Checking Out Chacala

We’ve been knee deep in the process of finding our next home here in Mexico.

We’ve enjoyed our time in Sayulita, but costs are rising and we’d love to have a bit larger place than our two-bedroom bungalow.

Plus, Sayulita is becoming more and more crowded by the week. It’s getting next to impossible to find parking in El Centro, even for our small golf cart.

And if we feel like getting out of the house and working at a coffee shop, forget it after 9am.

So, the search is on!

A week ago, we visited Puerto Vallarta for the first time with the hope of being inspired to move there. After three action-packed days, we’re not quite sure it’s the right place for us.

PV seems great, but also has a lot of strikes against it. We just feel like we’d be giving up too much in a move from Sayulita without enough gains.

Last October, I was scouring the web for ideas of fun weekend trips from Sayulita. I came across the usual suspects – PV, San Pancho, Bucerias, Yelapa, Mascota.

But then, I stumbled across something very interesting.

It was a Seattle Times news article from 2007 about a somewhat remote and undeveloped fishing village an hour north of Sayulita, where visitors stay in Techos (homestays) and eat freshly-caught fish in thatch-roof restaurants on the beach.

There’s a campground just footsteps from the beach, clear and calm water, and a sacred volcano you can hike to the top of. At the foot of the volcano is a meditation retreat with an excellent restaurant.

The village was called Chacala and I was intrigued.

When Lori and I first started discussing a move from Sayulita, I told her about Chacala. She quickly brought me back down to reality by reminding me that we needed to be looking at places with schools that are actually open.

In early 2021 when we were having these discussions, public schools across Mexico were still very much shuttered, with no re-opening date confirmed.

That meant we needed a town with a private school that was semi-autonomous, like the school they were attending in Sayulita.

All the other places we’ve been seriously considering met this criteria. A village the size of Chacala probably wouldn’t meet this criteria…so we thought.

Then, a few weeks back, Lori got some information on a potential school for the boys in Chacala. She also managed to connect with another mom from the U.S. who’s been living there for the past several years.

We weren’t really sure what to expect. It’s a bit of a departure from the other candidates on our shortlist, and with a population of just 300 people, is quite a bit smaller than any place we’ve lived previously.

But we were open to an adventure and thought it might be worth a look.

As we were standing at the kitchen bar discussing a few potential housing options online, Lori suddenly screamed.

I thought maybe she stubbed her toe. That is, until I peered down and met the beady little eyes of a scorpion standing between us.

I grabbed a shoe and went to town. If you’ve ever tried to kill a scorpion, you know how tenacious these guys are. Not exactly the same as smacking a cockroach.

The smaller and lighter in color the scorpion, the more venomous scorpions tend to be. Fortunately, this guy was medium-size and black. Still, we took the normal precautions of soap, ice, and keeping an eye out for a bad reaction, and moved our discussion to the sofa.

This wasn’t our first encounter with scorpions in and around this house. Perhaps the sixth or so that we’ve come across, but the first to sting one of us. Lori happened to be the unlucky winner of that prize.

•  •  •

On Friday, our trusty driver, Samuel, picked us up and we headed north into the unknown, bound for the little town of Chacala.

Until today, we haven’t been farther north in Nayarit than San Pancho, a mere three miles from Sayulita. Between our trip to Puerto Vallarta last weekend and our trip north to Chacala, it’s been a big week of firsts.

Noe’s along for the ride today. We wanted him to be able to check out the school, but also thought it might be a fun experience for him to tag along.

45 minutes into our ride, we leave the main highway and head west. Moments later, we come to a halt. Cattle.

Looks like we’re not in Sayulita anymore.

15 minutes later, we round a corner and suddenly find ourselves in a small town. Samuel takes a left onto a gravel road and heads downhill until we find ourselves sitting in front of a small plaza fronting the sea.

Llegamos a Chacala. From here, we walk.

Our first stop is a fairly unusual house viewing – two homes combined in a Tetris like fashion into one. Both units together are for rent as one single house, complete with two kitchens, as well as a striking rooftop terrace with commanding views of the village and water.

On arrival, we let ourselves in using a code from the owner and proceed to have a look around.

The house obviously has a lot going for it. I begin imagining evenings barbecuing, sipping margaritas, and watching the sun set from the rooftop terrace. And there’s plenty of room for hosting visitors.

But, there’s also a few downsides. Having the bedrooms split among two different houses would undoubtedly be a challenge with our young boys. And the place doesn’t have a single air-conditioning unit, which would make for some rough nights from April through November.

The final straw, however, has nothing to do with the house itself, but the neighbors’ little hobby.

Throughout our self-guided tour, we hear a rooster crowing. Not unusual in Mexico. Plenty of people keep a rooster and chickens. Annoying at times, but not the end of the world.

But this rooster seems particularly verbose, crowing constantly. We follow the sound to the window of the master bedroom, look down and find the entire property next door crammed with cages full of, you guessed it, roosters. Dozens of them.

We quickly make our way out the front door. Not a great start, but not the only available property in town either.

As first impressions go, Chacala seems like a nice enough place. Certainly quiet and low-key. But it’s also a bit rougher around the edges than I had expected.

For one, the main road running through town is a mud pit. And it hasn’t rained a drop in Nayarit for six months.

There’s also a ton of construction projects, literally on every corner. And half a dozen four-story block hotels, which is a rare sight even in much larger Sayulita.

So far, not quite the Chacala I’d read about in the newspaper article or elsewhere online. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of the online information on Chacala is in serious need of updating.

But parts of town seem to have retained their village charm, with hand-placed cobblestone streets and more chickens than people plying the roads.

On our way to the plaza, we pass fishing skiffs in various states of disrepair lining the dirt paths, and old men sitting quietly under shade trees mending their nets.

We arrive at the beach and I stop in my tracks. As I step out onto the pristine golden strand of powder soft sand, with its gentle blue surf and smattering of thatch-roof restaurants, any doubts I’ve had about Chacala seem to fade into the background. I can tell Lori and Noe are thinking the same thing.

Looks like we may have found our new home. We’d be crazy not to want to move here.

Now, it’s time to check out the school and view the handful of other available housing options.

We meet with the school director, Jorge, who’s mother-in-law, Dr. Laura del Valle, arrived in Chacala forty years ago and created a sustainable wellness center known today as Mar de Jade (the meditation retreat mentioned in the Seattle Times article).

The school, El Jardin (The Garden), is a non-profit bilingual school with 80% of the students coming from the local community and 20% coming from outside of town, including a few foreign kids like ours.

Part of the school fees fund tuition assistance for low-income students from the local community.

The instruction philosophy blends elements of Montessori and Waldorf, and there’s a large focus on community involvement, including monthly beach cleanups, field trips, and participation in local indigenous events.

Lori and I get a good feeling from the school, and Noe’s excited by the idea of attending next year.

So far, so good.

We leave the school and head back towards the beach where we’re meeting up with Lori’s Chacala connection at a restaurant there.

Jorge suggested we walk back to town via the newly-updated malecon.

We pass a small, tranquil cove where a number of kids splash around in the turquoise water. Beyond, we spot the muelle (pier) where the local fishermen have a fishing cooperative and run tours from.

Boats take people to Caleta (the main surf break around here), Playa Las Cuevas, the Coral Island in Guayabitos, and whale watching tours during whale season.

The view of the thatch-roof restaurants lining the beach and the palm grove campground from the malecon in Chacala.

We have a nice chat with Eden, affectionately known as “The Mayor” among many in the community. She answers our questions about the community, El Jardin (the school we’re eying for the boys), housing, and anything else we can think of.

At this point, we’re feeling pretty good about Chacala.

One of the beachfront restaurants, Chac Mool, even makes its own Raicilla.

Next, we hop on a golf cart with Eden, who’s kind enough to take us on a tour of the rest of Chacala. From end-to-end, the village is only about half a mile with just two main roads running the length of it. The tour doesn’t last long.

Part of the impromptu tour, however, includes a visit to Marina Chacala, a gated community just beyond the north end of the village.

We briefly hop off for a look at Playa Chacalilla, a palm studded, white sands paradise.

I could definitely get used to this.

After our meet-up with Eden, we’re off to find Gabriel, a knowledgeable local guy who Lori connected with online regarding a few places for rent in town.

We make the long, hot walk up a cobblestone hill on the edge of town where we meet him in front of a gate. Here, we view a spacious two-story, three-bedroom house with a fourth semi-attached guesthouse and small swimming pool.

This place ticks all the boxes, but is also $300 above what we’re currently paying in Sayulita. Part of our motivation for wanting to leave Sayulita was the hope of finding more affordable housing, the higher rent is sort of a deal breaker for us.

But the real deal breaker, in our minds, is the large hotel being built directly across the street. We couldn’t get a straight answer from the site boss as to how much longer the project is expected to take or even how high it would be (which doesn’t surprise us in Mexico – these guys tend to be very tight lipped and opaque about these sorts of things).

Judging by the size of the project, (and the fact that they purportedly broke ground late last year and haven’t even completed the first level) it’s clear the project is going to be around a while.

Gabriel knows of another place in town that we might be able to view. We meet him a short while later at a brand new two-bedroom apartment with an additional two-bedroom apartment available next door.

The rent for both units combined is less than the place with the pool we just looked at. But it’s smaller than our current place in Sayulita, with no outdoor space for the boys (though it’s a short walk to the village playground).

In the end, we decide one unit would be a step down from our current situation, and both units would just be awkward with two young kids.

We continue on.

Given Chacala’s size, we knew there weren’t going to be a ton of rentals available. Still, we’re surprised when we realize that after only three viewings our housing might be coming to an end.

Before we leave town, Lori manages to arrange one more viewing. The school director gave us a tip on one other house available adjacent to the school. And when I say adjacent, I mean literally on the school grounds (a portion of the first level is even used for classrooms).

But it’s got four bedrooms and seems like a nice house from the outside. Plus, our options at this point are looking pretty limited. So, we take a look.

Nice house, and huge rooftop terrace with a view. But, lots of ambient noise from the school play yard and no air-conditioning. The woman showing the house tells us that A/C and a rooftop palapa are in the upgrade pipeline, and the monthly rent quoted is right at around our budget.

For the moment, it seems we’ve found our house. With the last piece of the puzzle resolved, we’re ready to move forward and commit to a move in August.

Chacala, here we come!

Back home in Sayulita, Noe busies himself with the puzzle project we made together out of a cereal box.

We might need to make smaller pieces next time.

The well drilling project behind our house continues.

Morning with mommy.

Local caballeros stopping to order a drink at the beach bar. Just another afternoon at the beach in Sayulita.

Noe and his future school in Chacala.

The following week, we make another trip up to Chacala for one more look, as well as to pay the kids’ school inscription fee, and to finalize housing.

Between our last visit and today, there have been a few important developments.

We hadn’t been feeling warm and fuzzy about the blue house on the school grounds. Chacala doesn’t have a lot of places to work from, so we know we’ll be spending a lot more time working from home.

Things are pretty loud and hectic around the house when the boys are home, and we’re not crazy about the thought of it being that way when they’re not around as well. Overlooking the school playground would almost guarantee kid noise from sun up to sun down.

We also learned that if they were to install air-conditioning and the palapa, it would up the rent by $500 more per month.

At the same time, we learned from Gabriel that the owner of the house with the pool (across the street from the hotel construction site) was willing to drop the rent to less than what we’re paying in Sayulita.

Neither situation is ideal, but the house with the pool has a lot going for it. We’re also looking at being in Chacala for one to two years. If we can lock in the rent and make it to the completion of the hotel, we might just have the best deal in town for the remainder of our time in Chacala.

Which brings us to today.

We make the slog back up the hill to the house with the pool to chat with the owner, discuss the terms of the rental agreement, and take one more look around.

Seems like they’re making progress on the hotel project across the street. Given our prior experiences in Phnom Penh, I am a bit concerned about the two vacant, overgrown lots on each side of the house.

We ask the owner of the house if she knows anything about her neighbors or the empty lots. All she can tell us is that the lots have been vacant forever and she doesn’t know of any plans for development in the future.

A road with an identity crisis: Calle Ayala “or” Pacifico.

From the master bedroom, the house does have a pretty sweet view of the bay, once you look beyond the huge pile of rubble from the hotel project, and the shade-cloth shrouded pole barn. Not too shabby.

We leave Chacala feeling good about our decision and excited for our move there in late August.

That night, we celebrate with a little date night.

Now that’s a chimichanga.

Somebody bought the place next to our favorite bar Cava, which provided access to the bar upstairs. Naturally, the bar upstairs busted through the wall directly below and put up a set of steep concrete stairs. And it looks like it’s going to stay that way.

There’s a lot we’re going to miss about Sayulita.

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