While Mexico’s Caribbean coast boasts beautiful white sand beaches and Mayan ruins galore, there’s much to see and do on the west coast, too. Situated on the Bay of Banderas and nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental, Puerto Vallarta isn’t just an attraction in its own right – it’s also the entryway to the Riviera Nayarit.
Puerto Vallarta & Riviera Nayarit: Where to Go & What to See
Planning a visit? We’ve got you covered with some of the best things to see and do during your stay in this Pacific paradise.
This city of just over 220,000 has been a tourist mecca for decades. The cobblestone streets of old town – also known as the Romantic Zone – are a great place to wander and lead to the famous Isla Cuale market, where visitors can browse dozens of stalls for local handicrafts or tourist souvenirs to bring home. Go north and you’ll find Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, whose iconic crowned Renaissance tower dominates the downtown skyline. The malecon offers beautiful views of the Bay of Banderas and is the perfect place to watch the sunset before heading to one of the many incredible restaurants (or taco stands) that dot the city.
On Thursdays from November to April, Marina Vallarta hosts a handicraft and food market, with vendors selling everything from fresh empanadas and paella to tree bark artwork, leather goods, and clothing. Saturdays are for the Old Town Farmers’ Market, where all products are made, baked, grown, and sold by vendors who live within 75 kilometers of the city.
For those looking for a day trip out of Puerto Vallarta, a 45-minute drive south takes you to the small town of Boca de Tomatlan. Here, you can catch water taxis to more remote beach towns like Yelapa and Quimixto – or take to the trails and hike along the coast to Las Animas. Along the way you’ll find Los Colomitos, a gorgeous secluded cove where fresh river water meets the warm sea.
Sayulita and San Pancho
About 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Nayarit, lies Sayulita and San Pancho (San Francisco), a couple of hippie-surfer towns offering great waves and even better food. Sayulita has seen a boom in tourism over the past five years, which has led to overcrowded streets and water quality issues during the busiest times. But the good vibes are alive and well, and it’s certainly worth a visit for the shops, restaurants, and laid back culture. The organic market is held on Fridays from November to April and offers a huge variety of fresh produce, homemade goods, and treats to enjoy.
San Pancho is a short drive north of Sayulita and offers a similar experience with fewer tourists. There are lots of great shops and delicious food, as well as a (usually) swimmable beach with some good swells. The town has a golf course and a polo/equestrian club, which hosts events on occasion. There are also events in the main plaza and plenty of live music to be found during peak season (November to April), making for a fun night out!
Lo de Marcos
This 2-kilometer-square town is definitely a hidden gem, overshadowed by larger towns like Sayulita and Guayabitos. The main draw of Lo de Marcos is obvious once you get there: the long, wide, and often completely empty beach. The surf is generally fairly calm, though the south end of the beach sometimes sees some large breaks; surf and stand-up paddle board rentals are available locally for reasonable prices. It’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon with a margarita or cerveza in hand and a beach umbrella overhead. The market here is on Saturdays and offers mainly handicrafts, with a few food vendors sprinkled in.
Rincon de Guayabitos and La Peñita
The resort town of Guayabitos is about an hour and a half north of Puerto Vallarta and is popular among vacationing Mexicans. The beach is the main attraction in Guayabitos, and the north end of it is certainly the best place to spend your time. In addition to being nicer and cleaner, it’s largely void of the throngs of tourists and vendors hawking their goods. The Guayabitos market is also worth a visit and happens in the main plaza each Monday during peak season.
A short walk across a suspension bridge (dubbed the Bridge of Life) takes you into the working town of La Peñita, where you’ll find just about anything you need. It’s a side of Mexico that many visitors don’t see – and an excellent place to find delicious street food in the evenings. The local animal shelter, Hilltop Refugio, runs spay/neuter clinics and rescue/rehabilitates street dogs in need; they happily accept visitors and volunteers on Saturday mornings. The La Peñita Tianguis market is one of the largest in the region and is held on Thursdays year-round, though most vendors participate only November through April.