Mexcaltitan, one of Mexico's Magic Pueblos, is a manmade island of floating mangroves and canals where legend has it that the Aztec civilization originated. Photo: Mexico Tourism Board
In 2006, I got wind of a new mega-development planned for the coast in Nayarit state, designed by the Mexico tourism development agency FONATUR, and pointed my compass south in a panic. Several years earlier, I had spent an idyllic five days in San Blas and always wanted to return to explore more of Nayarit's coastline. With nightmarish visions of Cancun dancing in my head, I figured it was time to get on my pony.
With my sister, on her first trip to Mexico, I basked in the peace and quiet of fishing village towns notched into the edge of the jungle that creeps right up to the shoreline — places where cars respectfully shared the roads with horses and burros, and everyone we met was honored to help us exercise our Spanish skills. We also visited the FONATUR site, called Litibu, which was no more than a grand, block-long entrance gate, a golf course, several paved roads through the jungle and a sweep of profoundly beautiful beach. The uber-luxurious Punta Mita development just south of there was already in full regalia. It was a sometimes surreal juxtaposition of Nayarit's past and its future in one trip. Coming home brought the sadness that comes with knowing you've seen something wonderful for the last time — a feeling intensified by receiving a press release a few months later announcing a "new destination" called Riviera Nayarit.
But during a recent business trip to Puerto Vallarta, I couldn't resist the call of that coast and those villages, however they may have changed. What I found is that parts of the Nayarit coast have changed little, if at all. Yes, the planned residential-resort of Nuevo Vallarta squats between Puerto Vallarta and the village of Bucerias to the north, and Litibu is rapidly filling with hotels and vacation homes. The once-scruffy surfing haven of Sayulita has acquired condos, a large contingent of expats and abundant traffic that recently inspired a downtown makeover. All that was expected. The surprise was that much of the coast is still a trove of history, culture and tradition, where Margaritaville is alive and well.
Here are a few suggestions for getting lost in Margaritaville; the rest I leave for you to discover on your own. The local visitors bureau is chock-full of ideas.
Bucerias: By some miracle, the closest village to all the new development has morphed from a tiny fishing community into a vacation spot of about 17,000. Despite an influx of expatriates, residents are mostly Spanish-speaking Mexicans, and it retains its slow pace and traditional ways, right down to the hand-made cobblestone streets brightly painted buildings and enormous wooden doors. Its 5-mile stretch of soft yellow sand, one of the cleanest in Mexico, accommodates sailboats, kayaks, jet skis and palapa restaurants without crowding, while the Main Plaza buzzes with locals going about their day-to-day business. Serenity reigns in an abundance of excellent restaurants and bars along the main streets. Art is important in Bucerias. An artisan market winds through its narrow streets six days a week, and a cultural center called Crearte was recently established to teach creative arts to all residents. For a closer look at what the town has to offer, take a look at the expat-run Best of Bucerias website.
San Pancho: About 10 miles north of Sayulita, this town (officially named San Francisco) remains a fishing village and mango processing town where fishermen still cast their lines from shore, competing with resident pelicans, and sea turtles come in rainy months to lay their eggs. But there is a whole other side to the seemingly sleepy town, whose residents' roots as a community go back hundreds of years. They have worked thoughtfully and tirelessly to improve and develop their town. Galleries, cultural centers, small restaurants and traditional bakeries line streets named after distant places such as Kenya, India and Egypt, and a modest number of fine hotels and B&Bs has taken hold, and the broad, mile-long beach is a recreational magnet, siphoning off some of Sayulita's surfers. The main street has been paved in recent years, a seafront malecon has sprung up, and San Pancho has acquired an honest-to-goodness polo club— none of which interfered with its the town's enduring tranquility.
Rincon de Guayabitos: This seaside town of 2,000, hidden between the Jaltemba Bay and the lush Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, was named for the guava groves that once lined the shore. Its lone main street, Avenida del Sol Nuevo, runs parallel to the beach along the town's entire length, dividing the hotel/commercial zone from the residential zone. The commercial zone is a hive of markets, handicraft shops, clothing stores, discos, family-run restaurants and food stands, and the Town Plaza hosts a weekly artisans market every Monday during high season. This might be the last bastion of the cheap Mexican beach escape, with low-season rates at decent hotels dipping below $20 a night. And what a beach it is, nearly 1½ golden miles wide dotted by palapa restaurants and beach vendors selling coconut drinks and shrimp on a stick. Ocean waters are so calm here that it is known as "the largest swimming pool in the world," yet a short walk leads to an area suited to bodysurfing, boogie boarding, sailing and windsurfing. If the serenity leaves you craving some action, deep-sea fishing and whale-watching here are legendary. Baby turtle releases are a prime ticket during summer month, and the mountains offer stellar horseback riding. In fact, there's not much an adventure-prone traveler can't do in Guayabitos.
Other coastal towns: To a large degree, the farther north from Puerto Vallarta you venture, the deeper into Mexico you go. Lo de Marcos is a small, friendly, very Mexican beach town with great sand and a beachfront restaurant serving authentic local food. San Blas, a larger port city, has become more tourist-oriented since I first visited, but its many beaches, colonial history, Spanish fort and a wealth of migratory birds remain as compelling as ever. And nearby La Tovara National Park offers boat trips through a mangrove-shrouded estuary harboring birds, crocodiles and turtles. Mexcaltitan is a fascinating manmade island of floating mangroves and canals where legend has it that the Aztec civilization originated. The town is one of Mexico's Magic Pueblos, with narrow streets and an abundance of red tile roofs. During the rainy season, the streets flood and residents travel by boat — naturally, its nickname is "The Venice of Mexico."
Former Chronicle travel editor Christine Delsol is the author of "Pauline Frommer's Cancún & the Yucatán" and a regular contributor to "Frommer's Mexico" and "Frommer's Cancún & the Yucatán."
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