On a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, just a short drive from bright lights of Puerto Vallarta, Neil McQuillian discovers the unexpected…

There! I whipped my head round to get a better look. Yes – roger that – no doubt about it. That rare combination of bright, clashing colours and drab browns: remarkable. Quite a sighting. I never thought I’d encounter one like her in these parts.

For this, surely, was absolutely the wrong sort of habitat. I was just 40km – a half-hour drive – north of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state’s second-biggest city, a sizzling party town throbbing with North American tourists. I’d have expected my lesser-spotted to shun this neck of the woods.

But no – I’d seen a hippy all right. With the grey slab of a highway gas station forecourt for a backdrop, her beach camo tan and golden dreadlocks was unmistakable. And she’d been thumbing for a ride too: textbook hippy behaviour.

This was only my first full day in Mexico. I’d not yet experienced central Puerto Vallarta for myself, though I’d flown into its airport on one of Thomson’s newly launched direct flights from the UK (the only services here from Europe that don’t require a change). I’d then immediately scarpered north up the coast – having read about the town’s spring-break steam-letting reputation, I didn’t fancy it much. I was after tranquility.

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

“hubs of hippiedom and bastions of bodaciousness”

Yet Guillermo, my guide, assured me that, not only were the towns we’d be visiting that day chilled: they were hubs of hippiedom, bastions of bodaciousness. I’d been on the edge of my passenger seat ever since – and then there she was, right on cue, a vision in tie-dye.

Even without the proximity of Vallarta (as it’s known), there’s another reason I was dubious about this hippy idea. This stretch of coastline, just over the state border from Jalisco, has been rebranded in recent years. No longer is it the easily overlooked southern corner of Nayarit state, a ragtag of little towns overshadowed by Vallarta. No – these days it is Riviera Nayarit. Mexico’s tourism bigwigs are turning the full force of their will towards it, with the resorts already in place rather more power-shower than flower-power. And beware: the last time the tourist kingmakers got so exercised, Cancún was their target. We know what happened there.

Yet once we’d turned off the highway, the approach road to Sayulita – the best-known of Nayarit’s boho beach towns – certainly didn’t feel like it was gearing up for a touristic boom. Billowing trees crowded in as we drove along. Wire fences were strung between rudely carved posts. Little huts with thinning palapa roofs sat by battered old cars, parked at wonky angles on uneven ground. So far, so hippy.

But while Sayulita itself was a jumble, it was a just-so jumble. The functionally surfaced approach road gave way to tourist-pleasing cobbles. Every low-rise concrete building seemed to be painted a different colour. The central plaza was brisk with bunting and the trees here did as they were told, sprouting up out of little rectangular cut-outs in the sidewalk. It was quaint rather than kooky – and not a hippy in sight.

Surfing in Sayulita, Nayarit

“What could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?”

Guillermo, though, adamant about the town’s alternative credentials, directed me towards the local “galleries” lurking in the shadows of those neatly managed trees. They were shops. Artsy shops, certainly, but shops nonetheless.

I liked them. In one, staffed by a hip local, I bought a boho-chic throw, knowingly striped in shocking pink and neon yellow. Another specialized in the art of the Huichols, a shamanistic and animistic people local to this region. Their art is eye-popping – which is quite how it should be, given that ritual use of peyote (a hallucinogenic cactus) is its inspiration. I solemnly purchased some Huichol art greetings cards to mark my brush with this weighty, mystical culture. (Though what greeting I hope to convey by sending someone an image of two wolf-people playing banjos, or one of a woman with snakes for arms and hair like electrified golden seaweed, firing out multicoloured babies from between her splayed legs, I do not know. I may need peyote to find out.)

So at this juncture, Sayulita seemed to be more about window-shopping than tree-hugging. But peyote – now that was interesting. Guillermo had already revealed that the first wave of hippies arrived at this coastline in the 1960s. So I pondered (paraphrasing Mrs Merton), what could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?

Well, the surf, actually. Or so Guillermo assured me. That pioneering bunch were Sayulita dreamin’. And their followers still are – the conditions here are some of the finest in Mexico. The beach itself was gorgeous too. Yet, as in town, there was a wash of commercialism to it all: a surf board rental shack here, sun loungers for hire there, beach hawkers selling everything from shrimp skewers to woven baskets.

San Pancho, Nayarit

“San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people”

That’s not to say I didn’t like Sayulita. I liked it a lot. I’d happily spend a holiday there. But I’d sort of pictured it more like The Beach. It seemed to me that its legendary hippy identity had been commodified somewhat. So I started wondering – had my sighting been running away?

As it turns out, she might well have been – but probably only ten minutes north along the road. San Francisco, or San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people. Its beach had precisely the same sweep, the same marshy area to one side, the same sun, the same sea. Yet that was about it. An elemental place. Huge grey and white herons floated languidly around. Maybe they had at Sayulita too. I just hadn’t noticed. My mind started moving with them.

I noticed that a few dome tents sat towards the back of the beach. I sat at one of the few beachside restaurants and ate superb, smoky aguachile, watching a long-haired guy who was sitting on a pile of backpacks plonked in the middle of the sand. I waited to see if he would move. He didn’t. He was on to something good.