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Sayulita Rising


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


Embodying the past

Leonardo Gallegos was dozing off on a white plastic chair. His head was tilted to the right. His oversized baseball hat covered his face but a little of his white moustache showed. With his elbows resting on the arms of the chair, Gallegos’ hands were relaxed. They were tanned but not so much as his feet which were dark in his sock-less sandals . Posed in front of Sayulita’s Papeleria y Merceria La Hormiguita (Ants Nest Stationary and Notions Store) his was a Mexican gothic figure evocative of a sublime story in a picturesque landscape.

Leonardo Gallegos is 98 years old. He was present at the creation of Sayulita and he has stayed to witness its growth. Twenty-five miles north of Puerto  Vallarta, Sayulita is the “ crown jewel” of the new  “Riviera Nayarit” at Mexico’s Banderas Bay, and Gallegos’ clan has a big share in it. La Hormiguita belongs to a niece, as does another store named Forever Sayulita. Gallegos’ other nieces and nephews run the family’s real estate firm, the Sayulita Coastal Properties. Several of them have held offices in Sayulita’s government.

Leonardo himself retired two years ago. When he came here in the 1930s this area was a hacienda (plantation) for the extraction of coconut oil. Lacking experience, he was not employed in the mill which grounded coconut; instead, he was dispatched to work in the farms that grew the corn feeding other workers. Eventually, Leonardo was able to have his own piece of land (potrero) , where he grew not only corn, but alsojamaica, cucumbers, and avocado. Furthermore, he produced peanuts which he roasted and sold at the baseball games, and tobacco which he rolled for cigars.

A couple of blocs from where Leonardo was sitting today, on Calle Revolucion I saw his name in a plaque that commemorated the founders of the Comisariado Ejidal de Sayulita. The roster of some sixty persons also included the name of his brother, Andres Gallegos who has fathered all those nieces and nephews. The date of the founding of the Ejidal was November 24, 1938. As the plaque noted, this was in the promulgation of Mexico’s “Ley Agraria,” the law for the reorganization of the land tenancy patterns in rural areas, envisaged in the 1917 Constitution and carried out with some vigor during the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas in the 1930s.

The establishment of the Sayulita Ejidal is of special historical value because the enactment of the law was uneven in Mexico. In an ejido an area of communal land is cultivated for agriculture purposes by members who individually possess and farm a specific parcel. This system replaced the coconut oil hacienda which was abandoned as a consequence of the Revolution.

The remnants of the ejido agricultural land were still noticeable in the mountain villages that I saw in the jungles of Sierra Vallejo surrounding Sayulita. On this April day of 2012 corn seemed to be the dominant crop. The small fields were clearings in the bushes and vines and palm and other trees that constituted the vegetation of the jungle. The river beds were mostly dry here. The rural buildings displayed the campaign signs of the PRI (The Institutional Revolutionary Party) in this election year. Not far away was the modest church of La Luz del Mundo, the sign of the other pillar of this Mexican community.

Here comes change

Life was slow to change in Sayulita. Antonio Trujillo Lopez, who came to live here in 1975, recalls that at that time “Mostly all of Sayulita was one big family…. There was no electricity and people cooked with firewood.” She continued, in an interview with a local publication, “There was no plaza, only… a water well.”

Just about then, however, two things were happening that affected Sayulita greatly. Mexican Highway 200 was constructed, ripping through the dense jungle fromPuerto Vallartato Sayulita, and roving surfers “discovered Sayulita.” The water of the bay in this place had a remarkably “consistent river mouth surf break.” Since then Sayulita has become “the surf capital of the area because there is plenty of surf year around.” It has also been called a “Meccafor beginner surfers of all ages.” This reputation has been enhanced by the increasing popularity of Stand Up Paddle (SUP). An ancient form of surfing which originated inHawaii,SUPhas re-emerged with the popularity of surfing in thoseIslands. “The instructors would stand on a surfboard using an outrigger canoe paddle to maneuver, in order to manage large groups of students and to take pictures of them learning to surf.” SUPis now “the fastest growing water sport in the world.”SayulitaBayis considered the perfect place forSUP. “The annual Punta SayulitaSUPClassics has become the premierSUPevent inMexico.”

It was not long before tourists, especially from theU.S.andCanada, followed the surfers, using the newly built highway fromPuerto Vallarta. Sayulita especially appealed to the “old-time” visitors ofPuerto Vallartawho were finding their paradise spoiled by uncontrolled development. The village tranquility of Sayulita augmented the reputation of its pristine beach with calm Bay water where one could swim. Sayulita has become attractive to a curious mix of people. I saw many tourist families with children on its streets and eateries. There are high-end shops and trendy stores where you can buy coconut oil, now advertised as a “natural moisturizer,” which is “great for massage, hair and skin.”  The Buddha Mar restaurant alerts you to the fact that this is also a place where bohemian artistic type habituates. They are just part of a bigger crowd of expatriates. In fact, Sayulita now competes withPuerto Vallartafor rating as “the number one in the world for American and Canadian retirees.”

The Mix

The “locals” are, of course here too. Sayulita now has a Plaza, but it, and its traffic, are almost lost in the jumble of small village type buildings. The Plaza often serves as an open door gallery for the traveling craftsmen of the native Cora and Huichol peoples with their colorful yarn paintings and beaded designs. Their art depicts fantastic images based on such local animals as deer, snakes, wolves, scorpions, iguanas, and frogs who have shared their habitat in theVallejoMountains. These original inhabitants of the area are the descendants of the Cuyutecos Indians from the kingdom of Xalisco(existing as early as 600 B.C.), who chose to plow the fertile fields of the Valle de Banderas rather than depending on the sea for sustenance.

The main street where the “modern” shops are located is a short one connecting the Plaza to the beach. It is paved and has a few buildings higher than one story. Most others are simple street level structures.  The side streets branching off remain dirt roads. “In the center of the main town beach, in front of the surf break,” is Don Pedros’s Restaurant and Bar. That is how it would like to give its address, but this is also where the defunct old mill for grinding coconut was located. Now as then Don Pedros, which was established in 1994, is the site of action in Sayulita. In its big dinning room and spacious patio overlooking the water, Don Pedros hosts “the longest-running weekly events in Sayulita,” including Monday Night Cuban salsa party and Thursday “Gypsy/Flamenco Nights.”  There are also weddings here. In fact, Sayulita has become a popular destination for weddings with the recent completion of a Roman Catholic church and the emergence of a number of “wedding planners.”

The impact of the expatriates is felt in many other ways. With a population of about 4,000, Sayulita, which is governed as a part of a region, does not have all the public structures to deal with many of its local problems. Some ten years ago a group of foreign residents joined the local Mexicans to form Groupa Pro Sayulita. This organization of volunteers has since been credited with an impressive list of accomplishments. The list includes extending the sewage line, building public bathrooms and classrooms and stocking a library, supporting an animal clinic, daily cleaning of streets and beaches, medical emergency services, traffic and security upgrades, and teaching English after school.

The prize in Sayulita, the beach itself, has remained largely unmolested and appealing. Banana boats and SUPs dot the water, but they leave room for swimmers. Sun bathers are not numerous and are friendly. They include affluent Mexicans. A couple next to us was having tattoos done on their arms as they lay on chaises. A young woman in jean shorts who was originally fromColoradopassed by peddling empanadas she had made herself. The blue of the sky reflected the cloudless Bay.

My faith in the authenticity of the still innocent resort was enhanced when I saw posted on its wooden electricity poles hand-made signs for “Book Store, Internet café,” and “Hostel -the Best View.” I took the bus out of Sayulita at the shack which served as Sayulita’s main bus station, with its ramshackle palm-frond roof sheltering the backpacking tourists.