With its white-sand beaches and laid-back vibe, Sayulita is the kind of place you never want to leave. Fashion photographer Anne Menke shares her images and tells Jo Piazza why her family decided to move to this sleepy village on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
There are places you visit and think: “I could live here.” And then there are places you visit and say: “I know I could live here.”
It’s something about the place itself, the way it speaks to you, the people, the scents, the way parts of it stay with you when you return home, the magic. Fashion photographer Anne Menke found that in sleepy Sayulita, Mexico, on a surfing trip with her husband, Johann Ackermann, 21 years ago. And “magic,” she says, is still the best way to describe what kept her coming back to this little town at the base of the Sierra Madre mountains on the white-sand beaches of the Pacific.
The couple succumbed to that magic three years after their first visit when they bought a beachside property on the rugged jungle coast of the hippie-chic fishing village. They commuted back and forth for a bit, then decided to call Sayulita home. In 2004, they made the move from big-city living in New York to small-town life.
It speaks to the uniqueness of this oasis that Menke, who was born in Germany and has lived in New York and Paris, decided this was the place she would put down roots. As one of fashion’s most in-demand photographers, she’s traversed the globe from the Mongolian steppe to the Peruvian Andes, shooting some of the most spectacular locations and people on the planet for glossies like Vogue, Elle and Travel + Leisure, for brands such as J.Crew and Ralph Lauren, and for her book See the World Beautiful. Their family of five could live anywhere, but, according to Menke, nowhere else would do.
When the family first moved south of the border, they built themselves an adorable, two-bedroom cobalt-blue house with a thatched roof within a grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean and named it Casa Ninamu (ninamu is blue in Tahitian). Within the polished cement walls, you could hear the sounds of waves in one ear and the jungle birds puttering about in the other. It was so private, the beach was almost always empty.
A few years later, they finished their dream house, Casa O’te Miti, an airy, tangerinecolored six-bedroom hideaway. Set on a rocky point with a 200-degree view of the Pacific that can also be enjoyed from the infinity pool.
Together, Ninamu and O’te Miti make up Tei Tiare Estate, a small luxury hotel. “Our dream was to run a hotel, maison d’hôte style,” says Menke, referring to the renting of guest rooms within one’s own home, similar to a bed-and-breakfast.
“When people stay with us, they either rent Casa Ninamu, which comes with a full chef and concierge service, or they rent rooms with us,” Menke says. They delight in playing host: organizing activities, scheduling babysitters, making restaurant reservations and often cooking huge meals for everyone.
“The feeling in the house is that we are all one big family,” Menke says. “Guests and all.”
Menke and her husband have also worked hard to give back to their community. Ten years ago, they helped start the Costa Verde International School, a community-driven green school where 50 percent of the kids are on scholarship. Sustainability and ecology are woven throughout the curriculum.
“We created the school to change the world, one person at a time,” says Menke. “Mexican families send their children to school with the kids of the expats living here. The international mix of creative people living with locals is one of the most inspiring things about Sayulita.”
An average day in Sayulita finds Menke walking her kids to school then going to surf at one of the magnificent local beaches. Sayulita’s main beach offers waves for most levels of surfers, from newbies to serious wave chasers. Menke is partial to the famous El Faro breaks, which are recommended for more experienced surfers.
After a few hours in the ocean, Menke hits the farmers market for fresh veggies, local honey and fish straight out of the ocean to cook with the family and their ever-rotating menagerie of friends and guests.
A wander through the three main dusty streets of Sayulita brings Menke to some of her favorite places. There’s the Pachamama boutique, owned by Nathalie Mignot, a French expat. Named after the goddess of nature and fertility, the bright and welcoming Pachamama sells Mignot’s extraordinary black pearl jewelry and locally made art, clothes and handicrafts. Menke often picks up T-shirts cleverly featuring Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, funky cushions and bright blankets from Revolución Del Sueño, whose owners are also French.
She can’t rave enough about one shop in particular, Evoke the Spirit, owned by another friend, Brittney Borjeson. The women are both New York transplants who fell for Sayulita’s charms. Borjeson creates some of the town’s most coveted interior designs and works with indigenous artists on her one-of-a-kind ceramics and textiles. Her utterly unique yarn-painted cow skulls have developed a cult following among international art collectors and celebrities.
After school lets out, Menke goes fishing or diving with her kids. In the winter and early spring, it’s possible to spot humpback whales right from the beach as they migrate south to mate.
Menke will also treat her kids to Wakika Heladeria, a favorite stop for ice cream and paletas, Mexican ice pops that come in creamy and fruity varieties made from all-natural local ingredients, unlike frozen treats found in the States.
After watching the kind of sunset seen only in Instagram shots, the family wanders home to enjoy dinner. Some evenings Menke and her husband will stay out and treat themselves to a night at Don Pedro’s, a renovated beachfront bungalow owned by two Los Angelenos that serves a delicious Mexican fusion menu. They may end the night with the perfect margarita at Le Zouave, the bar at the rosy Petit Hotel Hafa, a bohemian boutique hotel. Both the bar and the hotel are run by Nathalie Mignot’s brother Christophe and his wife, Marina.
Sayulita is often compared to Tulum, its more developed counterpart on Mexico’s east coast. But regular visitors to both towns will tell you that while Tulum has begun catering to crowds more accustomed to velvet ropes and bottle service, Sayulita has managed to maintain its heart, its soul and its authenticity.
And even though it’s changed plenty since American surfers first flocked here, Sayulita hasn’t fallen prey to overdevelopment like many Mexican resort towns. You won’t find any mega resorts with their massive water parks, and yet Sayulita is still an ideal place to bring children of all ages.
“There’s so much to do — from zip-lining to surfing to dive lessons,” Menke says. “It’s a wonderful place for children.”
Getting Here: Sayulita is 45 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport on the Riviera Nayarit. Taxis can take you to Sayulita, but since there’s plenty to do in the area, you might want to rent a car.
Where to Stay: Tei Tiare Estate The small luxury property is five minutes from Sayulita and is made up of two-bedroom Casa Ninamu and six-bedroom Casa O’te Miti.
Where to Eat & Drink: Wakika Heladeria, Don Pedro’s, Le Zouave
Where to Shop: Pachamama, Revolución Del Sueño, Evoke the Spirit
Where to Surf: El Punto Surf School
How to Give Back: Costa Verde International School