Mexico: Pancho power

It's hard not to fall for the sleepy charms of San Pancho, a tiny Pacific coast surf town on Mexico's Riviera Nayarit

Published 28 Mar 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:01 BST
Sarah Barell

San Pancho.

Photograph by Sarah Barrell

Ticiano doesn't surf. He doesn't drink either — at least not today. "I'm cleansing my liver," he smiles serenely, the mescal-fuelled shouts from nearby beach shacks just about out of earshot. His weathered face suggests fiesta fatigue, but it could also be due to sun exposure.

"I like to camp," he says, indicating a rudimentary tented structure, strung between jungle scrub at the back of the beach. Doesn't he get moved on, I ask? "Nah, not here, maybe in Sayulita I would," he says, referring to the fast-gentrifying surf town along the bay. "Here they don't mind. That's why I like it. I can watch the waves, swim with the whales…"

Ticiano may not surf, but like many who come to San Pancho (proper name: San Francisco), he has fallen for the Mexican wave lifestyle. This tiny pueblo has a big pull — and it's not just the undertow. A subsistence fishing village an hour from the bright lights of Puerto Vallarta, San Pancho was put on the map in the 1970s when the then president, Luis Echeverria, chose the spot to build his family's holiday villa.

Cobbled streets, schools, a fishing museum, a fruit processing factory and a modern hospital were quickly constructed — all part of the presidential vision to turn his new domain into a 'university of the Third World'. But by the end of the '70s, and the end of Echeveria's term, the dream dried up. San Pancho returned to its sleepy state — and the long-hairs arrived. Today, board and kite surfers brave the legendarily fierce undertow, and a slew of inked skateboarders ride the town's one un-cobbled road. But for all its freewheeling vibes, the world is closing in on San Pancho.

I meet Ticiano while hunting for the "secret" beach, apparently accessible on foot from the town's main stretch of sand. A sweaty hill climb and an attempt at coasteering have all led to dead ends, and my new companion confirms my suspicions. "Last week, the gates went up," he says, pointing to some fenced-off villas blocking the headland. The guard manning the entrance looks largely focused on feeding a local cat with shrimp heads — but it's manned nonetheless. "It's illegal to gate the beach but…" he shrugs.

With expedition one a failure I return to town, and at the Entreamigos centre visit what has to be the coolest classroom in the Americas. Set in the refrigerated storeroom of a former dairy processing plant — and abandoned since Echeverria's time — the cooling system is defunct, but the chrome, airlock door remains. And beyond it: row upon row of sunlit classrooms. The space was revamped 11 years ago — a donation-funded project by a visiting American woman, and this community centre is now the powerful, cultural heart of San Pancho.

"Most people in San Pancho get married young. They can't read, so can't help their kids progress in school. We offer a library, homework classes, cookery and design tech' lessons, even yoga, plus access to computers that schools don't have," says Glenda, one of the staff members who has benefitted from the centre's impressive university scholarship programme.

"It's a shame you can't stay," says Glenda, indicating the cafe, courtyard and adjacent performance space. The kids' circus is here next week." This is no half-hearted song and dance effort, but a trained team of juvenile acrobats led by none other than Cirque du Soleil's co-founder, Gilles Ste-Croix. Another convert to the San Pancho way of life, Gilles bought a house here in 2011, starting the Circo de los Ninos the same year. The annual showcase attracts people from across North America.

But for all the buzzy international attention, San Pancho remains a place people come to just be. Back on the beach later, as the sun makes its daily blushing descent into the ocean, I meet a traveller from California. On learning I'm from the UK, I get my second shrug of the day. "I dunno," he sighs, "I've never wanted to go to Europe. I don't give a shit about culture. I just wanna hang out, chase some good waves and eat some fish tacos, man."

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