Why Riviera Nayarit Is Mexico's Hottest Winter Destination
If you can't point out Riviera Nayarit on a map, you're not alone. It's nothing to be embarrassed about, but it's definitely something worth remedying. Still, there's a decent chance you've already seen a photo captured from here — likely of the Islas Marietas' Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach), also known as Playa de Amor (Love Beach). The aerial images are the stuff of dreams (and Instagram influencer fodder): a utopian round of sand and aquamarine water found inside the crater of a protected island reached only by swimming through a volcanic rock arch at low tide during an official tour.
Add a stream of humpbacks (and their babies) throughout the winter as well as impressive diving and those islands make a compelling argument for aficionados of tropical adventures. But there are at least 23 other reasons the region is worth exploring, and that's not even including its burgeoning collection of luxury resorts and real estate or epic winter surf. The idyllic, beach-fringed coastline of the Mexican state of Nayarit — where the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains dip their toes into the Pacific Ocean — encompasses 23 coastal towns that are essentially micro destinations. And quite affordable ones at that, populated by generous, spirited people who are very encouraging of anyone practicing their Spanish.
Boho surf bastion Sayulita — with its Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) designation — is arguably the most famous, but there's a beachy fishing village in that string of sand-swept pearls to charm almost anyone. There's also Boca de Chila, a mangrove area teeming with aquatic birds and surfers along its five-mile beach, plus a nearby town with ancient rock engravings. And Chacala, the tiny, photogenic town whose name means "where the shrimp are" in Nahuatl. Lo de Marcos, meanwhile, is an unassuming paradise with a Saturday market plus horseback riding on the sand, paddleboarding, and kayaking.
The cobblestoned San Francisco, nicknamed San Pancho, is especially delightful. Great surf with few crowds, striking crimson sunsets, and sustainability and community-enhancing projects — not to mention beautifully curated boutique hotels, diverse shopping, and excellent food, from aguachiles to vegan ice cream — make it an enchanting gem. New hotels continue opening, sweetening the artsy spot, but the nine-room Hotel Cielo Rojo, full of curiosities and fascinating antiques, embraces a particularly local, organic, and thoughtful mission with its own boutique and house tequila aged in repurposed wine bottles.
Currently, luxury developments featuring five-star hospitality brands dot the coast, but just a few decades ago, there were none. In 1999, Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, inside the 1,500-acre resort and residential community of Punta Mita, introduced the world (beyond the surfers who'd been seeking out waves for years) to the undiscovered and as-yet-unnamed Riviera Nayarit paradise. That kicked off a windfall of private investments in the state, which seems to have flowed ever since, including toward infrastructure (see the first green highway in northwest Mexico).
The major four-lane road is in the last stretch of construction and will soon be a major time saver for visitors heading north from the airport. Perhaps confusingly, the most accessible airport is Puerto Vallarta International Airport, though that almost 300,000-person city is actually in the state of Jalisco.
Riviera Nayarit is a hive of activity. The Four Seasons has neared completion of a comprehensive renovation that includes revamped guest rooms and pools and a total redo of the main infinity pool, whose deep cobalt tiling was swapped for a shade that blends seamlessly into the ocean beyond. Twenty-two years in, the resort is still at the forefront of culturally minded programming, which includes dreamcatcher making, Mexican spirit tastings (beyond tequila and mezcal), sea foraging for octopus and seaweed, and releasing dozens of just-hatched sea turtles into the surf under pink skies. Note that the iconic and endangered reptiles begin hatching in late August and diminish in frequency by February.
Whereas summer can be rainy and quite hot, dripping with humidity, the winter months see dependably spectacular weather — azure skies, sun but not too much, and cooler water temps — not to mention the best swell. (The official hurricane season stretches from mid-May through November.) Surfers will be tantalized by waves in the 12- to 15-foot range, plus long barrels. Sailing and kitesurfing pick up in the winter months as well. Depending on your exact location, sunsets glow from red to pink to purple — all of them photo-worthy, but ultimately too spectacular to be captured in a snap.
Even as the world stopped, resorts kept opening: Conrad Punta de Mita and One&Only Mandarina in 2020, Secrets Bahia Mita and Dreams Bahia Mita in 2021 and, come spring 2022, Susurros del Corazón just south of Punta Mita. The breezy Auberge Resorts Collection resort of 59 suites and four restaurants — plus an array of ocean-centric clifftop residences — joins the coastline with pristine Islas Marietas panoramas from deep balconies, tiered swimming pools, and a long powdered-sugar beach. In 2022, Villa La Estancia Riviera Nayarit will also reveal a complete renovation of its hacienda-style suites, as well as upgraded amenities and new menus.
It's impossible to imagine an oceanside setting more lush than the One&Only's rolling property of snakelike buggy paths and towering papelillo trees, bark glamorously shiny, obscuring gorgeous tree houses and stilted villas like Easter eggs in the jungle — each with their own plunge pools. Endemic coatis scamper about, fireflies dance, ethereal white mariposas float through fresh air, and children play in a fantastical tree village. If polo sounds enticing, the equestrian club is the place to learn from a pro, backdropped by layers of Sierra de Vallejo mountains.
But those setting their sights on Riviera Nayarit for next winter can still be assured plenty of newness. The development is continuing, with multiple Marriott offshoots in the works (including an Autograph Collection resort), Rosewood Mandarina expected in 2023, and upcoming Ritz-Carlton Reserve and Fairmont resorts putting Costa Canuva on the map in the not-so-distant future. In November 2022, Naviva at Four Seasons will emerge as the region's very first glamping resort, with 15 butterfly-like tents to start, a jungle pool, and a female Huichol shaman to lead specially designed spiritual ceremonies that pay homage to the primary Indigenous culture of Nayarit. A deep commitment to green practices includes a dedicated farm that feeds the restaurant for adult-only guests, and technology that extracts humidity from the air to supply drinking water, thus banishing plastic.
Also forthcoming is tourist access to the four Marias Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve 60 miles from the 1700s harbor town San Blas. A former prison has been extensively renovated to become a biodiversity conservation education center where, eventually, visitors can take sustainable tours organized by the Mexican government via boat.
Birders can spot the elusive blue-footed boobies at the Islas Marietas, and far more since Nayarit's coastline matches the Pacific Flyway migratory route where hundreds of species fly south for the winter. La Tovara National Park, near San Blas, is a particularly special hub, with funky fowls such as boat-billed herons, bumblebee hummingbirds, and roseate spoonbills, which have a stunning pink hue.
Isla Isabel is the secretive and distant basalt island known as the Galapagos of Mexico. Come winter, only a lucky few — up to 60 day visitors and 30 campers — get to witness its bounty, including colorful birds, dolphins, whales (December to March), and even whale sharks (November to May). With extensive coral reefs and amazing biodiversity, the state is a natural mecca for snorkeling and scuba outings from the resorts or new Punta Mita Dive Center, which also offers PADI certification.
Riviera Nayarit is a genuine and distinctive wellness destination, too. Amid gargantuan trees and palms at the One&Only Spa, there aren't just offerings meant to relax and pamper, but dozens fixated on deep spiritual awakening. These mystical experiences facilitated by healers are designed to expand consciousness (think: a quantum reading and frequency healing experience and an Awakening Journey featuring intensive pranayama (breath work) and an astrological chart reading). Meanwhile, the Four Seasons' spa looks to local elements like antioxidant-rich cactus paddles and tequila with sage, featured in an ancestral recipe for massage oil that stimulates circulation and releases joint tension.
The influence of the Huicholes, many of whom live high in mountain towns such as San Sebastián del Oeste, is evident in Susurros del Corazón's 11-room spa, as well as at the Conrad. There, restorative body and facial treatments are informed by Huichol knowledge, techniques, and blends, such as yaca-aloe and copal clay. The resort's design by SB Architects also shows incredible respect to the culture, with architectural references to the important Ojo de Dios (or God's eye) ritual objects, plus intricate glass beadwork. Guests can also blend, smoke, and bottle their own mezcal or tequila while surrounded by it at Agave Studio.
Just as Huichol beliefs have influenced wellness along Riviera Nayarit, a centuries-old tradition has become its culinary trademark in both casual and fine-dining settings. Zarandeado is a ubiquitous technique for grilling fish on mangrove wood charcoal, and serving it with corn tortillas and a red molcajete sauce. At Enrique Olvera's Carao at One&Only, it's a dish of high contrast marked by the tender flesh of lubina and textured skin nearly as crisp as a tortilla chip.
Shrimp is another Nayarit specialty, thanks to large estuaries from which the crustaceans flow into the deep ocean, where they grow plump and succulent. At the beach in front of Bahía restaurant, the chef proudly shows off the catch, including parrotfish, mahi-mahi, and snapper — whatever is in season. Offerings are overwhelmingly seasonal and caught within miles by local fishermen well aware of the dangers of overfishing.
With an estimated 70% of the Nayarit population now vaccinated, the pandemic is not exactly a distant memory (most properties have mask mandates). But the downtime was productive. For example, the Four Seasons' projected five-year renovation was finished in two.
There's also Punta Mita Rentals, a pool of some 60 properties ranging from sprawling estates to spacious condos with primo views. All come with a cook to prepare in-villa breakfasts plus 24/7 concierge service. And while the gated development's dynamic beach clubs are home to mouthwatering restaurants — as is the village of Punta de Mita — visitors can now also stay in and order from the new DoorDash-style Mita Eats app, or book a chef to carefully prepare three-course feasts with produce and protein from nearby farms, butchers, and fishermen.
North Americans, it seems, have an increased appetite for second homes, evidenced in part by the latest Punta Mita development to hit the market. A collection of 40 Sordo Madaleno-designed Surf Residences had a 220-person waiting list and sold out in the blink of an eye. They're a short walk to the relatively new El Surf Club — which combines Tulum-esque decor (think woven lanterns dripping from trees) with a menu of ceviches, beach fare, and fruity cocktails — and Punta Mita Ocean Sports instructors offering surf and SUP lessons for all ages at beloved longboard and shortboard break La Lancha.
Throughout Punta Mita, water sports vary wildly and include equipment like a giant paddleboard and the Lift eFoil. On that electronic hydrofoil surfboard, with a bit of finesse, it's possible to fly across the sea like a superhero. The experience, like exploring Riviera Nayarit on the whole, is enough to leave anyone in need of a winter break in a state of nirvana.