Less than an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita remains a little-known destination.

SCRAMBLE PAST A SIMPLE WEATHER-BEATEN HEADSTONE that reads “Bob, Gone Surfing,” wiggle around another ornate pink gravestone sporting a glassed-in reenactment of the crucifixion, climb over a rocky incline, then push through two gargantuan palm leaves. Right there, where waves the color of Paul Newman’s eyes crash against monolithic black rocks in a tiny secluded cove, the sheer knee-weakening beauty of Sayulita—one of Mexico’s best-kept secrets—reveals itself like a fist uncurling to offer up a daisy.

Amid all this wild sensory ecstasy, the first thing that came to my mind was: God, this is such a better place to spend a honeymoon than Arkansas.

You see, the new wife and I were broke. Our wedding in Central Oregon had left us with a hemorrhaging bank account. We were forced to relinquish any hopes of an extravagant postnuptial getaway. In fact, things got so dire that, at one point, flying back to the South and spending a week in my parents’ guest room seemed like the only viable option.
And then, salvation. A family friend offered us the shiny keys to his small villa in Sayulita, a Mexican beach town we’d never heard of. We asked no questions. All we knew was that the place was hot, coastal, and decidedly not Arkansas. Good enough, we said.

But as our bus from the airport yanked free of the urban sprawl of Puerto Vallarta and plunged onto a twisting jungle road, my wife and I breathed sighs of relief. “Good enough” was quickly becoming “awesome.” We were off the beaten path. And not a Señor Frog’s in sight.

Sayulita lies on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, less than an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. Yet despite its proximity to such a massive tourist hub; despite being lauded as the next “it” destination by the likes of the New York Times and Travel & Leisure; and despite the handful of ATMs and sit-down restaurants scattered throughout town, the tiny village of 2,500 still feels like one imagines it did during the 16th century, when the Spanish first happened upon it. Even the Mexicans began settling it only in 1941.

Today, hedged in by a thick jungle on one side and the vast Pacific Ocean on the other, it’s a place you have to want to get to. Thus the rustic retro vibe. Long rows of adobe villas and businesses line bumpy cobblestone lanes. Shirtless fishermen farm the coast for mahi-mahi; street vendors hawk their wares at all hours; dogs scamper about in dusky alleys and backstreets; and the palm-lined town square is a staging area for weddings, funerals, and everything in between. Here you feel like an explorer, not an interloper.