Riviera Nayarit: a road trip along the Mexican west coast


The gentle itch of the sun before sunset, the smell of salty water and paraffin on the board prepared for the powerful waves that bombard the Riviera Nayarit coastline. On the golden sand appears the aroma of fish shaken in a palapa between palm trees that sway in the wind. And on the asphalt, a route, the 200, which runs parallel to this wild coast of Mexico.

Riviera Nayarit: barge route through La Tovara, a jungle of mangroves and channels in San Blas with great biodiversity. Photo: J. M. Mansilla
Riviera Nayarit: barge route through La Tovara, a jungle of mangroves and channels in San Blas with great biodiversity. Photo: J. M. Mansilla

This is where you will find fishing villages and even a very magic one among 307 kilometers (190 miles) of virgin beaches, mangroves and jungles that spread from the interior mountain range to the Pacific like that spirit of freedom and good vibes that never ends. We're talking about one of those once-in-a-lifetime beach road trips, and it doesn't have to be in California. So let's go to Riviera Nayarit.

Highway 200

In the state of Nayarit, between Sinaloa and Jalisco, the tourist brand Riviera Nayarit was created a little over ten years ago to compete with the all-inclusive giants, with strongholds such as Punta Mita and Nuevo Vallarta. Today, however, the green has been replaced by the wave and the search is on for the Huichol (pre-Hispanic) essence, the jaguar sanctuary, and the boho-chic style. The treasure of the Mexican Pacific, as the area is known, received 2,683,000 tourists in 2018 at an average temperature of 25 degrees C (77F).

Nuevo Vallarta, next to Puerto Vallarta, is the main gateway to Tepic, the state capital. Federal Highway 200 runs along Banderas Bay to Punta de Mita, where tradition coexists with luxury hotels.

Unspoiled islands, surf beaches and Huichol culture in the hottest destination

From the El Anclote pier, a three-hour boat ride will take visitors to explore the Islas Marietas National Park. Underwater volcanoes made up this group of 19 small islands where humpback whales are seen and where the blue-footed booby bird nests in this Biosphere Reserve. Its transparent waters and coral reefs are ideal for diving, and heavenly spots like Playa Escondida are still considered a holiday paradise because only 15 people can enter at a time and 116 a day can swim through the Isla Redonda tunnel.

Magic and surfing

Between the green of the jungle hills and the blue of the Pacific, the road returns. In half an hour, it reveals another treasure: Sayulita. This small town, decorated as a Magic Town and as an icon of the Mexican surfing culture, welcomes the traveler with its cobblestone streets, its colorful facades, and palm roofs, in addition to that spirit of peace and love of the sixties. Surfers from all over North America congregate on its beach, ready to ride its tubular waves, and around its plaza, bars, galleries, shops, and cafes with that characteristic chic aesthetic.

Taste the huge variety of mezcals, tequilas, and raicillas at Sayulita Wine Shop; discover Huichol crafts at Zapotec; try coffee at Chocobanana or tuna at Don Pedro's, right on the beach. Right next door is San Francisco, quieter, more cultural, and better known as San Pancho. Stroll along its huge, surfaced beach or along its main avenue, among restaurants like Las Palmas and in art galleries. Stay at the cozy Cielo Rojo Hotel and discover the community spirit of Entre Amigos, where educational workshops and recycling activities take place.

Crocodiles in San Blas

The journey along this road of smooth curves and tree tunnels continues through enclaves such as Lo de Marcos or El Rincón de Guayabitos and with strategic stops at palapas (beach bars) and stalls to try coconut, pineapple or yaka.

On the way to San Blas on Highway 16 and without losing sight of the Pacific, stop at the bay of Matanchén to explore the depths of the mangroves of La Tovara. Don Chencho guides in his barge through this mangrove jungle and the Camalota lagoon, where 199 species of birds live and where a crocodile always appears. It is rarer to see jaguars, although there are some. As mosquitoes.

San Blas is a traditional fishing village that was founded in the 18th century between the jungle of Cerro San Juan, the El Pozo estuary, and the San Cristobal River as the most important shipyard on the Pacific. From its colonial past, the Contaduría, the church of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, and the church of Fátima have been preserved.

Spectacular attractions to discover

Riviera Nayarit offers some of the most impressive natural scenery in the country. This Pacific coast destination has stood out in recent years thanks to its surprising tourist and gastronomic offer, which captivates even the most demanding traveler.

Punta Mita is currently one of the enclaves, with high-end hotels, that attract more luxury tourism, but Nayarit is much more than that. This destination has even managed to stop living in the shadow of Puerto Vallarta in order to position itself as one of the most important sites for tourism in Mexico.

The Riviera Nayarit has already reopened to tourism after having obtained the Secure Travel Seal granted by the World Travel Council (WTTC), and you can get to know it in slow motion style so as to take your time and enjoy its landscapes while traveling without rushing; this way you will avoid large concentrations of people.

Mexcaltitán Island

Its fame is largely due to the idea that this site is the mythical Aztlan, the place where the Mexicas left to later settle in Tenochtitlan. But beyond this enigmatic mystery, which has not yet been solved, a boat that will sail the waters of the Laguna Grande de Mexcaltitán will take you, in a journey of only 15 minutes, to discover one of the best-kept treasures of Riviera Nayarit. The entire island can be explored on foot in one day, but the spectacular beauty of this small site has earned it the nickname "The Mexican Venice".

San Francisco

Affectionately called San Pancho, it is considered the cultural capital of the area. By itself the charming fishing village will make you experience the tranquility you are looking for, while contemplating the spectacular sunsets or challenging the Pacific waves on board a surfboard San Pancho offers the possibility of visiting two other destinations that have gained fame in Riviera Nayarit very close by Sayulita and Punta Mita. Two sites are completely opposite to each other.

While the first is a charming bohemian town that invites you to walk its streets of Huichol art; the second is a microsite, which houses some of the most exclusive high-end hotel properties in Mexico.

Riviera Nayarit has more to offer to visitors, who can also take advantage of their stay to visit the unforgettable Port of San Blas, Boca de Chila, or Lo de Marcos, a picturesque town with colorful facades.