This Is Why You Should Leave Sayulita

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This Is Why You Should Leave Sayulita
Don’t get us wrong: The freewheeling, barefoot bohemian beach town of Sayulita is one of our favorite places to kick back and relax when we find ourselves on the Pacific shores of Mexico. With those classic white-sand beaches and clear blue water, this hippie paradise is the kind of place that you may accidentally never leave.

But that Neverland nature means that, for many, the first stop after Puerto Vallarta is the last stop, and, coconut or boozy popsicle in hand, they stay safely ensconced in the little beach town, completely unaware of the hidden gems scattered throughout the Riviera Nayarit. So next time you find yourself with your toes in the Sayulita sand, put down that margarita, rent a car, and get out of dodge—it’ll still be there when you get back. Instead, head to some of western Mexico’s best-kept secrets.
By Maggie Fuller, AFAR Staff
Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    1. Los Toriles
    Who needs the crowds of Teotihuacán when you can have the biggest archaeological site in western Mexico all yourself? Ixtlán del Rio, known to the locals as Los Toriles, may not be as impressive a complex as Teotihuacán, but the site is an important one for the study of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican cultures. As a bonus, it’s likely to be deserted—which will make you feel as though you discovered it yourself.

    The area is known for its unusual round pyramid, which is billed as one of the most beautiful ancient architectural structures in the area, and for being part of the regionally-specific ancient shaft tomb tradition. But even if you’re not an Indiana Jones in training, the beautiful masonry of the ruins and general air of mystery make it a great day trip.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    2. Laguna Santa María del Oro
    For most people, western Mexico conjures images of vast expanses of beach, and life is about sand, sea, and swimming. But for the locals, the perfect weekend getaway isn’t the beach, but rather a mountain lake, such as Santa María del Oro, an oasis-like lake nestled high in the mountains.

    The area boasts pleasant weather, cool breezes, sloping grassy shores, and shockingly blue warm water that is just begging to be waterskied. Kick back in a hammock with a cold beer and chicharron de pescado (the delicious fried fish equivalent of pork rinds) or ceviche at any of the restaurants stilted up over the water. If you decide to make a weekend of it, there are plenty of Airbnbs and vacation rentals perfect for soaking up the tranquility.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    3. The Footsteps of the Aztecs
    If you thought archaeological ruins were interesting, Nayarit’s importance in the origin story of the Aztecs will fascinate you. Start off by heading to Santiago Ixcuintla for a visual overview of the story of the Aztecs’ journey up to the present day, in the form of a 328-foot mosaic mural. 

    Next, make your way an hour northwest to La Batanga where you’ll have to hire a boat to make the last leg of the journey to the island city of Mexcaltitán de Uribe. The story goes that Mexcaltitán, founded in 1116, was the Aztecs’ first attempt at building an empire. When they realized that they’d mistaken the sign they believed they’d been sent, they continued on, eventually founding their great city at Tenochtitlan in 1325. But the similarity in the cities’ layouts remains the strongest indicator that Mexcaltitán was originally intended to be the site of one of the greatest empires in Mesoamerica. 

    Although the Aztecs moved on, the island is still inhabited and known for more than its illustrious past. If Xochimilco is the Venice of Mexico, then Mexcaltitán is the country's Burano. During the rainy season, the canals formed by the high sidewalks fill with water and locals use small boats to get around the tiny island. But even during the summer, the city, known for its shrimp, has become a popular seafood-centric day trip from both Santiago Ixcuintla and the nearby big city of Tepic. On hot days, locals will lay their shrimp catches out along the sidewalks to crisp up in the sun. They’ll then use these crispy shrimp in everything from empanadas and tortillas to moles.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    4. The Mexican Galápagos

    It turns out, the Galápagos isn’t the only place you can mingle with those famous birds and impressive reptiles. The bird-watching along the Riviera Nayarit, and San Blas in particular, is some of the best in Mexico. The former summer surf town has lately become a haven for traveling birders looking to spot blue-footed boobies—yes, the Galápagos’s second most famous bird also nests in islands off Nayarit. Isla Isabel, just off San Blas, is home to the second-largest colony of boobies in the world. 

    But it’s not just birders who get all the fun. You can grab a boat and ride through the mangroves at La Tovara, just outside of San Blas, and spend the day on the lookout for crocodiles. Or skip the boat and go to a rest stop along the highway and picnic next to a lagoon chock-full of crocs. But there’s only a small fence separating you from those modern dinosaurs, so don’t tease them!

    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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    5. Islas Marietas
    You know that famous secret beach, the one hidden inside a cave with a skylight? Yeah, that’s here too. “Hidden beach,” as it is known, is located in the Marietas Islands, which are also home to large colonies of many-colored booby birds. Because of their ecological importance, the islands have been protected since 2005, and this year tourist access was further restricted to protect the area.

    While the National Protected Areas Commission has limited the number of beach visits per month, with a little planning, you can still charter a boat from Punta Mita to visit the famous spot. And even if it’s closed, you can snorkel and visit other beaches, like this one on the neighboring Isla Larga, to watch the boobies fish.

    And the best news is that Las Marietas are only about a half an hour away from Sayulita, so you can soon get your toes back in that bohemian sand.
    Photo by Maggie Fuller
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