Experiencing the Charms of an Authentic Mexican Vacation

A Mexican getaway doesn't have to mean an all-inclusive package. The popular holiday destination offers plenty of charming experiences off the beaten path

Credit: Lydia Millett

Escaping the winter for some surf, sun and sand in Mexico

When in Mexico, surfing is an absolute must

If all-inclusive trips aren’t your thing, a vacation to Mexico still has plenty to offer

Despite the recent negative media coverage of Mexico, my boyfriend and I agreed to head there in order to escape the inconsistent weather and get some much-needed vitamin D.

For him, Mexico was a no-brainer – it’s all about the surf – and it wasn’t difficult to convince me; the thought of sitting on a beach with a book was seriously appealing. Where the beach was didn’t really matter.

We had friends just north of Puerto Vallarta, which made the decision about location easy, and we quickly agreed not to do the all-inclusive resort vacation.

Instead we planned to eat locally, stay with our friends (or in little palapas on the beach) and design our own sight-seeing itinerary – mostly revolving around surf spots, including locations that would be approapriate for me, the novice surfer.

Life in La Cruz

Messing about on boats in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Mexico

We landed on a muggy afternoon in Puerto Vallarta, and our friend picked us up and drove us to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, where he was staying in his sailboat. For the first week of our trip we made his 37ft boat our own personal hotel. I grew up on a sailboat so I felt right at home. I quickly got used to the tiny bunk, the close quarters, and the weird sounds at night, which turned out to be puffer fish nibbling the barnacles on the bottom of the boat. Seriously weird!

Not long after we arrived, someone told me about free yoga that was available in the area. Every morning while the boys were still sleeping I would head over to the yacht club, feeling very virtuous I might add, for a glorious hour of yoga. What’s better than morning yoga? Free morning yoga by the sea in Mexico!

La Cruz locals were incredibly friendly and the city was full of great family-run restaurants. Every day after hours of sun and surf, we would head somewhere new to stuff ourselves with hand-made tortillas, fish tacos, and chicken enchiladas.

When I wasn’t hanging out on the beaches, doing yoga or eating, I was wandering around town doing my fair share of shopping. There is a sensational farmer’s market in La Cruz.

Every Sunday locals and expats from all over the world set up stalls to sell their wares. I spent hours looking at clothing and pottery, beaded jewellery, hand-woven hammocks, antiques, and quirky handcrafted wooden toys.

Then there is the food: fresh produce, wood-fired pizzas, a huge fish market, fresh baking, handmade pasta and fusion foods that crossed over the expat/Mexican cultures. I was in heaven!

Whale Watching in Mexico

Humpback whales in the Bay of Banderas

On our second-to-last day in La Cruz, a friend-of-a-friend offered us the chance to go whale watching, which was a life-long dream of mine. After an hour or so of seeing nothing, I worried that perhaps my eagerness had jinxed us. 

Luckily, we got to see more than I could have hoped for! At first a sea turtle bobbed by, sunning itself in the waves. Next, we saw rays: great light brown shapes like shadows in the clear water, whose fins would occasionally flick out through the surface in greeting.

But wait there was more! Dolphins joined us, diving and playing beneath the bow, and finally we spotted a group of humpback whales, three of them putting on a show. I came home completely satisfied, with a sunburned nose, windblown hair and some great photos that couldn’t do the marine treasures of the Bay of Banderas justice.

Sand, Surf and Sun in Sayulita

The novice surfer finally gets a sweet ride in Sayulita!

While staying at La Cruz, we made trips to surf spots in Punta de Mita and Sayulita almost every day. We would pack our friend’s little red car full of bodies, strap boards on the roof and take off to Sayulita for a day of sunshine and surf.

While the boys headed for the huge daunting waves, I went in the opposite direction, where all the dorky learners were hiring soft-top long boards. If you are learning to surf in Mexico, a soft-top board can be rented from any surf shack along the beach. It costs about 50 pesos (approx. $4 CAD) for an hour of fun!

Holding a giant board I could barely fit under one arm, gingerly making my way out into the surf, standing out because my legs are glow-in-the dark white against all the tanned bodies around me, I felt fairly silly. But once I caught my first wave it didn’t matter that I looked ridiculous: I was grinning like a fool.

What I love about a soft-top is that it’s light, so if I bailed (which happened a lot) instead of being afraid that my board would fly up and clobber me, I could focus on making sure I still had my bikini top on.

I had planned to get a lesson, but instead found myself just hanging out with all the people being instructed. On my second day I was up on my board and riding waves right into the beach. Oh yeah!

The Peaceful and Vibrant San Pancho

The gorgeous boutique hotel, Cielo Rojo, topped our list for places to stay in Mexico

After our week in La Cruz with friends we decided to take off for a few days on our own. We were lucky to be able to borrow our friend’s car and we headed straight for a little town we’d heard so much about: San Pancho, located in Nayarit.

When you drive into San Pancho, which is only 20 minutes or so north of Sayulita, you feel as if you are somewhere far, far away. It is so quiet and peaceful. The streets aren’t full of tourists and the beaches are practically empty. The first two nights we stayed in some little palapas on the beach. They appealed to us because they looked like tree houses: cute adobe and open-style with great views.

Another thing that stood out was the amount of art galleries. Every Friday, the galleries open their doors and serve complimentary wine, tequila, brownies, and other delectable treats. We sipped and nibbled while taking in gorgeous watercolours, acrylic landscapes, pottery sculptures, Huichol indigenous beadwork and fascinating photography. San Pancho is considered something of an arts centre, where artists from all over the world have congregated and created a nurturing vibrant arts community. 

Beautiful beaches in San Pancho

Every single day in San Pancho was blissful. We soaked up the sun, beach combed, surfed and ate our way around the town. On our last night in San Pancho, we treated ourselves to a gorgeous little boutique hotel, called Hotel Cielo Rojo. What a find! It was elegant with an eclectic display of contemporary Mexican art and antiques that created a sophisticated and luxurious atmosphere.

There was complimentary tequila at night and in the morning our simple breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, homemade muffins and aromatic freshly brewed coffee was a delight.

Both of us agreed there was absolutely no way two weeks in a resort could have compared to our experience of the simple and authentic charms of Mexico.