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IF I HAD to identify the moment the seed was planted, I would say it was on the golf cart. We were driving the golf cart when one of us first voiced the possibility of moving to Mexico.

It was a joke, of course. We were on vacation, our first in quite some time. It was our kids’ midwinter break. I had a stash of miles from work travel, and I’d more or less thrown a pin at the map, virtually, to see where they would take us on short notice.

Like all vacations, this one was meant to provide an escape. What were we trying to escape, you ask? The usual: our lives, our city, ourselves. The drudgery of hauling three children from point A to point B in the sleet of another endless New York winter.

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But there was more we were trying to get away from. We had bought a house, and the house had problems. The biggest of them were structural, but don’t worry, there were plenty of others too. In the interest of brevity, I will just say this: I’m not one for superstition, but if you had come to me at that time and told me the house was cursed, I would have given what you were saying serious consideration. One night, a year in, two years in – who can remember? – we watched “The Money Pit,” a movie neither of us had seen since the ’80s. As the blue glow of the television lit up our gutted living room, I looked over and saw my husband laughing and crying at the same time.

The town we ended up vacationing in is called Sayulita. Historically a fishing village, it’s carved into the verdant, jungle-covered spine of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, home to a crescent-shaped beach, a decent surf break, and about 2,000 people. The highway in from the airport runs through that jungle, and the trees around it grow toward each other, kissing overhead across the winding span. From the highway, you turn off onto a cobbled road that cuts into the middle of town. It is lined with young trees, freshly planted by a bootstrap local conservation group who individually numbered them with hand-painted signs. Between them dogs laze in the sun, their fur the same color as the clouds of dust stirred up by the passing cars.

We learned on that first trip that the golf cart is a major mode of transportation around town for those who can afford it. We rented one for a few days – a standard model, not even the souped-up versions the locals drive, tricked out with custom roll bars and jacked-up suspension. Driving that little beige cart through town, I looked back at our kids. It was early March, and the soft wind was blowing their hair, still wet from swimming. As the sun was setting, we passed a man with a homemade churro rig, and pulled over to buy some fresh ones, cut with shears and packed into a paper bag by his wife. The kids were eating them; their faces were sweet with sugar and cinnamon. And in one of those moments, my husband and I turned to each other, one of us saying, “Why not here? Why couldn’t it be like this?

Making a dramatic life change may feel easy for some. I have met some of those people over the years, who wear their lives with a lightness I can only admire and envy. I am not one of them.

It wasn’t just the renovation that we wanted to escape. Our life in New York felt increasingly untenable. It was the intensity. It was the stress. It was the cost, which seemed to ensure that no matter how hard we worked, it never felt like enough. (To be fair, with a house like ours, there truly was never enough, but I digress.) What we were looking for was an escape from a life that felt held together with gum and tape, and the pretense that everything was alright. New York is like that. “New York is a great city,” someone told me during that time, “for those who only want to work, and for those who have so much money they don’t have to.” I had never been the latter, and I was realizing I no longer wanted to be the former. It was a joke, at first. We could live here — ha. But the thought persisted, and it began to tug back the veil on the possibility of another life. We learned of a school in the town that seemed to align appealingly with our values. It was a bilingual green school, whose student body included not just international students, but 50% local kids receiving scholarships. We drove by and thought, huh.

Making a dramatic life change may feel easy for some. I have met some of those people over the years, who wear their lives with a lightness I can only admire and envy. I am not one of them. Making any decision is hard for me. And so we considered the practicalities. I had work I could do from anywhere, as long as I was near an airport. Our house, despite feeling like an albatross, could be rented out. After we returned home to ride out the dregs of winter, we watched a video about the Sayulita school, in which kids were surfing as their gym class and singing in the jungle, and we imagined our kids doing those things. As we continued to toss around the idea over the subsequent months, it took on a different quality. It became as smooth and shiny as a polished rock, turned from something imaginary into something real.


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I would go out during that time, to birthday parties for my kids’ friends or work events, and as I stood in a small circle with other adults, sometimes I would share this crazy dream we had of moving to a tiny town in Mexico. I got some sideways looks from people who would never consider such a thing, but that didn’t bother me. The conversations that lodged in my mind were with those with people who shared that they had almost done something similar. They had thought of moving to Costa Rica or Portugal. They had begun to plan. But then? Then life had taken over — a job offer they couldn’t resist, or a new child, or just doubt. One of these things, or a confluence of them, caused them to abandon the idea in the interest of plain old common sense. I remembered those people, and I couldn’t bear to imagine myself as them, sharing a similar sentiment at a birthday party in Brooklyn, two, four, six years into the future.

There are always many good reasons not to do something different. Any drastic change is scary because it could turn out to be a terrible mistake. But there was a line that kept echoing in my mind, one I had scribbled in the margins of a journal I kept in my 20s after I moved to Paris because I was in love with a boy who lived there, and in doing so, I changed the course of my whole life. It’s written by Oscar Wilde (of course, because what isn’t there an Oscar Wilde quote for?): “Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”

Never ones to be stopped by common sense, we moved two years later. Hedging our bets, or just afraid to cut ties completely with New York, we planned to spend two years in Sayulita. We arrived in August, the depths of the swampy, tropical summer. Even after the sun went down it stayed breathlessly hot, and bugs were everywhere, their songs filling the nighttime jungle with a constant din. The first apartment we rented was in a condo complex, built up into the mountain, overlooking the sea. From our deck you could see all the way down to the surf break. Our bedroom was under a palapa, woven from palm fronds, and all night long we could hear the waves. On most summer evenings, massive thunderstorms rolled through, and we would watch from the window as pulses of lightning lit up the sky.

One of those first nights we woke up to a disco. The rain was pouring in through the holes in the palapa, which was old and needed to be replaced. The water was running across our floor and down our walls, flooding the electrical system, causing the lights to flash on and off. There was no circuit breaker, so my husband stood there in the dark, drying out the electric box by hand, in what was certainly not an approved use for a hair dryer. Although we may have said when we left New York that we were looking for more, what we found in Sayulita was less. The Wi-Fi and the water went out regularly. Whenever there was a big storm, the electricity would flicker and we’d hold our breath, waiting for it to come back on. If it didn’t return quickly, it could take days, days spent with no fans or air conditioners to stir the soupy air. There is no mail service in town, so there is no Amazon. Things like that, things we thought we needed, had to be sent to New York, to be collected when I returned there for work each month. But when you have to wait a month or more for those things, you realize, often, that you don’t really need them.

There isn’t a grocery store in town, so when we first arrived, we would drive every weekend to Puerto Vallarta to fill up an oversized cart with giant boxes of things that reminded us of home. But over time, we made the trek through the jungle less and less. The tiendas in town had almost everything we needed. We could buy avocados, their flesh greener than anything I have ever seen in a supermarket, and soft, ripe bananas, and mangoes when they are in season, small yellow ones that I would turn into hedgehogs for my daughters. I would watch them eat the hedgehogs, one after another, with yellow juice dripping down their chins.

The fruit arrives in town on pickup trucks that the farmers drive in from the mountains. The trucks are old, with faded paint, cracked windshields, and missing windows, often held together with wire and rough welds. They would never be allowed to drive on the streets in the States. They are kept running through a combination of sheer will and the resourcefulness I could see all around me, a quality referred to locally as “Mexi-CAN.” But the trucks do run. They do the job they need to do, driven into town each week, their tailgates nearly touching the ground because they are so laden with perfect, ripe pineapples. I watched my children do all the things I had hoped they would, surfing and speaking Spanish and going to school outside. They got other things, too, things I couldn’t have imagined, including a taste of the kind of childhood I had in the ’80s, which I didn’t know existed anymore; they ran slightly wild and dirty, with hair bleached by the sun and salt, and constantly scraped-up knees.

But they got something else too: a lesson in abundance. For their birthdays, all the kids we knew had swimming parties — in November, in February, in April. There were piñatas and cakes soaked with liquid sugar, but not a lot of presents. There isn’t much in town to buy. I got to watch, in real time, a shift in my children’s understanding of what constitutes a gift. I still recall my older daughter running over to me at her own birthday party, clutching a card to her chest. “Look, look, Joaquin made me this,” she showed me, “he made me this card!” She put it in a box in her room, with all her special things.

What I began to find in Sayulita was that while there was so little, there was also so much. And it was enough, so much more than enough. That may have been true in New York, as well, but I couldn’t see it clearly. There was too much in the way, too much blocking my line of sight.

We stayed for two years, as we had planned. I wonder if we might have stayed indefinitely if the pandemic hadn’t sucked us up and deposited us back onto the doorstep of our life in Brooklyn. In the reverse of many peoples’ experiences, without travel, remote work became impossible for me when the pandemic hit, and our tenants fled the city in the early days, leaving our house empty. Our sadness at leaving was tempered by how lucky we felt to have somewhere safe to land. That may sound like something you write because you feel you should, but it felt very true. We landed in our own house, in our own city. It was familiar terrain; it was home.

Still, in those first days after we returned, I felt as dazed as I did that first summer, drunk from the heat and newness of an unknown place. Slowly, though, my life in New York began to come back into focus. It was the same but different. I was the same but different. Waking up in the same bedroom, in the same light, I wondered some mornings if I had even gone anywhere at all.

In the pandemic, many people made the calculation we had made when we moved to Mexico. They seized the opportunity to work remotely and used it to make their own escapes. I cheered them on from Brooklyn, where I work again from a desk set up in my bedroom closet. My window looks out on bare winter branches, but I see them differently now, I think, knowing that escape is possible. For a long time after we returned, I felt a sense of calm that I’d carried back with me from Mexico. (Though, truthfully, it has faded over time. New York is like that.) But I still know it is out there, possible. I can still recall that other life. In the spring when the mangoes were ripe and begging to drop from the trees, we drove through the streets on our golf cart and the air all around was heavy, sticky, and filled with bees. The smell was sweet, maybe too sweet for some, but I loved it.

Sayulita

Sayulita is on the Riviera Nayarit, a one-hour drive from the airport at Puerto Vallarta (which has nonstop flights from many places on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, and a number of East Coast destinations as well). It’s about 20 minutes from the resort town of Punta Mita. The weather is good all year long, with the main tourist season from Thanksgiving to Easter. The summers have become more popular in recent years. They are hot and humid, with wild thunderstorms most nights.

Where to Stay

Some of the best places to stay are vacation rentals, available through Airbnb, and there is no shortage of options at a variety of price points, from luxury estates to budget studios. But if you are looking to stay in a hotel, Don Bonito is a modern oasis tucked away on the north shore of Sayulita, one block from the beach. Owned by Rodrigo Peña, a Sayulita native, the recently built boutique property has nine guest rooms, a small restaurant, and yoga on the roof.

Where to Eat

For such a small town, Sayulita offers a wide range of excellent food options. These are just a few of my favorites, but this list could easily be twice as long.

  • Miscelánea

    This tiny cafe, tucked behind another building on Ave. Revolución, feels more like Mexico City than Sayulita. Each dish, along with being delicious and made with the freshest ingredients, is plated with care and presented like a small work of art. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and coffee all day.

  • Organi-K

    Just before the bridge on Ave. Revolución, Organi-K offers açai and poke bowls and smoothies, all made with super fresh ingredients. Eat them outside under the palapa next to the river. My favorite is the Bali bowl, made with açai, almond butter, bananas, pistachios, and cacao nibs.

  • Tacos Tal-Ivan

    There is no shortage of places to get tacos in town. This is Mexico, after all. But this stand is my favorite. On Ave. Revolución to the right after you cross the bridge, they open in the early evening and serve locals and visitors alike with their signature tacos al pastor. Eat them in the green chairs out front and you’re likely to strike up a conversation.

  • Mexicolate

    My favorite smoothie in town comes from this tiny store off the plaza. It’s made with just three ingredients: frozen bananas, dates, and cacao, and is topped with cacao nibs. It is one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted and completely impossible to replicate at home (I’ve tried).

  • Achara

    I don’t know who could ever get tired of Mexican food, but if you do, or if you just want to eat something different, this Thai restaurant on José Mariscal is worth a visit. Owned by Canadians, it offers very good high-end Thai food. There’s a beautiful table in the back that is open to the outside, surrounded by walls draped with climbing plants.

  • Miscelánea

    This tiny cafe, tucked behind another building on Ave. Revolución, feels more like Mexico City than Sayulita. Each dish, along with being delicious and made with the freshest ingredients, is plated with care and presented like a small work of art. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and coffee all day.

  • Mexicolate

    My favorite smoothie in town comes from this tiny store off the plaza. It’s made with just three ingredients: frozen bananas, dates, and cacao, and is topped with cacao nibs. It is one of the most delicious things I’ve tasted and completely impossible to replicate at home (I’ve tried).

  • Organi-K

    Just before the bridge on Ave. Revolución, Organi-K offers açai and poke bowls and smoothies, all made with super fresh ingredients. Eat them outside under the palapa next to the river. My favorite is the Bali bowl, made with açai, almond butter, bananas, pistachios, and cacao nibs.

  • Achara

    I don’t know who could ever get tired of Mexican food, but if you do, or if you just want to eat something different, this Thai restaurant on José Mariscal is worth a visit. Owned by Canadians, it offers very good high-end Thai food. There’s a beautiful table in the back that is open to the outside, surrounded by walls draped with climbing plants.

  • Tacos Tal-Ivan

    There is no shortage of places to get tacos in town. This is Mexico, after all. But this stand is my favorite. On Ave. Revolución to the right after you cross the bridge, they open in the early evening and serve locals and visitors alike with their signature tacos al pastor. Eat them in the green chairs out front and you’re likely to strike up a conversation.

Where to Shop

  • Evoke the Spirit

    There are vendors all over town selling pom-poms, small animals made of wool, and Ojos de Dios. For a higher-end version of these crafts, stop by this small shop on Calle Marlín. They work with Indigenous artisans to create home goods and interior pieces, and are particularly known for their skulls, decorated with wool meticulously inlaid in wax to create elaborate designs. They also offer a large selection of flowy dresses, caftans, hats, and leather goods by mostly Mexican brands.

  • De Maco

    This store isn’t in Sayulita but it’s worth a visit if you head into Punta Mita for dinner or to visit the beach. Owned by interior designer Hana Waxman, it offers an exquisitely curated selection of home goods, furniture, and artwork from around Mexico.

  • Evoke the Spirit

    There are vendors all over town selling pom-poms, small animals made of wool, and Ojos de Dios. For a higher-end version of these crafts, stop by this small shop on Calle Marlín. They work with Indigenous artisans to create home goods and interior pieces, and are particularly known for their skulls, decorated with wool meticulously inlaid in wax to create elaborate designs. They also offer a large selection of flowy dresses, caftans, hats, and leather goods by mostly Mexican brands.

  • De Maco

    This store isn’t in Sayulita but it’s worth a visit if you head into Punta Mita for dinner or to visit the beach. Owned by interior designer Hana Waxman, it offers an exquisitely curated selection of home goods, furniture, and artwork from around Mexico.

What to Do

The best things to do are active, including surfing, paddle boarding, and hiking on the north side of town. There is a wealth of yoga studios, and Sayulita Fit is a fully equipped modern gym that offers passes by the day, week, or month. There is a turtle rescue on the beach on the north side, and in the fall through spring they release the newly hatched turtles almost every night around sunset. In the winter, humpback whales populate the Bay of Banderas, and boat trips can take you out to see mothers teaching newly born calves to breach.

Giving Back

  • Costa Verde International School

    Fifty percent of students enrolled in this bilingual international school are from the local community and receive scholarships; needless to say, the school was hit hard by the pandemic. The robust scholarship program is funded through a registered 501(c)(3) called Niños del Sol, which accepts one-time donations and offers a program that allows donors to “adopt a scholar,” funding an individual child’s education in part or full.

  • SayulitAnimals

    SayulitAnimals is a volunteer-run spay and neuter clinic. When we lived in town, my daughter (age 7) volunteered here on Wednesday mornings. Her job was to comfort the animals as they woke up from surgery.

  • Costa Verde International School

    Fifty percent of students enrolled in this bilingual international school are from the local community and receive scholarships; needless to say, the school was hit hard by the pandemic. The robust scholarship program is funded through a registered 501(c)(3) called Niños del Sol, which accepts one-time donations and offers a program that allows donors to “adopt a scholar,” funding an individual child’s education in part or full.

  • SayulitAnimals

    SayulitAnimals is a volunteer-run spay and neuter clinic. When we lived in town, my daughter (age 7) volunteered here on Wednesday mornings. Her job was to comfort the animals as they woke up from surgery.

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Our Contributors

Skye Parrott Photographer

Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.

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