More Beyond the Beach
Photo courtesy of Riviera Nayarit Tourism
Riviera Nayarit is no longer a well-kept secret, and that’s to be expected as the region continues to earn praise and accolades for its luxury hotels and spectacular beaches, which stretch nearly 200 miles along Mexico’s Pacific coast. But there is another, less-heralded side of this destination that tends to get overlooked, with experiences worth promoting to those interested in more than just hitting the beach.
Some of these alternative offerings include crocodile watching from a wooden boat in the San Blas area, where visitors are surrounded by hundreds of birds chirping in a jungle of twisted mangroves. The less courageous can take a trip to the village of Sayulita, where the Huichol people, one of the last tribes in North America to still live much like they did in pre-Columbian times, sell their native artwork in streets dotted with ex-patriots and the occasional A-list celebrity. Further inland in Santa María del Oro, visitors have the option of dining on local fare at a lagoon formed hundreds of years ago by volcanic activity. Here’s what else visitors can expect.
About Riviera Nayarit: Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Western Sierra Madre Mountains, Riviera Nayarit has established itself as one of Mexico’s newest tourism destinations, a place where the annual average temperature hovers around 80 degrees and sunshine dominates the forecast.
The rainy season, however, begins in early summer and continues into the fall. During these months, the mornings usually start with sunshine that lasts throughout the day. As the sun sets, rain showers begin and don’t stop for two or three hours.
This climate provides ideal beach conditions, but also supports a range of animals and plants, including hundreds of species of birds, making it a must-see place for wildlife enthusiasts. When it comes to the local human population, there are four tribes of indigenous people, but the most popular group for travelers to encounter is the Huichols, who are distinguished by their colorful embroidered clothing and plumed hats.
To get to Riviera Nayarit, visitors can fly into Puerto Vallarta International Airport, located just 10 to 15 minutes from the region’s southern most resort areas and offering both domestic and international flights. Aeromexico, American Airlines, Delta and Interjet are just a few of the carriers that operate out of this hub. Further north and inland there’s also the small Tepic International Airport, which doesn’t offer a full flight schedule.
What’s hot: There’s no shortage of new resorts and attractions in Riviera Nayarit. The luxury brand One&Only (www.oneandonlyresorts.com) is making its debut in the region with the beachfront One&Only Mandarina, which will feature 145 luxurious villas as well as separate, private residential estates. Rooms are specially designed to give guests the best views of the surrounding forest and ocean. Ground is expected to be broken in January 2016 about 60 miles from Puerto Vallarta.
Matlali Hotel (www.matlali.com) recently opened its doors in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, closer to the main airport. The property, part of a nature preserve overlooking Banderas Bay, has 40 villa-style accommodations, each with fully-equipped kitchens, ocean and mountain views, and separate living and dining areas. The hotel also is associated with a local hotspot, Eva Mandarina Beach Club, where guests can dine on seafood ceviches, shrimp aguachile and traditional tacos.
When it comes to renovations, the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit (www.grandvelas.com) in Nuevo Vallarta, a recipient of an AAA Five Diamond award, recently began a gradual $20 million renovation program that will be completed by 2016. Renovations to a restaurant, the spa and a majority of suites were completed in December. The resort is completing a new teen center and lobby bar and creating Wellness Suites in what were the Ambassador Penthouse Suites.
Elsewhere, Cirque du Soleil (www.cirquedusoleil.com), the globally acclaimed entertainment company, and Grupo Vidanta (www.grupovidanta.com), a leading developer of world-class resorts and tourism infrastructure in Mexico, have teamed up to build a 300-acre, first-of-its-kind theme park experience in Nuevo Vallarta. The project will include a water park, nature park and an outdoor evening show for up to 5,000 spectators. Each experience within the entertainment park will be designed and performed by Cirque du Soleil artists. Construction is expected to be completed in 2018.
What to see: Visitors who want to spend time exploring what Riviera Nayarit has to offer can take a day trip to the Marietas Islands off the region’s southwestern coast. This small group of volcanic islands count explorer Jacques Cousteau as an admirer, and feature the “Hidden Beach” seen on travel brochures for the area. The islands also were recently designated a national park, with more than 90 species of aquatic and subaquatic migratory and native birds.
To get there, take a van or bus to a local tour company, such as Vallarta Adventures (www.vallarta-adventures.com), and then board a boat for a trip out to the islands. The trip lasts about seven hours and costs roughly $85 for adults and $55 for kids. Being able to swim is important if you want to reach the beach, which is accessible through a cave and requires swimmers to fight a strong current if they want to get there.
Hailed by many as the best destination in all of Mexico for bird watching, San Blas sits about 100 miles north of Puerto Vallarta and once was an important colonial trading port that still has some of that Old World charm. Visitors can hop on a boat outside of town and take a 10-mile ride through La Tovara National Park, a mangrove-lined ecosystem with the region’s only crocodile reserve.
Special package tours of San Blas are available with experienced guides who can point out birds with names like the black-bellied tree duck, great blue heron and roseate spoonbill during tours of the wetlands. Included in the package is a visit to the Crocodile Reserve in El Manantial of La Camelota, which features some baby crocodiles and full-grown adult crocs up close.
Further south in Sayulita, visitors will find some very different, manmade sounds as they explore the cobblestone-lined streets. The village boasts a hodgepodge of natives and transplanted Europeans and Americans. A member of the Kardashian clan is even known to stop in for visit and peruse the shops, which include a boutique called Revolución Del Sueño (55 Calle Manuel Navarrete) selling trendy, limited edition clothing inspired by Mexican history. Visitors also are encouraged to head to the ocean to check out the waves, which entertain surfers well after the sun begins to set.
Where to stay: From boutique properties with only a handful of rooms to sprawling resorts run by international luxury brands, there’s no shortage of accommodations in Riviera Nayarit. For those willing to pay top dollar, the private investment arm of one of the world’s wealthiest men, Bill Gates, reportedly snatched up the Four Seasons Punta Mita (www.fourseasons.com/puntamita) and another parcel of land for $200 million in cash less then two years ago. Opened in 1999, the property is located inside an exclusive development near a small fishing village and has 173 casita-style guestrooms, three alfresco Richard Sandoval restaurants with ocean views, and access to world-class golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus. Casitas start at $500 per night.
In San Blas, there’s the Garza Canela Hotel (www.garzacanela.com), a Mexican-owned property that has been part of the Vázquez González family for generations. Five siblings run the hotel, including one who has become a celebrity chef. Betty Vázquez, a culinary ambassador for Riviera Nayarit, was recently named as one of the three judges for the first-ever Master Chef Mexico, a reality cooking show searching for the country’s most talented amateur chef. As for her hotel, it features 45 units, a dozen of which are suites. Clientele include bird watchers, surfers and families. In terms of amenities, guests can expect to find a pool, access to local guides and in-room Wi-Fi. Rooms start at $50 per night.
What to do: Beyond the specific attractions mentioned above, there are several upcoming events, including the International Festival Gourmet (www.festivalgourmet.com), which is happening throughout the region, Nov. 16-22. Each participating host restaurant collaborates on dishes with guest chefs from around the world. Earlier in the month, on Nov. 1, there’s the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), a national tradition that pays tribute to deceased family and friends. The holiday has garnered international attention for its elaborately colorful altars and skulls.
Where to dine: Visitors to San Blas can stop at El Delfin, the restaurant at Garza Canela Hotel. There they will find Mexican celebrity chef Betty Vázquez cooking up dishes like shrimp quesadillas with Serrano, onion and basil or baked pork loin coated in five spices, mustard and piloncillo. Main courses run about $15. For dessert, there’s chocolate cake made with chile de Arbol and pepper sauce, or homemade ice cream.
Another restaurant to take a look at is also part of a hotel, although it’s much smaller than the San Blas property. Hotel Cielo (www.hotelcielorojo.com) is a nine-room boutique property in the quaint village of San Francisco, which is also called San Pancho. The hotel’s restaurant, Bistro Organico, offers food with a focus on fresh seafood and indigenous produce. Diners can eat outside and enjoy margaritas on a garden patio while also trying dishes like stuffed chili with shrimp and an avocado salad topped with chili seeds, tomatoes and goat cheese. Full meals run up to $20 per person.
For more information, visit www.rivieranayarit.com.
More by Greg Shillinglaw
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A version of this article appears in print in the October 2015 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.
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