RIVIERA NAYARIT, MEXICO — Flying into Puerto Vallarta, most visitors head south. I go in the opposite direction, north across the Ameca River to the state of Nayarit.The tourism board’s Richard Zarkin invites me to visit his favourite destinations to relax, enjoy and explore the Nayarit he knows and loves. Expect the unexpected, he tells me with a smile.
The Riviera Nayarit’s 320-km. Pacific coastline has dozens of colonial towns, fishing villages, palm tree-shaded beaches and nature reserves. Well-paved highways connect the villages and towns and there are accommodation as varied as luxury resorts, cozy B&Bs and long-term RV parks.
We begin in Sayulita, famous to surfers around the world. The crowded beach is a carnival with surfboards for rent and vendors calling out what they’re selling — food, hats and sunglasses.
Then we drive to the village of San Francisco, called San Pancho by locals. At eco-friendly Hotel Maraica, sitting outside in the thatched-roof bar, the waiter brings food and drinks. Zarkin points at the plate next to the mescal. “Try them. They’re ground dried grasshoppers (chapulines).” I hesitate. But when in Rome, right? I sprinkle chapulines on an orange wedge, take a bite and sip the mescal. Delightfully crunchy, salty and sweet.
Above: The beaches of Riviera Nayarit are some of the best in Mexico and look beautiful at sunset.
At El Paráiso in Lo de Marcos, I meet Liza and Tim Schennen who tell me about the products from their organic dairy and farm. I taste their cheeses, which are delicious. Outside, I notice a dusty van with Québec license plates. That’s 5,000-kms. from home! The owner of the Savage Trailer Park tells me that many Canadians come to Lo de Marcos for the warm weather and laid-back lifestyle.
As Zarkin drives, I look out the window and see that Nayarit’s fertile volcanic soil and tropical climate create ideal growing conditions. Fruit stands are piled high with mangoes, bananas, jack fruit, pineapples, watermelons, coconuts and oranges. We buy armfuls to eat later.
At the end of a dirt road, we arrive at Mar de Jade. The all-inclusive, wellness resort offers yoga, meditation classes, massages, a pool and swimming in sheltered Bahia de Chacala. Dr. Laura del Valle created the hotel as a retreat from the world. There is Wi-Fi in the lobby but not in the rooms. No televisions either. I don’t mind a bit as I relax on my veranda with a view of the water. Besides promoting personal wellness, Dr. Laura uses proceeds from the hotel to fund community projects, a school for local children, a trade school and an organic farm.
Above: Local cuisine created by noted chefs like Betty Vázquez make this Mexican beach town very special.
Up the coast, in San Blas, we stop in the town square to walk underneath the rainbow-umbrellas hanging over Calle H. Batallón. Zarkin tells me that San Blas was important to Spain’s colonial empire because of its deep-water harbour. Today, birders flock to La Tovara National Park to observe a profusion of wild fowl.
On a boat tour to see for myself, guide Francisco Garcia explains that the mangroves, once removed for commercial development, are now valued for sheltering an abundance of wildlife. We spot many birds, including a boat-billed heron and newly hatched chicks high in a tangle of branches. I also see an alligator, submerged except for its eyes.
In Restaurant El Delfín, at the family-run Hotel Garza Canela, I meet chef Betty Vázquez, a judge on MasterChef México. She speaks passionately about cooking, nature and seasonal produce. The best dishes, she says, are full of flavour and emotion and keep us healthy. She generously shares salsa recipes so I can make her food at home.
On Mexcaltitan Island, at the open-air La Alberca overlooking the lagoon, we order grilled bass (sarandeado), shrimp and octopus cocktails (campechana) and tiny, chile-spiced dried shrimp (cucaracha). As we talk, drink Pacificos and eat, herons dive for fish scraps tossed from the kitchen.
Heading east into the mountains on Highway 15, we have breakfast at La Sierra. At the entrance, a blazing wood fire chars skewers of beef, pork, lamb and rabbit. Dripping fat sizzles onto red-hot coals. We order salsas, salads, handmade tortillas, lamb barbacoa, chorizo, birria and pork. Our feast for two costs less than $14 Cdn.
Above: The colourful colonial towns near Riviera Nayarit add a little spice to your vacation.
Zarkin recommends a detour to the circular pyramids of Los Toriles. A dry wind sweeps across giant nopal cacti towering over the ruins. I can see why he likes the serenity of this out-of-the-way archeological site.
In Tepic, Nayarit’s capital, I meet remarkable, fine-dining chefs. At Loma 42, Chef Jesus Velazquez marries a Mexican sensibility with French techniques. Escolar crudo is sauced with charred habanero, garlic and onions. Grilled octopus comes with sour cream (jocoque) and a pumpkin-seed purée. Featuring Sotol, Mescal and Raicilla, mixologist Sergio Huitron pairs a refreshing cocktail with each dish. I save room for pastry chef Irlanda Santillan’s inventive riff on bananas, served half-a-dozen ways.
At Emiliano, we have breakfast, beautifully plated roast pork (puerco echado) on a thick corn tortilla (gordita). With deft strokes, chef Marco Valdivia transforms a typical Nayarit dish into a fine-dining experience by adding creamy salsa and using Brussels sprouts instead of cabbage.
In upscale Punta Mita on the last evening, we have mescal at the Four Seasons’ elegant Dos Catrinas.
An Instagram-perfect sunset brings the day to a close. A perfect ending to an exceptional trip. Toasting Zarkin, I thank him for sharing his favourite destinations.
Now they are mine as well.
Above: Rare birds flock here along with tourists to enjoy the incredible sunsets and sunrises.