Surfing and Savories in San Pancho

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By Christine Offut

Charming Sayulita with its little bay beach has plenty to occupy the vacationer. The sand fills with families, young hipster newlyweds wandering town from the giant Spanish mansions perched on the hill, and the locals who are hocking everything from straw hats and chicken on a stick to donuts to willing sunbathers.

beach in Mexico near Nayarit

However, a 15-minute drive up Federal Highway 200 takes you to San Francisco, affectionately called San Pancho by locals. Entering the town feels like walking into a yoga studio before class has started. The place is quiet, the air is cool and clean, a few people are meandering slowly toward the center of town. The walls of the small Mexican style stucco homes are painted red with hot pink trim, or purple with chartreuse and palm trees in the gardens wave sparkling “hellos” with their Vacation in Puerto Vallartafronds.

I quickly discovered the reason for the feeling of calm relaxation as San Francisco offers several yoga studios, healthy food, and a bird sanctuary — all so peaceful that I suddenly wanted to trade in my youth to become one of the retired expats that frequent the lounger chairs on the beach. (I admit, I may not be that “youthful”, but I’m not retirement age YET)

It was a Tuesday, so we strolled through a craft market set up in the plaza. A live band of three young indie rockers played music. Blankets, silver, pottery and leather were tastefully laid out on tables for the retired vacationers perusing the wares for hidden souvenir gems.

San Pancho San Francisco Mexico

On the opposite side of the plaza, the beach called to us with its silky sand and lagoon that flowed into a large body of water separated from the surf by barely 20 yards. It’s an estuary that harbors birds in such density that just walking close to it sounds like the front row seat of a concert played by various tweets, whistles and caws. San Francisco is known for its bird conservation so it is not unusual to see small birds flying like bats, swooping close than quickly jerking in the other direction. A white egret eyed me suspiciously when I came within 5 feet of it and its harem, then stretched out its neck and began rhythmically nodding, either in agreement or as a threat.

The surf was weak, so my friends weren’t able to take advantage of the rented surf and boogie boards tied to the roof of our rented truck (I rarely swim, but I tested the temperature of the water and it was refreshingly cool without being cold). We ended up spending about 2 hours on the virtually empty beach napping and reading books. I took a walk to one end of the playa and realized that the 3 or 4 tents set up on the sand were homes to several permanent residents. I had noticed a sign near a bar serving the beach that said NO CAMPING… the other side read NO CAMPING IN THIS AREA. I guess the tents were not in that “area”. The other end of the beach has a camping area and tents that appear to be permitted.

Wandering through the center of town we eyed several nice looking establishments advertising tacos, camarones and tortas on chalkboards. And others written in sharpies for chili relleno, pollo and pollo mole.

I am a freak for mole! And the best is always found in the hole in the wall you can’t see so we immediately turned away from the tourist corridor and headed down the cobblestones to the La Chalupa patio restaurant. The front patio was empty with the exception of a large table, six kitchen chairs and a few caged parrots. The back patio had a roof and 8 tables, seating locals eating homemade salsa on corn tortillas and roast chicken. We sat at the red and green checked table, comfortable that we had, indeed, come to the right place. An older man speaking very little English told me about the specials while a radio played traditional Mexican ballads in the kitchen for the cook’s entertainment. A vat of deep red/purple agua fresca sat on the counter.

where to eat in San Pancho

Alas, they didn’t have mole that day, but the chili relleno stuffed with shrimp saved the moment. We ordered that as well as chicken fajitas, which turned out to be plenty for 3 people. I requested a michelada, and watched as the gentleman prepared a tintcture of various liquid spices in my salt rimmed glass, added the juice of 3-4 limes, clamato and a bottle of pacifico. Still, the color of the agua fresca called to me — slightly sweet, slightly tart, it reminded me of a sweet cranberry tea.

Our food came, happily fried in a lot of lard. The fajitas were pretty standard and we were disappointed to discover the “camarones” in the chili relleno were tiny bay shrimp, most likely frozen ones that had been thawed for the daily special, certainly not local.

The food was nothing special, but we were entertained by Dona Raina, the matriarch of El Chalupa: a 70-year-old woman who sat with one severely swollen foot resting on a stool. Every local or vendor entering the cafe paid tribute to her, greeting her as “Dona,” and waiting for her to approve the camerones, or the fish they were selling.

Day trips from Nayarit, punta mita

Sated, plated, we eventually moved onward, curious to follow a dirt road that appeared to run north along the coast. The first off-shoot of the road was for Las Olas, a gated community that lead us to Las Huertas, an exclusive nine-hole golf course. We continued to ascend for several miles on a jolting dirt road up hill anticipating the view from the top but deep jungle grew on both sides of the road making a view of the ocean impossible. The jungle was broken regularly by the walls of hidden villa mansions obscured by high-profile security gates. Stucco wall after jungle, then more stucco walls. (“The first thing we do is build a wall. Gee, I wonder who said that,” joked my travel companion.)

After about 5 miles, we reached the end of the road where the ultimate in gated communities had instructed their “guard” to encourage people to go back to San Francisco, which we did (anytime we were stopped, we simply pretend not to speak Spanish; it discouraged questions and allowed whatever officials to just wave us on).

We drove back through town stopping at the charming community center selling crafts that support children’s education. Thirty or forty children of various ages were taking advantage of the books on display. Several groups of kids were working on arts and crafts projects, and a small group of boys played soccer out back.

And then we saw it: our treasure for the trip’s effort. Diagonally across the street from the community center was, Mexicolate, a traditional Mexican chocolate shop.

We indulged in the “love shot”, 10 grams of pure cocoa cooked in a traditional Mexican olla (an earthenware pot) with a small amount of water. The Love Shot is served sprinkled with cayenne (no sugar). The woman at the counter informed us this is the way the Aztecs drank chocolate and it was considered beneficial for health (I took this advice to heart and decided my health needs a lot more chocolate!). We also ordered Agua de Cocoa, a mixture of coconut, cardamom, cinnamon, water and toasted cocoa beans in a cold brew. It was sweeter than the Love shot, but neither were overly bitter and both were delicious. The shop also sells jars of local honey mixed with toasted cocoa beans and snack bags of the toasted bean as well.

After a magical dose of healthful Aztec elixirs we headed back to Sayulita for a craft beer at Trapiche and the ever-present hope for some hole-in-the-wall mole.

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