I’m a traveler who embraces stark contrasts. Take, for instance, my recent trip to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit.

Just north of Puerto Vallarta, this 200-mile stretch of coastline is home to some of the most luxurious beachfront resorts in the world. Yet just down the road, you’ll find lower-key, more bohemian-feeling villages with a decidedly local flair. Native communities, including some Huichol Indigenous people, reside here among the passing tourists (like me). 

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My journey began in the gated, five-star community of Punta Mita. While I loved the opulence there, coming to Riviera Nayarit and not exploring the towns beyond would have been a missed opportunity. So the latter half of my trip took me to Sayulita and San Pancho. 

While it’s true that these enclaves are no longer hidden gems, they both provide a taste of Mexican village life. I wandered through colorful plazas, devoured freshly grilled seafood at bargain prices and hiked through the local jungle to a virgin beach. 

The jungle-like ambiance at Casa Selva in Sayulita © Chris Dong

Where did you stay? What was the vibe?

A boutique hotel with a jungle-like setting. This part of Riviera Nayarit doesn’t (yet) have the mega-resorts or all-inclusives you might find in Puerto Vallarta or Punta Mita. Instead, boutique accommodations abound. I stayed at Casa Selva, which has 14 individual bungalows on a sloping hillside in the north part of Sayulita. The location was ideal: less than 15 minutes on foot to the center of town but a world away from the late-night commotion. Beach access is across the street, and the start of the hike to Playa Malpaso was just two minutes from my door.

Gloriously secluded Playa Malpaso, reached by hike © Chris Dong

Favorite activity from the trip?

My guided tour through the jungle. While its eclectic spirit and thriving nightlife is a major draw, Sayulita has plenty of nature-filled activities in town, too. My mornings started off with a walk up to the northernmost section of town, on Avenida del Palmar (less than 15 minutes from the town center). From there, a winding trail weaves its way through the jungle to Playa Malpaso, a secluded beach less than two miles from town. My guide, Alejo, accompanied me and expertly shared his knowledge of the flora and fauna along the route. 

Street photography of cars and colorful buildings in Pueblo Magico, Sayulita
The colorful buildings of Pueblo Magico, Sayulita © Shutterstock / JackKPhoto

Best thing you ate?

I sampled a number of dishes in the Riviera, and a resounding highlight was the seafood at El Jakal, a homey, unassuming restaurant in the north part of Sayulita. My favorites included the smoked marlin tostada and grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple stew. The house-made salsas – like passionfruit, habanero and blueberry blend – are punchy and flavorful. Ask for Angelica when you’re there.   

Soaking in the charm of San Pancho © Chris Dong

What is the one thing that you did not expect?

The charm of San Pancho. First, let’s be clear: with a population of only 5000, Sayulita isn’t a huge city. Its main thoroughfare is busy, however – and thanks to an abundance of golf carts and oversized margaritas, it has a certain Disney-for-grown-ups vibe. Yet just four miles away, San Pancho has a charm that feels much more Mexican. I liked Sayulita, but I loved San Pancho (formally known as San Francisco). The town’s main street, leading to the beach, has a smattering of hip restaurants, cafes and bars. But stray a few blocks away and you’ll stumble upon gems like San Pancho’s only teahouse or a brightly colored cantina tucked behind rows of cinder-block houses. 

Artisanal crafts at the San Pancho market © Chris Dong

Did you bring home a souvenir?

No matter where I am in the world, savoring the tastes, sights and sounds of a local market is one of my favorite travel activities – and San Pancho’s small but thriving local artisan market every Tuesday morning delivered. Expect plenty of organic vegetables, coffee, textiles, local art and live music. And come hungry: the Tuesday market had a variety of vendors, including fresh blue-corn quesadillas and (surprisingly) some of the best samosas I’ve sampled outside of South Asia. Wash it all down with a coconut horchata. 

The author’s invaluable espadrilles © Chris Dong

What was the handiest thing you packed?

Shoes that can be worn on the streets…and the beach. Wherever you’re going in the Riviera, you’ll probably encounter two types of terrain: cobblestones and sand. I packed my favorite pair of espadrilles, which I purchased in Guatemala – the ideal shoe for both walking and beach going. 

Sunset on a Mexican beach
On Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, the sunsets don’t disappoint © Chris Dong

Your top tip for anyone planning the same trip?

Visit in spring. My favorite time to visit is April, before the rain, humidity and crowds arrive in June. The weather is still balmy but comfortable and you can experience most attractions with ease.

Chris traveled to Mexico with the support of Casa Selva. Lonely Planet does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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