16 Towns make Paradise “The Riviera Nayarit”
BY IRENE MIDDLEMAN THOMAS SPECIAL TO THE RECORD
The Mexican morning is perfect — warm and fresh. I smell tortillas browning, coffee brewing and jasmine blooming. The cacophony of roosters blends along with the trilling warblers, and fluorescent purple, orange and pink fuchsia and bougainvillea tumble over me in canopies. Strolling on through the early light on the shiny cobblestone streets, I find myself smiling at lazy dogs enjoying the sunlight.
I thought I had seen everything there was to see in the small town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, one of 16 delightfully distinct villages along 192 miles of the Riviera Nayarit coastline, but on a dusty corner, I see an intriguing handmade sign beckoning: “The Jardín del Pulpo/Octopus’ Garden.” I enter and find a hidden treasure — an organic coffeehouse, restaurant, artisan gallery and live music venue — all in one tropical atrium and filled with a multicultural mix of happy people. Today’s treat is a flamenco-style trio — what a nice way to start the day, with fair trade coffee and astonishing Spanish guitar playing a jazzed-up version of “Bésame Mucho.”
There’s always something yet undiscovered around every corner in the Riviera Nayarit. These wildly, lushly green villages connect to each other with just a few miles and minutes separating them, all overlooking the blue Pacific, with verdant, dramatically beautiful mountain ranges as a backdrop, the sky filled with pelicans, herons and seagulls feasting on the abundant sea life below. Each town has its own personality, its own habitués, its own ambience. Yet all join together in this spectacularly beautiful, friendly region to offer tourists a sublime, like-nowhere-else variety of experiences, gastronomy, recreation, nature and culture.
You’ll be mesmerized by the fascinating Huichol culture — a reclusive people who maintain their language, traditions and intricate artisan work. A few come to town to sell their wares, bedecked in white costumes with brightly colored embroidery.
Getting to the border of Riviera Nayarit takes just 10 minutes by car from the Puerto Vallarta airport, which is in the neighboring state of Jalisco. Mexico is actually named “United States of Mexico,” with 31 states and one federal district (Mexico City).
If you’ve never visited, the Riviera Nayarit shows off Mexico’s best features. No wonder so many expatriates from the U.S. and Canada, and even from farther shores, have chosen to settle here — more than anywhere else in Mexico.
Those who want a laid-back, surfer feel are perfectly at home in funky/chic Sayulita. Other travelers, seeking a more pampered, exclusive experience, flock to the five-star resorts and golf courses of Punta Mita. Adventurous types looking to explore and soak in the authenticity lost in so many other tourist areas will find their nirvana in such villages as San Pancho, Bucerías and La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Bird watchers and other naturalists from all over the world reach their bliss in San Blas. Foodies and gourmets find an extraordinary array of acclaimed, award-winning restaurants, talented, innovative chefs and unique culinary offerings — don’t leave without trying aguachile de camarones (fresh shrimp cooked in lime and chile,) pescado sarandeado (grilled, garlic and chile-seasoned fish fillets,) or a chilled Cielo Rojo (spicy Clamato tomato juice, mixed with lager beer and lime.) The No. 1 state for shrimp — Nayarit is a seafood lovers’ haven.
But, if you hanker for a week of making no decisions and total relaxation, some 15 or so all-inclusives ranging from 3 to 5 stars invite you to do nothing at all on their lavish premises (with no guilt!)
Akin to Italy’s Cinque Terre, there is nowhere else in Mexico that offers such a delightful variety of micro-destinations within one macro destination. Here’s a glimpse of six villages (all within 20 minutes to two hours from the airport) affectionately termed pueblos encantados — enchanted towns — by the Mexican Tourism Department:
The first true village on the Riviera Nayarit coastline, (Nuevo Vallarta is basically a hotel and condo area created in the last 30 years or so, located right on Nayarit’s southern border) Bucerías attracts large numbers of expats, yet successfully retains its true Mexican ambience. A long shopping and dining drag features a wide range, from made-in-China faux Mexican odds and ends to sophisticated artwork and furnishings you might find in Beverly Hills — but at lower prices. The Paseo del Beso (Kissing Bridge) is charming — and be sure to visit Arturo Ramirez Ortiz’s booth at the southern end of the bridge — very nice sculptures made by him and other crafts made by members of his family. Bucerías is known and loved for its culinary treasures, such as Mark’s Bar & Grill (marksbucerias.com), a hip, sophisticated spot owned by an American and his New Zealand-born wife — last Valentine’s Day, when I had the pleasure of visiting, the place was jammed all night long with happy couples feasting on grass-fed filet mignon, pan-seared tuna, and Belgian chocolate mousse with espresso cream. Across the street, visit Jan Marie’s boutique (owned by Mark’s as well,) full of interior designer-quality furniture, décor and paintings from all over Mexico — it’s like a trip to a museum!
Where to stay: Royal Decameron (decameron) is a three-hotel complex, 20 minutes from the airport, with a vast beach and easy access to the village of Bucerías.
La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
This little fishing village, just two miles from Bucerías, has somehow managed to maintain its quaint, old-fashioned authenticity despite being home to a spanking new 351-slip marina, the largest in Latin America, with yachts up to 400 feet anchored there. La Cruz, as locals refer to it, has its own expat community and a surprising number of superb restaurants that draw foodies from near and far, such as Frascati’s and Black Forest. It is also where I found El Jardín del Pulpo (hikuri.com).
Where to stay: Villa Bella Bed and Breakfast Inn (villabella-lacruz.com), an elegant former home on a hillside with five suites and a small pool, sumptuously furnished and decorated, quiet and pampering. Just five minutes from shops and restaurants down below — but with sweeping views of the bay (whale spotting, in season) and the mountains and village, and a truly hands-on owner, Elsa, who breakfasts with the guests daily.
Punta de Mita
While this community at the north tip of Banderas Bay caters to those who can afford the St. Regis and the Four Seasons and their gated resort and residential community, along with their amenities, like two 18-hole Jack Nicklaus championship golf courses and luxurious spas, those of us in the lower ranks can also enjoy its beautiful beaches and delightful shops. There are excellent restaurants, such as Mariscos Tino’s, where I gorged on tacos de jaiba (crab tacos,) coconut shrimp, bacon-wrapped shrimp and had yet another Cielo Rojo.
Where to stay: Splurge on the posh Hotel Cinco (cincopuntamita.com), a boutique hotel where you just might spy an A-list celeb — it’s THAT kind of place. The hotel is adjacent to the renowned Café des Artistes, one of Riviera Nayarit’s finest restaurants.
San Francisco (San Pancho)
Just five minutes from Sayulita, San Pancho exudes a whole different scene. Home of the famous Polo Club, the town comes alive during polo season between November and May. San Pancho is quiet, tasteful and ecologically minded. A true gem here is the Entre Amigos community center, founded by a California woman. Free to all, it provides free courses in music, art, language, etc. and involves the local Mexican community as well as the expats and tourists. San Pancho has a lovely beach and small beachside plaza, several small hotels, B&Bs and charming restaurants as well as an active, involved expat community.
Where to stay: Hotel Cielo Rojo (hotelcielorojo.com), a delightful boutique property with kitschy adornments, organic coffee, and a bevy of surprises. A very “San Pancho”-like hotel!
About 2 1/2 hours north of Puerto Vallarta’s airport, San Blas is a haven for birders, naturalists, silky-soft golden sand beach-lovers (over 20 miles of pristine coastline), surfers and, surprisingly, gourmets. San Blas is a taste of Mexico-the-way-it-used-to-be. Thousands of birders from all over the world come each January for the Festival of Migratory Birds. Bird-watching tours are offered during the festival, including special tours of the La Tovara Mangrove Park, which is one of the most important natural refuges in the Western Hemisphere.
The federally protected La Tovara National Park and mangrove eco-region in San Blas is one of the most important winter habitats for birds in the Pacific, home to 80 percent of the Pacific migratory shore bird populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Who would have thought of eating Cordon Bleu-inspired cuisine like jicama and avocado tartare or fresh lychee sorbet in a tiny hotel in a relatively tiny town (just 10,000 inhabitants) on a stretch of Mexican coastline far from the madding crowds? Dozens of happy foodies do so each day in San Blas, at internationally-acclaimed, French-schooled Chef Betty Vasquez’s El Delfin restaurant.
Where to stay: Hotel Garza Canela (garzacanela.com) is the home of the fabulous El Delfin, and is a cozy, pleasant eco-hotel with a pretty garden area.
The epitome of surfer-chic, Sayulita also has an established permanent expat community but also hosts large numbers of temporary residents — some of them young surfer nomads, who travel around seeking the “perfect wave.” This just might be the most diverse town you’ll ever see — ranging from long-dreadlocked Rastas to fixed-income single seniors seeking new lives, to affluent art collectors and yoga/spa enthusiasts. Sayulita has a multitude of yoga classes and aficionados, as well as a true falafel/Middle Eastern café, vegan bistros, a beloved ChocoBanana stand (check out their frozen chocolate-and-coconut covered bananas) and for the more sophisticated, very fine dining at places like the beachfront Don Pedro’s (tapenade served with bread is incredible) or the artisan bakery and coffeehouse of Panino’s (cappuccino to equal any in Milan.)
In this funky town, I awoke early to watch the dawn’s surfers and standup paddlers, and chuckled in amusement as I watched a tousled blond youth doing elaborate yoga handstands on the packed sand while a Rasta with his surfboard walked right by without a second glance. Anything goes in Sayulita — it’s for tolerant, creative tourists who seek a charming small-town feel with plenty of quality handicrafts and friendly natives. Gem: the Galería Tanara Huichol Free Trade store — plan to spend at least an hour in this exquisite shop with informed personnel, offering authentic Huichol jewelry, textiles and decorative art all obtained in free-trade practice from the Huichols themselves.
Where to stay: Hotel Kupuri (sayulitaLife.com/Kupuri) is a lovely, 22-room boutique hotel just off the main street and fronting the town’s cultural center (Casa Cultural.) This Asian-influenced property offers thatched roofs, onyx and hardwood décor, impeccable service, a huge palapa in the atrium with a pretty swimming pool, and a rooftop bar with lounging beds and a spectacular view.
See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/travel/215411001_16_Towns_make_Paradise____the_Riviera_Nayarit.html?page=all#sthash.1cwk5opL.dpuf
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