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Sunday, April 28, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sayulita, San Francisco Are Worth Visiting

Bucerias is one of several beach towns along Mexico's Pacific coast north of Puerto Vallarta worth visiting. Others include:

Sayulita is on a small ocean cove about a 20-minute drive north of the Bay of Banderas. Its waves are usually dotted with the boards and heads of at least a dozen surfers.

Foreign-owned vacation homes put down foundations in its hills long ago, and although there are only two or three phones in the town, Sayulita does have a gourmet restaurant, Don Pedro's, run by an American chef, Nicholas Parrillo, and his cousin, Damien Porter.

Sayulita is much smaller than Bucerias. Buses run only a few times a day into Puerto Vallarta, compared with at least every 30 minutes from Bucerias. There are no big hotels here, but there are a number of rental houses and a bed and breakfast, Tia Adriana's.

Yet, Sayulita is growing. As Bucerias travel agent Lee Gibson showed us Sayulita houses to rent, he struggled to get his lumbering Chevy Suburban over dirt roads that looked like they'd been cut from the jungle the day before. We were headed to an isolated house at the north end of the beach, and Gibson's wife, Gabriela, worried we'd get stuck.

Yet on one stretch stood a new house - one of several we saw - a Toyota 4-Runner with California plates in the driveway.

San Francisco (locally called San Pancho), a few minutes north of Sayulita, also is small and quiet with a population of about 1,500. It sits on a long, straight beach that is dramatic but with frequent strong currents that make swimming dangerous.

The town has many remants of the efforts former Mexican President Luis Echeverria made to turn it into a self-sufficient community.

He built a cannery that's in ruins, a hospital that still exists and sidewalks, streetlights, and a smooth brick street from the main highway to the beach. Subsequent presidents have ignored San Pancho, but foreigners have rediscovered it.

Escheverria's former estate recently was purchased by some people from Wyoming, said Dar Peters, a native Seattleite and former Californian who owns Los Arcos Restaurant a block from the beach.

At the north end of town, the Costa Azul resort hotel opened several years ago. Peters, who recently opened a real-estate office in a corner of Los Arcos, says foreigners now own about 60 properties in town, and the demand is growing.

Still, San Pancho is far from a hot tourist spot. When we drove into town at mid-morning on a Sunday, we had to navigate around two dogs napping in the middle of the road. They didn't even raise their heads as we passed.

In some months of the year, you can see eggs in a sea-turtle hatchery just south of Costa Azul. A group of Mexicans and Americans formed an organization, Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde, that collects the turtle eggs from the beach, protects them until they hatch, and tries to ensure that the young turtles make it back to the water.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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