Riviera Nayarit Is Mexico’s Dreamiest Beach Escape

Swim with whale sharks, lounge in a bungalow, eat birria.

If you drive about an hour away from the chaos of the Puerto Vallarta Airport, down the highway through a bay surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Madre Mountains looming hefty in the skyline, palm trees and tropical greens waving for miles, you’ll arrive in Riviera Nayarit. The 200-mile stretch of gorgeous, soft-sanded beaches on Mexico’s southwestern coast may not sound as familiar as Cancun, Cabo, or Tulum—and that’s much of the appeal of this buzzy yet not-yet too-touristy destination.

Riviera Nayarit has lush tropical landscapes, humpback whales that (much like humans) spend their winters here, and spicy, fresh ceviche or thinly sliced tiradito, Mexico’s version of sashimi. Even in winter, the sun doesn’t set until after 7 pm, so sunbathers and paperback enthusiasts can enjoy long days unwinding at a new slew of luxury hotels in Riviera Nayarit. Meanwhile active travelers can pack their days with eco-centric excursions, hiking through tropical mangroves, learning to surf Sayulita’s famous waves, navigating the mountains on ATVs, deep sea fishing, or zip lining above the perpetually green treetops.

Remote enough that it feels like an escape for international and Mexican travelers alike, Riviera Nayarit is still full of offerings for foodies, adventure lovers, cultural explorers, luxury-seeking sunbathers, and piña colada sippers. Here’s what to do once you get there.

I could use a cleansing ritual right about now. | Conrad Punta de Mita

Fly in with foreigners, mingle with locals

Atlanta, Houston, LA, and Denver all offer direct flights to the nearest airport in Puerto Vallarta, though Riviera Nayarit is about to become even more accessible for East Coasters once JetBlue launches its new route from NYC in early 2022. Though about 75% of visitors are from the US, Nayarit has also long been a popular destination for Mexican tourists, as the nearest beach for many inland residents.

You’ll also find cultural practices from the local indigenous Huichol people. Midnight-hued Salsa Huichol, made from local chiles and vinegar, accompanies most meals. Woven and beaded indigenous artwork can be found across the riviera’s several towns. Huitlacoche, known as the “Mexican Truffle” (TLDR: it’s a fungus that grows on corn) is offered at restaurants. And several Huichol traditions are naturally woven into everyday experiences, like a pre-dinner cleansing ritual to leave your stress at the doorway.

Conrad Punta de Mita
You could basically sleep right on the sand. | Conrad Punta de Mita

Relax or work remotely at luxury hotels

Opened in 2020, the Conrad Punta De Mita boasts waterfront suites and a spacious beach ideal for morning strolls, late afternoon swims, and even whale spotting. The luxe resort itself is mostly outdoors (and social-distancing safe) with a handful of top-notch restaurants (freshly pressed tortillas at breakfast!), a full-service spa boasting house-made oils, and an agave aging and tasting room. Plus you can expect all the creature comforts of a dreamy, tropical vacation: a swim up bar, large pools with cushy bungalows, and ice cold Topo Chico at your heart’s desire.

Meanwhile, the Sayulinda Hotel is ideal for remote workers on an extended work-ation. Steps from the beach and boasting the best rooftop in town (with ocean views!), this newly constructed property is a WiFi-equipped getaway with airy, spacious rooms and plenty of poolside workspace for fresh juice sipping while Zooming.

Just a tease of more to come. | Sollina Images/Getty Images

Watch whales in their winter habitat

Just like humans, whales visit the warm waters surrounding Riviera Nayarit from December through March. Small boat tours with marine biologists help you spot humpbacks as they blow water, flip, and even breach (i.e. jump out of the water). Plus dolphin spotting and bird watching is easy on these boat trips. Book a voyage from Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerías, Punta Mita or Sayulita. Seasick? Whales can also often be spotted from shore in the prime season.

Frida every day. | Kelly Mason Photo/Shutterstock

Spend your pesos shopping for crafts and artisan goods

Head to the colorful town square in Sayulita to shop for crafts, handmade jewelry, textiles, paintings, and prints. Vendors display hand-embroidered stuffed animals, multi-hued beaded bracelets, and mask chains (a sign of the times, but a useful souvenir). Galleries, boutiques, and surf shops also line the streets for an air-conditioned shopping experience. Nearby, the town of San Pancho offers some cute, scaled-back shops, plus machete-wielding vendors ready to slice open a coconut or fresh oyster for your slurping consumption.

Just a spritz of lime on the freshest of seafood. | Shutterstock/xhico

Feast on birria tacos and the freshest pescado

Before the quesobirria took over TikTok, the birria taco reigned supreme in this region of Mexico. Often made with slow-cooked goat meat (though sometimes with beef, lamb, or even fish), birria tacos are hearty, slightly spicy, and served at street stalls, as well as along the roads between towns in the region. Every local has a favorite spot, so ask for their recommendations, or just veer towards the crowds in a self-led taco tour.

But don’t stop your food tour there—Nayarit’s signature seafood dish is as fresh as it comes, oven plucked right off the boat, butterflied, and grilled within hours of swimming in the Pacific. The catch of the day, often whitefish like red snapper or mahi mahi, can be found at pretty much any beachside restaurant. Luxury properties, like the aforementioned Conrad, can even schedule a boat to deliver the freshly plucked fish beachside. For an upscale Pescado Zarandeado, of course made to order, make a reservation at Tuna Blanca in Punta de Mita.

Sartiaguin Tours y Expediciones
That’s a whale shark—and that is in fact a person swimming next to it. | Sartiaguin Tours y Expediciones

Swim with whale sharks

Kick swimming with sharks off your bucket list (or add to your tally) with this immersive opportunity to dive towards not-so-dangerous danger, no scuba required. The 20-ton San Blas whale sharks are actually non threatening (just watch out for an accidental whack from the tails), and with a snorkel (plus waterproof camera) you can get pretty close views. The ecotourism experience is in high demand during the colder months, so make sure to book ahead. Before or after the tour, hang out in the quaint fishing village of San Blas, known for its big wave surfing beaches and tropical mangroves, which offer seasonal bird watching and turtle spotting, plus year-round sunbathing.

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Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in NYC. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.