The state of Nayarit, on Mexico's Pacific Coast, is a beach lover's paradise with a string of tiny pretty towns and secluded resorts guaranteeing your fun in the sun, margarita in hand.

Legend has it that the island town of Mexcaltitán was the original home of the Aztecs © Rulex O / 500px

But if beach fatigue sets in and you fancy something more than the standard sea-and-sand sojourn, the rest of the state offers ancient ruins, busy towns, indigenous communities, mythical islands and rare boobies.

Best for beach bumming

Often overshadowed by ever-popular Puerto Vallarta, just across the border in Jalisco state, Nayarit's beach towns run from high-end resorts in Punta Mita to relatively off-the-beaten-path pueblos strung out along the coast. Lush jungle reaches all the way to towns like laid back Sayulita, San Blas, and San Francisco. Sayulita is a well established favorite for North American travelers, with a tourist infrastructure to match. San Blas, a centuries-old port, has a more local feel – the hilltop viewpoint, La Contaduría, with the beautiful ruins of a church and fort, dates to the original Spanish settlement, while the main square in the pretty downtown is the buzzing center of local life. San Francisco is low on sights but high on long stretches of sand (you can join the local cowboys for a horseback ride on the beach) and some great sundowner bars.

San Francisco's beach is one of many quiet stretches of sand along Nayarit's Pacific coastline © Clifton Wilkinson

Eating and drinking

Sayulita’s Aurinko Bungalows have a sense of seclusion belying their excellent central location. San Blas’ choices include the excellent Hotel Hacienda Flamingos and Hotel Garza Canela, both located between the town center and El Borrego beach, lined with sea-view eating options called palapas. One of the area’s best restaurants, El Delfín, run by a judge on Mexico’s version of Masterchef, can be found in the Garza Canela. Equally good food can be had in San Francisco’s Bistro Orgánico, in the courtyard of delightful, boutiquey Hotel Cielo Rojo.

Best for getting your history on

When it comes to Mexican history, Mexcaltitán’s pedigree is hard to beat. Tradition has it that it was from this tiny island, set in the middle of a system of lagoons, that the Aztec people left in the late 11th century to go and found Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City). Evidence to support the legend is arguable, but the picturesque nature of the island, accessible only by boat, isn’t. Visit the small but interesting Museo del Origen (with a map of ancient Mexcaltitán that looks intriguingly like maps of Tenochtitlán) and gorge on meatballs made from freshly caught shrimp, a local specialty.

The circular temple found at Los Toriles is unique in ancient Mexican architecture © Clifton Wilkinson

Further inland, but with a similarly mysterious past, are the ruins of Los Toriles. The culture who built here remains largely unknown but has left tantalizing glimpses of their skills and social structures in the shape of altars, palaces and, most impressively, the only circular temple in Mexico.

To experience a past that is still very much alive in the present, visit the Huichol community in Tawexikta, north of state capital Tepic. A drive, then a boat ride, then a hike up a hill are rewarded with the chance to meet (and even spend the night with) members of one of western Mexico’s largest indigenous peoples. Traditions dating back to pre-colonial times include the bright clothing both men and women wear and the use of hallucinogenic peyote in religious rituals. The village itself doesn’t live up to the romantic image many might have of traditional life (nondescript concrete buildings and unpaved streets) but the welcome is warm. You can be cleansed by the community marakame (shaman), buy local handicrafts, and, if your Spanish is up to it, learn a lot about a way of life that’s adapted but remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Your writer being cleansed by the Huichol marakame © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Eating and drinking

Mexcaltitán has one friendly hotel but most people visit on a day trip. The same goes for visiting Los Toriles and the Huichols – base yourself in Tepic (stay at the Hotel Real de Don Juan and eat at Emiliano) and join a group visit (see below).

Best for getting in touch with nature

Vast swathes of Nayarit remain covered in untouched jungle and the mountains of the Sierra Madre. It’s in these hidden reaches of the state that jaguars still live and though you’re unlikely to see any of those, you can expect to see many other equally impressive species in the state.

From June to November, turtles lay their eggs on the beaches around here – conservation projects allow visitors to get involved and watch the hatchlings make their desperate dash to the ocean. Offshore, December to March is whale-watching season with high chances of spotting gray, humpback and even blue whales. Ornithologists are spoilt for choice when it comes to birdwatching – 500 species live around San Blas alone (the rest of North America combined has 900 species) including the wood nymph, unique to the area, while blue-footed boobies, usually associated with the Galapagos Islands, can be seen on Isla Isabel and the Marietas. Another worthwhile excursion from San Blas is a boat trip to La Tovara, a mangrove where you’re likely to spot birds, iguanas and even crocodiles.

Inland, Santa María del Oro lake is surrounded by forested mountains and has activities ranging from the energetic (kayaking and swimming) to the passive (sipping a beer and eating fresh fish in a thatched-roof palapa). A little further southeast, looming over the lava fields it created, stands Volcán Ceboruco, an active but climbable volcano.

Blue-footed boobies are found in just a few places around the world, one of them being on the islands off Nayarit's coast © Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Getting there and around

Puerto Vallarta is the main entry point to the area, with direct flights from many US and European destinations. Renting a car (Vallarta’s airport has several companies) gives you the freedom to explore Nayarit at your own pace, and roads are both in good condition and fairly quiet, though one-lane stretches can be sigh-inducing if you get stuck between a convoy of trucks. The other option (and the best option for hassle-free visits to Mexcaltitán and the Huichol community) is to use the services of a tour company. Nayarit Adventures’ ( eco-friendly trips operate out of San Blas and Tepic, with English-speaking guides available.

Clifton traveled around Nayarit with help from the Riviera Nayarit Convention & Visitors Bureau. Lonely Planet writers don’t accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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