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If you didn’t know you were in the Riviera Nayarit, the cranes and earth movers would be a dead giveaway. Winding along 30 miles of the Pacific, this is Mexico’s newest boom area, a largely undiscovered coast filled with migrating whales and a history of pirates.
Carved out of the coast north of Puerto Vallarta, the two are separated by a bridge over the Ameca River, which marks the state line into Nayarit. Stretching upward, it ends at the historic port of San Blas. Roughly half the coast curves around Banderas Bay, Mexico’s largest bay.
View from a master suite at the Four Seasons Punta Mita
From a no-frills mountaintop spiritual retreat to glamorous AAA Five-Diamond resorts, the lodging options are endless. Most hotels are all-inclusive with stunning spas, activities like salsa lessons and unlimited food and drink (including premium-brand liquor). Silky sand beaches hug the shore, and you can wade out as far as 60 feet into the ocean. With kids clubs, hotels can cater to both single travelers as well as families and, for clients who prefer a more intimate setting, several boutique hotels are in the planning stages — especially at Punta Raza — where they will be the norm rather than the exception.
These coastal developments had their beginnings in Nuevo Vallarta, where mangrove canals shelter the nests of herons and pelicans and where the Jack Tar Village was inaugurated in the 1980s. It’s a stone’s throw away from the comforting coves of the bay where pirates used to lie and wait before plundering Spanish galleons. Later in its history, humpback whales that swam thousands of miles from Alaska to mate and give birth to their young began to draw tourists to the area. Now, whale watching has become one of the region’s most popular excursions from December to March.
Jack Tar has since changed ownership and become the Marival Resort & Suites Nuevo Vallarta, which added a convention center and Mexican Fiesta every Tuesday night. The biggest resort property, Paradise Village, opened more recently with its "city-within-a-city" concept with a marina, golf course, small zoo and clusters of stand-alone buildings with suites. Out on Nuevo Vallarta’s main avenue, free, open-air trolleys run into the evening.
The trolley line may be extended as more businesses appear on the coast. So far, one-third of the Riviera Nayarit has been developed, with 12,000 mostly upper-tier hotel rooms, making it larger than some older Mexican beach destinations. Adding to this, 4,000 more rooms will open in the next few years including The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in October in the gated, upscale Punta Mita community, which was launched with the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita. AMResorts is going in on a project with Dreams; Iberostar has one of three hotels under construction; and Grand Hyatt and Park Hyatt will also plant their flags in this booming area. Recreation is growing alongside the hotels, especially golf (four courses are in operation and two more will open by 2011). Green fees average $120 to $180, half the price of some other Mexican resorts.
As a result of the rapid development, some areas look like giant construction camps. One such is Litibu, which set off a lot of the hotel investment after the Mexican government dubbed it a new master-planned resort two years ago. The name means "bird song" in the native tongue and digging machines have already started carving out plots for hotels, roads, residences, clinics, schools and shopping strips. The project also extends to Higuera Blanca, a typical hamlet which will be transformed into a visitor attraction with new shops, gardens and restaurants keeping with local traditions.
Driving along the coast after viewing the hotel sites took me on roads curving past pine forests and triggered scenes in my memory from the 1940’s John Huston film, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," as I passed by dusty villages, parched earth, miles and miles of uninhabited terrain and the rugged mountains of the Sierra Madre. This marked my journey to the old towns of the Riviera.
Two of them are Sayulita and San Francisco, both fishing villages turning toward tourism. The busiest was Sayulita with its own bohemian charisma found in the jumble of handicrafts shops, small bakeries, chic boutiques and stores with talavera tiles piled in the front yard. There, posters crammed the shop windows offering flamenco, psychic readings, painting classes and yoga.
Most surprising, however, was finding out that it is a surfer’s hangout where half-hour lessons cost a mere $50. Many of the residents are ex pats who first visited during the hippie era of the 1960s but came back to buy vacation homes. Apart from surfing, Sayulita’s Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts seemed to fit right in. It’s partly a shop that sells the colorful yarn paintings and beaded handicrafts the Huichol Indians are famous for, and partly a community resource that donates profits to Huichol villages. Chicago anthropologist Susana Valadez, who started the center 12 years ago, explained to me that the donations are used for educational programs that help preserve the Huichol language and culture.
The town of San Francisco — or San Pancho, as it is often called — is almost like a suburb of Sayulita, where many of the artists and business owners of Sayulita reside. It is small and quiet with a handsome mission church, uncrowded beach and the Polo Club.
Right now, the easiest way to get to the Riviera Nayarit is by flying into the Puerto Vallarta Airport, but an international terminal, to be built farther up the coast, is under consideration. Until then, the Riviera Nayarit continues to grow into its own as an attractive vacation destination.