By Lark Ellen Gould
Riviera Nayarit was barely a blip on the map a decade ago, but since that time, the 200 mile stretch of pristine Pacific coastline just north of Puerto Vallarta has sprung into a corridor of all-inclusives at the bottom end, a pocket of mucho-exclusives edging north and a sprinkling of precious backwater villages at the top.
All this is within easy reach of Puerto Vallarta International Airport for a trip that has it all: beach, shopping, art galleries and local cuisine, all-inclusive or exclusive hospitality, and plenty of natural and local culture to explore. Putting it all together is the trick but Mexico is making it easier with packaging and tour options to fit the interests. The behemoth resorts lining the coast have been followed by road development and strong signage, making it possible for even direction-challenged drivers to find their way around these parts of Jalisco and Nayarit.
Any trip to Nayarit starts at the airport, halfway between the city of Vallarta to the south and the beaches of Nayarit to the north. The corridor of Nuevo Vallarta is on the way with a phalanx of behemoth properties lining the beach in a multi-tiered development that includes golf, shopping, dining and even medical tourism. It’s ground zero for packagers, such as Funjet and Delta Vacations, with such sprawling properties as the Riu hotels, Paradise Beach Resort, Flamingos, and Villa Estancia.
Minutes north of that corridor, though, comes the real Mexico to be found in the beachside village of Bucerias. The big all-inclusive here is the Royal Decameron with plenty of restos, pools and guest entertainment near a long, walkable beach. But the town is a gem: empty cobblestone streets lined by colorful galleries, bistros, boutiques and bars. Mostly Canadian snowbirds flock here in winter heading for quiet and tasteful condo quarters. A Mexican Mercado manages the shopping activity across a footbridge into older part of town.
Beyond Bucerias head north to Punta de Mita where exclusive resorts, such as Imanta, Hotel des Artistes del Mar, and the Palladium Vallarta carve the land without crowding. It includes the private Punta Mita golf, resort and residence peninsula well know for the locations of the St. Regis and Four Seasons resorts. Up and coming is the emerging destination of Litibu, currently anchored by the Tranquilla, a high-end high rise on the beach that seems to leap right out of a fashion shoot. Each room is a luxury home with top-shelf kitchen appliances, cutting-edge décor and sweeping views of the Pacific. Currently only 20 suites are available, shooting up to 120 suites by summer’s end and bookable for $290 a night through 2012. Rack rates start at $480.
Moving northward reach Sayulita, an overblown tourist haven that could be mistaken for a South Bay L.A. beach town were the roads in shape. Still, it’s the place to be for spring breakers, families with teenagers, and wandering tourists looking for pretty things to buy. Find plenty of beer and margarita cafes and also find some of the best tacos in Nayarit at Naty Kitchen. Naty serves up 13 types of tacos with eight sauces and condiments, each in a double corn tortilla for a buck. Top tacos: pollo con mole, sweet chili with corn, pollo con chipotle, and fresh marlin tacos. And there are several quiet streets to explore with jewelry shops, boutiques, surfboard makers and precious B&Bs. The detour is worth it, if only for an hour.
Around 15 minutes further find San Francisco, locally tabbed San Pancho. As an expat town it is quiet and seemingly more organized than other spots. Real estate was thing here until the crash. But there are still bargains to be found and quiet cafes in which to discuss them. It’s short on chipotle mask stores and hip clothes shops but it’s a colorful and walkable place in which to gather your senses. Stop in at Entre Amigos, on the main street of the Ave. of Third World Nations. It’s a gathering spot in the community run by volunteers who want to teach children reading or teach locals to sew, create crafts, even creatively recycle junk. It’s a model for what community power can do and also has great gift, sweets and consignment shops where profits go to a good cause.
Northward still stop in at Chacala, perhaps another 30 minutes away and said to be another up and coming expat hollow, before continuing on toward San Blas.
The town of San Blas is an odd outpost at the north point of Nayarit, And it’s perhaps the only one with a history. A deep port, it dates back to 1531, although not an official spot on any map until 1768 when it became a base for the Spanish Navy. The fort still stands, with a church nearby, ruins on a hill above the town but worth the visit for the view alone.
In town, an old Spanish square holds the carts selling weavings, beaded ornaments and whatnots across from the old and the new church. Some outdoor cafes provide the afternoon Cervezas but the real culinary treat lies at the Garza Canela Hotel where Chef Betty Vazquez whips up gourmet mole. The Cordon Blue-trained chef worked with Michelin three-star chef Juan Mari Arzak in Spain and serves up “slow food,” locally sourced, seasonally concepted dishes from a well-run kitchen in an unexpected place.
San Blas is a three-hour drive from Punta de Mita that can be punctuated still by a boat ride through mangrove forests of the Tovara National Park just outside of town. The rides cost about $10 and last a good 90 minutes or more through stunning wetlands containing herons, hawks, cranes, tortoises, and slumbering crocs. Some tours end in a swim with baby crocs in a crocodile farm run by the concession.
On the way back stop at one of the virgin beaches, empty and white against the late afternoon sun, and order up a freshwater fished smoked in mangrove wood. Fishing, birding, beaching, time stretches out forever along this rarefied coastline where anything can happen.