The Riviera Nayarit is home to the ever so popular beach towns, Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta. These are two places that have become inundated by foreign tourists and all-inclusive resorts, seemingly geared toward those travelers seeking luxury over an authentic travel experience.
As seekers of the road-less-traveled, we were determined to discover a more rounded destination for all types of travelers, including budget-minded backpackers.
In search of a genuine travel experience we cruised the Nayarit coast from San Blas to Punta Mita hoping to find that ideal, laid-back beach town where tourists don’t outnumber the locals.
As it turned out, it was quite easy to diverge from the posh resorts and experience the authentic flavor of Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit. Exploring a variety of Nayarit’s beach towns is what made our trip memorable, as each place has its own charm, offering a unique experience.
As a general rule, the farther north you travel along the Riviera Nayarit the less tourist oriented the place will be and San Blas is no exception. San Blas is the epitome of a Mexican beach town. You will find the occasional tourist and eclectic retiree, but locals far outnumber tourists. We absolutely loved this historic port town for its authentic charm and lively atmosphere. Filled with inexpensive unassuming hotels, secluded beaches, and an abundance of street food, San Blas is the perfect spot for budget-minded travelers.
Tacos, oysters and beer
Don’t leave town without trying the delicious tacos at Taqueria el Guinas, located on Calle Batallón de San Blas. If oysters are your idea of paradise, you will find seafood stands around town that offer them shucked upon order. Don’t leave town without trying a shrimp empanada- these are a delight and can be found at various family owned restaurants in San Blas and Aticama. Stop by San Blas Social Club, located right off the main square, to have a drink and meet other likeminded travelers passing through.
San Blas’ beaches and tropical treats
Head over to Borrego beach, a quick ten minute walk from the center and find a secluded spot along the 3 km stretch of beach. Matanchen Bay is located right outside the town center as you head south, which housed our favorite beaches in the San Blas area. You will have your choice of typical palapas serving fresh seafood at a very reasonable price. On your way out of town, be sure to stop in Aticama and visit one of the vendors on the side of the road for freshly baked banana bread and other tropical treats! Mosquitos can be bad at certain times of the year so don’t forget your insect repellent.
Discover the historical side of San Blas
San Blas has far more to offer than just great beaches. If you are one who enjoys visiting ruins and historical sites then you can’t miss Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rosario and the Spanish fort, La Contaduría. La Contaduría offers panoramic views of the surrounding area, while the remains of the stone cathedral take you back hundreds of years ago to San Blas’ early history. Be sure to bring insect repellent when you visit!
Chacala is truly a hidden treasure, a place to enjoy simple pleasures. We spent several days in this laid-back Nayarit beach town, enjoying the calm ambience and friendly disposition of its residents. Upon first impression, nothing stood out as being particularly special about Chacala. We quickly learned what was so special and grew to love it for more than just a quaint beach town.
Chacala’s people are very united and community-oriented. This is easily the most progressive town we’ve experienced in all of Mexico. Chacala retains it authentic charm, but welcomes progressive ideas about education, sustainability and economic development. Families with young children from the States and Canada flock here due to its holistic and well-rounded education program that places an emphasis on respect for nature, the importance of preservation, and environmental accountability.
Accommodations in Chacala
Stay in one of Chacala’s many resident-owned establishments and help promote local, sustainable economic development. Chacala was one of the first communities to participate in “Techos de México” (Mexican Roofs), which consists of building an additional room in the home of locals so they can be rented out to guests. A brilliant way to encourage positive economic growth where it really matters. Aside from this, there are plenty of boutique, beach-house style hotels and Airbnbs situated around town.
A secret beach, volcanic crater and ancient petroglyphs
Playa Chacala is the local beach just a few minutes walk from almost any accommodation in town. The beach is lined with palapas selling fresh seafood and other authentic dishes. For a true hidden gem of the area, hike (or hire a local fisherman to take you) to the pristine, undeveloped beach of Las Cuevas. Las Cuevas is undoubtedly Chacala’s best kept secret! Chances are you will have this beautiful beach all to yourself.
Hike to the volcanic crater located right outside of town for magnificent panoramic views of Chacala and the lush, tropical vegetation that surrounds the area. If you love ancient archeological sites, don’t miss the hike to petroglyphs at Alta Vista. These petroglyphs date back to 300 BC and remain an important part of the Huichol Indian culture.
Seafood & artisan beer
Chacala doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of dining. There are a couple of street food stands, a few typical restaurants scattered throughout town and the remaining are beachfront palapas. Although we tend to avoid restaurants that are seemingly geared toward tourists, because of the lack of options we ended up at one of the beachfront restaurants, Chico’s. Chico’s was recommended to us by a local and it certainly didn’t disappoint! We highly recommend trying the pescado zarandeado- a freshly caught, superbly seasoned whole fish that is grilled over charcoal.
Craft beers aren’t exactly Mexico’s claim to fame, so we were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent craft brewery in Chacala. If you are a fan of artisan beer then Onda Brewing can’t be missed!
San Pancho, aka, San Francisco is a picturesque Nayarit beach town with a strong focus on community. We absolutely loved the casual and artistic vibe that flourishes this charming town. San Pancho has something to offer every type of traveler. In fact, out of all of the beach towns on this list, we consider San Pancho the easiest to fall in love with.
Deemed the cultural heart of Nayarit, San Pancho makes education, mindful living and cultural awareness a priority for all its citizens. In the center of town you will find a community center, Entre Amigos, which offers a bilingual library, recycling center, tutoring programs and much more. San Pancho is a community that truly sees the value of educating its people by promoting learning. If you have the time, Entre Amigos welcomes volunteers. Although we definitely felt the presence of tourism in San Pancho by no means did it feel overrun with tourists.
Accommodations in San Pancho
There are an abundance of accommodation options to choose from in San Pancho. Everything from luxury, boutique hotels to backpacker hostels. Although not as inexpensive as Chacala and San Blas, accommodations are still reasonably priced as compared to the beach towns further south along the Riviera Nayarit. Hotel Cielo Rojo is a great option if you have a flexible budget, while Hostal San Pancho is the ideal choice for backpackers.
Yoga and marine turtles
San Pancho’s bohemian vibe and emphasis on mindful living has the yogi culture to go along with it! Stop by one of San Pancho’s yoga studios for a personal retreat and soul cleansing experience. Yoga San Pancho and El Estar are two yoga studios located in town.
Located right outside of San Pancho is a sea turtle rescue and nesting center. Visit Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde and learn about their mission to protect marine turtles. Witness and participate firsthand as the turtles are released into the wild.
A foodies (and chocolate lovers) paradise
If you are a foodie then San Pancho is your place! Don’t get us wrong, we love authentic street food, but after one month of eating this everyday it was nice to have the option of taking a break. In San Pancho you will find everything from organic bistros, french bakeries, vegetarian and vegan restaurants, Italian food, and of course, lot’s of options for Mexican food!
With a lively night scene, you will find that most of the restaurants host local musicians to play during the dinner hour. Expect lot’s of action on the main street, as various artistic performers put on shows at night. It doesn’t matter when you visit, there will always be something going on!
One of our favorite places in town was an affordable, sidewalk restaurant called Los Arbolitos serving typical Mexican food options accompanied by amazing sauces!
Another thing that San Pancho does great is its coffee scene. Who doesn’t adore an excellent cup of coffee? La Voz de Mi Tierra quickly became our go-to spot for our morning coffee- the best cup of coffee we’ve had in Mexico to date! You must try their café Azteca or café Maya.
If you are a chocolate lover, don’t miss Mexicolate. This place brings chocolate to the next level! All organic and locally sourced cacao sweetened with natural sugar. Our favorite item on their all-chocolate menu is the chocolate smoothie with strawberries.
Surfing and sunsets at Playa San Pancho
Playa San Pancho is located within a short walking distance from anywhere in town. Order a drink or eat at at one of the beachside restaurants while watching local surfers catch a wave. Don’t miss the sunset from here! We witnessed some of the best sunsets we have ever seen at Playa San Pancho.
LO DE MARCOS
Lo de Marcos is a quiet and authentic town. You won’t find trendy coffee shops, boutique hotels or gourmet restaurants that attract tourists to the other Nayarit beach towns. Expect traditional street food, beachside bungalows and plenty of local charm. Lo de Marcos is a great choice if relaxing in an unassuming atmosphere is your ideal getaway. Locals like to call Lo de Marcos the “worst place in the country” so that tourists won’t come in dozens and spoil the authenticity and casual vibe.
A quiet beach & traditional market
Playa Lo de Marcos is the long stretch of beach that is situated right in town. You will find several options for beachside accommodations that are affordable and cater to a relaxing vacation. With more than one mile of beach, it is easy to find solitude in the sun.
If you visit on Saturday, don’t miss the Tianguis Market where local products are not the exception but the rule. The vendors sell handmade, artisanal products using only natural materials. You will also find organic, locally grown produce.
Nayarit’s hidden gem, Playa los Venados
We found paradise in Lo de Marcos at one of the lesser known secluded beaches, Playa Los Venados. While most people tend to stay at Playa Lo de Marcos, this beach can easily be reached by walking or driving south of town through the jungle. We consider Playa Los Venados to be our “best find” during our road trip through Nayarit.
We were told that a local family sells fresh oysters at this beach, but unfortunately we must have visited on an off-day. Be sure to stick around for sunset! The best spot to watch the sunset is the rocky area located to the far left of the beach. This beach is certainly a hidden gem of the Riviera Nayarit.
Imagine a beach town in Southern California and you have imagined the essence of Sayulita. Although some travelers may love the hipster meets surfer, So-Cal vibe of this Nayarit beach town, it hardly resembles anything of authentic Mexico. This being said, it is the perfect place to meet other travelers while enjoying organic cafes, sipping on fancy cocktails, shopping for art at posh galleries, and embracing the surf culture that inundates the town.
A surfers paradise in Sayulita
Sayulita is a great spot for surfers of all levels, especially for beginners. There are surf camps set up along Playa Sayulita for travelers who want to take surf lessons while visiting. Beach camping is also available at the surf camps. There is no shortage of places to rent boards for those wave chasers who flock to Sayulita by the dozen.
Escape the crowds of Playa Sayulita and head north to Playa Las Cuevas or Playa Malpasos. Playa de Los Muertos is located south of Playa Sayulita and is a great option for swimming.
Hiking near Sayulita
Take a break from the surf and sand and hike to spectacular Monkey Mountain. Take in jaw dropping, panoramic views of Sayulita and the surrounding landscape at the top of Nanzal Hill.
Hiking in the jungle around Sayulita is not always well marked for easy navigation. Sayulita based Mexitreks is a good choice for hiring a hiking guide if you prefer not to attempt navigating the terrain independently.
Be sure to check out the handicrafts made by the local Huichol Indian community. You will find small stalls located on various streets throughout town, or visit Evoke the Spirit for traditional jewelry, textiles and other handcrafted goods.
If you are lucky enough to visit Sayulita on a Friday, don’t miss Mercado del Pueblo, Sayulita’s official farmers market. On Sundays you can visit the open-air market known as Sayulita Tianguis where you will find local artwork, jewelry and more handicrafts from the Huichol community.
Accommodations in Sayulita
If you are looking for a secluded, intimate getaway surrounded by nature, you must check out the eco resort at Playa Escondida. Staying at Playa Escondida will allow you to escape the party atmosphere of Sayulita, but still be within a reasonable walking distance to all the action. The eco-resort offers all of the amenities you can imagine, including a private beach.
Sayulita has the largest backpackers scene than any other Nayarit beach town. This being said, there are plenty of options for hostels, Lush Hostel Sayulita being a favorite.
PUNTA DE MITA
For travelers seeking under the radar luxury, Punta de Mita is the place to go. Filled with world-class golf courses, beautiful beaches and private resorts, Punta de Mita will exceed the best expectations for those travelers seeking luxury.
Humpback whales in Banderas Bay
Every year, Humpback whales migrate from the chilly north to the warmer, more pleasant waters of the southern Pacific to give birth. Banderas Bay is one of the more common areas to find these beautiful creatures. Humpback whales inhabit the Nayarit coast from the end of November through March.
To be completely honest, there was nothing that Punta de Mita had to offer that appealed to our travel style. The reason we decided to travel this far south was to visit Playa El Anclote, which proved to have the most affordable options for arranging a whale watching tour.
Arranging a whale watching tour at Playa El Anclote
Witnessing the whales in their natural habitat was one of the primary reasons we chose to visit Nayarit. We found several options for whale watching tours, but the most affordable option is to hire a small fishing boat (and guide) at Playa El Anclote.
We spent a few hours out at sea and saw an abundance of whales and dolphins who put on quite the show! Whales are incredibly social and curious animals. It was amazing how close they got to our boat; so close that we could reach out and touch them!
Be advised that when choosing this option the price can usually be bargained down from the starting point and the more people you have on the boat the less expensive it will be. The Pacific is rough, so be sure to take Dramamine before heading out if you suffer from motion sickness.
Visiting the Marieta Islands
The Marieta Islands (Las Islas Marietas) are best reached by hiring a guide from Playa El Anclote. These are a group of small, uninhabited islands a few miles off the coast of Banderas Bay.
With the intent to preserve the ecosystem and protect the wildlife, visits to the islands are highly regulated. This being said, there are a limited number of people who are allowed to visit per day and visitors must be accompanied by tour operators with an official permit. Most tours to the Marieta Islands include snorkeling.
La Playa del Amor: Nayarit’s hidden beach
La Playa del Amor, also referred to as Hidden Beach, is the most desired beach in all of the Nayarit coast, thanks to the evolution of social media. To reach Hidden Beach you must swim through a 50-foot tunnel at low tide until you reach the small stretch of sand surrounded by a rocky cove.
To protect the island, only 120 people per day are allowed to visit and only for a limited amount of time. Very few tour operators have privileges to visit the beach, so be sure to verify before booking.
Beachfront dining at Playa El Anclote
There are numerous beach front restaurants at Playa El Anclote, which make it a perfect stop after spending the day out at sea. Most of the restaurants are family owned businesses that offer fresh seafood at a very reasonable price.
Unless you have a liberal travel budget and are seeking a top of the line accommodation, we recommend visiting Punta de Mita as a day trip. For budget travelers who have their eye on the area, there is one hostel in town, Punto Mita Suites and Hostal.
While there are several beach towns along the Riviera Nayarit that cater to high-end travelers, there are also plenty of options for those seeking simple pleasures. We hope that our travel guide has helped direct you towards finding your ideal Nayarit beach town that caters to an authentic cultural experience, as well as a relaxing beach getaway.
Have you traveled to the Riviera Nayarit? If so, we would love to hear about your favorite spots in the comments section. As always, please feel free to ask any questions and may you find that special place that makes your soul smile!
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