Mexico diaries: the story of how I traveled to Sayulita and ended up moving here
I lived in Milan, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Paracas, and Tel Aviv but whenever I am asked how I decide to move to a place, I don’t really know how to answer it. This is probably the first time I am writing about ‘moving somewhere’ and I feel like it’s the right time because today, there was a strong feeling that I’d stay here longer than those cities mentioned above.
In April 2019, I started feeling that I didn’t want to live in Mexico City anymore. I always lived in big cities – Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, Rio de Janeiro – all different on many levels but I loved those indifferences. However, I didn’t feel that love and acceptance when I decided to move to Mexico City. It was difficult to see friends all the time since they have full-time jobs. Most nights, I was alone in my apartment, swiping on Tinder without any luck. I was in a time of my life where dating apps were my channels to make friends or at least have a drink with someone every weekend. It became very difficult to have relationships.
I’m not even talking about romantic relationships, but you know, just relationships. I longed for friends to go out with any time I want. I became so tired of going out on my own in a city as big as Mexico. Though Condesa and Roma are very good neighborhoods to live in, there was still something missing in terms of my social life. My social needs were not being met.
My friend Maylis who lives in Guadalajara asked me if I can watch her house while she’s on a trip. She was going aboard the Chihuahua train and then visiting family and friends in France for the spring break. I accepted her invitation since Guadalajara is a smaller city than Mexico. I thought maybe, just maybe, I’d like Guadalajara and eventually move there. And so, I packed my bags and took a blabla car to Guadalajara. I stayed there for 3 weeks watching my friend’s house (and plants).
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Guadalajara isn’t like what you see in Netflix’s Narcos series. Today’s Guadalajara is more vibrant, modern, and a lot safer than the ’70s. Of course, I still considered a lot of factors like walking alone at night. Maylis said that if I am alone at night, it is better to take the Uber. It’s cheap and it’s safer than walking. I followed all the advice she gave me and I didn’t feel harmed. I’d take her bicycle during the day and hang out in cafes. I’d go to Chapultepec Avenue to see the vibrant nightlife in Guadalajara. I also went to Couchsurfing meet-ups as they have a very active community there. But after all these weeks staying in Guadalajara, it didn’t cross my mind to move there.
Maylis was coming back from her travels soon so I had to decide where I was going next. Oh, I didn’t leave my house in Mexico City yet. It was just a ‘vacation’ kind of thing that I imposed on myself, to finally see if living in Mexico City is still worth it. I started Googling (and I remember doing it for long hours) for places near Guadalajara. Perhaps, a beach? It was then San Pancho, Nayarit came up in the search results.
San Pancho (or San Francisco) is a small beach town in the state of Nayarit just 4 hours away by bus from Guadalajara. It has a hippie-slash-surfer kind of place where I imagine, all the creative people live. I read it had a big art scene and surfing is also one of the top activities. Beach, art, surfing? Why not.
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I didn’t want to rent an apartment there so I figured the best way to get to know San Pancho is to look for a hostel job. After all, this is what I did when I was a young backpacker. Living in hostels weren’t difficult for me. I could easily get a house to live in but I wasn’t committed to something long-term. I just wanted to see and take it from there. I contacted this hostel and asked if they were looking for volunteers. I remember how the pictures of the beach in San Pancho were so appealing to me.
“Sorry, we are full of hostel volunteers right now,” he said. “But I can recommend you to our sister hostel in Sayulita. They are looking for more volunteers.”
I never heard of Sayulita nor saw any volunteering opportunities while I was researching. He said it was just 15 minutes away from San Pancho so to secure my volunteering spot, I said yes to him even if I had no idea where Sayulita is. And to be honest, I didn’t research it either. He said it was a hostel near the beach so there goes the magic word: the beach. I didn’t have to know anything more. That was sufficient enough for me to go. If I don’t like it, I can always come back to Mexico City anyway.
Sayulita: the first encounter
So I took a bus and headed to Sayulita. The bus only goes to Puerto Vallarta so I needed to take another bus to Sayulita (about an hour away). My backpacker self will go to the other station to take the bus to Sayulita and save money but my now self who works her as* off told me to book an Uber. I was so tired to go to the other terminal so I checked if Uber works in Vallarta and it did. I ordered an Uber to Sayulita which was very costly. It was around $550 MXN ($30 USD est) to get there but anyway, I wouldn’t spend on accommodations once I am in Sayulita.
I arrived at 7:00 in the morning and the town was unbelievably quiet. Apart from the loud mariachi music playing in the long row of breakfast places, I didn’t hear a sound. I knocked on the hostel door and Snow White opened the door.
“Are you the new volunteer?” she asked. I said yes and I gave her a hug. The Latina in me hugs and kisses everyone even if I don’t know them. She responded with an “oh” and hugged back. I think she was shocked by how I greeted people. I was a little bit shocked, too. She appeared to be a girl who was from another part of the world and is still not used to the Latin greeting.
The girl who received me is from Germany. She has blue piercing eyes and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She looks obviously young, more so when I learned that she is only 21 years old. It was a reminder of my 21-year-old self hopping the globe without a care in the world. We chatted for a bit until her sister came. She’s traveling with her sister! How freaking cool is that? I find it really “cool” to travel with your sister because I never (and I don’t think I can ever) travel with my sister. We are 2 very different individuals so I got curious how these 2 German girls get along so well.
I didn’t have to work that day (yet) so they assigned me a bed in the dorm, I dropped my bags and started exploring Sayulita. First thing’s first: coffee. Sayulita is obviously filled with specialty coffee shops. I had no idea where to go so I went to a coffee shop near the hostel. It looked decent, hipster, and vegan. I never thought that moving to Mexico will convert me to a healthy eater so the place was perfect for what I was looking for. I ordered a cappuccino with coconut milk and paid a whopping $70 MXN ($3.73 USD). It seemed cheap but in cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, coffee of the same quality barely costs $2 USD.
First lesson learned: Sayulita is expensive. I went through the menu of the coffee shop as I didn’t check the price of the cappuccino and man, there is no food on the menu that costs less than $7 USD. Okay, don’t get me wrong, this is not that expensive but one of the reasons I moved to Mexico is that it is cheap. I fully understood why small Mexican towns are more expensive. They probably get everything from the nearest city which is Puerto Vallarta. More often, transporting goods is very expensive so I figured Sayulita gets most of their supplies outside.
I sat down at the cafe and waited for my order. As I was entering the seating area, I noticed there were no locals in the place. Obviously, it’s expensive so I bet local people wouldn’t go to coffee shops like this. But the cafe was filled with white people and all the conversations I hear were in English. I felt like I was in a bar in Miami.
Which brings me to the second lesson learned: Sayulita is gringo land. In Mexico, gringo is a term used to refer to Americans, but nowadays, it is applicable to anyone white. After finishing my coffee, I went to the beach and saw more gringos. Gringos with dogs, gringos working out, gringos surfing, gringos sunbathing – every freakin’ person I saw on this day were white. Believe it or not, this was a relief to me. I love hanging out and learning from locals but I miss speaking English sometimes. Since I moved to Mexico, I only spoke Spanish as all my friends in Mexico City and Guadalajara only spoke Spanish. There wasn’t an opportunity for me to speak English so this was great.
Life as a hostel volunteer in Sayulita
Most of the people I volunteered with were between 19 – 25 years old. I was turning 32 that year and I have no idea how I started feeling insecure about age. Maybe I’m too old for this is what always blared in my mind. I spent most of my formative years volunteering in hostels all over the world but this is the first time I felt that it wasn’t for me. In the beginning, my co-volunteers and I were not the type who’d spend our free hours together. Marianne and Meggy are travel partners so they tend to not go with the group all the time, except when it’s time for bar hops.
After 24 hours, a girl from Spain arrive and this changed my dynamics at the hostel. Mariam is from Madrid but is living in Vancouver. She’s doing a visa-run so she has 2 weeks to spare. She chose Mexico. When Mariam arrived at the hostel, she was only carrying a small backpack so I asked: “that’s all you have?”
8 weeks ago, Mariam went out of her home in Vancouver with the idea that she will be back after 24 hours. She needed to go to Seattle to renew her working visa in Canada. To her surprise, the consulate told her it will take at least 8 weeks to process her visa. As someone who is continuously challenged by visa applications, the beginning of her story made me already think it’s not only me — first world passport holders like her also experience some bumps along the way, especially when we choose to live out of our home country.
Mariam is deeply in love with Vancouver. She even has the skyline tattoo of the city on her back. I never heard anyone so spoke highly of a Canadian city with so much love and admiration, let alone from a full-blood Spanish woman. Filled with overwhelming fear, Mariam booked a ticket to Mexico with her last savings of the month. She’s like, “why not? I have nothing to do anyway.” The hostel I was staying in had more girls and all of us lent her clothes that will last her 2 weeks in Sayulita. She couldn’t believe how incredibly kind the world has been to her on this mishap.
She is my closest friend in the hostel and I admire her courage, her attitude, her outlook in life, her honesty, her love, her respect for herself as a woman. Above all, through Mariam, I proved that it really is true: until we do what creates a revolution in our hearts, we’ll never know what will happen. It’s better to go out there and know than sit there waiting and wondering. The rest will take care of itself.
Hostel life: people always come and go
And I don’t mean this the bad way. When you’re living and working in a hostel, you will see how many people you’ll meet in a span of a week. The friendship wasn’t exclusive for people who are working at the hostel but it extended to guests, too. Every week, we’d get Australians, Britons, Americans, staying in the hostel and going out with us every night. The good thing about being in a hostel is that everyone does everything together so even if you are backpacking alone, you’re never really alone.
We went out literally every night. I was surprisingly not drinking during this period but being around these people made me go out. I felt like I was 21 again, backpacking in some faraway land in South America. It felt pretty much the same since Mexico is a Latin country. Backpacking culture is very similar. We also went to the beach every day, I can’t believe how I got so burnt! The whole hostel, in groups of 15-20 would walk together to the beach, bring some drinks, and watch the sunset. It was the same routine every day – wake up, breakfast, work, go to the beach, dinner, go out. It surprisingly didn’t tire me at all. I thought I was going to be tired about seeing the same people every day (including sleeping in the same room with them) but I didn’t. I spent every waking day of 2 weeks with these people. The new guests added spice to our daily routines but we, the volunteers, did the exact same thing every day.
After two weeks, Mariam got word from the Canadian Consulate that her visa was approved. She had to go back to work in Vancouver and couldn’t stay any longer because she didn’t plan this trip – she wasn’t supposed to be on vacation but she was forced to because of her visa application. I didn’t know what to do. I still like to work in the hostel but it felt really weird if Mariam wasn’t around.
I stayed another week volunteering in the hostel but I felt jaded all the time. With Mariam gone, I hated it when people came and go. We had long-term guests at the hostel and it made me sad when they all left. It was like everyone’s moving on and I was still living the hostel life like a teenager running away to some Latin American country. I felt this way but I know that I didn’t want to leave Sayulita.
How I ended up moving to Sayulita
For some reason, I wanted to get out of the hostel asap. I already met a lot of locals living in Sayulita so I asked them if they know any rooms or houses for rent. It was time for me to be an adult again and live on my own – I longed to have a space of my own. They all pointed me to a certain Facebook group in Sayulita where there are lots of houses for rent. I was warned that once they are posted, they will be taken in minutes so I have to be very fast in contacting the owner.
I saw a decent studio apartment with AC and even without seeing the place in person, I paid for the downpayment right away. I didn’t ask where it was. Sayulita is a small town so I figured this couldn’t be that far from town. The owner was a young man in his late ’20s. He was going to Madrid for 20 days and he was subletting the apartment. I hated the thought that I might have to move again after 20 days but anyway, it was cheap so I took it. This apartment ended up being so beautiful and I really loved my time living there. When my ‘landlord’ came back from his trip, he told me if I was looking, his sister is renting a way bigger house (but is more expensive). I asked him to connect me to his sister so I can see the house. I eventually did a house visit and even if it was way costly, I took it.
And that house is the same house I live in now. Whenever friends come to visit my house, they keep wondering how in the world was I able to get a sweet 2-bedroom apartment with my little time living here. Most of my American friends have lived here for years and they still couldn’t find a decent space at a reasonable price. It was then I realized that my American friends don’t speak Spanish, and have very low interaction with the locals. I realized that learning to speak Spanish fluently was one of the best things I’ve done when I was young. Now, it really serves me well.
I knew I love living in Sayulita when I stayed here all summer. I didn’t have any travels planned nor did I go out of town – I was just here for 5 months! My family was even surprised I got to stay someplace that long – I lived in many cities in the world but I tend to travel every month. In Sayulita, I always feel like I never want to leave.
One of the major decisions I made while only living here for three months was adopting a dog. Yes, I adopted a dog right away! My friend who fosters/rescues dogs told me that if you don’t have a dog, then you’re not a Sayulita local. Everyone here loves dogs (which will be my next Youtube video). I know that I will still keep traveling despite the decision of moving to Sayulita but I am not doubtful of my capacity as a dog owner. I’ve had dogs all my life and I know I will love it and care for it the best way I know how.
The thing is, with or without dogs, no matter what I decide, for now, I know that Sayulita is where I want to live. For the first time in my life, I feel like this is a place I’d stay a while. I am in love with everything that it is!