Guest Blog: Riviera Nayarit Road Trip – An Adventure of Discovery

Guest post by writer Bill Nestor 

An extended Riviera Nayarit travel venture from Punta Mita to San Blas took us off the beaten trail and was more than we could have ever imagined. Flo and I followed a loosely plotted journey by jeep along coastal Highway 200, onto secondary paved roads and over many dirt byways. There were days that called for finding alternative, circuitous routes on jungle pathways or by water to reach intended isolated destinations.  Our search for secluded beaches, out-of-the-way villages, street markets, and waterfront ocean towns was a cathartic, peaceful and joyous time of discovery.

Punta Monterrey Beach Resort (Photos by Flo Nestor)

Punta Monterrey Beach Resort (Photos by Flo Nestor)

The trip was not without frustration. Attempts to find unspoiled beaches were seldom easy and more often difficult.  Locating small towns where access roads had once been and are now unmarked or otherwise indistinguishable was time-consuming. Traveling the rough roads through sparsely populated settlements was often the beginning of a long, hot, winding trek amid close growing vegetation, fields of crops and pastures of cattle that eventually dead-ended at an impassable, barricaded gate.  We were greeted by guards who courteously denied our access to the beach. Fortunately, we were able to convince them otherwise at a few locations and gain passage despite their initial objections. 

The heavy-duty, 4-door, 4WD vehicle selected for the journey, on board beach chairs, umbrella, boogie boards, soft cooler filled with provisions, and machete repeatedly proved to be essential assets. When access to a beach was denied, overland GPS jungle routes led us on alternate courses to destinations. When our charm, persuasion and jungle trails were unsuccessful, hiring a captain and canopy-covered small boat (panga) in a nearby seaside village took us to places inaccessible by land. Roadblocks inspired creative solutions that resulted in being alone together on exquisite beaches almost every day. Some beaches were small and surrounded by rocky coves, others occupied wide swaths of sand to the water’s edge, while a few extended as far as the eye could see.  All provided magnificent wildlife, blue skies, sandy shoreline, breaking ocean waves and bright sun that made for relaxing and pleasurable times. 

Previous travels in the region had provided many inspirational experiences, left indelible memories and brought us back for further exploration.  This time we discovered more places to stay and dine, rich natural habitats to explore, and many interesting people, places and lifestyles.

An initial stay at the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort immediately facilitated our acclimatization to the heat, humidity, cuisine and tempo of the latitude while serving as a reminder of why we enjoy this enchanting hideaway.  After our road odyssey, we returned to St. Regis for the Punta Mita Gourmet & Golf Classic.

Punta Mita's Luxury Beach, Spa and Golf Resorts (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Punta Mita’s Luxury Beach, Spa and Golf Resorts (Photo by Flo Nestor)

There is no doubt that Riviera Nayarit is changing.  Although pockets of development between Punta Mita and San Blas have popped up in recent years, accessibility to undeveloped pristine beaches and authentic settlements had still been possible.  Fonatur, Mexico’s national trust for the promotion of tourism, has been pursuing development of prime coastal real estate and tourist destinations while actively attracting private investors since 2000.  The government led initiative to create new towns, bring additional beach resorts, boutique hotels and golf courses along the 100 mile coastline north to San Blas seems to have kicked into a higher gear.  Stretches of the main highway have been completed, infrastructure construction is evident and direct access may now be limited to a number of primo beaches, particularly at El Monteon, Los Ayala, Punta Raza, Boca de Naranjo, Lima de Abajo, El Divisadero, and El Capomo. 

 Although Punta Mita to San Blas can be driven in 3 plus hours, the peregrination took us 3 weeks.  Travel throughout Nayarit over the years has taken us to many points, but none had provided such a diversity of interesting and in-depth immersions. It was an enterprising undertaking and an adventure traveler’s dream.  Despite the changes, the region still abounds with authentic culture, brilliant sunsets, white sand beaches, resident and migratory wildlife, and unspoiled communities under a backdrop of the Sierra Madres with a history dating back to the Aztecs.

Reflections of our three-week exploration between visits at the St. Regis are highlights of discovery- sensational hidden beaches, authentic villages, nature at its best, places to stay, dine and explore, and people at work and play.  

Highlights: 

Punta Mita Resorts

The St. Regis and Four Seasons beach, spa and golf resorts at Punta Mita represent a standard of excellence that is luxury in paradise.  The setting, elegance, service and spectacular sunsets have created one of the most desirable destinations in the world. www.fourseasons.com/puntamita/ — www.stregis.com/puntamita/  

Jack Nicklaus designed Pacifico and Bahia golf courses are stellar crown jewels that share a stunning seaside location adjacent to both resorts.  Pacifico’s eight, ocean-side holes include hole 3B – Tail of the Whale – that plays from the water’s edge to a natural island green.  The 7,014 yard course delivers a lovely scenic routing over 200 acres of rolling terrain, ample fairways and approach shots that test your skills.  Bahia’s 7,035 yard layout includes six ocean holes and lush, wide, rolling fairways.  The large, undulant greens guarded by many deep sand bunkers make for a challenging round.  Play is reserved for Punta Mita homeowners and resort guests.  The Punta Mita Golf Club is owned by DINE, Mexico’s premier real estate developer, and operated by the Four Seasons under the guidance of Phillip Ferrari, director of golf. www.fourseasons.com/puntamita/golf/

The annual Gourmet and Golf Classic is a culinary extravaganza featuring a star-studded lineup of international chefs and a two-day golf tournament.  The evolution of this multi-faceted celebration has grown impressively since its inception in 2011.  During this visit there were more participants, sponsors, cooking classes, wine and tequila tastings, a Lorena Ochoa golf clinic, a carnival themed cocktail party and festive beach banquet for 450 guests that included music, fireworks and a stellar painting performance.  

Iberostar Playa Mita Beach, Spa and Golf Resort, Litibu

Iberostar Playa Mita Beach, Spa and Golf Resort, Litibu (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Iberostar Playa Mita Beach, Spa and Golf Resort, Litibu (Photo by Flo Nestor)

The all-inclusive destination sits on a long stretch of sandy Pacific Coast.  An open-air top deck, railings and ventilation shafts replicating smokestacks add to the ocean liner atmosphere.  The “deck” is abustle with people enjoying food and drink, swimming in pools, soaking in hot tubs, participating in yoga and dance classes and more.  All 452 rooms and suites are below deck offering a panorama of the sea, sunsets and whales.  Elevators and stairs take guests topside for food, fun and entertainment.  Culinary options include all you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets and out-of-the-way à la carte gourmet restaurants.

Iberostar opened in 2013 as the newest addition to Playa Litibu,  This project by Fonatur, Mexico’s Tourism Development Authority, initially invested $67 million to establish a golf course and resorts on 593-acres, that is 45 minutes northwest of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport in Puerto Vallarta. www.iberostar.com

The Greg Norman designed 7,003 yard Litibu Golf Club is a pleasurable layout of well-crafted holes spread over 168 acres that amble through a mix of open and jungle landscapes.  Salt-tolerant Sea Dwarf Paspalum turf grass covers tee-to-green, broken by 130 bunkers.  Many inland holes rival the ocean views at #3, #4 and #18.  The picturesque 13th, 483 yard par 4 is framed by Monkey Mountain in the background and a green complex with six amoeba-shaped bunkers that are accented by huge gumbo-limbo and parota trees.  It represents a striking symbol of golfing at Litibu, an artistic design amid a tropical Mexican wonderland. www.rivieranayarit.com/litibu_golf_overview

Sayulita

This once small fishing village is now a funky beach town that has grown rapidly in population and commerce.  It is very popular with international expats, winter visitors and vacationers who live harmoniously with an indigenous population of residents, business owners, seasonal guests, and foreigners.  Surfing schools are a big draw along with an increasing number of hotels, villas and rentals now available.  This busy and active destination is supported by numerous boutique shops, a farmers market, music venues, and a rich variety of eating and drinking establishments.  Many of these surround a quaint town square while others are located along the shoreline.  The vibe has often been described as California style.  It attracts visitors to its water sports, beach, sun and active nightlife. www.sayulita.com

San Pancho (Photo by Flo Nestor)

San Pancho (Photo by Flo Nestor)

San Pancho

Not so long ago San Pancho (aka San Francisco) was a sparsely populated, quiet fishing village.  It has quickly become a delightful touristy beach town that draws an international, sand and surf loving, resident and visitor crowd.  It has grown dramatically in a relatively short time, yet retains a small village feel and ambiance.  The long and wide beach occupies an expansive area for viewing brilliant sunsets.  Shops, cafes and restaurants increase in number as one travels along the main street to the beach.  The once very laid back village has been discovered.  Although not crowded, it can be busy with people, especially around the small town square where crafters sell their wares.  Three palapa restaurants offer food, drink and shade at tables set on the charming sandy beach. www.sanpancholife.com

San Francisco is also a home to golf and polo.  Passage through a distinctive iron gate and brick

pillared entryway reveals the well-maintained grounds of Las Huertas Golf Club. The course is lush with gardens and an orchard of mangos, grapefruits, cashews, cinnamon, tamarind, black pepper and guanabana trees scattered about.  The layout tees up enjoyable rounds playable at a mellow pace.  The 9-hole design plays to 1,953 yards (five par 3, two par 4, two par 5).  Alternate tees extend the course to 2,028 yards (four par 3, three par 4, two par 5) creating a diversified 18-hole round.  Las Huertas presents some tight fairways, a few quirky holes routed to maximize space and consistently fast greens throughout. Clara’s Pub serves up cold drinks and tasty bites to eat. www.lashuertasgolf.com La Patrona Polo Club attracts international players and audiences of celebrities and notables for sports and festivities. www.facebook.com/LaPatronaPoloClub/

Campo de Ensueno Club de Golf, aptly known as Field of Dreams, sits on highway 200 near El Monteon, just north of San Pancho.  The logo illustrates its unique story, a farmers dream come true.  This 9-hole, 1,538 yard routing offers seven par 3, two par 4, no sand hazards, three water holes and an island green.  The layout was designed and built by Gerado Cervantes who owns and operates the course and restaurant with his wife Alejandra.  “The course sees about 60 rounds each day.  November to March is prime season when it’s popular with foreigners who come to play daily,” said Gerado.  The 30-acre property purchased by Cervantes in 1996 was primarily a bean and pineapple farm until one day in 2002.  “A man from Guadalajara, on his way to play golf in Punta Mita, saw me working in the field,” explained Gerado.  “He stopped and talked golf with me, something I knew very little about and asked if he could hit a few balls.”  The seeds planted by the stranger that day subsequently sprouted a new crop for rotation on the land.  Gerado broke ground 50 days later, built the course and greens, and play began soon after.  Membership and leagues are available for women, men and couples..  www.campodeensuenos.com

Punta Monterrey Beach Resort

Punta Monterrey Hotel (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Punta Monterrey Hotel (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Navigating the undulating two-mile woods road off Highway 200 just north of San Poncho will deliver visitors to this sanctuary surrounded by a 300 acre ecological jungle reserve.  We opted to arrive by way of an off-road jungle trail guided by locals.  Roadside attractions included the Buddha, a meditation camp and an orchid farm.  Punta Monterrey is a secluded, peaceful retreat on the beach.  The setting, solitude, beauty and mellow staff insure a laid-back, soothing sojourn. The spectacular sunsets are a bonus.

Punta MonterreyjpegThe 4 bungalows, 4 deluxe cabins and 4 rustic cabins are comfortable, spacious and air-conditioned.  Each sits hillside amongst tall palms overlooking the sandy cove and ocean.  Walkways take guests a short distance to beach chairs and umbrellas.  

Meals are enjoyed together at one long table optimal for a casual repast, buffet service, and friendly conversations.  We relished a tasty dinner of sesame seed chicken cutlets with chipotle sauce, salad and cheese filled zucchini. A limited quantity of beer, wine and liquor are available. BYO is suggested. 

Jaime Acosta Martinez manages the resort and property his family has owned for 40 years.  If driving or arriving by cab, arranging for a pickup at the highway might be preferable. Wifi is available throughout the property, but there is no cell service. www.monterreybeach.com 

Rincon de Guayabitos

Guayabitos is a modest fishing village and resort considered a friendly, safe and family oriented beach town for travelers on a budget.  It is favored by many from inland cities who flock to enjoy the beach, activities and frolic in Jaltemba Bay.  It has also become a popular destination for American and Canadian winter vacationers and second home owners who appreciate its weather, warm water, miles of sandy shoreline and easy going nature.

Rincon de Guayabitos (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Rincon de Guayabitos (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Many colorful, beach strolling vendors sell a variety of food, drink, ices and wares: tubes, kites, blankets, jewelry, etc.  The traditional local shrimp-on-a-stick is a popular purchase.  No wonder, it’s delicious, inexpensive and a plentiful resource harvested fresh from the bay.  Coral and Crab Islands are two ecological reserves in the bay that are easily accessible by boat.

The upscale Vista Guayabitos Restaurant located hillside at the southend of Jaltemba Bay presented an enjoyable culinary evening of al fresco dining.  We savored a delicious cuisine of ceviche, dorado, tamarind shrimp and margaritas complemented by pleasant service, a lovely presentation and serenade.  The striking panorama encompasses distant islands, the bay, and waterfront thatched-roof eateries along the expansive shoreline that stretches miles north to La Penita, a small town that hosts an expansive weekly, open-air market.  It is where local farmers, artists and artisans sell fresh produce, fish, meats, prepared foods, Oaxaca rugs, tablecloths, wood carvings, Huichol art, jewelry and wares in the town square and along the streets. 

Chacala

The seaside fishing village of Chacala is a destination frequented by international and Mexican travelers.  The curve of the bay creates calm surf and safe swimming.  Beachside palapa restaurants serve local dishes including freshly caught shrimp and fish.  We observed many songbirds perched on wires, vultures and hawks soaring above, and coatis crossing the paved rural country road to the village,.  

Chacala (Photo by Flo Nestor)There are a number of places to stay in the small village.  We chose a cliffside suite at the boutique Majahua Hotel Selva, built, owned and operated by José Enrique de Valle since 1996.  Its casual style, jungle setting, ocean view, outdoor breakfast and beachfront tapas restaurant were enjoyable.  www.majahua.com

Jose was instrumental in creating and developing a unique housing project with a group of community members.  It incorporates visitors as investors in locally owned homes to create rental properties.  The project increases the number of places to stay, supports household incomes, improves the resident’s quality of life and fosters interactions between visitors and locals. 

Canopied boats (pangas) are available for coastal explorations at the quaint Chacala Marina.  Captain Freddy Jeel Martinez (327) 105-0133 piloted our boat skillfully while sharing much information about the waters, beaches, wildlife, lifestyles and jungles. We motored south to the picturesque cove dotted with underwater volcanic caves at Las Cuevas Beach in El Divisadero, and to Playa Boca de Naranjo at Lima de Abajo and El Capomo, a lovely 7-mile isolated beach that extends to La Penita. Many beaches south of Chacala were closed to public auto access by Fonatur and private developers. They can be reached by boat, although landing might prove difficult because of waves, wind and tides. Construction was underway at these locations with much activity visible at El Capomo, site of a new resort town.  Twenty minutes north by boat from Chacala is La Caleta, a world class surfing favorite for top-level surfers only. 

Playas Las Tortugas

Turtle Beach is a beautiful, secluded ten-mile stretch of sandy shore adjacent to a former coconut plantation. The northern end fronts a gated community of 16 spacious, contemporary, traditional Mexican and Mediterranean styled, architecturally designed beach homes offering modern conveniences. Many are available for rent with resort style amenities, services and a community pool.  We stayed at Las Palmas, a lovely three-story home with roof top deck.  Martha cared for the house and prepared tasty meals.  The beach provides a solitary place for walking, running, horseback riding, surfing, boogie boarding and kayaking.  

Playa Las Tortugas (Photo by Flo Nestor)

Playa Las Tortugas (Photo by Flo Nestor)

The private development is shared with an endangered sea turtle conservation center staffed by biologists. Guests can participate in the turtle preservation program and visit the protected ecological mangrove estuary to experience turtles, crocodiles, birds and unspoiled nature. www.sayulitalife.com/community-turtlecamp

The road from Rincon de Guayabitos and La Peñita to Playas Las Tortugas meanders on a paved highway through Las Varas, Zacualpan, San Isidro and Ixtapa.  The traditional lifestyle is showcased in the towns, villages and roadside stands where fresh fruits, vegetables, drinks, cooked and baked goods are sold and fields of tobacco, papaya, mango, pineapple and other native crops are grown.  The five-mile access road to Las Tortugas is a scenic ride surrounded by neatly cultivated working fields where a variety of birds are found in vegetation and on wires above. 

Walking, swimming or paddling the estuary at Playas Las Tortugas takes 20 minutes to Platanitos. It 35 minutes by car.  playalastortugas.com

Platanitos

Platanitos  (Beach & Vsita Encantada Resturant) Photos by Flo Nestor

Platanitos (Beach & Vsita Encantada Resturant) Photos by Flo Nestor

The scenic beach cove at Platanitos offers gently rolling waves, a calm swimming area and a lineup of palapa restaurants favored by Mexican nationals, many from Tepic.  We sampled a few before discovering Vista Encantada that sits on a hill, just after turning off the highway and before the thatched-roofed options on the sandy beach.  The recently renovated business maintains a swimming pool and thatched umbrella covered tables in a courtyard at cliff’s edge, overllokin the village, beach and bay.  We savored a kilo of Robalo prepared zarendeado style, lathered in spices and Maggi juice and cooked over a mesquite open-fired grill by Chef Chona.  The dish was flat out mouthwatering, melt-in-your-mouth delicious.  We couldn’t get enough, and repeatedly returned to enjoy the setting friendly service and the delectable meal. 

The waters around Platanitos are known for Robalo, but most restaurants in town and elsewhere throughout our travels, regularly served fish zarendeado style with the more plentiful and available huachinango (pargo, red snapper).  Chef Chano was able to special order Robalo (aka snook) from a local fishermen.

Punta El Custodio

Punta El Custodio (Photos by Flo Nestor)

Punta El Custodio (Photos by Flo Nestor)

Just past the lineup of palapa beach restaurants at Platanitos is an uphill dirt road leading to El Custodio, the private enclave of sixteen charming, custom designed homes.  The dwellings sit close together, but the lush natural and planted vegetation creates privacy and an alluring tropical ambiance. We stayed at Iguana, an artistically crafted and adorned villa overlooking the Pacific. The open-air concept, infinity pool set high above the rocky coast and sunsets were magnificent.  Sonia provided meals and housekeeping.  The name El Custodio (guardian angel) was derived from the monumental chalata tree located on a conspicuous point of the property.  Mariners have used it as a navigational landmark for hundreds of years. www.all-inclusive-vacations-mexico.com/all-inclusive-package-private-villas/ Michel Striek- contact and rental agent. michel.striekwold@hotmail.com

San Blas

San Blas (Garza Canela Hotel & El Delfin Restaurant) Photos by Flo Nestor

San Blas (Garza Canela Hotel & El Delfin Restaurant) Photos by Flo Nestor

This fishing village of 10,000 people was a treasured stop.  It has changed little over time and maintained a friendly, small town feel.  The port of San Blas dates back to the 15th century.  In the late18th century it was one of the busiest ports, shipbuilding centers and most important shipyard on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  There are a variety of things to experience in and around San Blas, a destination surrounded by nature.  

Birds abound and more flock to numerous prime habitats in the area during seasonal migration.   They are attracted by an almost perfect combination of climate and environs of mangrove swamps, estuaries and lagoons.  The location along the western flyway provides habitats and abundance of food for birds and wildlife.  Nearby La Tovara National Park and the towns of Tecuitata, La Palma, Le Bajada, Paraje Del Ray, Singayata offer land and water trails for observing many species. 

The region hosts twenty beaches and a bounty of marine life including whales to watch and fish to catch.  Matanchen Bay is known for its exceptional surf break and long rideable waves.  

We found the quaint and charming Garza Canela Hotel in San Blas to be an ideal base from which to explore.  Our stay was peaceful and comfortable, the food delicious and the company divine. The Vasquez family of Garza Canela and its El Delfín Restaurant maintains a well kept property and consistently refined culinary presentation.  Sisters Betty, Doris, Diana, Josefina; brother Hector; and mother Dora are a dynamic team.  They are a valuable resource and a warm and engaging collective of good people.  Their passion for family and food is obvious.  Josefina runs the hotel’s front desk, reservations and greets guests.  Hector’s focus is computer technology.  Doris, serves on the San Blas Chamber of Commerce and welcomes diners at El Delfín.  Chef Betty who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris creates a delicious cuisine and menu.  She is an internationally renowned chef and food ambassador of Nayarit.  Diana oversees kitchen operations and mother Dora continues to be actively involved in the business.  They are each in their own way vital parts of the hotel/restaurant operation that is run by the family with love and as a legacy to Alberto Vasquez, husband and father. www.rivieranayarit.com/garza_canela_nayarit

La Tovara National Park 

Josefina at Garza Canela booked an afternoon boat excursion into this wildlife refuge adjacent to San Blas. La Tovara encompasses 1,600 acres of protected mangrove wetlands. It is home to the largest concentration of birds in Mexico. The best birdwatching is October-March. Peak is in January when 300 species inhabit the park.  The preserve is a wonderland of water trails traversing through dense vegetation and almost impenetrable tangle of mangrove trees, some arching over waterways to create tunnels of verdant vegetation. 

La Tovara.3

La Tovara National Park (Photos by Flo Nestor)

La Tovara National Park (Photos by Flo Nestor)

Chencho took us on the Rio San Christobal and a mangrove waterway system that meanders for 60 miles throughout La Tovara to observe birds, turtles and crocodiles.It proved to be a most amazing, magical, mystery tour filled with an abundance of wildlife and much more. Although it was not peak season, we identified dozens of birds and were treated to a stunning sunset and scintillating, surreal day to night transmogrification.  

After dark Chencho shined a powerful spotlight to guide our intricate and lengthy route back to the dock.  The luminous reflection from the ceiling of leaves bouncing off the water below made it difficult to determine which was up or down, in essence a psychedelic effect was created.  When combined with the brilliant red/orange hues of the sky at sunset and the cacophony from rousted flocks of roosting herons it was at once a cosmic, transcendent and extraordinary immersion into nature. 

Chencho (aka Jose Inocencio Banuelos) was the ideal guide for us.  We spoke different native languages but there were no communication problems. We shared a passion and understanding of birds and nature.  As a professor of ornithology, I had led hundreds of birding trips worldwide while Chencho had done the same in La Tovara.  

Auto Lavado Nolasco

After traveling for weeks on highways, over dirt roads, through small country villages, on jungle trails and beaches, the jeep was in much need of a thorough cleaning. Auto Lavado Nolasco in San Blas was the perfect find. Marcelo Nolasco Gomez, her brother Jose Perez Nolasco and husband Jaul Soto Marquez vacuumed, washed, rinsed and polished the vehicle inside, outside, under, over, top and bottom for over an hour.  We were stunned by the transformation that cost a mere $80 pesos. Av Juarez #416 Col. el Cerrita call (323)104-9709

Bill Nestor explores the world to write about Travel, Food, Nature, Golf, Lifestyles

Susie Albin-Najera
Susie Albin-Najera is the creator and editor of The Mexico Report, an award winning travel blog showcasing news, deals and resources for the modern traveler. Najera is a writer, author, travel blogger, marketing and public relations specialist and producer. Najera serves on the host committee for Maestro Cares, founded by singer Marc Anthony and producer Henry Cardenas; and on the advisory board for Corazon de Vida, providing aid to children in Mexico. She is also the creator of 'The Real Heroes of Mexico' showcasing community heroes in Mexico and producer of Latino Thought Makers. Najera has been recognized by the Mexican Consulate and Mexico Tourism Board for fostering positive relations between countries and her dedication to showcasing Mexico as a premiere destination. She can be reached at info@themexicoreport.com

2 comments for “Guest Blog: Riviera Nayarit Road Trip – An Adventure of Discovery

  1. Debbie Bernier-Sontag
    2016-05-03 at 5:49 pm

    Wonderful story. Enjoyed the photos. Will keep in our Mexico folder! Thanks for sharing.

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