SAYULITA, Mexico - By the time I got to this spot on the Pacific coast north of Puerto Vallarta, it was almost too late. San Pancho was the new Sayulita, and Lo de Marco, a few miles farther north, stood ready to become the next San Pancho.
Confused? It's all part of the effort by Margaritaville-seekers to stay one step ahead of the new mega-resort rising on the beach in the state of Nayarit, which Mexico intends to transform into the next Cancún. As hotels rise and bulldozers rumble across the dunes, barefoot travelers whose taste runs more to fish tacos and hammocks are migrating to villages farther and farther up the coast.
To achieve Margaritaville status, a place must be relaxing but in some way stimulating; unspoiled yet equipped with good restaurants and comfortable digs; within reach of the city's boutiques, supermarkets, clubs and ATMs, but safely removed from the northward march of gated resorts and luxury villas.
By all accounts, Sayulita possesses the requisite qualities. It has built up a fanatic following, as evidenced by the cries of alarm provoked by last year's announcement that the country's tourist development agency was paving the way for its next project, on the coast about 15 minutes south of here. Veteran visitors were dismayed to learn that the golf courses and lavish hotels they'd been trying to avoid were following them up the coast.
By the time my sister, Diane, and I arrived last fall, U.S.-level prices in Sayulita were crowding out the bargains. Condos and villas boasting infinity pools and New York loft decor were stacking up in the hills on the edge of town. It was still picturesque and mostly authentic, and it still had gnarly surf breaks - only now it had more lodging choices, more shopping, more English-speaking locals. Comfort had overtaken discovery.
Descriptions of San Pancho - the popular name for San Francisco - sound much like the earlier reports from Sayulita: a small, clean village surrounded by jungle and mountains that wears its traditions on its sleeve. But it also has watercolor sunsets, a sea turtle nesting ground, and possibly the best surfing on Mexico's west coast. So we took the exit north of Sayulita on Highway 200 and bumped into town in the dark of night.
Despite the old-fashioned cobblestones that rattled our teeth, San Pancho has been a town only since the 1970s, when the fishing settlement consisting of maybe four extended families captured the fancy of then-president Luis Echeverría. Echeverría swooped in by helicopter once a week or so to drink coffee and eat homemade tortillas with fishermen and farmers, eventually building a beachfront palace on the edge of today's town.
The president began creating a self-sufficient model village. Instead of garnering accolades, though, Echeverría ended up fleeing Mexico to avoid prosecution for the killings of student demonstrators in 1968 and 1971. San Pancho had to take command of its own fate, subsisting on mango processing until North American tourists and expatriates started arriving in the mid-1990s.
At the turn of the millennium, San Pancho's only hotel was the Costa Azul, an "adventure resort" started by a surfer in 1991, which offers guided kayaking, biking, surfing, snorkeling and horseback trips on the beach and in the jungle. Today, rental bungalows proliferate, and one of Pacific Mexico's top-rated bed-and-breakfasts commands a hillside perch at the jungle's doorstep, just beyond the Costa Azul.
Hotel Cielo Rojo, where we stayed, is a happy combination of comfort and economy. Recently renovated by new owners, it sports spare yet artful design with gleaming white walls, terra cotta floors, generous wooden shelves, and painted bathroom tiles. A quirky collection of antique fixtures and artwork includes a headless, life-size padre at the patio doorway. Rooms are not air conditioned, but the ceiling fans acquitted themselves well during late October days that refused to surrender the mugginess of summer.
We fell into a languid routine: breakfast in the palm-shaded courtyard; a walk around town to stock up on water, snacks and sundries; then lunch under a palapa (palm-thatched umbrella) at Las Palmas, where the main street's cobblestones disappear into sand.
Lunch pretty much finished off the day, invariably turning into hours of gossip and philosophy with other travelers and locals, broken up by dips in the ocean or walks to the end of the long, uncrowded, white-sand beach. For intermission, the lemon-yellow Vallarta Adventures jungle buggies rolled up in mid-afternoon, disgorging an unpredictable assortment of safari passengers to storm the bathrooms, tank up on beer, and splash in the waves.
For a small pueblo, San Pancho has a wealth of fine restaurants. La Ola Rica, started several years ago by two local women, opened for the season on our last night in town. Diane ate the justly famous carne asada ("succulent cuts of beef," the menu says), and I had chicken flavored with lime, in the midst of a celebratory fervor usually seen only on New Year's Eve.
None of our full-service dinners was more satisfying than the fare at the taco stand that sprang up each night on our street corner. The slender, serious-looking young man who welcomed us to Tacos Miguelito filled soft tortillas with succulent pork shaved from a spit, and strips of beef from a grill the size of a foosball table. The burst of flavor made our eyes roll back, and the tab on our most gluttonous visit came to less than $3 each, including soda.
Edson, our solicitous young waiter at Las Palmas, persuaded us to explore Lo de Marco, touting its creamy white beach, pretty town plaza, and dearth of tourists. Venturing another highway exit north, we walked a pristine beach even longer than San Pancho's, waded in the surf, and gathered coconuts shed by a line of palms that separate private homes and rental bungalows from the sand. At the plaza end of the beach, children body-surfed under parents' eyes.
We also felt duty-bound to spend an evening in Puerto Vallarta. Despite the persistent myth that San Pancho is 30 minutes from the city, it took us closer to an hour to drive each way. Still, we were early enough to sneak in without dinner reservations at Trio, an enduring downtown favorite with a Mediterranean-influenced menu and strolling musicians. Dinner was as fabulous as the setting, and it was the first time I've had an artichoke (as an appetizer with cheese, red pepper and arugula) in Mexico.
After dinner, we joined the throngs of families, couples, musicians, street performers, artists and thrill-seekers lining up to ride a carnival bungee swing on the Malecón, or beachside boardwalk. Across the traffic-choked boulevard, hawkers flung pitches at us from the doorways of shops open late. An illuminated elephant figure topped one tall building; bars and discos opened their jungle and spaceport themes to the street, looking like the dark rides at Disneyland.
To wallow in luxury - the air-conditioned, swim-up-bar kind of luxury - we spent our last two nights in San Pancho at Casa Obelisco. Built in 1999 in Mediterranean-villa style by two U.S. couples, it sits on a hillside north of the Costa Azul resort. It has a footpath to the beach and lies a few steps from the jungle.
One day, we donned skirts and drove to Punta de Mita, the peninsula at the northern tip of the Bay of Banderas, between Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. Sign after sign hawking luxury developments interrupted the verdant, rolling landscape.
Punta de Mita's queen bee is the Four Seasons (with Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course; rooms from $545 per night), the only hotel among multimillion-dollar private villas and condominiums.
On our last day in San Pancho, a new sign materialized on the beach at Las Palmas, reading "Surf boards for rent." An arrow pointed to two surfboards planted upright in the sand. When Edson came to take our orders, he admitted to being the entrepreneur.
"We don't have anyone giving lessons in San Pancho," he said, "but people should know they don't have to go to Sayulita to surf."
It was another step on San Pancho's road to becoming the next Sayulita. I thought of the half-finished houses between the Se Vende ("For sale") signs nailed to trees in the jungle, and the private golf course and villas going up across from the Costa Azul on Echeverría's old estate.
Lo de Marco was looking better and better for the next trip. And from there, the reconnaissance run to Rincón de Guayabitos is only a 10-minute drive north.
American Airlines, Continental, Delta and US Airways fly to Puerto Vallarta from Philadelphia International Airport with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $620.
San Francisco, known as San Pancho, is 25 miles, or about 45 minutes, north of Puerto Vallarta's airport on coastal Highway 200. Taxis from the airport cost about $50 to $80.
Places to stay
Hotel Cielo Rojo
6 Calle Asia, San Francisco
$60-$80 a night; suites $85-$115. Restaurant on site in season.
Calle Palmas, San Francisco
$200-$250 a night, depending on season. Closed July 1-Sept. 30.
Amapas y Los Palmas,
$120-$140, depending on season; villas $200-$350. All-inclusive plans and special packages available.
Places to eat
La Ola Rica
Tercer Mundo, San Francisco
Entrees, about $7.25-$17
Tercer Mundo, San Francisco
New restaurant with a Belgian chef. Entrees, $16-$22.
Tercer Mundo at the beach, San Francisco.
Lunch for two, $11.80
Trio Restaurant Bar Cafe
Guerrero No. 264
Moon Handbooks Puerto Vallarta, by Bruce Whipperman, has more detail on Nayarit's coastal villages than most guides.
The online guide www.sanpancho.com was helpful.