23 October 2020
Sayulita, Mexico has been on our radar for several years. But we hadn’t seriously considered a move there, or even visiting any time soon.
And then, things changed.
When we began to seriously eye Mexico in late August, we had a handful of towns in our sights.
Sayulita quickly shot to the top, owing to its small size, family-friendly, “good vibes” hippie-surfer vibe, tropical climate, beautiful beaches, relatively low cost of living (as far as popular beach destinations go), close proximity to an international airport with nonstop flights to Portland, and pre-k options for Noe and Riley, even in the time of Covid.
It seemed like an ideal place to lay low during this uncertain period, be able to continue working without throwing away all of our income on living expenses, have the outdoor lifestyle we craved after four years in dusty and urban Vientiane and Phnom Penh, allow the boys to have some semblance of a social life (even if it’s confined to a bubble), and be [relatively] closer to family.
But we also knew we’d be arriving at a busy time in Sayulita.
Like much of Mexico, Sayulita has been in a state of quasi-lockdown since spring and is reopening for the first time in months. Plus, we are heading into the Christmas holiday and winter break travel season.
All of that would make it challenging to find longterm housing at an affordable price in town.
So, we started our search early, as soon as we landed on the idea of Mexico. Within a week, we were happy to discover that we had a few good options on the table.
The most intriguing of our options was a 5-bedroom house (with pool!) for about the same price that we had been paying for our small, converted shophouse in Phnom Penh.
Rentals with more than two rooms seem to be in short supply in Sayulita, so we jumped on the option and the agent did the legwork and secured the house for us from our arrival in October through January.
Or, so we thought.
Landing in Puerto Vallarta, we were notified (while taxiing to our gate) that there had been some sort of miscommunication between the agent and the owner about the dates and the rent amount.
In short, we suddenly found ourselves arriving in a popular tourist destination during the busiest weekend in months with two little ones, a boatload of luggage, and no place booked for the night (or the foreseeable future).
Fun at Puerto Vallarta International Airport (PVR)
After clearing immigration, we collect our luggage at baggage claim, then huddle in a corner with 30 minutes of free WiFi to see if we could find a last-minute stay in Sayulita.
A quick Airbnb search brings up a two-bedroom bungalow for a decent price that’s available into next week.
With 8 minutes to spare on our free internet, we book the property, snap some screenshots of the info and address, and proceed on to customs, now with two fussypants in tow.
Arriving at customs, something happens to us that hasn’t happened in a decade. Our bags are flagged for inspection. All of them.
Which means standing around with two antsy and hungry little boys while customs agents open and rifle through four large footlockers, one large suitcase, two carry-on suitcases, three backpacks, a carseat, travel crib, and stroller.
In doing this, they confirm that, indeed, we filled out the customs card truthfully when we ticked the “nothing to declare” box, and send us on our way.
With that lovely experience behind us, we load all of our bags back onto our two luggage trolleys and proceed through the doors leading towards the arrivals hall.
Which leads into the infamous PVR Shark Tank.
I read a ton of warnings beforehand about how relentless the touts and salespeople are in this corridor and how it is next to impossible to make it through unscathed.
Maybe it’s the pandemic, or maybe it’s our mountains of stuff and two unhappy-looking children behind us, or maybe the look of two tired and frustrated parents, but not one of them seems to want to have anything to do with us, even as they block the paths and put the hard sell on our fellow passengers.
Whatever the reason, it seems to make us somehow invisible to the Sharks.
But our fun at PVR is far from over.
On our way through the next set of doors, we get stopped by a man in plain clothes telling us we can’t take the trolleys down the short hallway to the arrivals hall where the taxi stand is. Instead, we need to pay him to carry our stuff to the taxis.
Say wha…? We can see the taxi stand from here!
Normally, we’d say no thank you, and just carry our own stuff. But there’s a one-way glass door at the end of the corridor and we have too much stuff to carry it all in one trip (including two young children).
We call BS and ask to speak with an airport official (someone who is at least wearing some sort of ID or uniform).
This had to be a scam. The cost sounded exorbitant and we don’t even have any pesos on us yet.
Soon, a more official looking airport staff comes over and confirms what the other guy is telling us. Unbelievable.
As we continue to try and figure out a reasonable solution, our two little boys become louder and virtually unmanageable.
Suddenly, the guys pick up our stuff and begin to move it out to the hall.
I fully expected them to demand payment once we had access to the ATMs, but no. They just wanted to get rid of us, apparently. Thanks, Noe and Riley!
Only one thing left to do now. Head on over to the taxi stand.
Where we got another fun surprise when the woman at the counter tells us it costs $85 for a taxi van to cover the 24 miles straight up the highway from PVR to Sayulita.
Again, we call BS. But again, no dice. They recently raised their rates and that is indeed the price for a taxi van.
Two hours after landing in Puerto Vallarta, we’re finally on our way to our new home…over them thar mountains and through the jungle.
Day #1 in Sayulita
We arrive at our temporary digs for the week with just enough time to quickly unpack, catch our first quick glimpse of the beach we’ll be calling our own for the foreseeable future, and fill our bellies, before putting the boys down to bed after a busy day.
The two-bedroom bungalow isn’t bad at all. And only a five minute walk to the beach.
But we know it would be too cramped to call home in the long term, and it’s evident that, come sun-up, we’ll have our work cut out for us in finding a place.
Out the door and a couple blocks later, we pop out on North Beach…
…and are greeted by throngs of people. And not one wearing a mask (except for us).
The beach is beautiful, and the water temperature is absolutely perfect.
But we’ve suddenly found ourselves with a ton of questions. Why isn’t anyone wearing a mask? Is Covid not a thing here? Was it the right decision to come here?
We’ve read plenty of news coming out of Mexico regarding Covid before arriving. We know that the country as a whole has been hit really hard, particularly concerning the number of Covid-related deaths.
But we also know that Nayarit state (where Sayulita is) has largely dodged the worst of the crisis, and that overall numbers throughout the country have dramatically decreased in recent weeks (hence the reopening and our decision to move here).
By every objective measure, Sayulita has also faired far better than most communities back in the U.S.
But we still thought we’d see a few more people wearing masks or at least practicing some semblance of social distancing.
(In the weeks ahead, much of this changed dramatically when cases began to increase again and more regulations were put in place. But that doesn’t diminish our astonishment in the first hours after arriving)
We’re all pretty hungry, so we decide to make our time on the beach short and head on to dinner.
We mark the occasion of our arrival with dinner at everyone’s top pick: Itacate. And we aren’t disappointed.
So many complex flavors and so much stuff to put on your food. We thought we’d arrived in Mexican food heaven.
Noe is surprised (and maybe a bit terrified) to discover that people get around town in anything from quad bikes to golf carts and even dune buggies.
“Where are all the motorbikes?” He asks.
I don’t think we’re in Southeast Asia, anymore, Noe.
Day #2: The Hunt Begins
Monday morning, we load up on huevos rancheros and set out to find ourselves a home.
Noe isn’t at all thrilled about this. The poor guy just wants to go to the beach. After all, that’s all we’ve been talking about since deciding on moving down here.
Me too, Noe. Me too. But first, we have to find a place to live. Priorities.
All public schools are closed in Mexico due to Covid. But there are small, independent “schools” that are permitted to operate provided they follow certain regulations.
We’re eyeing one in Sayulita, and one in the village of San Pancho, a short taxi ride up the highway.
We have a couple of housing leads in San Pancho, and the folks at the school there have time to meet this morning, so we decide to check out San Pancho first.
We hadn’t previously considered living in San Pancho, but are keeping an open mind with the rental market being what it is in Sayulita.
So, less than 24 hours in Sayulita, we head back out of town again.
San Pancho’s real name is San Francisco. But for whatever reason, everyone knows it as San Pancho.
The school seems nice, if a bit sleepy. But the village, itself quickly grows on us.
It’s a quiet community that strikes us as even more artsy-bohemian-hippie-laid-back than Sayulita, which appeals to us.
After arriving yesterday on a particularly busy Sunday in Sayulita, San Pancho feels like a breath of fresh air.
If we can find a better living arrangement here than in Sayulita, we might be convinced to set up shop here instead.
The hunt is on!
Nothing like house hunting with two little ones!
In Phnom Penh, we took advantage of the two of them being in school to canvass the city for a place. We don’t have that luxury this time around, making things a bit more interesting.
But, the morning is heading in the right direction, and the boys are doing a pretty good job, despite the heat and drudgery.
Though we had viewed a couple of properties that weren’t going to be right for us, we’ve amassed a good number of promising leads.
We are feeling pretty good about San Pancho. And then, we reach the beach.
No doubt, San Pancho has a stunning stretch of coastline. But it took me about two seconds after cresting the high water line to notice the ferocious waves.
These pictures make the beach look like an idyllic paradise, but the waves are kind of crazy.
Unlike Sayulita Bay, San Pancho beach is completely exposed with no protection. The waves break onshore, receding quickly, then sliding up the steep beach with a vengeance, before quickly retreating out to sea.
In other words, a less than ideal situation for a two-year-old and four-year-old.
A big part of why we chose Sayulita in the first place is its kid-friendly beaches. There are a few really mellow spots in Sayulita for young kids to play and swim around in the water.
In San Pancho, this is not the case. And reading up on the beach more online only confirms this.
Even so, with no leads yet in Sayulita, we continue to keep an open mind. Maybe we could get a car at some point and drive down to Sayulita when we’re hankering for some beach time? Maybe we could make it work somehow.
One of the carrots we dangled in front of Noe to encourage his cooperation today is getting a fresh coconut. We find them being sold on the beach and stop for a rest.
Noe’s very happy. Two dollars well spent.
He even shares his coconut with Riley, who hasn’t been doing near as much walking today, but has still been a trooper. It’s pretty brutal for all of us to see everyone around lazily enjoying the beach and not being able to ourselves. Hopefully very soon.
That afternoon while the boys are napping back at the Airbnb, Lori discovers a couple of leads on rentals here in Sayulita.
With the skies threatening to storm and the humidity off the charts, I agree to go check them out.
So begins a long sojourn that takes me from the North Side neighborhood where we’re staying, through central Sayulita, up the hills and into South Side.
After twenty minutes, I think I’ve found the place, take a look around and snap some pics.
Then on to the next place, which takes me up and over one steep hill, down into a dusty valley, and up another hill lined with cobblestone.
I arrive at the highway and check my map. Then turn to the left and spot just about the steepest public road I’ve ever seen. Up the road, and up and up, to the very top, where I spot the next property.
Sweaty and exhausted, I report back with my findings.
After the boys are up, we head out on a walk to check out the property that should’ve been. The 5-bedroom house with pool that we thought we were moving into.
The owner happens to be at the house, and to our confusion, the house is currently vacant and being worked on.
He gives us a tour and we talk at length about what had happened with our arrangement and what the situation is with the house moving forward.
The owner is very friendly and very transparent, and there are a lot of questions raised about what happened with the agent. Regardless, it is clear that the house wouldn’t have worked for us anyway. The rent that he quotes us is reasonable, certainly for the size and amenities, and the house is available starting next week.
But, there are guests staying there for three weeks in November, and more in February, which won’t work.
Plus, after having a chance to walk around the neighborhood a bit, we’ve decided it’s not an ideal area of town for us anyway.
So, that’s that.
The search continues.
Day #3: Another School & Back to San Pancho
We land on a few more leads up in San Pancho, and plan to spend most of the morning up there again.
But not before we head out into the jungle to visit another potential school option for Noe and Riley.
Unfortunately for Riley, we learn that they aren’t accepting kids his age right now. But Noe loves the place and there’s a spot waiting for him if we choose to go that route.
The school director tells us that we could start him on a drop-in basis starting tomorrow until we’ve decided where we’re going to be living.
Noe would much rather be playing with kids his own age than trudging around town with us.
It’s an offer we can’t refuse.
On a tip from one of the teachers, we decide to follow a dirt track over the hill. She tells us there’s a housing development there that often has places for rent.
Not sure what to expect, we head over the hill to take a look.
We arrive and aren’t at all sure what to make of the place. It’s a sizable housing development set in the middle of the jungle. We poke around to see if someone can point us in the direction of the properties for rent.
A construction worker points us in the direction of a funky round house with solar panels next to a tall concrete house in the shape of a tree.
We knock on the door and a gringo woman with young blonde-haired boy answer.
She tells us that there were two houses for rent, but they were just snatched up. Par for the course.
We later learn that we’ve stumbled upon an off-the-grid eco community, one of several in the area mostly filled with gringos looking to live an alternative lifestyle closer to nature with no carbon footprint. It’s a cool concept, but again, no room at the inn.
We head back to the main road and grab a taxi back up to San Pancho.
Of the three properties we view today, this one is the most promising. It’s a three bedroom unit in the heart of the village, equidistant from the beach and the school.
But we decide to pass. That bamboo gate is basically the front door to the unit, which faces a courtyard shared by three other similar units in close proximity.
Security aside, with two little boys, we require a little more sound proofing than that. Plus, it wouldn’t be a great work environment for Lori and me, given how dark the living area is in the middle of the day.
Noe, reading Goodnight Beach after his nap. Soon, Noe. Soon.
Yep. It’s been one of those days.
We manage to squeeze a little beach time in before dinner. But what Noe really wants is to go in the water. Me too, Noe.
Day 4: The Search Continues
We grab a quick bite for the road at the Parisian bakery next door and head into the jungle.
On the walk out there, we remind Noe that they won’t speak English, French, Lao, or Khmer (the languages of his previous schools), but instead, they’ll speak Spanish (which Lori has been speaking with him at home since birth).
Noe’s quiet for a moment before asking just one question, “How do you say ‘I need to go to the bathroom’ in mommy language?”
Minutes later, we arrive. Noe gives a casual wave before running off to take his place for story time. And the remaining three of us head back towards town for a full morning of hitting the pavement.
In the interest of time today, we ditch the stroller for the hiking backpack. Riley’s not sure what to make of this new development.
Fingers tapping away constantly throughout the day.
Lori’s Spanish writing is far superior to mine, and she’s usually the WhatsApp/ Facebook coordinator, so most of the housing communications fell squarely on those poor two thumbs, while I kept baby from running out into traffic, or causing an international incident.
Riley’s a bit of a handful these days, to say the least.
I stumbled upon this place today. And have a feeling I’ll be back a time or two in the not too distant future.
Another viewing. This time, at a crazy condo complex spanning the length of a football field down the side of a steep hill. Yep, lots of stairs.
We were excited to view the three-bedroom rental they had available, but it was at the very top end of our budget. There’s a large shared pool and the complex is within spitting distance from the beach. We’re led to the unit by the agent and take a look around.
When we get to the unit, it’s in pretty rough shape. The back deck has holes in it and the whole place smells musty and mildewy. The agent tells us they have some work to do before tenants move in. Ya think?
Using our imaginations, we can sort of see how the place might work, at least for a few months (at this point, we’re getting a bit desperate, but hey, pool, beach, and three bedrooms!).
The master bedroom is spacious and bright. Bedroom number two is a bit cramped, but fine for Riley.
I walk over and open the next door. Bathroom. The next door. Closet. I peak behind a curtain. Pantry. Suddenly, I find myself stumped.
Where’s bedroom #3?
The agent pokes around as well. “Huh,” she says. “Guess this is a two bedroom unit. Oops.”
I think we’re done here.
Another day of having our hopes and dreams dashed inevitably ends at the beach with a beer. This time, at Central Beach to watch the experienced surfers catching the break off to the right.
Day 5: Viewing the Remainder of Our Leads
Our first viewing of the day was a brand new condo with nice views of the jungly valley on the South Side. It’s a two bedroom, and we know being a new place that means it will be cramped. But it’s a decent price with shared pool and lots of amenities.
Upon arrival, we quickly learn that “brand new” means still under construction.
We dodge cement mixers, scaffolding, and falling debris to view the two unfinished units still available. Actually, make that one. Apparently, the other unit was just leased this morning.
The remaining unit will be available in three weeks (so they tell us, though looking around, I have my doubts). But it’s an awfully tight floor plan, and that’s without furniture.
During nap time, it’s Lori’s turn to hit the road and check out a few properties, one of which, we have particularly high hopes for.
Again, it’s a brand new two-bedroom, but this one is actually finished (just barely).
Yeah, I don’t know about those stairs. But at least there’s a soft couch to break Riley’s fall.
The view is less than inspiring.
But still, the place is an option. One of the few viable options we have at this point.
Still waking up from his hot nap.
We’ve got three errands this afternoon: Drop off a quick load of laundry (we’ve been burning through two or three sets of clothes a day with our epic sojourns and the heat and humidity), catch a happy hour sunset, and…
Find Noe a halloween costume.
Yep, his school celebrates halloween. But because they also have a Day of the Dead celebration scheduled the Friday before Halloween (next week), they’re doing their Halloween bash a week early.
We haven’t unpacked the bulk of our luggage, let alone had time to head down to a department store in Puerto Vallarta. So, a Luca Libre (Mexican wrestling) Spiderman mask it is.
Noe’s really excited about getting to wear it (even if most of his classmates are decked out in full costume). But that’s nothing new with us.
First Michelada in Sayulita. The first of many, I’m sure.
Noe got his own treat for making it through another few days of house hunting without too much fuss. This time, he had to share it with his brother, which didn’t seem to be too much of an issue.
The real treat, however, is when the juice is finished. Noe takes the coconut back to the coconut guy who splits it open for a yummy treat.
At least, in theory, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Noe’s had enough duds over the years to know that these things don’t always work out.
Fortunately, this particularly coconut was very much not a dud.
Day 6: Holy Crap! It’s Friday Already!!!
And…we still don’t have a long term place.
It’s been a rough week. As of breakfast this morning, we had two viable leads, both of which were far from ideal.
We had just about resigned ourselves to doing a short-term lease to get us through the holidays, then resume our search when properties come available again after the tourists clear out again.
But there was one property we hadn’t viewed yet.
I came across it a couple nights ago, buried in a local real estate website. Only two bedrooms, but it was older and looked pretty spacious, with a bonus room or two. It had a big grassy backyard and a large rooftop terrace.
But we haven’t been able to coordinate anything with the property manager, and she’s going out of town today for the weekend.
During breakfast, Lori tried one last ditch attempt to get ahold of her and succeeded. If we left now, we could view the property. So we got the bill and made our way over there as quickly as Riley’s stroller would allow.
Some of the AC units don’t quite work, the washing machine is dead, and there’s a wedding event center across the street that apparently can get very loud on occasion.
The house is located on a dusty road in a gully between two grey-water washes that swell when it rains (or when someone drains their pool).
And, the property fronts the Sayulita River, which may prove interesting with mosquitos in rainy season.
And, it only has two bedrooms (so Noe and Riley would get to know each other really well…).
Besides that, it seems like a suitable enough place to call home for a while. We’ll be in touch with the owner regarding terms with the hope of moving in Sunday when our Airbnb booking is up.
After viewing the place, I take Riley to the beach while Lori gets some things done. It’s a gorgeous late October day, with temps already around passing 80 degrees.
Later, after Noe’s out of school, maybe we’ll take a stroll around, head to beach and put our feet in the water.
For the first time in almost week, there’s nowhere we need to be and nothing we need to get done.
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