I just got back from a press trip to Nayarit, Mexico, and I have fallen in love with this beautiful state. It is so diverse and offers something for everyone. Whether you love luxury resorts, hippie surfer towns on the beach, historic villages, waterfall hikes, fabulous Mexican food, or want to watch baby turtles hatch, Nayarit has it all.
And the best part? It is so easy to get to from San Diego! The flight takes about 2.5 hours and you are in paradise! I flew out of Tijuana Airport and used the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) for the first time. It is so convenient and fast that I will use CBX for all my Mexico adventures in the future.
Once you get to CBX in Otay Mesa, you just park your car, buy your ticket (if it is not included in your flight ticket), fill out the Mexican Immigration form, and walk across the bridge, which leads you directly into the Tijuana Airport. There you check your luggage, go through security, and head to your gate. The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes in total. The airport is much smaller than San Diego International Airport and a lot less busy, which makes for a much calmer and more pleasant airport experience.
Domestic flights in Mexico are up to 50% cheaper compared to flights from the US into Mexico, so you can save quite a bit of money, too.
Things to do in Nayarit
But back to Nayarit! Our group flew from Tijuana to Tepic, the capital of Nayarit. From there, we explored the beautiful Pueblo Magicas of Jala and Sayulita and then stayed at a fabulous resort in Nuevo Vallarta before flying back to Tijuana from Puerto Vallarta. There are so many things to do in Nayarit you can easily spend four weeks in this state and not get bored.
Tepic is the capital of the Nayarit state and among the top spots in the region for history, culture, and authentic Mexican food.
Often overlooked in favor of the many gorgeous beach towns, Tepic is well worth adding to your itinerary to uncover a different side of Nayarit beyond the sea and sand.
Some of the can’t-miss sights in Tepic include the vibrant main square of Plaza de Armas, the Nayarit Regional Museum, and the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. For a truly unique experience, make the 15-minute drive to the village of Zitákua and meet the indigenous Huichol community.
We also toured the old Bellavista fabric factory in town. The building is partially in ruins but makes for a fantastic playground for photographers. It was interesting to hear the story of the fabric factory and its many tales. It was the starting point of the first labor strike in Mexico, produced denim for Levi Strauss, and even has a few chilling ghost stories.
We stayed at the budget-friendly Fiesta Inn, just a few minutes outside of the city center.
Pueblo Magico Jala
‘Pueblo Magico,’ which translates to ‘Magic Town,’ is a designation by the Mexican government for beautifully restored and authentic small towns and villages. Jala is incredibly underrated and a real hidden treasure.
Multi-colored houses, cobblestone streets, and chilled-out vibes are what this colonial town has in droves, and the majestic Cerobuco Volcano sits tall as the perfect backdrop.
During your stay, pencil in a trip to the likes of the Los Toriles archaeological site and the Our Lady of the Assumption Basilica, but you’ll likely spend a lot of your time wandering the charming streets lined with local shops and old-school mansions.
During Easter, you can witness a reenactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. This event draws visitors from the whole state, and hotel rooms are booked months in advance. August visitors might even catch the annual Corn Festival, where local farmers compete to see who has grown the longest corn ear in town. This is certainly one of the more unusual things to do in Nayarit.
We stayed at the beautiful Nukari Quinta Boutique Hotel in the middle of the city. The hacienda-style hotel is located right next to the cathedral and the square. The suites are spacious and beautifully decorated. Get pampered in their spa, take a swim in their pool, and enjoy a delicious dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking the cathedral.
Get Close to An Active Volcano
We took a (very bumpy) drive from Jala to the Cerobuko Volcano. The volcano is still active, actually one of the most active volcanos along the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, and currently “overdue” for an eruption. The drive up the mountain is absolutely stunning, and the views are incredible. Expect some delays, as your car might get stuck in a traffic jam due to the resident cows.
We stopped at a picnic area on our way down and saw the hot (very hot, be careful) steam rising from the cracks in the stone. There are also some hot springs nearby in El Manto, where you can soak and relax for a few hours.
Waterfalls are plentiful in Nayarit, and if you love hiking, you should add a waterfall hike to your Nayarit itinerary. We hiked to a waterfall near Jala, called El Salto. This hike is perfect for beginner hikers as it is flat and easy. However, it still has a little dose of adventure: At the very beginning, you have to cross a (quite sketchy) rope bridge, and later on, you must walk over stones to cross a shallow river.
The most magical part of the hike was when three curious and incredibly cute horses walked towards us, and we got to pet and take pictures with them.
At the waterfall, you can have a picnic, go for a swim in the natural pool or simply soak in the beauty of the nature around you. This was one of my favorite experiences during my trip to Nayarit!
Go Wine Tasting
While Valle de Guadalupe is the largest wine region in Mexico, Nayarit has quite a few little vineyards sprinkled across the state.
During our stay in Jala, we got to try three wines from a local winery called Meseta del Cielo. Their white wine is dry with strong hints of apple. Very refreshing and perfect for seafood and fruity chicken dishes. Their rosé is sweet and has a strong berry flavor, which is perfect if you prefer sweet and fruity wines. Their syrah is nicely balanced with a strong tobacco aroma and sour cherry flavors, keeping the wine tart and low in tannins.
Relax in Hot Springs
Natural hot springs are magical, aren’t they? Sitting in steaming, mineral-rich waters is not only relaxing but supposedly also heals all kinds of ailments, injuries, and diseases. Some even say they are the key to eternal life.
Hot Springs can be found all over the state of Nayarit, and while I can’t promise you eternal life, I can promise you a relaxing and rejuvenating experience.
Pueblo Magico Sayulita
Another spot that most definitely deserves its status as one of the Pueblos Magicos in Nayarit is Sayulita.
This seaside town is everything that Mexico does best, packed into a pretty compact pocket of Nayarit. Horseback riding along the sandy beaches, surfing, hiking to hidden beaches, and an afternoon wandering the adorable streets are just some of the top things to do in this beloved hippie town.
Sayulita is much livelier than Jala, making it one of the best places to visit in Nayarit for those looking for late nights and beachside parties. It is definitely a tourist destination, but still very charming.
Visit San Francisco
Also commonly known as San Pancho, San Francisco is a small coastal town situated around 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta.
Before Sayulita became the tourist hub that it is today, it was a little like San Francisco is now: quiet stretches of sand, quaint hotels, local eateries, and a strong sense of community. This cute little town stole my heart and I wish we had had more time to explore. It is a lot less touristy and quieter than Sayulita. It has a bit of a chill backpacker/hippie/yoga-retreat vibe that is just lovely.
Animal lovers are in for a real treat here. Not only are there dozens of cute pups everywhere you go, but San Francisco is home to a turtle conservation project. It’s also not uncommon to spot whales right from the beach between December and March.
Volunteer With The Marine Turtle Conservation
If you’re planning to spend quite a bit of time exploring Nayarit, you can help out at the Marine Turtle Conservation in San Francisco. You’ll have the opportunity to work as a volunteer during the nesting season between May and November.
As part of your role, you’ll gather nests from beaches in the area and take them to the turtle nursery, where you’ll take care of each nest until the turtles have hatched and are ready for release.
However, anyone here for a short time who’s visiting during the second half of the year will have an excellent chance at catching volunteers releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean most evenings after sunset.
Relaxing At A Resort At Riviera Nayarit
It wouldn’t be a Mexican vacation destination without a few plush resorts dotted along the coastline.
You’ll have a bunch of lavish lodgings to choose from, but the Grand Luxxe at Vidanta in Nuevo Vallarta is among the most sublime resorts in all of Nayarit, Mexico. In fact, it’s been named one of the world’s most fabulous hotels on a number of occasions. Every corner is beautifully designed and decorated.
A full-service spa, three golf courses, upwards of 100 bars and eateries, a lazy river, and numerous pools are just a taste of what this property offers to its guests. We stayed only for one night, but I am not sure two weeks would be enough to experience all the cool things this resort has to offer.
If you are looking for a luxury getaway where you can just relax and indulge, and your hardest decision of the day is which pool you go to, the Vidanta Resort is perfect for you.
Take A Boat To The Marietas Islands
Ask anyone who’s visited this corner of Mexico about what to do in Nayarit, and they’ll probably tell you to make a day trip to the magical Marietas Islands.
These tiny, uninhabited islands are not only beautiful in their own right, but the surrounding seas are excellent snorkeling spots. On your way to and from the Marietas Islands, you’ll have a chance to swim with manta rays, dolphins, hundreds of fish, and, if you’re lucky, sea turtles. Blue-booted boobies, the unique waterbirds with bright blue feet, are often spotted on these islands, too.
Tons of tour operators offer boat tours to the Mariertas, but this excursion is among the best in town.
Find Paradise On Earth At Lo De Marcos
Experience a slow pace of life at the dreamy Lo De Marcos, a tiny town that’s full of character and natural beauty.
Though Lo De Marcos attracts a small number of tourists, it’s noticeably quieter than the majority of resort towns along the Nayarit Riviera.
This spot is all about unwinding by the beach, eating fresh street food, and completely switching off. You’ll have your pick of upscale resorts, beachside bungalows, and boutique hotels, which is quite impressive considering the size of this town.
Pay A Visit To The Cora Crocodile Sanctuary
In addition to the idyllic beaches, top-tier golf courses, and elegant resorts, Nuevo Vallarta is home to the Cora Crocodile Sanctuary.
Seven crocodiles of varying ages are protected in this nature reserve, but turtles, eagles, parrots, and a handful of other animals are also cared for here.
Cora’s team of biologists and environmentalists work to conserve each of these species, educate visitors about the importance of preserving wildlife in the region, and also run informative tours every day except Mondays.
Go On A Whale Watching Tour
Anyone planning a visit to Nayarit during the months of December to March should put a whale-watching tour on the top of their to-do list, as it’s one of the most remarkable things to do in Nayarit.
Every year, mesmerizing humpback whales can be seen along the Riviera Nayarit, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot some of these amazing creatures breaching, singing, or looking for a mate.
Climb To The Top Of Monkey Mountain
Keen hikers won’t want to miss this one, but it’s worth knowing before you go that this is not the easiest of trails, particularly in the midday heat.
The path starts near the town of Higuera Blanca, which is around 20 minutes south of Sayulita, and the hike itself will likely take about three hours to complete. Naturally, this trek is more arduous the later in the day you go, so set off early while the temperatures are a little cooler.
Unfortunately, the name of the mountain is very misleading, as the chances of seeing monkeys are quite low.
To see some of the hidden spots along the way, hop on a guided tour.
Hike Through The Sierra Madre Mountains
Another fantastic day out for anyone who fancies a hike is a trip to the Sierra Madre Mountains.
Lush tropical rainforests, towering waterfalls, and diverse wildlife are just some of the sights you can expect to see during your explorations. Plus, the world’s longest suspension bridge is also tucked away here.
Tepic is the best place to start your journey, but it’s also reachable from the likes of Puerto Vallarta.
Go On An ATV Adventure
Any thrill-seekers out there are in for a real treat, as Nayarit has plenty of adrenaline-filled activities.
This ATV tour starts from Sayulita and takes you through dirt tracks, scenic mountain roads, and pristine beaches over the course of two hours around the Higuera Blanca area.
Come prepared and opt for old clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, as you’ll encounter quite a few mucky patches.
Learn How To Surf
Almost every coastal town in Nayarita has a thriving surfing culture, so why not join in on the action and take to the waves yourself?
San Pancho, Punta Mita, and Sayulita are great places to start. Lessons are cheap and readily available, and the conditions are usually calm enough for beginners to learn the ropes.
Experienced surfers should check out the hidden beaches of La Lancha or Burros. You’ll need to trek through the jungle to reach them, but you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled surf breaks and much smaller crowds than at most surfing hotspots.
Explore Mexcaltitán de Uribe
A Nayarit attraction that should be on everyone’s bucket list is the man-made island of Mexcaltitán.
This little city has been described as the cradle of the Aztec civilization, and its annual floods have given it the title of the Venice of Mexico. All things considered, this is a pretty impressive round-up for such a small pocket of Nayarita.
Mexcaltitán is only two hours north of the capital of Tepic, giving you ample time to admire the brightly-colored buildings, sample the island’s signature shrimp, and pick up handmade crafts from local artists.
Brush Up On Your History At San Blas
San Blas is known as a superb surfing destination with secluded beaches, but it’s also steeped in history.
Travel back in time to spots like the San Basilio Fort, which defended the area throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and explore the nearby remnants of the Our Lady of the Rosary Church, built just before the defensive walls.
The town itself is packed with colonial buildings, including a magnificent church and the Casa de la Cultura, so you’re pretty much surrounded by history and tradition no matter where you turn.
Nayarit is still a relatively undiscovered state and perfect if you want to avoid super touristy and crowded vacation spots in Mexico. I only had four days to explore the state, which was barely enough to get a little sample of what this state has to offer. I can’t wait to go back.