If you haven't yet heard of Riviera Nayarit, a 200-mile stretch of Pacific Coastline in Mexico, you will soon. The destination—chockfull of authentic beach towns, all-inclusive resorts, and colonial history—is still relatively off the well-traveled circuit in Mexico, but the federal government is pumping millions into new development to further enhance visitors' dream vacations. We outlined a starter kit to this strip of paradise—from Sayulita to San Blas—that's best explored now before the crowds take over.
Sayulita is perhaps the most popular beach village along the coast, and yet it's considerably undiscovered. Travelers who prefer low key over bustling will appreciate Sayulita's low-rise buildings, bohemian flair, and retro-Mexican vibe. Locals and tourists alike wander barefoot, street vendors line the streets and beaches with handcrafted souvenirs and fresh fruit, and most restaurants are alfresco. It's not unlikely to see travelers getting around via golf cart in the tiny town. Here, the surf scene is burgeoning (Sayulita is one of the few places in the region with great waves), so surf lessons and paddle boarding have become popular. And whether you're looking for a great fish taco (we recommend the nameless taco stand just past the OXXO shop) or beachside ceviche (the ever-popular Captain Cook restaurant sets up tables directly on the sand), great eats abound.
Where to Stay: The terrific, 24-room Playa Escondida is no more than 150 feet from the crashing waves on a secluded beach. Nestled on a cliff, all villas boast patios, Mexican textiles, and four-post beds. The infinity pool is great for couples and kids alike (with its calming waterfall) and the staff is happy to be here. The resort is an adventurous twenty-minute walk to town through beaches, rocky coves, jungle, and dirt roads.
Internationally known as a luxury getaway, Punta Mita is a self-contained, former fishing village that caters to all types of travelers. There's history here (it's the site of the ancient Huichol Indians' annual spring festival) though getting pampered is the destination's dangling carrot thanks to the number of luxury resorts. Golfers will have much to get excited about with the two Jack Nicklaus golf courses (one of which has the unique 3B hole that's actually off shore on a natural island). There's a small strip of restaurants that make up the "downtown" area for those who get resort fever. Punta Mita is also a great launching point to Marietas Islands, a UNESCO natural protected reserve formed by volcanic activity.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of amenities at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita that ensure you'll never have to leave, including a spa, four restaurants, boutiques, and three pool areas: the main infinity pool, a "lazy river" for kids, and an adult pool hideaway with not one but two pools. 173 hacienda-style rooms beckon to honeymooning couples and families alike.
San Blas is a sleepy, quiet and friendly town that's retained almost all of its old-world charm from early Spanish colonization days. It's chockfull of ruins, palms, and a crocodile reserve at La Tovara National Park, where visitors can come face to face with crocodiles from their boat. Eighty percent of North America's migratory birds are here if you're an enthusiastic bird watcher. Many locals and visitors confess they would like to have their ashes spread here, which, yes, is a little weird and morbid but it stands as a testament to this town that lures travelers for its peaceful, lazy-day personality, abundance of nature, and the time warp to colonial Mexico. Make sure to spend a day at Borrego Beach, known for its long, low-rolling waves. San Blas is the perfect launching point to Mexcaltitan, the birthplace of Aztec civilization.
Where to Stay: The intimate, 42-room Hotel Garza Canela is reflective of the town's colonial flair. Expect a courtyard pool, gardens, and swaying palms. The real highlight is Delfin restaurant helmed by chef Betty Vasquez who worked under Juan Mari Arzak of Michelin-starred Arzak in Spain.
For those who like all things all-inclusive, Nuevo Vallarta is teeming with all-inclusive resorts right on Banderas Bay, the largest natural bay in Mexico. Not only are tourists drawn here, hawksbills, leatherback turtles, and humpback whales hit up the shores every year, as well. If there's any place that's more "touristy" in Riviera Nayarita, it's Nuevo Vallarta, which is home to wild bars like Señor Frogs and even—gasp—a Starbucks, the only one in the region.
Where to Stay: Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit is the only all-inclusive resort on the Pacific Coast to be awarded Five Diamonds by AAA. Right on the beach, Grand Velas offers 267 suites (with unlimited booze, of course) that start at a minimum 1,000-square feet, a sensational spa with 20 treatment rooms, and five gourmet restaurants, from French to traditional Mexican.
Though technically not part of Riviera Nayarit, Puerto Vallarta is the gateway to the region. Travelers will fly into Puerto Vallarta and spend a night or two. Explore downtown Puerto Vallarta, which has preserved its history and architecture well (from centuries-old buildings to cobblestone streets) and includes churches, statues, and a main plaza.
Stay: Right in the heart of downtown, the 10-room Hacienda San Angel is a stunner as soon as you enter the doors and into the lush courtyard. Most rooms contain actual 18th-century paintings and antiques, and views of the city are unforgettable.
Jimmy Im is a freelance travel writer based in LA. He's hosted programs on the Travel Channel and LOGO, and makes regular appearances on morning news shows as a "travel expert." Follow him on Twitter: @dieselmad.
Photo credits: Playa Escondida courtesy of Playa Escondida; Punta Mita courtesy of Four Seasons Punta Mita; San Blas via Dreamstime.com; Humpback Whales in Nuevo Vallarta via Dreamstime.com; Church in Puerto Vallarta via Dreamstime.com