Puerto and Nuevo Vallarta have become thriving tourist destinations where big-name hotels jostle for space along the beachfront, and the Mexican experience becomes one of turquoise swimming pools and all-inclusive resorts.
But I was headed for something quite different, a yoga and surf retreat 35 miles north in a town called Sayulita.
Sayulita. The word dances from the lips with the promise of flirtatious beauty. I was looking for the sweet simplicity of a Mexican village uncorrupted by tourists, a place where visitors mingled with locals and the beach was devoid of obnoxious noise.
You truly leave the city behind you when you travel to Sayulita. Twenty minutes from Puerto Vallarta, the convenience stores that dot the highway begin to disappear, replaced by rugged hills thick with tropical foliage.
We travel on a highway surrounded by Mexican jungle, a green zone that protects the country's remaining jaguars and is the breeding ground of crabs who cross that very road in thousands as they head to the beach each year.
Trees lean over the highway, their branches forming a canopy over passing cars, and the road winds and curves until suddenly we're on a dirt path and the town feels close.
"We're taking the long way around town because the main bridge has been washed away," says my driver, Mario. He's talking about the four solid days of rain that fell in September, causing floods from which Sayulita, a town of 3,000, is still recovering.
The road is narrow, dark and uneven, and for a moment, I wonder what I'm doing here. Then, suddenly, I hear the whoosh of waves, and we've arrived. We approach the dim lights of the hotel Villa Amor in the darkness, but I can feel the bay wrapped in a gentle semi circle around us.
The retreat has been organized by Via Yoga, a Seattle-based company co-owned by Kelly Kemp. "It's a lively town with great restaurants, and even though there are more tourists coming here these days, Sayulita has kept its charm," says Kemp, who has hosted 60 retreats in Sayulita since Via Yoga began in 2003.
The 10 of us attending this retreat — two men and eight women — range in age from 28 to 60, and come from all over North America. Our days are anchored at both ends by yoga: an energizing class full of flowing asanas and challenging postures in the morning, and another with long, nourishing stretches and deep, meditative silences in the evening.
Our studio overlooks the ocean, and the comforting sound of the waves fills our ears as we move creaky limbs from one posture to another. "Respect your body and obey its limits," cautions our instructor, Jill Lawson.
Once the morning yoga class is finished, the beach becomes the center of daylight action. It's a long arc of white sand that descends gradually to the ocean, and a revered beach among surfing enthusiasts.
Advanced surfers ride the tubes in a spectacular display of balance and skill, while beginners clamber clumsily onto their boards as instructors cheer them on.
Our instructor puts us through the moves on the sand before letting us loose in the water. In the first hour, we ride small ripples with trepidation, balanced precariously on the boards for just seconds at a time. By day six, though, there's marked improvement in our skills and riding the waves has become a challenge we're gradually mastering.
Sayulita is a delightfully accessible town where everything is in walking distance. Later, we saunter around this eclectic, bohemian town, peeking into the shops and galleries. We walk by the Iguana Tree, a favorite hangout of the protected species, and looking up we see four green iguanas munching lazily on leaves, their legs clasped tightly around the branches.
In the last decade, shops and services have mushroomed in town. Today tourism is the bread and butter of most local residents and vendors troll the beach selling everything from pies to blankets, baskets to sarongs.
Still, there's a sense that the essential fabric of Sayulita has remained unchanged even as the visitors come and go. As darkness falls, locals gather in the town plaza to talk about their day. Kids dart around the pillars in a game of tag, elders exchange stories, and a sense of warmth, liveliness and camaraderie fills the air.
We dine at Antonia's, a restaurant located on the patio of Antonia Venejas' home, where she's been feeding locals and visitors homemade enchiladas, guacamole and other local favorites for the past 20 years.
"It's delicious," we tell her when she emerges for a break. The broad smile on her face describes her pride in her cuisine and her pleasure in sharing her food with others.
Six days flash by, a blur of surfing classes, group meals and many hours of replenishing stretches on the yoga mat. The backdrop is nothing short of exquisite: a superb hotel on the cusp of the ocean, and a town full of unique character and charm.
Aching backs and hips have mysteriously disappeared after 11 classes with just the right combination of laughter and intensity. And though we know it's inevitable, we're in no mood to go home.