The sparkling aqua waters off the Pacific Coast of Mexico
Mahlon Stewart

Mexico's Next Big Thing: The Riviera Nayarit

Why head to the so-called Riviera Nayarit, that 192-mile stretch of “fun in the sun” along the Pacific coast of Mexico? Sure, a lot of the reason to head here has to do with golden sands, tubuler waves and seafood so fresh it bounces on your plate (well, almost). But dig deeper and you’ll find that this area has some pretty wonderful, and unique attractions, making it a good choice for travelers of all stripes.

Herons in the mangrove swamp of San Blas, Mexico
Mahlon Stewart
Awe Inspiring Birding

The colonial town of San Blas is surrounded by pristine everglades and mangrove swamps, areas that are nature’s prized condos for birds large and small (not to mention crocodiles, deer, jaguars and many other photogenic critters.) In fact, when you take into account both the endemic and migratory species that roost here, its usually possible to spot a whopping 400-plus species within an hour’s radius of the town center. And many birding areas are much closer. We shot these gorgeous herons in the early morning, having rolled out of bed just half-an-hour before this photo was taken.

A mural by Diego Rivera from the Palacio Nacional
Jay Galvin/Flickr
Palacio Nacional
Mexico’s national center of government overlooks one of the three biggest public squares in the world (the zócalo) and was originally built in 1692 on the site of Moctezuma’s "new" palace, to be the home of Hernán Cortez. The top floor, added in the late 1920s, holds a series of stunning Diego Rivera murals depicting Mexico’s history.
A boy plays soccer in the town square of Mexcaltitan
Pauline Frommer
Idyllic Colonial Towns

Mangrove swamps also shelter tiny towns, like Mexcaltitan, once designated one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns” for its Shangri La–like qualities. (Because the town fathers refused to bury electricity lines, the town lost that designation and with it, many of the tourists who used to come. So when you visit, as I did last week, you may be the only non-resident around). Painted all the colors that made Frida Kahlo famous, with a postcard perfect town square, a little (but well curated) museum and tiny restaurants that serve fish and shrimp caught just hours before it hit your plate, it’s the type of truly authentic colonial village one dreams of seeing, but rarely does. 

Cilau Valadez, a Huichol artist, creates a yarn painting
Pauline Frommer
Exquisite Folk Art

The state of Nayarit is home to several Native Mexican tribes, but those you’ll likely interact with the most are the Huichols. They are the artisans who create the vibrant beadwork you’ll see for sale in booths on the streets and in stores across the state (and across the country). Cilau Valadez (pictured here) is a fourth-generation yarn painter; his paintings, and those of his father, have been exhibited in museums around the globe. As he explained to me, he takes his inspiration from the tenets of the Huichol religion. In fact, creating a painting, which he does by pushing brightly colored yarn onto a wooden board that’s been coated with beeswax and resin, is a prayer for him. He doesn’t mark out the design in advance, he simply follows his instincts—and what instincts they are! His work is among the most alive and luminous folk art I’ve ever seen.

The Marieta Islands in Mexico
Steve Jurvetson/Flickr
Mexico's "Galapagos Islands"

Thought to have been formed in the Jurassic era, the Marieta Islands shelter species that are seen in few other places (including the Blue Footed Booby, which is only found here and on the Galapagos Islands). A UNESCO protected nature reserve, they contain no signs of human life (no buildings, no roads), and only licensed guides are allowed to bring visitors to them. Hook up with one of these companies, because snorkeling among the teeming schools of fish here, bird watching, and exploring the islands’ hidden caves and beaches is an otherworldly experience.

The pool area of the Marival Residences in Nueva Vallarta
Pauline Frommer
Relaxing All-Inclusive Resorts

Along most of the Riviera Nayarit the Sierra Madre Mountains hug the shore too closely to allow for high rise hotels and large touristic developments. Nuevo Vallarta is one of the exceptions to that rule, and today it has a number of sophisticated, all-inclusive resorts from names both famed and up-and-coming (Riu, Grand Velas, Hard Rock and Marival among others; pictured is the pool area of the Marival Residences). They feature five-star cuisine, exceptional spas and lots of activities, from golf to watersports to kids clubs.

A 12-year-old tries the new sport of "Fly Boarding"
Pauline Frommer
Wacky Water Sports

If James Bond—or Gabby Douglas—were to engage in a water sport, Fly Boarding is the one they’d likely do. Here’s how it works: participants are strapped into special propeller boots which have a tube that attaches to a jet ski. The person on the jet ski then turns on the power to shoot water through the boots, which then allows the “fly boarder” to hover over the water (up to 40 feet in the air!), dive under the surface like a dolphin and do back flips. It is, in two words, insanely fun. And the only place I’ve ever seen this activity offered is at the chi chi resorts of Punta Mita. In the photo, a young girl hovers on the water.

The remains of a 1768 church in San Blas, Mexico
Mahlon Stewart
Romantic Ruins

To foil the pirates who were looting its gold-loaded cargo fleets, Spain founded San Blas in 1768. The shells of that original town’s church (pictured), custom’s house and fort are atmospheric ruins to visit, but they’re far from the only ancient sights to see in the region. Nayarit also boasts other colonial towns and pyramids from the era proceeding the Spanish conquest.

A shopping street in Sayulita, Mexico
Pauline Frommer
Funky Surfing Towns

The Guinness Book of World Records recorded the largest wave every in San Blas several years ago. At almost a kilometer in length, it took ten totally tubular minutes to ride. Today, Sayulita (pictured here) has as active a surfing scene; many on Mexico’s national surfing team train here in the winter. But it’s also a great place for beginners to learn; and for visitors to just hang out, as it’s filled with terrific little shops (with crafts from across Mexico), affordable (and quite nice) hotels, and beachfront restaurants.


The beach at Imanta Resort
Mahlon Stewart
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

The resort area Punta Mita has been synonymous with extreme luxury for a good decade now.  John Travolta has flown in on his private plane, Christina Aguilera got engaged at the Imanta Resort (its secluded beach is pictured), the Kardashians make a yearly pilgrimage and Madonna, Kobe Bryant, Hillary Duff and other bold faced names have cavorted on its sands. They come for an obvious reason: this is a gated community, meaning that the paparazzi can be kept at bay. But it’s also a center for opulent living in Mexico with two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses (on one, a natural island off-shore serves as one of the holes), gourmet restaurants and ultra-chi chi hotels.