The Riviera Nayarit’s high-low mix of upscale resorts and laid-back, boho-chic villages makes it an ideal winter destination for Austinites.
One of the first charming surfing resorts you’ll encounter as you head up the Riviera Nayarit is Bucerías (meaning “place of divers”), which faces Banderas Bay.
Though an easy hop for Austinites (United Airlines offers short, direct flights from Houston), Puerto Vallarta remains a world apart. Graced by a Colonial cathedral and featuring a folkloric maze of cobblestone streets, stellar ocean-facing resorts (such as the upscale, all-inclusive Grand Velas) and sugary beaches aplenty, the area has all the traits to please any vacationer. But if you go farther up Mexico’s Pacific coast, you’ll discover a whole other Vallarta—the Riviera Nayarit.
Beginning outside the city limits, the region extends north for 100 miles to embrace a surprisingly undeveloped expanse. Hemmed by jade-hued jungle and spiky Sierra Madre terrain on one side and wild coastline on the other, Riviera Nayarit’s snaky main roadway holds as many Mercedes Benzes as tired horses and donkeys at work. Home to the Huichol Indians (known for their intricate beadwork), the area features unique villages, such as the surfing hamlet and expat colony of Sayulita. It also encompasses the Punta Mita peninsula, a finger of land that bestrides the unbridled Pacific and the more tranquil Banderas Bay.
Spread out across this peninsula, tiny resorts uphold the spirit of this lesser-traveled part of Mexico. The St. Regis Punta Mita’s suites offer butlers to attend to any whim, while its Remède Spa customizes every treatment. Larger groups should book the three-bedroom Presidential Villa, which lords over the beach. Just opened, W Punta de Mita pays homage to the region’s cultural attributes and colonial splendor but takes a more barefoot-chic approach, with contemporary architecture as well as Spice Market, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant.
Thirty minutes up the road from Punta Mita, Sayulita draws shoppers, artists, surfers, yogis and diners in search of authentic eateries, expat-owned international restaurants, stellar shops, yoga studios and surfing lessons. Boutiques and galleries stand between fish taco stands, surfboard shops and stalls helmed by Huichol Indians selling their crafts—all ensconced amid brightly painted, cheerful architecture. With an international, slightly bohemian, New Age-infused atmosphere reminiscent of Mexico City’s Frida Kahlo era, Sayulita stands out as a must-see day trip.
Don’t forget the gifts from the sea. Ocean buffs should cruise to the Marieta Islands, a protected biosphere and national park, for an afternoon of snorkeling or diving. Amid hidden beaches, explore thriving marine life, caves and crystalline waters. Whale watching from December through the end of March is spectacular, with Banderas Bay’s warm Pacific waters attracting blue whales, humpbacks and many others.
From lunches of fried fish tacos smeared with chipotle aioli and tequila tastings with resort experts to beaded souvenirs from the Huichol and unforgettable sea life encounters, Riviera Nayarit offers a laid-back, timeless slice of Old Mexico.