Cancun may get the lion’s share of UK visitors, but don’t forget Mexico’s beautiful Pacific Coast. Clare Walsh explores the Riviera Nayarit
"It’s real, it’s authentic, and it has soul. From our towns, to our people, to our food . . . this is Mexico.”
I’d asked my guide why visitors should choose to come to Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Traditionally, it’s been more popular with Americans and Canadians than Brits – let’s face it, it’s a longer flight than Cancun – but for clients who are looking for exploration and authenticity, stretches of this vast coast are undoubtedly worth it.
Extending north 200 miles from Puerto Vallarta airport, the Riviera Nayarit has beaches to rival Mexico’s Caribbean coast, plus pretty seaside towns, the rugged peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains and luxurious resorts to stay in.
The southern towns of Riviera Nayarit certainly deliver on authenticity, with our first stop San Francisco – also known as San Pancho – renowned as the region’s cultural capital.
Tranquil and unhurried, its mishmash of crumbling colonial architecture in rainbow hues sits shaded by mango trees, while lazy iguanas bask on sun-soaked branches.
Just to the south, the bohemian town of Sayulita pulsates with energy – maybe it’s something to do with the area’s primary export, tequila – and celebratory strings of bunting decorate the streets lined with stylish shops and galleries. Surfers wax their boards and soak up the buzzing beach scene.
And there are plenty of beaches to choose from. Riviera Nayarit boasts 192 miles of superior basking territory – a major draw. The exquisite peninsula of Punta Mita is a mecca for celebrities and is frequented by the likes of Beyoncé, the Kardashians and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Situated on the uppermost tip of Banderas Bay, the natives believe the sublime spot is a place for spiritual revival, with its shores lapped by the deep blue waters of the Pacific and encased by the Sierra Madre Mountains.
Offshore, the volcanic Marieta Islands are a hotspot for snorkelling and diving as the protected waters are home to turtles, rays, octopuses and dolphins. Humpback whales swim along the coast of the Riviera Nayarit from December to March, with cruises to see mothers and calves in Banderas Bay widely available during this season.
Scuba trips and boat tours are also popular with customers staying in the region’s biggest resort, Puerto Vallarta, a large and lively but nevertheless sophisticated spot with an Old Town as well as more modern developments, including a marina area, ocean-side boardwalk and hotel zone.
The beauty of holidays here is that customers can enjoy authenticity while still staying in the lap of luxury. Exclusive gated resorts set in acres of picturesque gardens offer options for both the avid golfer and spa-goer, along with gourmet dining options and butler service.
Among the many hotels in Puerto Vallarta is the all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit. Its impressive lobby welcomes guests with soaring ceilings, marble floors and attractive fountains.
Featuring 267 one, two and three-bedroom suites with private terraces and ocean views, the luxury resort also offers an impressive spa with 20 treatment rooms. Five dining options include French, Mexican and Italian. A master suite pool view starts from £320 a night.
Set in an elevated position in the neighbourhood of Conchas Chinas, the Grand Miramar Resort & Spa showcases spectacular views of Puerto Vallarta bay. The adult-only rooftop pool, Jacuzzi and dining area features one of the hotel’s three restaurants.
There is also a gym, spa and two further swimming pools. Room options include junior suites, master suites with open air Jacuzzi and two and three bedroom villas. A junior suite panoramic bay view starts at £129 a night with breakfast.
A playground for the rich and famous, the breathtaking peninsula of Punta Mita is the setting for the exclusive gated St Regis Punta Mita Resort. With the furnishings displaying a Provence-meets-Mexico style, all accommodation is ocean facing and set amid the resort’s extensive gardens.
Offering 89 deluxe rooms and a selection of suites, further features include butler service, two Jack Nicklaus golf courses, a spa and palm-lined beach, while the six dining options include Mexican, Mediterranean and sea food. Rates start at £327 for a deluxe room.
If the words ‘Mexico’ and ‘tequila’ conjure images of downing shots in a Cancun bar, prepare to be surprised by the classy West Coast experience surrounding the national nectar.
A Viva Tequila tour in Puerto Vallarta explained the harvesting process, when knowledgeable ‘jimadores’ hand-cut the blue agave plant at exactly the right moment to ensure there is enough carbohydrate for fermentation.
Only five states are allowed to produce genuine tequila, and any blend can be made up of more than 600 aromas, so tasting it is as complicated as wine.
Food in this region relies on endemic produce encouraged by the toasty climate, and options are fresh and healthy with plenty of choice for vegetarians like me.
Green juices, cactus, refried beans and guacamole became everyday highlights, and my evening tipple changed from a glass of red to a margarita, always topped with the zesty sprinkle of tajin, a local seasoning made from chili, lime and salt.
The chance to create our own culinary Mexican magic came at a cookery class held at El Arrayan restaurant, also in Puerto Vallarta. Set behind a sun-scorched orange door in the walls of the Old Town, only the most authentic Mexican dishes – those classed as part of Mexico’s ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by Unesco – are prepared here.
Cookery classes run between April and October, overseen by Carmen, one of the restaurant’s no-nonsense owners. Pre-Hispanic ingredients such as chili, corn, cactus and avocado are combined with European ingredients like pork and beef. My veggie alternative to the pulled pork recipe was a jackfruit and banana leaf stew, smothered in a delicious tangy sauce.
Ascending 2,000 feet into the Sierra Madre Mountains also felt like stepping back in time as our jeep headed off-road into an Eden-like jungle that is still home to the Huichol people and is teeming with animal and plant life.
Our ‘Hidden Mexico’ excursion, run by Vallarta Adventures, introduced us to Mexico’s ancient history through the petroglyphs at Las Pintadas, an archaeological site dating back to 800BC.
The rock carvings depict the culture and beliefs of the Nahua people, who believed the owl was a pet of the god of the dead, and possessed the ability to fly between worlds.
A visit to the Vallarta Botanical Gardens allowed us to learn about the area’s non-human inhabitants, from jaguars and armadillos to hummingbirds and orchids.
We heard about the raccoons that get drunk on the fermented sap of raffia palms, and spotted a range of insects from tarantulas to the golden silk spider, known for its strong orb webs that display a golden sheen. The super-strong silk is one of the toughest natural fibres.
Then it was time to discover more current culture, stopping at a graveyard filled with elaborately beautiful tombstones, and a local church where our guide Gaby explained the fusion of Catholic and native beliefs common to the area, and the belief in the ‘three paradises’. After a week in Riviera Nayarit, I felt sure one of them had to be found here.
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