Nestled between the ocean and Sierra Madre mountains, sits the village of Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Here, in this small fishing town—within the country’s Riviera Nayarit region—is where Summer Poulsen decided to open a dedicated women’s guesthouse and community. In February 2020, My Sister’s House opened to sold-out reservations, only to close one month later due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone had heard of COVID-19 by that point. We saw the virus spread from Europe to New York and across the United States. We knew it was coming, which just put the fear of God into everyone,” Poulsen explains to me over the phone. “We started to see everyone canceling and leaving Sayulita, and then our town completely shut down until mid-June.”
When coronavirus reached Mexico, popular backpacker destinations like Sayulita took it upon themselves to self-isolate. In April 2020, a group called Gavilanes Vigilantes (or Vigilant Hawks) set up security checkpoints at entrances into town.
“Nobody was allowed in or out of Sayulita,” recalls Poulsen. “If we wanted to leave, you had to get permission from the local vigilantes and no one could be in the car with you.”
In addition to the security checkpoints, the Gavilanes Vigilantes took to social media to dissuade travelers from visiting their beachfront community. “If you are planning vacations, please don’t come to Sayulita,” said one video posted by the volunteer group on Twitter.
Between COVID and the restrictions surrounding Sayulita, My Sister’s House was forced to temporarily close. Yet, despite the overwhelming obstacles standing in her way, abandoning the project was never an option for Poulsen.
“I never thought about dismantling My Sister’s House,” says Poulsen, who is the Founder and Creative Director of the guesthouse. “One of my favorite things to do is create space. I could envision [My Sister’s House] and creating something that could be turned into a business. If I was going to open a hostel, the idea of accommodating both men and women is something that’s done often. I just thought that if I was traveling, I would enjoy a women-only space.”
Ultimately, it is Sayulita’s reputation as a party town that inspired the name My Sister’s House. Poulsen loved the idea of female travelers being able to say they were staying at “My Sister’s House” when confronted with a persistent suitor at a bar. The idea being the name would serve as a deterrent and help keep women safe.
Poulsen loved the idea of female travelers being able to say they were staying at “My Sister’s House” when confronted with a persistent suitor at a bar.
“You get two different types of people who visit Sayulita,” Poulsen explained to me. “Either the ones that want to party or the ones that want to get grounded, eat healthy, take yoga classes, and enjoy nature.”
Found just an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita once was an under-the-radar destination that contrasted greatly from other Mexican hotspots and their all-inclusive resorts. Today, the oceanfront community is considered one of the country’s top tourist destinations, earning it the nickname of “Pueblo Magico” (or Magic Town) by the country’s tourism board.
For Poulsen, who had grown up in Sayulita after moving there with her family in the 1980s, she witnessed the transformation of the town firsthand. From the strain on the community’s resources and infrastructure to the influx of party-seeking tourists, Poulsen spotted a growing need for a women’s community and accommodation. Years prior, the town’s cultural center had closed, leaving a gap that needed to be filled. Poulsen, who also owns a boutique shop called Buddha Sayulita, saw an opportunity to uplift both local and foreign women alike.
In short, Poulsen’s vision for My Sister’s House was to combine a luxury level space with an affordable price point, while also fostering a women’s community that offers creative workshops and activities.
The need for such women-only spaces is especially important in a country like Mexico, where a machismo culture can lead to gender-based violence. “Every year in Mexico, an estimated 30,000 women disappear, are raped, or are killed,” says Nadia Hammouda, who is the manager of My Sister’s House. “We needed to provide a safe and quiet place for women so they can hear their thoughts, manage their doubts, share their fears, and connect with others.”
Hammouda, who is originally from Quebec, manages the day-to-day of the guesthouse while simultaneously running her initiative, Vagabonds, which connects travelers to local businesses. In addition to the needs of My Sister’s House, Hammouda plans activities for the women such as cultural hikes with profits supporting local indigenous communities.
“When you have a hostel, you need to be married to the business or have someone incredible to be there and run it for you. My manager, Nadia, is that for me,” says Poulsen. “She’s always there, she loves the girls, she’s always coming up with creative ideas.”
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 presented to My Sister’s House, the guesthouse is officially open and catering to both short and long-term travelers. With offerings that range from workshops to yoga classes to movie nights, Poulsen’s vision for a dedicated women’s space in Sayulita seems to be coming to life.
“In the end, we need to be able to tap that divine feminine energy that connects our souls and brains. Men are very present in this community, but women are more discreet,” adds Hammouda. “It is about time this town offers a space for women to be heard.”