Beneath Sayulita’s rugged exterior lies the kind of naturalist’s playground that will have typical Oregonians tightening up their Chacos. There’s horseback riding along deserted beaches, machete-in-hand hiking on Monkey Mountain, mountain biking along jungle single-track, watching for newborn humpback calves, or fishing for giant marlin, Hemingway style. The only real sign of modernization in the sleepy town is the handful of realty offices put in place to capitalize on the expats who keep settling here in larger and larger numbers. Among them is a couple from Bend, Ian and Kerry Hodge; they run one of the more trafficked Sayulita websites, SayulitaLife.com, which specializes in vacation rentals.

But make no mistake: surfing is king in Sayulita. Since the 1960s, when Highway 200 was completed, road-tripping Californians have plied this mile-long notch in the Riviera Nayarit, flocking in when the tide is right or making the place a second seasonal home. You won’t confuse these waves with the towering curls off Hawaii’s North Shore, but they are consistent enough to make them the perfect training ground for beginners and salty pros alike.

If you’ve watched enough Shark Week specials to know that from underneath the board, a surfer can look like dinner, stick to the beaches. They’re unlike anything we have in the States. The sand is flaked with tiny slivers of gold-colored ore dredged up by the constant churning of the ocean floor, turning the beach into jewelry and the water into a giant, roiling tub of Goldschläger. It’s a glittering spectacle you won’t tire of watching.

In other words—pardon the New Age-ism—Sayulita is a great place to just be. Because as thrilling as it is to watch a well-bronzed surfer zip through the heart of a wave, or to see the fishermen in their angular panga boats heading back home on the horizon with another scaly haul, sometimes the most pressing concern revolves around finding the best spot in which to remain horizontal, burn your pale hide, and research which beachside bar has the largest piña colada.
Besides, from a reclining position it’s much easier to study the cat-size iguanas as they battle screeching toucans and parrots for supremacy in the trees, or to watch the ravenous pelicans and frigate birds swoop into the ocean for a meal. And why would you want to venture far from the aromas wafting from Burrito Revolución, a Sandinista-themed shack where a friendly local grills fresh marlin burritos?

When you do feel compelled to move, it’s quickly apparent why this place inspires such feverish devotion. For instance, a walk along a narrow jungle path that we found on an outdated map turned into an epic journey of discovery as we pushed through yucca leaves rising beneath the parota trees and suddenly came upon a forgotten graveyard. The electric hues of the memorials—bright pink and aqua-blue granite headstones dotting the jungle floor—instantly recalled Mexico’s flamboyant Day of the Dead celebrations.

The instinct never to tell a soul about our discovery swelling in our hearts, we pushed past the graves and crested a small rise to find the Pacific, gold water slapping against gold sand as the setting sun laid a sparkling sheen across the ocean. We leaned back against a warm rock and pulled out a couple of warm beers and a slice of homemade chocolate flan we’d bought from a grandmotherly street vendor.

Paradise found. Disaster averted. Two thousand miles southwest of Arkansas.