Riviera Nayarit May be Mexico’s Most Underrated Destination

It’s a favorite spot of Hollywood A-listers and draws a different crowd from the spring breakers who flood Cancun.

Start your Riviera Nayarit adventure at the Marieta Islands, which are a few miles off the coast of Nayarit. A protected national park, the uninhabited islands are perfect for whale-watching, snorkeling, paddleboarding or just relaxing on the beach.

Plan ahead: Only a few tour companies are allowed by the Mexican government to take visitors to the Marieta Islands due to conservation. No fishing or hunting is allowed there. Book the “Marine Safari” with Punta Mita Expeditions for a gorgeous tour of the waters. Families will love the whale- and bird-watching from expertly piloted small boats. Also as part of this tour, you can snorkel through the crystal-clear waters and marvel at the tropical fish, starfish and more.

Another stop on the Marine Safari is Hidden Beach on the Marieta Islands, a former U.S. bombing site that was saved thanks to intervention by Jacques Cousteau. It’s only accessible by swimming through a tunnel that opens up to warm clear water and a beautiful beach.

Next, head back to the mainland and lunch at Mariscos Tino’s, an oceanfront joint on the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Banderas) in Nayarit. Order the pescado sarandeado, a local dish of red snapper glazed with achiote sauce and grilled to perfection. The aguachile, a ceviche-like dish, is a refreshing must-have. And treat yourself to the local spirit, the agave-based and surprisingly smooth raicilla.

The towns of San Pancho and Sayulita are ideal for surfing, sunbathing and shopping. At San Pancho beach (aka San Francisco beach), leave your New York City neuroses at the door: This tranquil sunset vista is your ticket to relaxation. The surrounding town charmingly strikes the right balance of things to see and do. While there, I spotted an inviting smoothie spot, several independent coffee shops, and a food truck filled with delicious sweet breads.

In San Pancho, head to Hotel Cielo Rojo. A delightful boutique hotel with an organic restaurant, the venue boasts a warm atmosphere and perfectly curated decor. It inspires you not only to take it easy but also to reconnect with your loved ones and share incredibly fresh dishes. Here, say ¡Salud! (cheers, to your health!) while enjoying the tequilas, which are made in-house. And nosh on the excellent oysters and neem salad followed by their lobster or catch of the day.

Stop in Sayulita for beachfront dining and strolling. For food, head to Don Pedro’s Restaurant & Bar. With a view of the beach and a serenading band clad in cowboy hats, this is Mexico at its whimsical best. At Don Pedro’s, the shrimp tacos are simple and scrumptious. And make sure to leave room for dessert. They offer fried plantains glazed with just the right amount of sugar.

Sayulita is known for its great shopping. While there, stop by the hottest store in Mexico, Revolución del Sueño. Full of cheeky takes on Mexican icons, this is the place to snag a Huichol (indigenous people of Mexico) art-inspired bracelet with a mustache accent, a pillow printed with the image of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, or DayGlo-hued papier-mâché skulls. Ladies who love surf chic should check out the boutique Pacha Mama, which means Mother Earth. From its elegant mother-of-pearl pendants on leather strings to its loose-fitting, irreverent tunics, this clothing store mixes casual, elegant and boho with precision.

Adventurous travelers, get your adrenaline fix with a zip-line canopy tour and guided all-terrain vehicle (ATV) driving in Punta de Mita. Save a few bucks by booking directly through the tour company Rancho Mi Chaparrita. The warm, jovial staff make your adventure safe and enjoyable. Plus, they’ve shepherded celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian through this exact tour.

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