SAYULITA, Mexico (AP) – Bookended by seaside rocks that protrude into warm Pacific Ocean waters, the relatively small Playa de los Muertos, or Beach of the Dead, features gentle waves, pelicans diving for fish and sunbathers lying on the sand. Vendors sell beer and grilled fish-on-a-stick, and two locals climb a palm tree to fetch coconuts.
But just beyond the laidback beach is a peninsula that hosts a new and posh 62-property development, highlighting that Sayulita, once a tranquil fishing village, continues to grow into one of Mexico's top tourism and retirement destinations.
The town was even featured in an offshoot of ABC's popular reality series "The Bachelor: Paradise," though one local who watched the filming thought it was a telenovela.
"Every time I've said it can't get bigger, it does," said Jody Meacham of New Jersey after finishing a surfing session on Sayulita's main beach. Meacham has been visiting Sayulita for 25 years, back when there were "more burros than cars." ''I still love it. I come back every year," he said.
Located about 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific coast, Sayulita presents an alternative to the towering all-inclusive resorts that line the beaches south of it. However, all types of destinations in this part of Mexico are seeing bolstered tourist numbers. Direct flights from major U.S. cities have increased here. Passenger counts, both international and domestic, have risen as well.
In December, the federal Mexican tourism department named Sayulita a "Pueblo Magico" or "Magic Town," positioning the town as the crown jewel of the Nayarit Riviera, the coastline of its home state. The naming also comes with the promise of federal money for upgrades, which residents say are needed. The town has grown to about 5,000 residents, plus the scores of visitors that cycle through.
Sewage and electricity services have had a hard time keeping up with the growth; "aguas negras," or literally "black waters," have spilled into the ocean.
"Any additional tourism development would worsen this disastrous health situation," said Indalecio Sanchez Rodriguez, an activist for the group Green Coast Alliance, which has criticized the area's growth.
The current main project is burying power lines under the town streets.
"It's bursting at the seams, the infrastructure," said Richard Brassard, an architect, who first visited Sayulita around 1970 after a friend read about it in a surfing book.
Sayulita's attractions are plentiful: surfing, charter fishing, seasonal whale-watching, lush-green jungle hikes and horseback riding, baby sea turtle releases, among others.
On the south end, its main beach still hosts small local fishing boats. Farther north, surfers ride waves as the town disappears into the jungle. Playa de los Muertos and Playa Carricitos provide quieter and more isolated alternatives within a few of miles. If it's not raining, take a walk to those beaches on the dirt roads lined by the dense forest.
Sayulita boasts chic restaurants to attract foodies and excellent street chow (Tacos El Ivan is top-notch and so is a cake stand named La Gorda, near the town square). Nightlife can be a dance party on the beach or the happy sounds of children playing at the central plaza.
Accommodations range from camping spots (El Camaron, located by the beach, is cheap, but reviews are mixed) to isolated luxury retreats (Teitiare, $400 a night).
We stayed at Playa Escondida, where accommodations range from bungalows ($200 a night during the high season) to penthouses perched on the hillside over a beach ($495 a night during high season). It was built on land Brassard used to own, and being an architect, he has designed the hotel's rooms and furniture. The hotel was used in a season of the "Bachelor Paradise."
The hotel was booked through the low season for the first time last year, Bassard said.
Back in Playa de los Muertos, the sun sets and the town cemetery behind the beach is lit up by candles placed on tombs as my girlfriend and I walk back to town.
Streets hum with activity. Motorbikes and cars buzz about while the sounds of live music, families, hawking vendors and even rowdy drunks fill the humid air. Many of the tourists transport themselves on golf carts.
"Now it's like Puerto Vallarta was back in the '60s. It's developed to that point," Bassard said.