This is our home-office view of the interior and view of the ocean at the north end of town. Photo: Craig Okerstrom-Lang

A dispatch from lovely Mexico, where officials were slow to react to COVID-19

While cases were adding up at BMC and shelves were being emptied at our local stores, Sayulita had dances on the plaza, populated beaches with margaritas flowing and vacationing tourists doing what they do unimpeded. It had been very difficult to reconcile these two worlds.

Sayulita, Mexico — My wife, Annie, and I with our two chihuahuas (Olive and Bella) took a long-planned working vacation to Sayulita, Mexico, and have been here since Feb. 22.

Our three boys visited the first two weeks along with my mom from Sonoma County, California. This is a beautiful, small surfing town about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta.

We rented Casa Mariluna, half a mile north of the town center, from a friend we’ve previously rented from in California. She just happens to have a cottage in Sheffield, too! The casa overlooks the Pacific with a view of the south end of the bay.

Many homes have open-air living with the kitchen, dining and living area under a roof and only the bedrooms enclosed with four walls and ACs.

This is our home-office view of the interior and view of the ocean at the north end of town. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang
The north end of our beach with the town center in the background. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

Sayulita has an official population of 2,300 but it feels twice that size with all of the visitors and families from the U.S. and Canada — a few Europeans, too. The downtown streets have colorful handmade fabric banners called “Ojos de Dios,” or “Eyes of God,” which thickly fill the sky and add to the festive atmosphere.

Locally owned shops and restaurants and a vibrant beach scene with restaurants and bars, umbrella and chaise rentals, surfing and hiking make this an attractive home for many retired ex-pats and Canadians — both part and full-time. Smaller, less expensive towns dot the shoreline as you go further north.

The peso exchange was 17 per U.S. dollar when we arrived a month ago and today it is 23.50. The coronavirus has weakened the peso.

Sayulita Main Street. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

Golf carts and walking are the main mode of transportation for visitors and can be parked wherever there isn’t a yellow curb (possible parking solution for Great Barrington!). The streets are mostly cobblestone, in poor condition, so all vehicles are forced to drive slowly. There are no traffic lights but many “topos” (speed bumps), which force vehicles to slow down. You see people of all ages driving golf carts, including young teenagers.

Annie calling friends from our golf cart. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

The majority of dining is al fresco and most restaurants have tables set up along the sidewalks. The street entertainment arrives nightly making the rounds, from local music to break dancers and performers with fire. One evening a group playing near our favorite gelato stop was playing bossa nova music that made my wife swoon. Many street vendors go table to table, offering everything from Mexican blankets and silver jewelry to beaded souvenirs and piles of a coconut dessert scooped by fingers into a sandwich bag. It is an intoxicating, fun-filled atmosphere.

The dining along the beach in open-air restaurants under giant palapas with tables and umbrellas out in the sand is lovely — a fresh ceviche and grilled red snapper on many menus. One of the restaurants becomes a popular dance club at night with music starting at 10 p.m. and going until who knows when. Our three sons returned home at 3 a.m. the night before they left us and the dancing hadn’t stopped.

Then there are the food trucks and street food. Tacos from solitary stands are about 30 pesos. Our favorite food truck, the pink VW, is at the north end of Main Street. It is permanently parked along the curb. Notice how the van is leveled and secured on the sloping street. Late in the day, the 35 pesos gordita — a delicious combination of tortillas with pork, sweet onion, avocado cream, crumbled cheese and cilantro — is served with candles and soft jazz wafting from the back of the pink van. Very sweet.

We also have a favorite spot to pick up a whole grilled chicken with coleslaw, rice, hot sauce and homemade tortillas for 150 pesos.

Joyleta’s Chicken right in front of her house on a side alley off Main Street. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang
The pink VW van street cart “Why Not” (one of our favorites). Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

In the restaurants, a cold cerveza is 5-6 pesos but a glass of wine ranges from 120 to 240 pesos, so we switched to margaritas and cervezas quickly! We also got very good at making them at home for our ritual of “sundowners,” carrying our beach chairs down the 50 feet to the beach for sunsets.

Craig’s favorite T-shirt and cerveza. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

The public art is beautiful! There are many small and large murals painted on the ubiquitous stucco walls with subjects ranging from nature to politics to cultural icons. So much talent and pride in these temporary works of art. Murals are around every corner in Puerto Vallarta and every small town, our appreciation of them growing more the longer we were here. We saw this blank-blue wall transformed with about eight different murals that appear to have been selected by an arts committee to install. The photo taken of the woman flanked by leopards was painted during our visit and is not quite finished. That is the artist with Annie.

Murals being painted on the middle school’s wall while we are visiting. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang
A woman flanked by leopards was painted during our visit and is not quite finished. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

This is also an area for whale migration, especially humpback whales. We took an all-day boat tour and saw many whales breaching out of the water.

Humpback whale mural. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

The virus

Though in the news, the coronavirus had not yet become a thing in the U.S. when we departed on Feb. 22 for Mexico. Since then, life as we know it has changed for everyone. While Mexico was taking a hands-off “ignorance is bliss” position, we were hearing the U.S. and our local situation in the Berkshires getting graver and more frightening.

While cases were adding up at BMC and shelves were being emptied at our local stores, Sayulita had dances on the plaza, populated beaches with margaritas flowing and vacationing tourists doing what they do unimpeded. It had been very difficult to reconcile these two worlds.

We kept looking for COVID-19 news in Mexico in the New York Times and the Washington Post but none was forthcoming — only that a two-day concert of 14,000 people was allowed to take place in Mexico City and that President Lopez Obrador was still big on walking through crowds and kissing babies.

Now in our 60s, should we stay here in relative safety or run the gauntlet of international travel to return home to a COVID-19 hotbed and self-isolation?

Our first concern was our three sons, whom we’ve conferenced with regularly. Two are safe and working from home in Boston while our youngest, an actor in New York, lost his restaurant job and was hunkered down with his girlfriend in his Washington Heights apartment. All of them have been social distancing to the point of paranoia while going out for groceries, walks and one-on-one basketball between brothers. We are so proud of them all.

Alas, the reality of COVID-19 arrived in Mexico just this week. Health officials here have confirmed 203 cases and a second death. Suddenly the streets of Sayulita are quieter, the restaurants are thinning, bartenders are wearing masks, and Americans and Canadians are headed for the border and flights home.

Coming home

Sunset at beach below our house. Photo courtesy Craig and Annie Okerstrom-Lang

At the news of New York shutting down, we were able to get our son Skylar and his girlfriend, Jasmine, out of Washington Heights and to our home in Great Barrington. They are continuing their isolation, which is easy for lovebirds. And yesterday, when the state department said U.S. citizens must return home as soon as possible or risk staying abroad indefinitely, we called American Airlines and changed our flight for the third time. We will return to the Shire this Monday, March 23. Back to reality — We know we’ll be coming home to a very quiet and changed Berkshires and Great Barrington, and will be vigilant in how we handle ourselves, keeping our distance from everyone including, Karen, our longtime office manager, and even from our sons.

Self-quarantine for two weeks

We look forward to being back in our own bed and we are fortunate that we can still do plenty of work from home, though site visits to my landscape projects aren’t possible. I can’t wait to get working in our own garden and the innumerable spring chores.

The memories of palms swaying, blue waters beckoning, and 5-peso cervezas will sustain us — and the understanding we are protecting our community — and that, in two weeks, we can hug our sons again.

We hope to visit here again, to this beautiful Nayarit peninsula of Mexico.