When most people vacation in Mexico, they don’t stray far from their all-inclusive resort. While there’s nothing wrong with sipping margs at a swim-up bar, nomads seeking a more authentic Mexican experience will love the hippy-chic town of Sayulita.

Just 30 minutes away from well-trodden Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita was once a secret destination for surf bums, offering palm-fringed beaches and barrelling waves. While the once sleepy town is no longer off the beaten path – it’s even the filming location of the cheeky Bachelor spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise – Sayulita has still managed to maintain its low-key, small-town charm, brought to life with colorful papel picado banners and vibrant street art.

Deemed “the Bali of Mexico,” Sayulita is a place where worlds collide – taco shops and cantinas sit beside health cafes and yoga studios, while high-end bohemian boutiques coexist with surf rental shacks and souvenir shops. When you’re not beach-bumming, there are plenty of upmarket art galleries to explore, not to mention the best street tacos and churros you’ll ever have.

Hidden Treasures of the Pacific

While we couldn’t get enough of Sayulife, the best day of our trip was spent at sea, sailing the nearby Marieta Islands with Ally Cat Sailing Adventures. Known as “Mexico’s Galapagos,” the Marietas are uninhabited volcanic islands made famous by the “hidden beach,” which was created as the result of bomb tests from the Mexican military. In fact, most of the Marietas’ rock formations and caves were formed by test bombs. In the 1960s, Jacques Cousteau took it upon himself to save the islands, which eventually led to the area being declared a UNESCO reserve.

Today, humans are not allowed to step foot on the islands, so the best place to soak in their beauty is aboard a luxury catamaran. Our 60-footer had it all: daybeds, bean bags, a fully-stocked Tiki bar, and slides straight into the ocean. We boarded in the morning but the sun was shining and the crew was already in party mode, serving up breakfast beers and blasting music through the boat’s surround sound. It seemed to set the tone for the entire day.

As soon as we lost sight of the shore, a crew member yelled ¡ballena! – and we spotted the majestic fluke of a humpback whale. It was just the first of more than 20 whales we saw from the catamaran that day, in addition to pods of dolphins that trailed in our wake.

It took us about an hour to reach the Marietas, which were surrounded by crystalline water, colorful reefs, and thriving marine life. The crew distributed snorkel gear and everyone on the boat jumped in with the hopes of spotting a whale shark, which have been known to grace the Marietas. Although we were not lucky enough to see one that day, we did swim with sea turtles and manta rays while exploring underwater caves.

Back on the catamaran, the crew spoiled us with a gourmet Mexican lunch and open bar. Blame it on the pina coladas, but it wasn’t long before the entire boat was livin’ la vida loca – costumes, conga lines, and dance parties took over the deck.

As the Marietas became smaller and smaller on the horizon, we knew it was a place we would never forget. Mexico, te amo mucho.