Exploring an Emerging Gem on Mexico’s Pacific Coast

In Riviera Nayarit, an eclectic tourism mix offers so much more than sun and sand.

COVID-19 has thrown a monkey wrench into most of our travel plans. But, eventually Canada’s and Mexico’s borders will open again and the hunger for sun, culture and good value will be fierce. So fierce, you might want to consider heading for a lesser known destination.

North of Puerto Vallarta is a stretch of Pacific coastline that has only recently been discovered by visitors. It’s called Riviera Nayarit, in the state of Nayarit, and offers 192 miles of sandy beaches framed by the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains.

Fishing villages, surfing enclaves, polo ponies, wild orchids and delicious dining were just a few of the many highlights I discovered on a trip to this slightly-off-the-beaten-track region last fall.

After checking into the new Marival Armony Luxury Resort & Suites in Punta de Mita, I headed out to the La Cruz de Huanacaxtle Sunday market. Located on Banderas Bay in La Cruz Marina, the market had more than 170s vendors and was a delightful mishmash of crafts, food, and entertainers. I spent more than an hour admiring hand-made silver jewellery, Huichol (one of Mexico’s indigenous peoples) beaded figures, tables laden with enormous strawberries, jams, jellies, cookies, organic coffee, fresh squeezed juices, organic vegetables and carefully crafted cosmetics, rugs, and clothing.

Another Sunday treat was an up-close viewing of the “sport of kings” at La Patrona Polo & Equestrian Club, a half-hour’s drive north of the market. Not only did I view the polo matches from the cool, shaded terrace, I partook in the extraordinary, all-you-can-eat-and-drink brunch available for $60. Piling my plate high, I sampled delectable grilled meats, BBQ shrimp and squid, and colourful fruits and vegetables harvested from the club’s own garden.

Sleek horses charged across the field while their riders took sweeping swings with long-handled wooden mallets to knock a small, hard ball through the goal posts of the opposing team. Afterwards, onlookers were invited to meet the players and their equine partners. A wooden horse was set up for those who wanted to practice taking a swing with a mallet. It was not as easy as it looked and many a large man missed the small ball.

The next day I set out to explore the charming coastal towns that dotted the area. The first was San Francisco, locally referred to as San Pancho. Considered the cultural capital of the state, it was jammed with galleries, restaurants and bakeries. I poked my head into a couple of shops, then sat in the sleepy main square where craftspeople had laid out colourful beaded animals, jewellery, skulls and trinkets for souvenir hunters.

After a 15-minute drive south, I was in Sayulita, a surfing hotspot. Rental boards spilled out of small kiosks and beginners could sign up for lessons. A shopkeeper told me the best time to catch the waves was December through to April when the north swells arrive and create impressive surf breaks. Instead of jumping in the intimidating water, I joined the other “hodads” (surf slang for spectators) walking the beach, keeping an eye on the best board balancing acts.

Along the town’s cobblestone streets, I passed numerous galleries, as well as windows filled with silk rebozo shawls, wicker baskets and clay sculptures of Day of the Dead skeleton characters.  Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition that on first glance seems a little macabre. It is celebrated in early November and is actually a joyful time when people revel in the memories of their deceased loved ones.

Parched and hungry after my window shopping, I stopped for a sunset marguerita and dinner at Don Pedro’s.  The restaurant was located on the beach under a huge thatched palapa, and the bartender told me it was started in 1992 by two cousins, Damien and Nicolas, from Los Angeles. Now people flock to enjoy its shrimp rellenos, octopus Carpaccio, and tuna tostadas.

Driving south for 30 minutes, I arrived in Bucerieas, a very popular spot with Canadian snowbirds. Originally a fishing village, the town’s male inhabitants were once famous for diving for oysters. The name Bucerieas is derived from the Spanish verb ‘bucear,” that means to dive. There is still excellent seafood available here, but I was on an educational quest – at the Tequila Pharmacy. After tasting different shots of the fiery national beverage made from the juice of the blue agave, I wandered past yet more appealing jewellery vendors and then stopped for a spell of cool quiet in Our Lady of Peace church in the main square.

Nature was also on my agenda and the next day I ventured to Lo de Perla Jungle Garden, where orchids are nurtured. My guide Vincent, followed by his dog Pancho, gave me my first instructions.  “Watch out for the tree branches. You don’t want to get bitten by a snake. Be careful.” Yikes. He then pointed out a 300-year-old white fig tree and explained how its seeds were used as insect repellant. What about snake repellant?  He didn’t have any of that. But luckily, Pancho was ahead of me scaring away any would-be biters.

“We don’t use any chemicals on our plants,” explained Vincent. Instead, a spray of garlic, soap and water is used to protect the orchids.  The garden was started in 2002, after hurricane Kenna ripped through the former palm tree nursery.  Vincent’s uncle worked there and suggested to the owner in Mexico City that they cultivate wild orchids instead.  “We have 3,000 orchids now.  With pollination through bees and hummingbirds we will have even more growth in the years to come.”

Dinner that night was in Punta Mita, at Hector’s Kitchen. Opened by chef Hector Leyva in 2014, the restaurant had a creative menu featuring locally sourced ingredients and the décor was sleek and modern. I opted for a salad of hummus, beets, and charred vegetables, and a succulent serving of Mahi Mahi. “I usually buy two types of fish each day at the Las Cruz Fish Market,” Hector explained. Dessert was melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin pie.

Riviera Nayarit was filled with delightful, unexpected pleasures. It has sun and sand aplenty, but poke around a little and you’ll see this Pacific coast gem had so much more to offer.

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