Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre mountain range, with major airports at either end, the Riviera Nayarit is a 200-mile stretch of coastline that puts Mexico's lush vegetation and perpetually sunny weather on show. Whether to see the humpback whales wintering in Banderas Bay, to watch the crocodiles swim through the lagoons of North Nayarit's National Marshes, or to do nothing but lounge on a pearlescent beach surrounded by scenic bluffs, tourists flock to this diverse region year-round. The Riviera Nayarit comprises five culture-rich municipalities (Banderas Bay, Compostela, San Blas, Santiago, and Tecuala), each offering its own distinctive personality and breadth of activities.
Relax on Banderas Bay Beaches
Banderas Bay (Bahia de Banderas) is the most important tourist area in the Riviera Nayarit and the largest natural bay in Mexico, featuring 42 miles (68 kilometers) of coastline extending from Punta Mita in the north to Cabo Corrientes in the south. Popular activities in Banderas Bay include surfing, boogie-boarding, body-surfing, and swimming as well as a number of activities at all-inclusive resorts.
However, one of the biggest draws of the region is the variety of beaches you'll find along Banderas Bay, from family-friendly stretches of sand where you can buy fresh coconut pie to destinations catering to LGBT tourists and locals. Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta has a bit of everything, including a section near the resort and beach cafe called the Blue Chairs that is designated as the city's gay beach. Meanwhile, Palmares Beach south of the city and Los Muertos Beach in Sayulita offer quiet stretches of sand away from the crowds. For a bit of an adventure, take a 30-minute boat ride from Boca de Tomatlan to the isolated fishing village of Yelapa, which offers nearby waterfalls and horseback riding as well as fresh-baked coconut pie served right on the beach.
Spot Crocs at the National Marshes
Not far from the white-sand beaches of northern Nayarit is a refuge for crocodiles, water walking lizards, jaguars, and a slew of migratory birds. A boat tour through the National Marshes (also known as the San Blas mangroves or Marismas Nacionales) will give you an up-close view of this region's vast network of lagoons and, if you're lucky, the elusive wildlife that inhabit them. These marshes—occupying 2,000 square kilometers—is a haven for reptiles. Its combination of fresh water and salt water supports more than 300 species of birds, according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. The area welcomes 200,000-some shorebirds per year.
See Baby Sea Turtles
The beaches of Banderas Bay are home to several nesting areas for sea turtles, and during the hatching season from June through November each year, visitors can watch as baby turtles hatch from their shells and make their way to the ocean. Four protected species nest along the coast of Nayarit, including leatherback and Oliver Ridley turtles, and many of the hatchings often take place right outside the resorts on Banderas Bay.
However, while sea turtle eggs would normally incubate in the sand for around 45 days, recreational activities on the beaches have posed a greater risk to their safety, and the local hotel industry has taken an active role in protecting and conserving the hatching process for over 30 years. As a result, resort guests are invited to release baby turtles during the hatching season. The largest number of these hatchling release events take place in November but are available at a select number of resorts from June through December.
Additionally, there are several turtle camps and nurseries in the bay that are run by ecological groups including Compamentos Tortugueros Puerto Vallarta near Playa de Oro and Playa los Tules as well as Grupo Ecologico de la Costa Verde's Marine Turtle Nursery, Platanitos Turtle Camp, and Grupo Ecologico de Nayarit's Playa el Naranjo in Riviera Nayarit.
Puerto Vallarta is the busiest tourist town in the Riviera Nayarit and serves as one of the main ports of call for Mexican Riviera cruises. While the beaches of Banderas Bay are the most popular attractions in the area, there are many other great activities to enjoy during your stay in Puerto Vallarta.
Families staying at a resort on Banderas Bay can take a taxi into town and stroll along the Malecon—a seaside walkway that features a number of contemporary sculptures—or go on a boat trip to the Islas Marietas for a more secluded getaway. Puerto Vallarta also has a reputation as one of Mexico's best destinations for local cuisine; from street food and low-key dining options to upscale restaurants like Café des Artistes, there are options for every budget and taste.
Go Whale Watching
Riviera Nayarit is a great place to see oceanic mammals. Kayakers in Banderas Bay often see dolphins, and visitors can also take whale-watching tours from November to April when hundreds of humpback whales visit Banderas Bay as part of their migration between Alaska and Hawaii.
There are a number of whale-watching trips available, including several that feature music and dancing and a few that allow guests to go snorkeling or kayaking as part of the adventure. Vallarta Adventures and Ocean Friendly Whale Watching Tours are two possibilities for whale-watching in the Riviera Nayarit, and even on a trip in early November—before whale-watching tours actually began—you can spot whales during a snorkeling trip on your own.
Have an Adventure on Canopy Tours and Zip Lines
Not only does the Riviera Nayarit have beautiful beaches, but the area also has mountains that offer fine opportunities for day-trips and adventures. Among them, canopy tours are one of the best ways to see a unique perspective of the rainforests. The term "canopy tours" refers to adventures that take visitors high up to the treetop level in the rainforest, where they can take a thrilling ride along a zipline. Vallarta Adventures—conveniently located in Nuevo Vallarta—offers a tour to a Canopy Adventure Park 45 miles northeast of Puerto Vallarta.
Stay in Luxury in Punta Mita
Located on a small peninsula north of Puerto Vallarta, Punta Mita is a fishing village and luxury resort area on Banderas Bay known for its upscale homes, golf courses, and private beaches. If you'd like to enjoy the life of luxury in Riviera Nayarit, there are two resorts that are especially known for pampering their guests: The Four Seasons Punta Mita and St. Regis Punta Mita.
The Four Seasons Punta Mita has a dramatic cliffside location in the gated enclave of Punta Mita. Along with a heated lazy river, this family-friendly resort offers a complimentary "Kids For All Seasons" program as well as a variety of activities the whole family can enjoy on the beach. Meanwhile, St. Regis Punta Mita offers fine dining, a beautiful spa, heated pools, and cabanas equipped with all conveniences. Both resorts also grant guests access to the Jack Nicklaus golf course, which is known for the unique hole 3B, an optional hole that's located on a tiny island off-shore.
Take a Road Trip
Renting a car and taking a road trip is the best way to see the lush countryside of Riviera Nayarit, and fortunately, the roads in the region are in relatively good condition for driving. Heading north from Banderas Bay, the beach town of Sayulita is less than 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Puerto Vallarta and makes an easy day trip, but the larger town of San Blas is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. Along the way, road trippers can take a break and drink fresh coconut milk from roadside fruit stands or stop for dinner at some of the countryside's rural restaurants.
Visit the Beach Town of Sayulita
About 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Puerta Vallarta is the little beach town of Sayulita, known as one of Mexico's best surfing spots. Families can wander the small streets, have a meal at one of the beachside restaurants, or perhaps try a surfing lesson. Shopping opportunities are plentiful as well, but despite its laid-back appearance, Sayulita has higher prices of a tourist town.
Visit the Town of San Blas
San Blas is a small port and fishing town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Puerto Vallarta, a pleasant three to four-hour drive on a good road. Families can walk around the town square, visit a colonial church just across the street, and explore a fortress with a panoramic view of the town. It's also a relatively cheap destination perfect for taking in the local culture, enjoying authentic meals, and learning the language of Mexico.
Just outside the town of San Blas, kids can wade and swim in a large, shallow bay whose beach is popular with Mexican families on getaways from the Nayarit state capital of Tepic. It's also one of Mexico's best surf spots for beginners, and casual beach restaurants serve up fresh seafood to satisfy your hunger after a day on the water.
San Blas is also known as a top destination for birders, with over 200 species of birds in the area, and as a gateway to La Tovara National Park. Take a boat trip through quiet waterways in the mangrove forest where you can spot crocodiles, iguanas, and many beautiful birds.
Learn About Huichol Art
A visit to the Riviera Nayarit is also an opportunity to learn about the Huichol people, the native people who've lived near Sayulita in the foothills and highlands of Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountain range for centuries. Descended directly from the Aztec people, the Huichol are known for their unique art form of yarn painting, where colorful yarn is pressed into a surface that's covered with beeswax and resin, as well as beadwork decorating miniature skulls and animal figurines.
Visitors will see Huichol jewelry and crafts for sale in the town squares of Sayulita and San Blas as well as in resort gift shops and other tourist shops around the region. Alternatively, book a guided tour of the Huichol villages, which includes a stop in the authentic Mexican fishing village of Rincon de Guayabitos as well as the foothills of the Sierra Madre.