A few kilometers from Puerto Vallarta, in Western Mexico, the Riviera Nayarit region is expanding rapidly. Hotels are being built, renovated, expanded…and this is the case of the Occidental Grand Nuevo Vallarta Hotel, where we stayed and which has invested $14 million into renovations, in response to clients’ growing expectations when it comes to the quality of all-inclusives.
Tucked in between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Riviera Nayarit stretches over 300 kilometers to the north of Puerto Vallarta. It is the southern part of the region (in the Bahia de Banderas municipality) that has seen the strongest growth in the hotel industry. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of rooms has risen from 10,000 to 12,500, an increase of 25%.
The South: A Full-Scale Hotel Boom
If you dream of a peaceful, even vegetative, vacation, if your ideal escape mostly involves alternating between the hotel beach and the hotel pool, and if you are fervently devoted to the god of leisure, you will certainly find what you seek in one of the numerous resorts.
But there is life after the all-inclusive…and it just might start with a visit to the Vallarta Adventures’ center. This recreational complex is a great place for nature lovers and anyone who likes outdoor activities. And don’t plan on seeing it all in one day; there are enough activities to keep you busy for several visits. But if you can only spend a day there, make sure you sign up for the “Las Marietas Eco Discovery” These islands were made famous by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
The Marietas Islands, part of World Heritage Islands and Protected Areas, are home to dozens of fascinating species of birds. Even if long walks are obviously not permitted on these volcanic islands in order to preserve the flora and fauna, you can still spend time on the beach, between two deep-sea dives. Over the course of this small eco tour, we also had the opportunity to see dolphins performing improvised ballets and glimpse a few marine turtles, and we found ourselves face to face – or more accurately face to mask – with moonfish, octopuses, and innumerable other creatures that populate the barrier reef. Vallarta Adventures offers several other packages including swimming with dolphins and sea lions in a pool, sea safaris and zipline adventures.
The small fishing village of Bucerias is located nearby, between Nuevo Vallarta and La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. In addition to its white sand beach and the dozens of restaurants with a local or international flavor lining both sides of the main street, Bucerias attracts more and more tourists looking to escape the furious activity of the hotel areas and enjoy a less structured stay. Se renta (for rent) signs are everywhere on the doors of residences. “People come here to find what they can’t necessarily find in Puerto Vallarta: tranquility,” our guide Guillermo Guerrero explains to us. “And since it’s not very far from Puerto Vallarta, less than half an hour, they don’t feel too isolated; it’s becoming more and more popular.”
But even though Bucerias is a quiet little town, the same cannot be said of the long street that runs through the center of it that very much resembles a North African souk. Merchants call out to shorts-clad tourists to sell their merchandise, offering unbeatable deals on “high-quality” items: Mexican bracelets, fabrics, “brand-name” glasses and even ponchos with National Hockey League logos on them… Truth be told, most of the tourists in this area are American or Canadian.
A few kilometers north of Bucerias, in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, is a restaurant that is really worth the trip: the Sandzibar. It is not to be missed not only for the impressive view from the restaurant’s pontoon where a few of the tables really give you the impression you are eating on the beach, but also for the talents of the spirited chef, Bernard Guth. Having spent the last 18 years in Mexico, this German chef has succeeded in revisiting his adopted country’s cuisine while giving it a few European touches. The combination is a success. All the produce is local, the oysters and other fish have been fished the same day, the atmosphere is marvelously romantic, and even the saxophone player who wanders among the tables playing Tears in Heaven doesn’t seem tacky.
We are only 40 km from downtown Puerto Vallarta, and yet you would think we were on the other side of Mexico. Here surf is king, and that is the way it’s been since Highway 200 was constructed in the 1960s. On the beach, surf schools are ubiquitous, and enthusiasts can sign up for lessons to learn the basics. Must-see location: Revolución Del Sueño, a design boutique run by a French couple that arrived in Mexico six years ago, reworks images of the Mexican Revolution into bags, T-shirts and other colorful objects. Another must-see: the taco stand where tourists and locals alike line up for these typically Mexican stuffed shells, consumed standing up.
It would be a shame to leave for the northern part of the Riviera Nayarit without having visited the city of Puerto Vallarta, which, unlike certain destinations like Cancún, was once an authentic Mexican village. The main attractions are the old city, the Notre-Dame de Guadalupe Cathedral, the city market, and the Marina. At night, there is the Malecón, a long boardwalk along the ocean full of trendy restaurants and bars that attract a lively clientele…that usually goes to sleep as the sun rises.
To the North, San Blas: 100% Ecotourism
Ah…San Blas. Definitely one of the most interesting destinations on the Riviera Nayarit. Forget all the huge resorts, condos, shopping centers and golf courses. Here, visitors are welcomed into an untamed and natural Mexico. Just a three-hour drive from Nuevo Vallarta, this fishing village of 12,000 people is, in fact, a first-rate ecotourism destination. We went on a two-hour adventure on the San Cristobal River, over the course of which we saw dozens of species of birds, crocodiles, and diving turtles.
During this excursion, which took place to the sound of bird cries and under a blazing sun, our guide Mark Stackhouse shared his knowledge with us. He works for Westwings, an organization that specializes in bird watching. Armed with an electronic device (for reproducing bird calls), he shared with us his passion for ornithology and gave us some keys for understanding this fauna that is home to some 300 species of birds.
“Ecotourism activities are more and more prevalent in San Blas, a city that wants to become and is becoming Mexico’s ecotourism capital,” he tells us. This incredible outing on the San Cristobal River ended with a visit to a crocodile farm. Other ecotourism activities offered in San Blas include whale-watching and hikes through the jungle.
This trip was made possible by the Occidental Grand Nuevo Vallarta Hotel.