Just north of the tourist behemoth of Puerto Vallarta, there's an entire coast that's just waiting to be discovered. From Mexico's most exclusive resorts to low-key colonial beach towns, the Riviera Nayarit has the holiday you've looking for. 

Mexico has more beach resorts than you can shake a piñata stick at, but in the last decade, the area around Punta Mita in the Riviera Nayarit has separated itself from the crowd with both its selection of ultra-high-end resorts (Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton) and its laid-back beach towns (Sayulita). Editorial Director Anicka Quin zipped down to the buzzy area just north of Puerto Vallarta to report back on what all the hype is about.

1. Punta Mita: Numero Uno

There’s a special peninsula that’s fast becoming the epicentre of the good life on the Pacific Coast. It’s called Punta Mita and it’s the biggest thing to hit Mexico in years.

Pacifico Golf Course, Punta MitaGrab an Exclusive Slice of Paradise

Those of you who follow Lady Gaga , Mindy Kaling or the Kardashians on Instagram (be cool, be cool) will have likely seen a few shout-outs to the stars’ favourite Mexican getaway. It’s not Cabo; it’s the ultra-luxe gated community of Punta Mita, which sits on its own peninsula between the Pacific and Banderas Bay. It’s anchored by the Four Seasons and the St. Regis for seasonal visitors (the latter a favourite of Mexico’s president, Peña Nieto), but diehard Punta Mita fans set down roots in the unreal real estate. The master-planned community has two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses (including the infamous “Tail of the Whale” hole, which requires an amphibious golf cart to access), 15 kilometres of coastline, beach clubs and fitness centres, restaurants and, most importantly, privacy—it’s residents-only, puttering around on their golf carts. Properties start at $700,000 and head norte from there.

Floating daybed at Punta Mita Four SeasonsFloat on a Bed by the Beach

I didn’t think it was possible to up the ante for a beach read—ocean, beach, book: you’re pretty much set for a perfect day—until I spent a few hours on one of Punta Mita Four Seasons hanging daybeds. Surrounded by pillows and swinging gently in the breeze, you’ll be interrupted only to be given an Evian mist to cool down the day, or to get a visit from the sunglasses doctor to make sure your specs are polished up for some page-turning. If you manage to will yourself up around 11 a.m., you can select your lunch straight off a fishing boat—with a chef on hand to point out which fish makes the best ceviche (the blue-beaked parrotfish) or sashimi (amberjack).

hawksbill sea turtle dive down into the deep blue oceanSave a Sea Turtle

Nearly all sea turtle species in Mexico are endangered—poached for their eggs, meat and shells—so conservation groups along the coast partner with hotels to allow for safe release of incubated turtle eggs. (Raising them inland prevents natural predators from digging them up before they’ve had a fighting chance.) The Four Seasons’ cultural concierge, Enrique Alejos, a conservationist/painter who also trained with Canadian artist Robert Bateman, teaches guests about the importance of the turtles to the local ecosystems before a sunset beach release. Fair warning: watching dozens of turtle babies waddle their way toward their first dip in the ocean is heart-swellingly beautiful. You’re going to get misty.

2. Sayulita: Surf’s Up

Sayulita’s surf culture makes for a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere that’s as much about its vibrant late-night scene as it is about the beach.Sayulita, Riviera Nayarit The people of Sayulita are as vibrant and cheerful as the architecture.Don Pedro's, Sayulita, Riviera Nayarit Don Pedro’s

Grab a Table Streetside

Sayulita is a hippie-chic surf town by day, where juice bars (Orangy) and breakfast joints (Chocobanana) fuel dreadlocked travellers. At night, tiny taquerias increase their square footage with tables that spill out onto the cobblestone streets, dishing out tacos stuffed with pollo or camarón, paired with carved wooden bowls of guac, salsas and chimichurri as musicians court diners with Edith Piaf covers on classic Spanish guitar. It’s not Puerto Vallarta’s thump-ing clubs, but it’s lively in a more low-key way—even at 10 p.m., you’ll spot kids chasing a soccer ball around the town square under twinkle lights and multicoloured paper flags. Or wander down to the beach for a starry dinner at Don Pedro’s: under citronella candles, feast on dishes like salmon topped with warm poblano chili sauce over creamy polenta and fresh corn relish, or a chipotle-glazed pork chop paired with just-caramelized apples, bitter greens and mushrooms.

throw pillowsThe Revolución is Here

Souvenirs can have a way of feeling magic in the moment and completely out of place once you get them home. Revolución del Sueño in Sayulita manages to make modern updates on classic Mexican designs feel authentic, yet at home in your contemporary living room—owners Nico and Lea create entirely new collections each November, working with local artisans. Think hot-pink Day of the Dead skulls and throw pillows, orange-and-fuchsia-striped handwoven “Las Bayadas” beach blankets (10 percent of the proceeds from said blankets fund local schools) and even quirky Munny toys covered in classic Huichol designs.

Hotel Kuperi, Sayulita, Riviera NayaritStay

The area is rich with short-stay vacation rentals just a few minutes’ walk outside the main town, or, if right-in-the-heart is more your speed, Hotel Kupuri offers boutique-style rooms with a laid-back vibe and a lap pool in the courtyard—and, despite being steps from the main action, it’s cool and quiet once you’re inside the impressively oversized entrance doors.

3. San Pancho: Sunset Strip

Affectionately known by the Mexican nickname for Francisco—Pancho—this more-southern San Francisco finds the middle ground between posh (polo! ponies!) and natural, with the best sunsets on the strip.San Pancho Beach San Pancho BeachSan PanchoLeft The colourful streets of San Pancho; Right Bistro Organico.

Catch a Sunset

Everyone has their favourite town along the Riviera Nayarit, and serene San Pancho often tops the list. Its cobblestone streets and colourful buildings make it Sayulita’s quieter sister. Pop into Bistro Organico at the Hotel Cielo Rojo for an organic breakfast of grilled nopal (cactus) in homemade corn tortillas, and be sure to head to the beach before sunset: it’s a community affair, often ending in applause. The town has its posh side, too—it hosts the only polo club in the area, which regular readers might recall: the club owner’s Whistler retreat was featured in WL’s December 2015 issue.

Entreamigos community centre, San Pancho, Riviera NayaritCommunity Magic

The squishy heart of San Pancho is a community centre known as Entreamigos, which is worth a tour both for an organic snack from the student-run café (and a few souvenirs from the gift shop) and to be inspired by the myriad activities that creator Nicole Swedlow runs with dozens of volunteers in this former milk-processing plant. A community recycling centre converts wine bottles into drinking glasses and upcycles fabrics into bags; a kids’ library features a play space as well as child care for mothers who need time on the computers. There’s a sports facility, a second-hand clothing shop, classrooms and stages, and, most importantly, it’s buzzing with locals from open to close. You’ll be inspired to leave pesos to keep the good work going.

Mar al Cielo, San PanchoTake a Shower Outside

There are getaways that feel like you’re the only person around—and then there’s Mar al Cielo, 11 acres of paradise that’s truly yours for the night (or for three). Perched on top of a beachfront cliff just north of San Pancho, near the town of Lo de Marcos, the two-person resort is situated in an eco-reserve of groomed jungle trails with over 300 bird species (and a few portly armadillos), a private beach and a hilltop residence with hammocks, sofas, an open-air kitchen and, yes, a private outdoor shower. Grab a few groceries on the way in—hammocks are made for many, many hours without disturbance.

4. Bucerias: Vancouver South

Nicknamed “B.C.-rias” in the winter for its popularity among West Coasters, Bucerias is decidedly relaxed, warm and breezy.Bucerias, Riviera Nayarit With a beach like this, it’s no wonder Bucerias is so popular among West Coasters.El Brujo, Bucerias El Brujo

Catch Up with a Local

Yes, you’ll find plenty of neighbours down here (at least one restaurant boasts that it proudly serves Tim Hortons coffee), but you’ll also find locals, too. Its breezes make it a magnet for kitesurfers—you’ll spot many of them on the bay, and the Festival del Viento sees them in droves in May—and its winding streets are perfect for a midday stroll. (An artisan market lines many of the central streets, Monday to Saturday.) Take a break from the heat with a cool cerveza on El Brujo’s palapa-style roof deck overlooking the Bahia de Banderas—paired with a shrimp taco, topped with cheese grilled crispy on top and gooey inside, you’ve found a little slice of heaven. For dinner, head over to Mark’s—the long-time local favourite is known for its daily take on gazpacho (if they’ve got the watermelon and tomato on, you won’t regret it) and Mediterranean fare—think ginger-and-leek lobster ravioli tossed in mascarpone and lobster butter.

Sunday market in La Cruz, BuceriasMarketing 101

Just up the road from Bucerias, the Sunday market in La Cruz isn’t the oldest market in the region (it launched only in 2010), but in that short period it’s grown to 170 vendors. Rent from the market stalls helps fund local education, as well as the orphanage in Valle de Banderas. Vendors are curated, so you’re less likely to find Day of the Dead paraphernalia emblazoned with NHL logos and more likely to spot handwoven textiles, bags and baskets, and traditional Huichol designs. Wander the seaside stalls with a big agua fresca (try spinach, lime and spearmint, or pineapple and beet) and wrestle with the big questions of the day: fish taco, quesadilla or “Big Italian Sandwich” for lunch?

Grand Velas spaGrand Velas spaTake in the Waters

Yeah, you’re technically surrounded by water, and there’s the siren call of the swim-up pool bar—but some time spent in the Grand Velas spa, just down the road in Nuevo Vallarta, to take in the water ritual offers the kind of reset button we all want from a vacation. A guide will lead you through a circuit of eucalyptus inhalation, sauna, chromotherapy steam, pressure shower and hot and cold lagoons, each moment bringing your shoulders just a little lower. By the time you’re through and ready for your massage, you’ll be a puddle.

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