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Why Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit Is the New Cancun

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Throughout the 30-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta to the brightly colored surfer town of Sayulita, there was one thing, besides the ocean views, that remained constant: New construction. The region of Riviera Nayarit, which got its name from Mexico’s tourism board of the same name, has a “made up” label of sorts, created in hope of differentiating this section of Mexico’s Pacific coast from its more popular neighbor, Puerto Vallarta.

The new construction, however, is about the only thing in common between each of the 23 distinct communities on this stretch of coastline. A vacation to Riviera Nayarit means experiencing different cultures, beaches, and activities, depending on which part you stay in.

Later this year the Conrad Playa Mita hotel is opening, and renovations are finishing at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. Also new this year is the Marival Armony Punta de Mita. Come 2020, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts will open the Rosewood Mandarina. One&Only Mandarina Resort and One&Only Mandarina Private Homes will also open next year, at a location with breathtaking ocean views, cliffside bungalows, an ocean-fed pool, all on a long strip of a pristine and remote beach.

AMResorts’ Dreams Punta de Mita Resort & Spa and Secrets Punta de Mita Resort & Spa are also both slated to open in 2020. Coming in 2021 is Auberge Resorts Collection’s Susurros del Corazon. In 2022, a new development called Costa Canuva will open featuring a Fairmont and Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

And 2019 visitor numbers support the hotel expansion projects. According to the tourism board, the region saw a five-percent increase in North American travelers compared to last year, and the average occupancy rate was 82 percent in the southern part of the region: the Bay of Banderas.

Interested in seeing this up-and-coming slice of Mexico before the crowds arrive? Here are the best ways to experience Riviera Nayarit.

Best Places to Visit in Riviera Nayarit  

colorful banners in mexico town.

Puerto Vallarta, the closest airport, is only 15 minutes away from the start of the Riviera Nayarit. And the farthest part of the region where most tourists visit, San Blas, is about three hours away from Puerto Vallarta. Riviera Nayarit’s close proximity to Puerto Vallarta makes it accessible via many North American hubs: Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, Toronto, and Calgary. And for those who want to explore more of Mexico, there’s a new toll road being developed between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta which will be about a three-hour drive. Within the region, there are also new roads being constructed to connect the towns along the Bay of Banderas.

Here are the best places in Riviera Nayarit to visit, in order of closest to farthest from Puerto Vallarta and the airport:

  • Nuevo Vallarta: A community of all-inclusive and family-friendly resorts on the Bay of Banderas; many properties have beach access.
  • Punta de Mita: A luxury development area where celebrities vacation.
  • Sayulita: A surfer-town made (in)famous by the reality show Bachelor in Paradise. It’s about 30 minutes to this section of the region, and the town is a popular place for surfing, shopping, and hanging out by the beach. It’s also one of Mexico’s famed pueblos magicos, a government designation for culturally significant towns.
  • San Francisco (San Pancho): San Pancho is what Sayulita was 10 years ago before the crowds found it. The sleepy town—about 15-minutes north of Sayulita—has a new eco-boutique hotel, remote beaches, and local charm.
  • San Blas: This is the northern-most point of Riviera Nayarit and a popular area for bird-watching. Back in the late 1700s, this was the most important port on the coastline and you can learn about its history as a fishing village. 

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Getting off the Resort in Riviera Nayarit

hidden cave beach in mexico.

While many come to the area to enjoy time at resorts, the region offers plenty of activities to enjoy off-resort as well.

For nature and water lovers, there are islands and national parks; Isla Marietas is the most famous one for its “Hidden Beach”. There are also two biosphere reserves: Isla Jaguar-Marismas and Isla Isabel National Park. And no matter what area you stay in, you’ll have opportunities to deep-sea fish, jet-ski, kayak, scuba dive, paddleboard, and more. During May through September whale sharks are spotted throughout the area, and the whale-watching season for blue whales, orcas, humpbacks, sperm whales, and more begins mid-December and ends in May.

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Birdwatching is a popular activity along the water, and there are also plenty of interior hiking trails and jungle walks to take that have gorgeous views of the coastline. It’s recommended to book an experience with a local guide, and you can learn more about Riviera Nayarit hikes here.

For culture visit the small towns along the coastline, like San Pancho. While perusing the towns, try a mezcal tasting class at a local mezcaleria like La Baba del Diablo. Isla de Mexcaltitan, which is often referred to as the “Venice of Nayarit” for its urban canals, is also a worthy day trip. And while resort dining is convenient and tasty, try at least one local meal off-site; the region is famous for pescado zarandeado (grilled fish) and aguachile (shrimp ceviche).

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Lastly, there’s plenty of golfing. The Punta Mita area especially is a popular vacation destination for golfers, home to two courses designed by famous golfer Jack Nicklaus. In total, the region has eight courses and is home to the only green in the world that’s on a natural island.

Best Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

stretch of beach on mexicos pacific coast.

From family-friendly properties to affordable hotels, there are plenty of hotels in Riviera Nayarit for every type of traveler.

All-Inclusive Resorts in Riviera Nayarit

All-inclusive resorts are the way to go if you want to check-in and forget about planning. The Nuevo Vallarta area and Punta Mita have concentrated sections of all-inclusive resorts. Here are three well-reviewed options:

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Luxury Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Celebrities have flocked to the Punta Mita area of Riviera Nayarit for years. Here are two of the most famous luxury hotels:

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Boutique Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Up-and-coming sections of the region are home to quaint, smaller, boutique hotels. Here are options in Sayulita and San Francisco:

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Family-Friendly Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Riviera Nayarit is a haven for families on vacation. Here are three well-known, family-friendly hotels in the Nuevo Vallarta area:

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Affordable Hotels in Riviera Nayarit

Budget-conscious travelers will be happy to know that there are plenty of options for them as well; check out these three affordable hotels in the region:

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More from SmarterTravel:

What to Wear in Riviera Nayarit

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Ashley Rossi was hosted by Riviera Nayarit. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

By Ashley Rossi

Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

After interning at SmarterTravel, Ashley joined the team full time in 2015. She's lived on three continents, but still never knows where her next adventure will take her. She's always searching for upcoming destination hotspots, secluded retreats, and hidden gems to share with the world.

Ashley's stories have been featured online on USA Today, Business Insider, TripAdvisor, Huffington Post, Jetsetter, and Yahoo! Travel, as well as other publications.

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