11 Best Things to Do in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

Pangas at rest on the beach at Sayulita in the golden hour before sunset, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

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Tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre mountain range with major airports at either end, Riviera Nayarit is a 200-mile stretch of coastline that puts Mexico's lush vegetation and perpetually sunny weather on full display. Visitors flock to this diverse region all year long to see the humpback whales wintering in Banderas Bay, watch the crocodiles swim through the lagoons of North Nayarit's National Marshes, or do nothing but lounge on a pearlescent beach surrounded by scenic bluffs. 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.

01 of 11

Visit Nayarit's Spectacular Marietas Islands

Hidden Beach in Nayarit's Marietas Islands

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Marietas Islands, Mexico

Located just off the coast of Punta Mita in Banderas Bay, the Marietas Islands (Islas Marietas), are only accessible by boat, with companies like Vallarta Adventures and Punta Mita Expeditions offering tours and day trips.

While you can't actually access the islands without special permission—they're part of Isla Marietas National Park and currently serve as a protected bird sanctuary—it's worth coming here for the snorkeling and diving, and to view the birds and other wildlife. See if you can spot blue footed boobies, which call these islands and the Galápagos Islands home, then check out the various rock formations, arches, and caves scattered around the islands. Hidden Beach, pictured here, is also referred to as Playa de Amor (Lover's Beach) and can be accessed at low tide.

02 of 11

Kick Back With the Locals in Bucerías

A colorful street in Bucerias, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

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Bucerías, Nayarit, Mexico

Just a 30-minute drive from Punta Mita or Puerto Vallarta, the town of Bucerías is a favorite destination among domestic as well as international travelers. Known for its bucolic beach town vibes, colorful buildings sporting large wooden doors, and quaint cobblestone streets, this peaceful spot along Banderas Bay draws families seeking quiet waters to swim in, and those looking to surf, shop, eat, and drink alongside the locals, all while taking the time to appreciate real Mexican culture and art.

03 of 11

Relax on the Beaches of Banderas Bay

Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, Banderas Bay

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Bahía de Banderas, Nayarit, Mexico

Banderas Bay (Bahia de Banderas) is the most important tourist zone in Riviera Nayarit and the largest natural bay in Mexico, with 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 water sports you can try through the area's various all-inclusive resorts.

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 seaside destinations catering to the LGBTQ+ community. Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta has little a bit of everything, including a section near the Blue Chairs resort and beach cafe that's designated as the city's gay beach.

Nearby, Palmares Beach 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 Tomatlán to the isolated fishing village of Yelapa, where you can find beautiful waterfalls and horseback riding as well as fresh-baked coconut pie served right on the beach.

04 of 11

Spot Crocodiles at the National Marshes

Crocodile in wetlands pond at San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico

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Marismas Nacionales, Mexico

Not far from the white-sand beaches of northern Nayarit is a wildlife refuge for crocodiles, water walking lizards, jaguars, and a slew of migratory birds. A boat tour through the National Marshes (also called the San Blas mangroves or Marismas Nacionales) will give you a closer look at the region's vast network of lagoons and if you're lucky, the elusive creatures that inhabit them.

These marshes, occupying 279,000 acres, are a haven for reptiles. According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the combination of freshwater and saltwater supports more than 300 species of birds. The area also welcomes over 200,000 shorebirds each year.

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05 of 11

Help Release Baby Sea Turtles Back Into the Wild

Baby Leatherback Sea Turtles

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The beaches of Banderas Bay are home to several nesting areas for sea turtles, and during the hatching season, which takes place each year from June through November, visitors can watch as the baby turtles hatch 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 along Banderas Bay.

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. As a result, the local hotel industry has taken an active role in protecting and conserving the hatching process for more than 30 years, inviting guests to get in on the action and help release the baby turtles. Note that most hatchling release events take place in November, though some are available at certain resorts from June through December.

Additionally, there are several turtle camps and nurseries in Banderas 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.

06 of 11

Learn About Huichol Art

Huichol Bead Art

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Rincón de Guayabitos, Nayarit, Mexico

A visit to Riviera Nayarit provides a great opportunity to learn about the Huichol people, the Indigenous people who have 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 the 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. For a closer look, you can take a guided tour that visits local Huichol villages, which typically include lunch and a stop in the foothills of the Sierra Madre along the way.

07 of 11

Spend the Day Whale Watching

Whale watching

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Riviera Nayarit, 63729 Nay., Mexico

Riviera Nayarit is a great place to view oceanic mammals. Kayakers in Banderas Bay often see dolphins and visitors can take whale watching tours from November to April when hundreds of humpback whales visit these waters as part of their migration between Alaska and Hawaii. Even on a trip in early November, before whale watching tours actually began, you should be able to spot whales during a snorkeling trip on your own.

Several whale watching trips are available, including a few that feature music and dancing and others that allow guests to go snorkeling or kayaking as part of your day on the water. Vallarta Adventures has whale-watching photo safari tours, while Ocean Friendly's Whale Watching Tour operates from early December through late-March, with trips led by a bilingual marine scientist.

08 of 11

Experience Luxury at One of Punta Mita's Prestigious Resorts

Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita

Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita

63727 Punta Mita, Nayarit, Mexico

Located on a small peninsula north of Puerto Vallarta, Punta Mita is a fishing village and luxury resort area along Banderas Bay that's home to upscale homes, golf courses, and private beaches.

If you'd like to stay in super-luxe accommodations during your time in Riviera Nayarit, two properties are famous for pampering their guests in style: Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita and St. Regis Punta Mita Resort.

Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita has a dramatic cliffside location in a gated enclave of Punta Mita. Along with a heated lazy river, this family-friendly property offers a complimentary "Kids For All Seasons" program as well as a variety of activities the whole family can enjoy on the beach.

The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort offers fine dining, a beautiful spa, heated pools, and fully equipped cabanas. Both properties also grant guests access to the Bahia and Pacifico Jack Nicklaus golf courses, which is known for its unique Tail of the Whale 3B hole, an optional challenge hole located on a tiny island off-shore.

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09 of 11

Explore Nearby Puerto Vallarta

Zona Romantica, Puerto Vallarta

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Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta is the busiest city in Riviera Nayarit and serves as one of the main ports of call for cruises to Mexico's West Coast. While the beaches of Banderas Bay are the most popular attractions in the area, there are many other activities to enjoy during your time in Puerto Vallarta.

Families staying at a Banderas Bay resort can take a taxi into town and stroll along the Malecon, a seaside walkway known for its contemporary sculptures, or take a boat trip to 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, there's something perfect for every budget and taste.

10 of 11

Visit the Beach Town of Sayulita

Sayulita village, Mexico

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63728 Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico

About an hour's drive north of Puerta Vallarta is the little beach town of Sayulita, known as one of Mexico's best surfing spots. Wander the small streets, have a meal at one of the beachside restaurants, or perhaps try a surfing lesson or at least watch the pros do their thing. Shopping opportunities are plentiful as well, but despite its laid-back appearance, Sayulita's prices are often higher since it's more touristy.

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Day Trip to Bird Watching Paradise in San Blas

Black-bellied Whistling Duck near San Blas.

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San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico

San Blas is a small port and fishing village about a three-hour drive north of Puerto Vallarta along a good road. Check out the town square, visit a colonial church just across the street, and explore a fortress offering panoramic views of the town. It's also a relatively cheap destination that's perfect for taking in the local culture, and enjoying the food and languages found in this part of Mexico.

Kids can wade and swim in a large, shallow bay just outside San Blas 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 where casual beach restaurants serve up freshly caught seafood to help satisfy your hunger after a day out on the water.

As the gateway to La Tovara National Park, San Blas is also known as a top destination for birders, with more than 200 species of birds in the area. Take a boat trip through quiet waterways in the mangrove forest where you can spot crocodiles, iguanas, and many beautiful birds.

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11 Best Things to Do in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico