite right. The amount of sewage dumping into the ocean can get very high. So high that from an aerial view, you can sometimes see the variations in the ocean's color. Yes, you read that right.
Because of this, some tourists get sick. As Americans, the level of bacteria (and types of bacteria) we are exposed to really in no way prepares our bodies for these environments. It's no one's fault; it's just how it is in many parts of the world. And in the case of Sayulita, some tourists do go down... pretty hard. Not good. To protect yourself, you must be diligent in the usual ways:
no tap water
no ice in your drinks
wash hands frequently
don't touch your face
don't share food/beverages with your travel companions
don't pet local animals (no matter how sweet and cute they are!)
no ocean swimming
Many of these are standard practices when we travel to other countries, and in Sayulita, it's no different. This has been widely discussed now for a while in this area, and the sewer status is constantly being updated. I know Sayulita is working very hard to alleviate this problem. Of course, they want tourists to continue to enjoy their beautiful town! Because of this, I trust they will figure out a solution soon. In the meantime, be sure to find cleaner ocean water to play in (ask a trustworthy local while you're there because this changes) and simply plan for lots of pool time wherever you're staying.
I bet you're wondering.... how did our group fare? Well, we stayed in a gorgeous compound up on the hill called Sayulita Villas, far above the ocean. We had three (yes three!!) pools, and a chef who came in every day and prepared us delicious, healthy food. It was amazing! The accommodations were perfect for our large group, and I would recommend it to anyone. This arrangement allowed us to enjoy lots of time poolside, but also the ability to come into town several times (on our golf cart!) and enjoy Sayulita's energy and nightlife when we wanted to. Which is, of course, why we picked Sayulita in the first place! Read my favorite things about Sayulita here.
Did anyone in our group get sick? Yes, unfortunately. Out of 14 people, we had 2 go down, and they went down hard. For 48-72 hours each.
We couldn't figure out exactly where the bacteria was picked up for the first one. But we know how it was passed to Victim #2! He absentmindedly picked up a pizza crust eaten by Victim #1, and snacked on it until someone realized what he had done. Bad move. It was not pretty for either of them, and they spent a good part of their vacation feeling miserable. I know they have no plans to return.
Would I return to Sayulita? Yes, absolutely. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the area. The energy and vibrant colors and charm is so magnetic, and there are so many interesting and creative people who choose to make Sayulita their home. But would I swim in the ocean there? I hate to say it, but no thanks.