What began as a one-week vacation to San Pancho turned into a six-month stay for Simone Jacobson, Burmese-American restaurateur and cultural connector, who writes about the entrepreneurial women who run this town.
When I first arrived in San Francisco, Nayarit—more commonly known as “San Pancho”—I didn’t know I would end up making this one-road town on Mexico’s Pacific Coast my home indefinitely. I think it’s fair to say the global pandemic has upended how we all think about what it means to stay somewhere. In 2020, some people awoke to the fact they were in jobs they hated, relationships that didn’t serve them, or apartments they could no longer afford. My journey began with a simple affirmation of cosmic proportions: It’s time to move on. After packing up 20 years of my life and memories in Washington, DC, my childhood best friend rented a luxury SUV, and drove us from the nation’s capital to Los Angeles, California in nine days flat.
Because my bestie was moving houses shortly after my arrival to her LA home, I knew I had a 30-day countdown, but I had no idea where I was headed next. A friend of a friend suggested I go to San Pancho. Following a 30-second Google search, I immediately booked a one-way ticket to Puerto Vallarta, and my hotel arranged a ride from there.
My first stop was Marii Hotel Boutique, home to the most iconic panorama in all of San Pancho: banana and palm leaves framing a soft jade-brown mountainscape in the distance, and a sparkling turquoise pool beneath.
Upon arrival, I listened to nearly every person in San Pancho recount the same story time and again—I came here for a weekend, and I’ve lived here for four years now. I did not want to be that gringa who falls into the same narrative. But my health had a different idea in mind. Just as I was about to fly to my next Mexican destination (Ciudad Juárez), I succumbed to one probable, violent outcome of daring to eat tripe quesadillas on the street: a crippling sickness that rendered me immobile and crying out for my mama. After crawling upstairs to the reception desk and mumbling enough Spanish to beg the hotel to cancel my flight and airport ride, Marii’s only two indefatigable cooks promptly made me special meals to settle my stomach. The front desk staff offered to visit the pharmacy for me, and somehow San Pancho held me in her grip for two more weeks. That was my first sign I was meant to stay. I had no choice but to listen.
Now after seven months, I wouldn’t dare say I’m a San Pancho local; more a doting admirer. Still, I may be uncovering one of the many untold secrets of this charming little hippie enclave: the women are its heartbeat. As co-founder of several woman-owned businesses, including the award-winning Burmese restaurant, Thamee, where my immigrant mama is Executive Chef, it didn’t take me long to notice San Pancho’s undeniably chingona (badass) energy. If you ever make it here, and I really hope you do, here are some of the incredible women you’ll meet.
Simone Jacobson’s Guide to San Pancho
Assuming you get here in time for a late lunch, the perfect day in San Pancho starts with the scallop ceviche and pulpo (octopus) tacos at IKAN Cocina Marina. A relatively new arrival to the culinary tapestry, IKAN opened in April 2019. Co-owners Maria del Rosario Garcia Peña and Mario Alonzo Mendoza Palomares spent time learning cooking techniques from chefs in Indonesia, later naming their 20-seat roadside restaurant after the word for “fish” in Bahasa Indonesia. Mendoza’s family are longtime San Pancho locals, and Peña had been visiting San Pancho for years before meeting her partner in her hometown, Puerto Vallarta. The two chefs work tirelessly six days a week, collaborating and cooking side by side in a closet-sized kitchen.
Once your belly is full and you’re as convinced as I am that this IKAN power couple deserves a Michelin star, stroll down “main street,” formally known as Avenida Tercer Mundo. The longest road in town, Tercer Mundo connects San Pancho to a serene, jungle-lined beach. Some of my favorite shops are on or near Tercer Mundo, ideal stopovers as you slowly work your way down to the beach. Many of the goods in this town of approximately 3,000 full-time residents are made locally in Nayarit. Find bikinis and naturally fermented Mexican specialty beverages as well as dry shampoos and luxury linens.
One must-visit shop is VIZVA, which means “from the universe” or “all the gods collectively” in Sanskrit. Browse delicate jewelry, local artist prints, accessories, swimsuits and more wearable treasures from small Mexican producers, located just a stone’s throw from IKAN on Calle Asia.
“I personally know the people behind each piece,” says VIZVA owner Maya Trujillo. “I want people to buy things made with intention. These products all have a person behind them, an intention behind them, and us behind them.”
While living out of her backpack for seven years, the entrepreneur constantly sought flowy, beautiful clothes that could also dry quickly for a life in constant motion. Next door to VIZVA is Casa Linda, which opened its doors in October 2019 with a vision to sell local and bulk goods.
At the onset of quarantine, local vendors were no longer able to sell at the famous Tuesday mercado in the town plaza, nor at the beach for many months. Missing her favorite oceanside vendors, Nellie-June Esserman’s business boomed when she harnessed in on local makers. “Casa Linda is meant to be a homecoming to San Pancho,” says Esserman, a Brooklyn-born former cafe owner. Sip and snack on vegan empanadas, kombucha, pulque, and alfajores at Casa Linda to build your energy reserve for more unhurried browsing.
Next, head to Elote Arte if you’re looking for more upscale beachwear and classic neutrals, Galería San Pancho for mid-range souvenirs, original artwork, gifts and chic adornments (they also have luxury cabana suites in the back for rent), and then Moana, home of original artwork and daisy dukes of all sizes, which the locals first named NO MAMES SHORTS (“no mames” loosely translates to “no way”) because they couldn’t believe the low $100 pesos price. Several local San Pancho artists who display their crafts at Moana also work in the shop, and get 100 percent of profits from art sales during their shifts. On the corner of Tercer Mundo and Latina America is Moana’s sister shop, Media Naranja, which opened in March 2021 after nearly a decade of success at Moana’s original location. At Media Naranja, you can discover traditional and vintage home decor, clothing, and jewelry all made in Mexico. Each piece is unique, limited, and hand-selected by owner Ana Camila Micó.
After shopping, head to Limbo Restaurante for inventive, immaculately garnished cocktails like the Bougainvillea with gin, kombucha and orange bitters, and a world class Mexican culinary dining experience. Prepare for a delightful chat with wife and husband co-owners Cinthia Estefanía Aguilar Echeverria (previously a psychologist) and Chef Carlos Walker, whose artistry and respect for local ingredients are evident in every dish.
As the sun begins to set, follow the daily mass migration to the beach, where local families and visitors alike convene to snap photos or take in the majesty in silence, often applauding as the last red sparks disappear from the infinite skyline. After dinner, sit on a lounge chair facing the ocean to enjoy a refreshing cielo rojo (a bloody mary riff with a beer float), or bring a blanket to get closer to the waves crashing furiously on the shore.
If you’re an early riser and want to make the most of your stay here, opt for a morning yoga class under the breezy palapa at El Estar. While an abundance of wellness practices exist in San Pancho, El Estar is special because of the lush greenery hugging the studio, a little shop of yogi-friendly trinkets attached to the entrance, unique bodywork offerings, community gatherings and events.
Next stop: breakfast. A relative newcomer to the San Pancho hospitality ecosystem, Café Floresta is more than a hotel lobby restaurant. It’s the ideal spot to enjoy a post-savasana meal in a modern treehouse setting. Many people hardly notice the eight discrete guest rooms and T-shaped dipping pool below because they’re too busy enjoying some of the best chilaquiles in Mexico. Adorned with edible flowers, the breakfast dishes at Floresta are still somehow just as comforting as if an abuela was serving up plates out of her home kitchen. As a fellow restaurateur, it’s hard for me to imagine such impeccable cuisine coming from their tiny kitchen, with just two cooks and a dishwasher.
If there’s one thing San Pancho has no shortage of, it’s physical activities that don’t feel like exercise at all. From circus arts and African dance classes to surfing and bird and whale watching, you can easily get lost in a beautiful community of folks who love to move their bodies just for the pleasure of it. For novice and more experienced water aficionados alike, NATIVA offers day trips to surf in Playa La Lancha, to hike Cerro del Mono (“Monkey Mountain”) for panoramic views of the entire coastline after a gratifying sweat to the top, and other nearby adventures. Spend a few hours getting to know the region with an experienced guide, or opt to walk some of the jungle backroads on your own to discover diverse flora and fauna, meditative quiet, and sprawling polo fields that appear out of nowhere as signposts ushering you along the mostly flat trails.
A day trip to the “clay beach” (Playa de Barro) is my absolute favorite outing, about 30-40 minutes from San Pancho, including the jungle walk you’ll trek down to earn your place on this secluded beach. Offering natural blue clay to dig out of the mountainside with your bare hands, Playa de Barro is a free spa treatment from Mother Nature.
When you’re done rinsing off the sand and dust, there are endless street side stalls to explore for a quick ceviche or snack. Satisfy cravings for French pastries at Nina Rondeau’s French bakery, Casa Gourmet. Opt for a chocolate croissant, a papaya-turmeric smoothie with coconut oil, or a jambon-fromage baguette with housemade pesto. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, vegan falafel is available in front of the Entre Amigos community center, served by Amanda, a rasta veterinarian, whose inventive hummus options and affordable prices are a local delight.
When the sun begins to set, Doña Eva’s food truck in front of the hospital opens for business six to seven days a week, from about 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. (also one of San Pancho’s only late-night dining options). In my 20-plus years in hospitality, I have never seen a one-woman show quite like Doña Eva. She had my heart as soon as I took my first bite of her pozole, overflowing from a bowl filled with piping hot pork stock, hominy, and crispy tostadas to dip in the rich crimson broth.
Most impressive is her menu, only available via oration, so vast and all-encompassing it will leave you in perpetual awe of how many various items she dishes out nightly to local workers and residents. From hamburgers, hotdogs and fries to tacos dorados, quesadillas and sopes, any San Pancho visit is incomplete without sitting under Doña Eva’s streetside tent.
Now that you’ve hiked, surfed, or maybe just window shopped around town, it’s time for a little R&R in the expert hands of Angélica Calderón at Angelical Spa. I like to come on an empty stomach, and sink into the hot stone massage for 60 or 90 minutes of pure bliss. As you float out the doors, take a short walk to the cheery pink breakfast outpost The Dough Joe, co-owned by hobby Muay Thai fighter Alicia Cronshey and her partner. I recommend you split “The Sumo” with a friend: two house made buttery biscuits and gravy, two eggs, hash browns, and a side of your choice. Ask for some salsa macha, my favorite spicy Mexican condiment, a chili oil with peanuts and mixed seeds. Expect to be very full, but if you can save a little space for just one doughnut, made fresh daily, you’ll be a true breakfast champion ready to conquer your last day in San Pancho.
Because in my mom’s Burmese culture, our most familiar greeting is Have you eaten rice?, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking and talking about my next meal while I’m still eating. A light lunch is certainly in order for Day Three, and the “medicine food” (as it’s known here) at Yasmina’s Itzalanyasayan is perfect for a healthy meal and people watching. A central hub for conversation, pop-up performances in the street, and other surprise happenings, Yasmina’s unique menu has everything from eel and plantain quesadillas to a shrimp salad with edamame and seaweed that puts all other salads to shame. A single mother of six, Yasmina’s teenage children and their friends encouraged her to open her own business after often marveling at her unusually delicious creations. “Itzalanyasayan is made up of the first syllable of each of my children’s names in the order of their birth,” says Vázquez. “This restaurant has been a healing journey for us all.”
Saving the best for last: La Chalupa is San Pancho’s first and longest running restaurant, opened in 1966 and continuously operating in the same location ever since. Guadalupe “La Chalupa” Gil Flores, born in 1930 in San Pancho, established her restaurant before the tourism boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when infrastructure and roads were built and foreigners started to buy up land. In the early days, local workers and families came to eat heaping portions with accessible pricing, to buy La Chalupa’s pigs from Flores’ pig farm (previously a second business operating out of the back of her property), and to enjoy the chicharron, mole, and pozole she made from them.
“The only time I leave is when I’m forced to,” says 91-year-old La Chalupa. Open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Gil Flores does all the restaurant administration, including answering non-stop calls from clients and vendors, buying and selling, and closing out checks from behind her grand desk at the restaurant entrance. The comida del dia (daily specials), seafood, and chicken specials are among her most popular dishes. A survey of locals also reveals the whole fried catch of the day with rice, beans and salad, the caldo de pescado, and pozole are worthy of many return visits. “I am the key to this house,” says La Chalupa with a smile. “Every time you come here, you will be welcomed.”
Know Before You Go
The easiest way to reach San Pancho is by flying into Puerto Vallarta Airport (PVR). If you stay in a hotel, they can usually arrange your transportation. Alternatively, airport taxis are readily available. It will take about 40 minutes to get to San Pancho, where you can stay in accommodations ranging from local, family-owned rentals to world class luxury suites for relatively affordable rates.
You can walk almost anywhere in San Pancho. The other common transportation options to get around are bicycles and golf carts. Taxis do gather near the park square, but they are mostly used by locals and tourists to get out of town, or to visit one of the many nearby pueblos, from Sayulita and Punta de Mita to Lo de Marcos.
The WiFi in San Pancho is bad, so plan to unplug completely for most or all of your stay here.
Not all accommodations have air conditioning, and some don’t allow children to stay. Be sure to ask about any specific needs or desires you have in advance, and remember to respect the local environment and economy by throwing away your trash, being patient and humble about any missing “creature comforts”, and tip well (I typically leave 20% or more, just as I would in the US).
Cash is king—due to the poor WiFi, most places only accept cash, but there are many ATMs that dispense pesos, with some open 24/7.
Special thanks to César Iván Cruz García and Valentina Briñez for translation and other support for making this guide possible.