The Riviera Nayarit is the Mexico you’ve been dreaming of.
It’s a land filled with gold-tinged beaches and palms that stoop so low the waves kiss them on the waxy leaves. There are cute cobblestone villages filled with taquerias and tequila shops. Misty, jungle-dressed mountains rise behind, offering hiking and all sorts of exotic wildlife encounters.
All the while, roaring swells crash onto headlands by the Pacific, and the sunsets are simply some of the best you’ll ever get to witness.
Anchored by the buzzy party city of Puerto Vallarta on one side, the Riviera Nayarit stretches for over 200 miles up the coast of western Mexico. Thankfully, it’s been left a little more untouched than the country’s other major resort centers on the Baja and Oaxaca coasts.
You can still find secluded coves and empty beaches and real adventure here, and lots of it! Let’s take a look at 10 of the best things to do in Riviera Nayarit.
- 1 Top 10 Things to Do in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
- 1.1 Hit the Waves in Sayulita
- 1.2 Watch the Sunset at San Pancho
- 1.3 Hike the Jungles North of Sayulita
- 1.4 Climb Monkey Mountain
- 1.5 Discover Secret Beach
- 1.6 Get in the Mexicana Vibe at Lo de Marcos
- 1.7 Enjoy a Wild “Spa” at Playa de Barro
- 1.8 Head to La Lancha for Surfing and Chilling
- 1.9 Take A Day Trip to the Bahia de Banderas
- 1.10 Explore Puerto Vallarta
- 1.11 Inspired? Pin this!
Top 10 Things to Do in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico
Hit the Waves in Sayulita
The surfing in Sayulita is one of the main reasons this corner of Mexico is on the adventure travel map. Like Kuta is to Bali, it’s a beginner’s mecca; a great place to get started on the waves.
The town itself spills out onto a gorgeous gold-sand beach that runs for about a kilometer to the north. It has two main surf breaks right on the doorstep: A right-hand reef that’s better for improvers and a sandbar for the surf schools.
Talking of those…you certainly won’t be short of surf schools in Sayulita. This town is packed to the brim with places to rent and get lessons.
On days when there aren’t waves (rare), you can look for the secret paths to the hidden cove of Playa de los Muertos. That’s a pretty little clutch of coconut trees and turquoise water with rugged headlands and a sprinkling of cerveza bars.
Watch the Sunset at San Pancho
We hesitate to tell anyone about the small town of San Pancho. It remains one of the best-kept secrets of the Riviera Nayarit. Clustered under the low sierras around 50km north of Puerto Vallarta, it’s all crisscrossing lanes of cobbled roadway, dotted with paint-peeling cantinas and cute surf shacks.
There’s no doubt in our mind that one of the best sunsets on the whole of the Riviera was at San Pancho Playa – we’d even say one of the best in the whole world (sorry, Koh Lanta!).
Every evening the light went a mysterious purply red before blazing ochre and gold across the arc of shimmering sand that fronts the town. The best spot to watch is at the south end of the bay, where you’ll see surfers and the silhouettes of palm trees in the dying light.
Hike the Jungles North of Sayulita
Most people stick to the beaches, the resort hotels, and the waves. However, there are some wonderful jungle trails weaving into the wilderness just to the north of Sayulita town – perfect for budding explorers.
Head to the end of the main beach to find the trailhead zigzagging over salt-sprayed rocks up onto a craggy promontory. That’s where the expedition begins.
Soon, you’ll be navigating pine and capomo blooms, pockets of wild orchids, and huge clutches of ferns.
Sometimes, the path edges out towards the coastline and you’ll be rewarded with 180-degree vistas of the Pacific. Other moments, you’ll be ducking swinging vines and hopping across mossy roots while keeping an eye out for monkeys in the boughs overhead.
A good route to take is the one that leads you all the way to the town of San Pancho…
Climb Monkey Mountain
Monkey Mountain soars above the surf-bashed seafronts of Sayulita and the long sandy beaches of Higuera Blanca. It’s one of the tallest summits on the southern end of the Riviera Nayarit.
Up top, you’ll get sweeping panoramas of the Mexican Pacific, along with views to the east, towards the untamed ridges of the lush Sierra Madre ranges.
But first: The hike.
A 7.5-kilometer up and down, it offers a showcasing of the region’s booming biodiversity. Huge (like, really huge) spiders occupy webs overhead, green parakeets whiz this way and that through the balmy air, and there’s even a chance you’ll spot ocelots or pumas (don’t get your hopes up, though – they’re notoriously elusive).
Start early because the trek is seriously hard going in the heat of the day.
Discover Secret Beach
While Playa Sayulita and Playa San Pancho are surely up there with the top things to do in Riviera Nayarit, there are other hidden coves on offer that have just a fraction of the crowds.
One of the best is known, aptly, as Secret Beach. You’ll need to trek a little way to get to it, through the pine groves and hibiscus trees between the two towns. There aren’t any signs to lead you there but follow the sounds of the waves and you’re sure to find what you’re after.
Long and uninterrupted, it rolls out from a jagged rock to a high coast mountain in the north. Along the way, it’s all steep-sloping dunes and shore break waves that sizzle as they throw their whitewash against the sand.
We only had to share the whole beach with two or three others, and it’s a mere 50 minutes walking (depending on how many photos you stop to take!) from the main road.
Get in the Mexicana Vibe at Lo de Marcos
The little village of Lo de Marcos is one of the more authentically Mexican places on the Riviera Nayarit. It still has its fair share of boutique hotels and B&Bs, but it’s nowhere near as developed as Sayulita or Punta Mita.
Just check the beach – it’s spacious and practically empty compared to its compadres in the south.
The town itself is just behind. There, the dusty streets are clip-clopped by mounted cowboys and the sounds of mariachi music echo from the coffee shops.
We’re under no illusions that Lo de Marcos is going to change but for now, it’s a fine place to get a feel for the real Mexican Pacific.
Enjoy a Wild “Spa” at Playa de Barro
The northern ends of the Riviera Nayarit are generally more untouched and untrodden than the surf towns and resorts in the south.
Cue Playa de Barro.
It’s one of the region’s most remote beaches and is a bit of a challenge to get to. Jungle paths overgrown with ferns and decaying leaves wiggle down from the main Puerto Vallarta-Tepic highway. Alternatively, there’s an awesome coastal trail through the jungles from San Pancho.
There wasn’t another person in sight when we visited back in 2019, which added a raw Robinson Crusoe charm.
Make a port of call at the natural “spa” on the south end of the bay. It’s little more than a coastal stream that trickles through some mud pools, but the locals are adamant it’s good for the complexion.
Don’t worry, you can wash off the face mask in the Pacific Ocean once you’re done!
Head to La Lancha for Surfing and Chilling
There’s one spot that really stands out from the crowd on the Riviera Nayarit if you’re on the hunt for tropical beaches.
Located on the Bahia de Banderas to the south of Sayulita, it has a distinctly white hue to its sand and uber-clear turquoise seas. That makes it a treat for beach bums, who head here from the nearby resort hotels in Punta Mita and Puerto Vallarta to laze under the sea grapes and top up the tan.
La Lancha is also a celebrated surf spot. Wedgy waves come in over a reef and sandbanks just off the coast for the intermediates. There’s also a more relaxed beach break closer to the shore for those just starting out.
If you book onto a surf school anywhere in Puerto Vallarta or the Riviera Nayarit, it’s likely that this one will be on their radar!
Take A Day Trip to the Bahia de Banderas
Hitting the beach is unquestionably one of the top things to do in Riviera Nayarit. However, the region has wild, wide, and windy bays with frothing waves and jungles.
For something more in the way of a tropical paradise a la the Caribbean, you can head out to the south. It takes around 1.5 hours to drive from Sayulita to the top of the Bahia de Banderas past Puerto Vallarta. Boy, is it worth it!
Here, the wave-bashed coast is swapped with idyllic coves of azure water. There are muddy paths clambering over the boulders to reach white-sand beaches that you have to see to believe.
Playa Las Ánimas is one of the best, followed by Playa Quimixto, where gushing waterfalls hide in the jungles behind. When you’re done, settle in for some spicy fish tacos in the harbor town of Boca de Tomatlan.
Explore Puerto Vallarta
Most trips to the Riviera Nayarit begin in Puerto Vallarta. It’s the main city on this part of the Mexican Pacific and anchors all the happening surf towns and sparkling beaches, which run out to the north.
But PV – as the locals call it – is a destination in its own right. It’s worth at least a couple of days, particularly if you’re into moody street scenes and urban photography.
We’d recommend staying somewhere in the Zona Rosa. It’s an LGBTQ+ nightlife area but also the old part of downtown PV. Cobbled streets filled with bars and coffeehouses and markets abound in the district and there’s plenty to keep the camera a-clicking.
From there, move to the pier at Playa los Muertos for the sunset. It’s where everyone gathers to drink margaritas and watch the waves roll in at the golden hour.
The Malecon stretches to the north of that. It’s Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife hub and a hive of activity, especially when spring break is on.
For more on travel in Mexico, check out Mexico Travel Tips!
From glassy surf breaks to secret beaches bashed by the Pacific, charming Mexicana coast towns to vibrant party strips in Puerto Vallarta, the Riviera Nayarit has it all!
If you can think of anything else to add to this list of things to do in Riviera Nayarit, be sure to add them to the comments below!
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