The Riviera Nayarit is a microcosm of so many things that make traveling in Mexico great: amiable towns, sparkling beach views, scrumptious food straight from the sea and mezcal. Lots of mezcal. And the best part? Thanks to a good highway system that hugs the coast, the state of Nayarit is home to a perfect road trip.

Here’s our itinerary for a seamless road trip along the Mexican Pacific.

Woven Ojo de Dios strung up outside a colorful church
The Riviera Nayarit is home to some of Mexico's most appealingly laid-back destinations © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

San Francisco, AKA San Pancho

After landing in Puerto Vallarta, grab your rental car and make the quick hour drive up to San Francisco, a coastal town of about 3,000 that feels like home the second you arrive. Wander San Pancho’s main drag that leads straight to the ocean, stopping at cozy shops like Mexicolate, where you can try cacao in all its forms (don’t miss the cacao water -- trust us, it’s delicious).

Perhaps one of the coolest establishments in town is Entreamigos, a non-profit community center that serves as San Pancho’s hub; here, families can peruse the library, eat at the cafe that specializes in local food, and participate in the town’s supremely successful recycling program, which turns trash into chandeliers, toys and all kinds of art.

A figurine made out of recycled materials
Entreamigos crafts toys from recycled materials © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

If you’re looking for a place to sleep, opt for the eco-friendly La Maraica on the outskirts of downtown; the property is powered by giant solar panels, recycles water to maintain their grounds, and has eliminated most plastic from rooms. A more central option would be stylish Hotel Cielo Rojo, also home to the delightful Bistro Orgánico. The pace is slow here, so in place of nightlife you’ll find peaceful quiet punctuated by the crashing waves of the Pacific. But if you’re looking for a little bit of a buzz, don’t miss quirky La Baba del Diablo, a mezcalería serving up smooth tastings paired with orange slices and special homemade salts – the one featuring hibiscus and chapulines – crickets! – is a favorite. 

Surfboards lined up near a beach
Pretty Sayulita is a shopping hub with a surfing-community vibe © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet


The first of Nayarit’s beach towns to catch international attention, Sayulita whirs with energy, its webby streets full of tourists, mostly of the North American variety. While it may no longer hover beneath the travel radar, it still has plenty of appeal for specific types of travelers; Sayulita definitely has the most vivacious nightlife in the Riviera (not a hard feat to accomplish, though), and it’s developed a solid surfing community – head down to the beach to rent a board and book lessons.

Sayulita also serves as the Riviera’s shopping hub, full of boutiques peddling the latest in boho chic. If you’re looking for something edible/drinkable, head to the inviting Sayulita Wine Shop, which carries a wide variety of wine and liquor ranging from robust Mexican vintages to smooth raicilla (a distilled spirit from the agave plant)  – enjoy a glass in the small bar or snag a bottle to go.

If you’re looking to spend the night in the Riviera’s best known town, check out El Pueblito Sayulita, a boutique enclave hidden down a side street away from downtown that features clean, spacious suites perfect for groups and families.

RVs parked near a beach
Quiet Lo de Marcos is a perfect spot for a roadside snooze © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Lo de Marcos

A blip along the coast between San Pancho and San Blas, Lo de Marcos harkens back to the pre-mass-tourism coastal towns of yore; you’ve got a few city blocks, a golden curve of sand and old school RV parks right on the beach perfect for wanderers passing through.

The town makes an ideal stop-off for an afternoon of quiet lazing before heading on to the Riviera’s other “big city,” San Blas.

Rusty ships at dock
San Blas is a laid-back fishing town and a birdwatcher's paradise © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

San Blas

Formerly a primary shipping port for the Spanish empire in the 1700s, San Blas is now a laid-back fishing town that keeps things low-key. It’s home to a few nice expanses of sand (don’t miss Playa Borrego) and a friendly downtown, but it really shines as a birdwatcher’s paradise. 

La Tovara National Park is an avian hotspot, with hundreds of different bird species calling the estuary home. Boat rides begin with a cruise beneath a perfect canopy of interwoven manglares (mangroves), which eventually open up to reveal a winding network of waterways fed by freshwater springs positively thrumming with bird life. And, if you’re lucky, you might even spot a crocodile lazing on the banks, giving off the vibes of an unbothered dinosaur. For a place to rest your weary head after a day of spectacular birding, head to San Blas’ four-star hotel, the Garza Canela, which has been owned by the Vasquez family for 50 years and today is home to Chef Betty Vasquez’s (of Masterchef Mexico fame) excellent restaurant, El Delfin.

Peruse the La Cruz farmers market for unique foods and art © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

La Cruz & Bucerías

Circle back down towards Puerto Vallarta, stopping at the Muelle Nuevo de San Blas (New Pier of San Blas), another wide beach framed by the Sierra Madre mountains perfect for a stroll.

Plan your trip onward so that you land in La Cruz on a Sunday, because you absolutely don’t want to miss its superb farmers market. This food-and-crafts extravaganza wraps through the Mercado del Mar and features literally hundreds of vendors ranging from organic juicers to designers to painters and jewelry makers. You could spend hours here drinking in the scene – in addition to all the shopping, live music performs at two different stages, and the market also hosts kids crafting workshops. Word to the wise: bring cash with you, as there isn’t an ATM in the market.

Bucerías is just ten minutes further down the road -- it’s known for its sprawling flea market, but be advised that quite a bit of it is tourist tchotchkes. Instead, seek out the town’s art galleries and home decor stores along and around Calle Lázaro Cárdenas; if you’re there on a Thursday, Bucerías Art Gallery hosts an Art Walk from 7:00-9:00pm.

TOP TIP: Many of the above-mentioned events only take place between November and April, closing down in the heat of summer. Plan accordingly!

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Mexico’s hotels, hostels and home rentals so unique you have to see to believe
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Bailey Freeman traveled with support from Riviera Nayarit . Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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