Travel insights from Here & Beyond Magazine

The Many Sides of Puerto Vallarta – Riviera Nayarit

Surfer, foodie, golfer, sun goddess, eco-warrior or adventurer, Puerto Vallarta caters to all our travel personalities.

Travel brings out multiple personalities in all of us. One minute we’re content to lie on the beach soaking up the sun, and the next we’re swinging through the jungle canopy, learning to surf or getting up close and personal with a whale. Soon we’re back poolside sipping an umbrella drink. Shopaholic, nature lover, sun worshiper, golf nut, culture bug, gourmet enthusiast– they’re all inside us. Meet Riviera Nayarit, an area comprised of the resort city of Puerto Vallarta and the seaside state of Nayarit. From luxurious resorts and spas, charming shops and world-class cuisine to championship golf, surfing, jungle adventures, mountain villages, tropical islands and whale watching, together they form the perfect destination to satisfy each of our many travel personalities.

pueblo hopping

Pueblo Hopping

“Oh, bring us back once more, the vanished days of yore.” Though Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote those words back in 1882 in the poem “The Bells of San Blas” they still ring true today. The seaside town of San Blas certainly has the feel of a bygone era, then again, the same can be said about many of the towns and villages up and down the 181-mile coast of Riviera Nayarit.

From the resort city of Puerto Vallarta, a short drive north reveals one of the jewels of Nayarit. In the town of Bucerías, colorful architecture, cobblestone streets, tall palms and white sand beaches rival for attention. Don’t leave without visiting the open-air market where local artists sell their colorful wares.

A few miles up the road, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle effortlessly combines an authentic fishing village with an ultramodern yacht marina. Plan your trip on a Sunday to visit La Cruz Market which lines the waterfront with local fishermen selling their daily catch. Fresh off-the-boat tuna, mahi-mahi, shrimp, lobsters, oysters– the variety is remarkable. There are also vendors selling arts and crafts and prepared meals for an excellent and inexpensive lunch.

Just across the Punta Mita peninsula lies Sayulita. Famous for its surf, the town is also home to some of the region’s best restaurants. As for its under-the-radar, low key vibe, Punta Mita resident Carl Emberson says San Francisco, nicknamed San Pancho, is his favorite. “None of them feel like tourist destinations. Each has its own character. If you like to destination hop, Nayarit is perfect.”

Reserve a day and head into the Sierra Madre to the historic town of San Sebastian del Oeste. This prosperous mining town was named a Pueblo Mágico in 2001 for its natural beauty, cultural richness, historical relevance and cuisine. Founded in 1605, the town retains all its charm, with cobblestone streets lined with stately haciendas, charming squares and moss-covered buildings. “My perfect day? Lunch at La Nebulosa where everything comes from their own gardens. Follow it with a cup of locally grown organic coffee at Quinta Mary. You can also get an excellent cup served to you by a local from their garages or on their terraces. It’s perfect and authentic,” says Sandra Muñoz Arias, marketing director, Puerto Vallarta Tourism.

Luxury & Links at Punta Mita

Jutting out in into the Pacific like some strange creature craning its neck, the tiny peninsula of Punta Mita is big on leisure. At its entrance, the town of Punta de Mita offers a down to earth variety of charming restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. Further out on the peninsula, extravagance spills right down into the sea with 5-star resorts, multimillion-dollar homes, private beach clubs, pristine beaches and unbeatable views. This is where the celebrities stay. It’s also home to two Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses. The most famous of which is the Pacifico course, home to the “Tail of the Whale,” the world’s only natural island golf green. Emberson calls it paradise. “I’ve lived in a dozen countries and nothing matches Punta Mita for natural beauty and luxury living. Plus, the Mexican hospitality is the best in the world.”

Get in on the Action

With the ocean, mountains and jungle surrounding you, the opportunities for adventure abound. From scuba diving, paddle boarding and kayaking to ziplining, all-terrain vehicles and 4x4s, it’s easy to get your adrenaline fix. Amstar, an in-destination full service company, has an excursion to cover them all. One of the most intense is their Extreme Adventure excursion which offers five hours of hair-raising thrills including cruising the jungle in your own all-terrain vehicle, indoor skydiving and a canopy course that includes Mexico’s longest, and fastest zipline.

Huichol Art

It is thought that the Huichol people migrated to the area sometime between the ninth and the 12th centuries. Also known as Wixarika, the Huichol have remained true to their roots and religious beliefs. Today they are known for their intricate and colorful bead and yarn art. Jewelry, bowls, masks, animal figures, wall art, each piece has a spiritual significance. It’s impossible to visit the Riviera Nayarit today without coming across these colorful pieces. Some of the best places to buy Huichol art are in open markets in towns and villages. In Puerto Vallarta, shops like Peyote People and Tierra Huichol have spectacular collections and in Sayulita, Galeria Tanana has an excellent variety of authentic handmade pieces.

islas marietas

Islas Marietas: The Mexican Galapagos

Lying just 5 miles off the coast at the entrance to Banderas Bay, the Marietas are home to an incredible wealth of wildlife. Named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005, the waters around the islands are home to over 115 species of fish, jellyfish, sharks, sting rays. In the winter, it is also the breeding ground for the humpback whale. On land you’ll find iguanas, lizards, land and sea turtles and even rattlesnakes. The islands are also a bird watching paradise and the breeding ground for more than 90 species including the comical blue-footed booby.

It’s an impressive array of fauna, but the star attraction here is the Playa del Amor, also known as Hidden Beach. Ironically, Love Beach is thought to be the result of Mexican military explosives testing that left massive craters on the islands. The bombing stopped in the 1960s thanks to the intervention of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and others. One of the bombs opened a subterranean beach so unique and beautiful that National Geographic named it one of the top 21 beaches in the world in 2017. Invisible from the outside, the only way to get in is by swimming through an archway and tunnel. It may not be easy to get to, but you’ll find it even harder to leave.

Whale Breaching and Turtle Breeding

Like a documentary come to life, Riviera Nayarit is filled with numerous opportunities for you to get your nature fix. The waters of Banderas Bay are home to hundreds of species of fish and a major breeding ground for the humpback whale.

Each year an average of 680 humpbacks migrate from northern California and British Columbia to Puerto Vallarta for mating and calving. The population peaks from December through January. The best way to see a whale is with an experienced guide. Amstar offers a Whale Photo Safari, a three-hour adventure in a small inflatable boat to get a portrait-quality shot.

Sandra Muñoz Arias has been living in Puerto Vallarta for seven years. One evening she was having a drink on the Malecón when she noticed something slowly working its way up the sand. “It was a mother sea turtle coming to dig her nest and lay her eggs, right in front of me. It’s an experience I’ll never forget,” she says.

From Playa de Los Muertos in Puerto Vallarta to Sayulita in the north and beyond, every summer thousands of turtles come to these beaches to lay their eggs. And 45 days later the babies hatch and begin their dramatic journey to the sea. Today, the Puerto Vallarta Sea Turtle Conservation Program collects the eggs and take them to hatcheries until they are ready to be released. Tourists can participate in one of the night or morning patrols, spotting where the nests are placed. Once they have hatched, at sunset, you can participate in the release process and watch the flotilla of tiny turtles scuttle down the beach and into the ocean.

Surf’s Up

Can’t catch a break? Nayarit is happy to oblige. Some of the best surfing in the world is found here. For many it begins at Punta Mita, where you’ll find year-round, consistently good surf and a wave that suits your level thanks to the dozen or more main breaks. Just around the bend, the cobbled streets and squares of Sayulita may have a laid-back vibe but the surf certainly isn’t. With over 19 breaks in and around the town, from beginner size waves at Playa de Los Muertos to some monster rolls on the outskirts, Sayulita has something for every level. Further up the coast San Blas is reserved for the more experienced surfer. It’s here that the Guinness Book of World Records registered the longest surfable wave in the world.

Eat Like a Local

Forget your preconceived notions of Mexican food. Riviera Nayarit didn’t become a world-class food destination by serving only tacos and burritos. The area produces coconuts, beans, corn, wheat and it’s also the largest producer of bananas, mangos and sugar cane in Mexico. The rich waters of the Pacific add every type of fish and seafood imaginable. Up and down the coast, young chefs are serving up a cuisine that never fails to surprise and delight.

In Puerto Vallarta, the recently opened Food Park is an eclectic selection of a dozen or so trucks and converted containers selling everything from fresh sushi and seafood to tacos, ceviche and even burgers, pizza, coffee and drinks. The food is great, there is usually live music, and always a friendly atmosphere.

Ask five people what the best food town in Riviera Nayarit is and you’ll get five different answers. For quiet, romantic beachfront dining you can’t beat Bucerías. Or maybe you can in Sayulita. Yes, it has the surf, the beach, the artists, the charming cobbled streets and plazas but it also has the food. Emberson swears by San Francisco (or San Pancho). “For a town of its size, you’ll be amazed at the quantity, quality and variety of its restaurants. And the location can’t be beat. It’s where I go for an authentic Mexican meal,” he says.

No matter what you choose, don’t leave Riviera Nayarit without trying its most famous dish, Huachinango Zaradeado, marinated red snapper grilled over coals. Fresh off the boat, grilled and served on the beach, there is nothing better. For a sweet treat try cañas asadas or grilled sugarcane. In many towns during the harvest or “safra,” (October – June) you will find vendors selling bags of the tender, peeled, cooked sugarcane.

So, indulge in all the sides of Riviera Nayarit. One day it may be paddleboard yoga and shopping, the next, whale watching and ziplining through the jungle. No matter who you wake up as, as the evening color transforms, when the sun sets fire-engine red, yellow and orange over the Pacific Ocean, it’s a sight so beautiful it’ll bring you to tears.

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