Mexico’s Next Destination: Riviera Nayarit

071030_villaamor_sayulitaF.jpgIf you thought you had to travel all the way to South America to find a beachside getaway where locals outnumber tourists, think again: The beach towns of Riviera Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta, may just be your ideal escape. This is where travelers come looking for the Mexico they remember from the 1960s, before mega-resorts crowded the landscape of most coastlines. (But book your trip soon, as more than 30 major hotel projects are now in the works.)

The Nayarit state begins just a few miles north of Puerto Vallarta. It is one of Mexico’s least populated states with fewer than 1 million permanent residents (compared to the 6.7 million residents of Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located). Just 10 miles into Nayarit, in the town of Bucerias, the landscape begins to change: all-inclusive resorts thin out, and small boutique hotels start cropping up. Cruise ships are replaced by fishing boats, and chain restaurants give way to beachfront taco shacks.

Sleepy beach towns dot the landscape, and each town has its own charm. Bucerias offers a relaxed, village experience with easy access to the nightlife and shopping of Puerto Vallarta. Further north (an approximate 35-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta) is Sayulita—a bohemian surf town that feels light-years away from Puerto Vallarta. Continue another few miles to reach San Francisco (also called San Pancho), where locals outnumber foreigners, and you feel a real sense of village life. Finally, for a taste of Mexico that’s even less influenced by tourism, continue up the coast for another two hours and you’ll reach the fishing village of San Blas, which is a world-renowned habitat for migratory birds.

Here, Fodor’s shares some of our favorite spots in Nayarit for a secluded beach getaway. For more selections, pick up Fodor’s Puerto Vallarta 2008, which covers the region in greater depth.

071030_yingyang_BuceriasF.JPGBucerias

Food is the focus in this tiny beachfront town. In the town plaza, you can dine off the street, or step inside one of the beachside seafood, tapas (Tapas del Mundo), and Mexican restaurants (Dugarel Plays). For excellent cheap eats, head to the square in the middle of town and check out the local vendors selling birria (spicy goat stew) tacos from a hand-driven cart, or shaved ice with homemade guava syrup from the back of a truck. If you’re in a celebratory mood, one of the area’s finest restaurants, the Mediterranean-accented Mark’s Bar & Grill, is a short drive away.

South of the square, you’ll find rows of street vendors hawking t-shirts and handicrafts. Other than that, there’s not much shopping. Come here if you want a local village vibe, and for proximity to the shopping and nightlife of Puerto Vallarta. Lodging options are limited, but Hotel Palmeras is a great, low-key bet, just a block from the beach, with rooms under $100 a night. For something more upscale, head north of town to Villa Bella (photo, top), a gorgeous hillside property overlooking the town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle.

Sayulita

If you want to watch surfers working the waves as you recline on a rented chaise lounge, Sayulita is the place to do it. Along with surfers, you’ll find toned twentysomethings and young families ruling the scene, eating at casual restaurants (Choco Banana and Si Hay Olitas) and hanging out at outdoor bars and ceviche joints that line the beachfront.

This town is slightly larger than neighboring villages, with more dining and lodging options, most of them budget oriented. Our favorite place to stay is the rustic-chic Villa Amor, a gorgeous property that climbs up a hillside with spectacular views and indoor-outdoor living spaces.

071030_Case_obelisco_F.jpgSan Francisco

If you’re looking for something a bit more remote than Sayulita, head a few miles further up the coastline to San Francisco (also called San Pancho), where the presence of Americans and international travelers feels more minimal.

There may be fewer restaurants (the best are La Ola Rica and Mar Plata) and bars (try La Casita de Gallo), but travelers gain a sense of solitude walking along desolate beaches. When you’re this far north of Puerto Vallarta, locals outnumber foreigners by at least two-to-one. It’s a great place to practice your Spanish, and to decompress from your busy life.

For a romantic getaway, try the intimate Casa Obelisco (photo, right), a B&B north of the village in a luxurious estate. For simpler lodgings in the village, check out Hotel Cielo Rojo, a recently renovated boutique hotel with spare but tasteful décor.

San Blas

Furthest away from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta, San Blas is a fishing town and agricultural center that’s home to approximately 12,000 people. Birding enthusiasts from around the world come here to spot some of the 300 migratory birds that spend their winters here. The area also offers ecotourism adventures like mangrove swamp boat rides, whale watching, surfing, and hiking in the jungle and along the beaches.

The most upscale hotel is Garza Canela, a compound near the beach that houses several two- and three-story buildings flanked by beautifully manicured gardens, a pool, and a small chapel. The property is operated by a family of dedicated bird-watchers, and also offers the best dining experience in town, at El Delphin.

If you want to stay in the center of the village, we recommend Hacienda Flamingos, a mansion-turned-hotel that looks like it was plucked from the set of a Frida Kahlo biopic. Just down the street, try local seafood at La Isla, including grilled shrimp, octopus, oysters, clams and red snapper. Afterwards, walk over to the main plaza, where vendors sell ice cream cones and villagers gather in the evenings to talk about the day’s events.

Erica Duecy