Want to find out why Riviera Nayarit is slated to be the next big travel destination in Mexico? The white sandy beaches, great surfing spots, and delicious tacos are just the beginning; there’s so much more to discover in this tropical destination! Check out this ultimate travel guide to Riviera Nayarit, Mexico.
For living in two U.S. states that border Mexico for most of my life, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I haven’t truly started exploring this diverse and beautiful country until this year. But the more I learn about Mexico, the longer my travel bucket list gets. After visiting ancient Mayan ruins and swimming in stunning freshwater cenotes during our trip to Tulum in May, we couldn’t wait to plan another visit to Mexico.
Since we’d just spent some time on the east coast, we decided to give the west coast of Mexico a try and travel to the increasingly popular Riviera Nayarit. This gorgeous stretch of coastline boarding the Pacific Ocean has been flagged as the next “it” destination in Mexico. The white sand beaches of the Riviera Nayarit are lined with small, colorful pueblos, set to a backdrop of lush jungle and dramatic mountains. There are a dozen or more good surfing spots, the food is delicious (best street tacos ever!), and you can do everything from waterfall rappelling to horseback riding. We’ve gathered all the information you need for your trip in this ultimate travel guide to Riviera Nayarit, Mexico!
How to get to Riviera Nayarit
The Riviera Nayarit stretches 200 miles along Mexico’s Pacific coastline, starting just north of Puerto Vallarta. The Puerto Vallarta International Airport is 20 minutes away from the southern edge of the region.
This is a large airport that services most major US airlines. We took a quick and easy nonstop 3-hour flight from LAX to PVR with Southwest for about $250 per person.
If you plan on spending more time in the northern area of the region, there is an airport in Tepic, which is about one hour inland from San Blas. Tepic is technically an international airport, but flights are always routed through Mexico City or Tijuana City. Only Aeromar Airlines and Volaris Airlines fly to Tepic.
Transportation Around Riviera Nayarit
For the flexibility to explore the Riviera Nayarit on your own, the best option is to rent a car. We found the roads safe and easy to navigate. Similar to our experience of renting a car in Tulum, Mexico, the rental car companies list a rock-bottom daily rate that does not include the required third-party insurance. We rented a car from Hetz at the Puerto Vallarta Airport; the daily rate was about $27 USD, third party liability insurance we paid at the counter was $13 a day, and with $50 in taxes, our total added up to 235 for 5 days. We also booked with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card that allows me to decline the CDW and rely on the insurance the credit card provides.
Both times we rented a car in Mexico, we booked directly with the car rental company so there were no surprises. Third party websites might bundle insurance into the rate, but the car rental company may not accept it, so you’ll just end up having to pay again once you pick up your car.
If you do plan on spending most of your time in one place, like an all-inclusive resort that provides transportation to and from activities, it may be more economical to take a taxi. You can find a list of PVR airport taxi rates here.
There is also a cheap and fairly efficient bus system in the area, but the routes are limited. All fares are one way, and there are no transfers.
The ATM (Autostransportes Medina) bus line runs between Nuevo Vallarta and Punta de Mita, making stops at Bucerias and Destiladeras Beach. Fares range between $13 and $23 Mexican pesos depending on your stop.
The Compostela-Pacifico bus line makes stops further up the coast to Sayulita, San Francisco (usually called San Pancho) and Rincón de Guayabitos. They are the green and white buses, and fares range from $30 to $35 Mexican pesos.
Once you reach some of the smaller towns along the coast, golf carts are available to rent for about $55 – $75 for local travel. Most towns are small enough that you can cover the area on foot, so I’d skip this expensive option or rent a car if you plan to venture farther.
Weather in Riviera Nayarit
If you’re looking for 75°F (23°C) and sunny, then Riviera Nayarit is your place. The area has a mild tropical climate; it’s on the same latitude as Hawaii, so the weather is pretty similar. The hottest months are July, August and September when the highs can reach into the 90s (32°C).
Rainy season is from late June to early November, which usually means rain in the afternoon.
Practical Tips for Traveling in Mexico
- Save your tourist card from immigration – Before you get off the plane, a flight attendant will usually hand you a tourist card to fill out, also called an FMM (Forma Migratoria Múltiple). The immigration authority that stamps your passport will take the top half and give you back the bottom. Make sure to keep this to hand back in when you return to the airport.
- Only use ATMS inside the bank or the airport – Most of the roadside ATMs we found didn’t work, and apparently, there’s a problem with people skimming debit and credit card info from them. The safest option is to use the ATMS inside the bank or the airport.
- Pay in Mexican Pesos – While many places will still take or charge your card in US dollars, you’ll get the best rate by paying in Mexican pesos. Either pull pesos out of an ATM, or use a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees (another plug for the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card – we use it whenever we travel because it doesn’t have any fees and Visa typically has the best exchange rate). Restaurants or shops that allow you to pay in USD give you a higher exchange rate.
- Tipping in Mexico – Tipping between 10% to 20% at a nice restaurant is the norm in Mexico. Most people eating at a small, local eatery tip 10%, and typically no tip is required for street food.
- Don’t drink the tap water – Water straight from the tap isn’t safe for consumption. Many hotels will provide bottled or filtered water, and we usually pick up a few large containers of water from a local convenience store to use throughout our trip.
- Don’t flush your toilet paper – Most of the pipes in the area can’t deal with toilet paper, so don’t flush it. At least this was the case in the smaller hotels and Airbnbs we stayed in. A larger resort may have some sort of way to filter or break it down, but don’t flush it unless there is a sign that says it’s okay.
- Pack reef-safe, biodegradable sunscreen – Many of the national parks and preserves within Mexico require that you only use reef-safe sunscreen. Check out what to look for when buying reef-safe sunscreen and a list of our favorites here.
Hotels in Riviera Nayarit – Where to Stay
Hotels in Sayulita
Sayulita, a small coastal pueblo, has been popular with surfers since the late 1960s for its river mouth surf break. The town has added plenty of trendy eateries and hotels in recent years to accommodate the increasing number of tourists visiting. There are no large resorts or chain hotels in the area yet, but there are plenty of fun and unique places to stay.
- Villa Iguana Verde – While we were in Sayulita, we stayed in a one-bedroom apartment at Villa Iguana Verde, just a 10-minute walk from the town center. This apartment could have everything you want and more for a long-term stay, including a fully stocked kitchen, beach gear, and a huge patio.
- Petit Hotel Hafa – This little hotel near Sayulita town center looks designed with Instagram in mind. Even amidst the colorful streets, the freshly painted red façade is striking, the walkway inside is decorated with painted hearts, and there’s a cute rooftop terrace with comfortable seating.
- Don Bonito Hotel – This modern, minimalist hotel recently opened just a few feet from the beach. It also features a plunge pool and outdoor garden.
- Casa Love – This is another hotel just of the beach in the heart of Sayulita, with a palapa roof, hammocks on the patios and a beautiful rooftop terrace with an ocean view.
Hotels in San Francisco (San Pancho)
San Francisco (called San Pancho by locals) is a sleepy town just up the street from busy Sayulita, and Hotel Cielo Rojo provides a charming escape. San Pancho has an incredible foodie scene, and the restaurant at Hotel Cielo Rojo serves some of the best meals in town. There are only a few hotels in town, so check Airbnb for more options.
Hotels in Punta Mita
For the ultimate in luxury, look no further than Punta Mita, a small peninsula jutting into the Banderas Bay featuring high-end resorts, pristine beach front, and two Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses. There’s currently only a handful of large resorts in the area, but based on the rising popularity of the region, there are many more on the way.
- Four Seasons Punta Mita – The Four Seasons features casita-style rooms with traditional Mexican décor and sweeping ocean views. The property has three pools, including a heated infinity pool, smaller plunge pools, and a lazy river. This resort has several amenities gear towards families, including a kids’ club, and children’s pool and separate kids’ menus at the onsite restaurants. Check rates and availability here.
- The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort – the St. Regis sits on 22-acres of beautifully maintained ocean-front property. The casual, spacious rooms feature exposed wood beams, Mexican clay tile floors, and a spa-style bathroom. The staggered reflection pool that goes from the top of the resort to the beach is stunning, especially at sunset.
- Imanta – For something a little more unique than your typical luxury chain resort, act fast to book up one of the eleven unique rooms at Imanta. Each room is its own separate house, offering you all the privacy and solitude you could want. The natural, jungle landscape was left as untouched as possible, even leading to a large boulder being carved into a bathtub instead of being removed.
- W Punta de Mita – The W creates a hip, happening atmosphere with bright, funky décor inspired by local Huichol art, poolside DJs and a restaurant that gives off strong nightclub vibes. Rooms are light and airy with neon-colored design accents. One of the most unique features of this ultra-modern property is the Camino Huichol, a 460-foot walkway created from bright green and blue mosaic tiles that runs through the center of the resort.
Hotels in Bucerías
If you’re looking for a relaxed beachfront resort that’s reasonably priced, then check out the hotels or Airbnbs in Bucerias. This area is just south of Punta Mita, and while the resorts aren’t as large or as luxurious, you can get a nice room with an incredible ocean view for a fraction of the price. It felt like we were the only ones at our resort for most of the time, the beach was beautiful (and empty), and there are some delicious little eateries in town. Don’t miss the tacos, horchata and chocolate flan at La Takeria! The locals go here for their special hot sauce which is scorching. We stayed in a recently renovated Junior Suite at Vista Vallarta All Suites On The Beach for around $100 a night and enjoyed the beach in the photos below.
Things to do in Riviera Nayarit
1 Best Beaches in Riviera Nayarit
The towns and beaches around the Banderas Bay, and Punta Mita, as well as the southern towns along the Nayarit coast, including Sayulita and Rincon de Guayabitos, are the busiest and most developed.
If you want virgin beach with no umbrellas or coconut stands, you’ll find places that are practically untouched the further north you go.
- Litibú Beach – We visited this beach on a horseback ride with Vista Paraiso and watched the sunset behind Punta Mita in the distance. There are a few resorts around, but a long open stretch with nothing but soft sand and clear water
- Careyeros Beach – At Playa Careyeros, the sand is white, the water is a mesmerizing blue, and the sea cliffs make this place feel like you’re the only one around.
- Pátzcuaro Sur Beach – Head to Playa Pátzcuaro Sur for some boogie boarding or climbing around the cool rock outcroppings.
- Playa De Los Muertos – Sayulita can be pretty packed, but you’ll find significantly fewer people at Playa De Los Muertos, a short walk to the south. It’s named for the graveyard nearby, but don’t let that deter you! This little cove is a great spot to swim and snorkel.
- Playa Las Cuevas and Playa Malpasos – These beaches are sandwiched between Sayulita and San Pancho, but you’ll hardly find anyone there. At low tide, you can even climb through a rocky passage that connects Las Cuevas to Malpasos.
- Playa Novillero – Novillero Beach is located on the very northern edge of the state of Nayarit. It’s huge; it’s more than a third of a mile wide and more than 56 miles long, making it the longest and widest virgin beach in Mexico.
2 Surf the waves of Riviera Nayarit
La Lancha – We were initially going to wait until we reached Sayulita to go surfing, but we met a few people that had just spent the last seven days surfing the area, and their favorite spot was La Lancha. We took their word for it and headed over to this reef break.
There’s a shop called WildMex located right on the side of the road that rents boards and also offers surf lessons. Cost is about $20 a day for a longboard, which includes a rash guard and booties.
After parking in front of the WildMex shop, cross the street and take the 10-minute trail through the trees to reach the beach. It’s nothing but pure beach and surf here!
Sayulita – Sayulita gained popularity among surfers because its riverbreak is so consistent; however, it just happened that when we were there it was a literal lake. Despite our experience, so many people have said the surf at Sayulita is pretty good. WildMex also offers surf lessons and rentals in Sayulita.
San Blas – If you’re looking for some majorly long waves, San Blas held the record for longest recorded wave at one point—almost a kilometer long!
Here’s a full list of the surfing spots in the Riviera Nayarit, but the swells change by the day, so it’s always to check the forecast on Surfline, or just ask a few people around town once you arrive.
3 Shopping in Sayulita
Walk through Sayulita’s tiny town center and it seems like every door is to a vibrant boutique selling colorful crafts made by or inspired by the Huichol people, or a taco shop. We couldn’t resist all the fun and playful pom poms and artwork, so we had to pick up a few pieces to bring back home.
While there are plenty of street stalls where you can barter for goods, there are also high-end shops and art galleries. The uber bright pom poms, beach bags and Mexican blankets at Revolucion del Sueno almost glow in this bright, open shop. Evoke the Spirit offers a bit of a reprieve from all the fluorescent with its pastel, beachy vibes. This shop includes an interesting display of cow skulls decorated by the Huichol people. Even if you’re not buying, these places are still fun to browse.
4 Visit Sleepy San Francisco (usually called San Pancho)
Fun Fact: Pancho is a common nickname for Francisco. So, if you have a friend everyone calls Pancho, his given name might just be Francisco! This is why San Francisco is called by San Pancho by pretty much everyone that lives there.
From walking the streets of San Pancho, you’d hardly know it was only 15 minutes away from the buzzing roads of Sayulita. If you really want to relax and live life at a slower pace, San Pancho is the place to go. The beach isn’t as busy and there are some great restaurants in town, just not as many people!
5 Horseback Riding in Riviera Nayarit with Vista Paraiso
Horseback riding from the stables at Vista Paraiso and down to the beach was a magical experience from beginning to end. Our guides helped us saddle up at Montalbeña Ranch; me on a beautiful brown horse named Colorado, while Aaron and Hudson shared a horse appropriately named The Big One.
We headed off onto a short jungle trail before getting to a road lined with open fields where we saw a lady carrying an armadillo home for dinner. The view of mountains covered with dense jungle in the distance made for a picturesque backdrop to our ride. We then trotted through a small town before we reached Litibú Beach just in time for sunset.
Our guides were very friendly and accommodating and let us stop to take a few pictures at the beach. The sun setting behind Punta Mita was the best view of our whole trip to Riviera Nayarit! On the ride back to the stables we were surrounded by glowing fireflies and serenaded by Hudson singing his version of Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.” Initially, he had been a little hesitant to hop on the horse, but it seemed like The Big One quickly won him over.
You can book a small group sunset horseback ride with Vista Paraiso for $120, or schedule your own private tour. Vista Paraiso also offers ATV and Zipline tours.
6 Participate in a Sea Turtle Release
The beaches of Riviera Nayarit are a popular nesting ground for sea turtles. Of the 20,000 eggs a female sea turtle can lay in her lifetime, often only two of them will make it to adulthood. That is why there are a number of volunteer organizations in the area that protect the nests and the hatchlings, and create a sea turtle release program to give this tiny sea turtles a better shot at survival.
A number of the hotels and resorts in the area have programs that charge fees to take part in the release, but community-based ones, like the Sayulita Turtle Camp, are looking for volunteers to help relocate nests and make their journey to the sea. The Sayulita Turtle Camp is open year-round, but most hatchling releases take place from the end of October through January.
7 Visit the Mercado del Mar, a large Fish Market
In La Cruz de Huanacaxtle there’s a huge marina and a fish market. Like most markets, go early for the best selection from local vendors. They also sell anything else you might need to accompany your meal, like bread, pasta, cheese, and fruits and veggies.
8 Get an adrenaline rush with a ziplining, rappelling or ATV tour
There’s so much to explore beyond the beach, so book a tour that will take you deep into the Sierra Madre Mountains. We loved our experience with Vista Paraiso for the horseback ride, so we’d recommend them if you’re looking for a ziplining or ATV tour. We wish we could’ve done a few more adventures, but Hudson’s still too young based on most companies’ age restrictions.
9 Hike among ancient Petroglyphs to the Sacred Pools of Alta Vista
This hike is a draw for both what you find along the trail and at the end. An Aztecan tribe lived along the Las Piletas river over two thousand years ago; the only trace of their inhabitance of the area is the hundreds of images carved into the rocks along the river. You can try to guess the meanings of these petroglyphs, but there are also several signs posted along the trail that will give you some more information about the area. At the end of the hike, you’ll reach a beautiful natural pool, where you can cool off before the warm hike back.
Here’s a dropped pin in Google Maps to the start of the Alta Vista trailhead. If you don’t want to worry about the logistics of getting to the trailhead, book a guided hike to Alta Vista with the Mexitreks.
10 Snorkeling by Las Islas Marietas (Marieta Islands)
The Marieta Islands and the surrounding waters are a national park, so they are protected from fishing and hunting. We booked a boat trip with Ally Cat Sailing Adventures to reach the Marieta Islands, which you can read about here. The water has some of the best visibility I’ve ever seen, so we could easily spot all the bright yellow Mexican goatfish and Blacknosed butterflyfish. We even saw a huge moray eel!
11 Visit La Playa del Amor in the Marieta Islands
Playa del Amor is supposed to be a secret or hidden beach, but with the way it’s blown up on the internet and Instagram, I’m pretty sure everyone knows about it. So many unregulated visitors started to destroy the ecosystem, so it was temporarily shut down, and now you’re required to have a permit to visit. There are only 120 permits per day, so most tour companies only offer tours to the famous Lover’s Beach only a few times a month. You can see a list of companies that offer Marietas Islands tours here. Check their website for days they visit this La Playa del Amor.
12 Whale Watching in Banderas Bay
If you book a boat trip like the one above from December through March, you’ll probably get a two for one and get in some great whale watching too.
Humpback whales leave the icy cold waters of the Arctic to come and birth their young in the warm, shallow and calm waters of Banderas Bay.
The crew on our boat estimated over 700 Humpback whales made passed through Banderas Bay last year, so they said you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least a few whales every time you head out into the water. You can check out Whale Watching tours in Riviera Nayarit here.
13 Birdwatching at the La Tovara National Park in San Blas
La Tovara National Park in San Blas, an estuary surrounded by mangroves, is home to over 500 species of birds. You can spot plenty of birds year-round, but thousands more migrate here for the winter.
Tours are offered on small motor boats to explore the mangroves, where you might also spot a few fresh-water turtles sunbathing or crocodiles barely visible above the waterline. If you want to get a closer look at a crocodile, add a visit to the Kiekari Crocodile Farm rescue center. At the end of the estuary, there’s a freshwater spring where you can even hop in (no crocodiles here 🙂 ).
14 Hike to the Salto del Cora Waterfall
For something more adventurous after birdwatching, drive one hour outside of San Blas, where you’ll find a 40-meter waterfall called Salto del Cora. Once you reach the village of El Cora, take a short hike down to the base of the waterfall where you can jump in for a refreshing swim!
15 Visit Mexcaltitán, the Venice of Mexico
Mexcaltitán is a tiny town in northern Nayarit that is completely surrounded by water and only reachable by boat. During the rainy season (July – September), the streets flood and residents glide through by boat, earning this town the nickname “the Venice of Mexico.”
This little island is thought to be the birthplace of modern Mexico, with the ancient inhabitance setting out to find a promised land, founding Tenochitlán, or current day Mexico City.
Most locals make their living by shrimp fishing, so tuck into a fresh catch after exploring its ancient streets.