Mexico’s Secret Coast

During a spring break trip to Nayarit state, the author and his family discover luxury, bohemian surf villages, history and nature—minus the tequila shots.  

To reach Hidden Beach, you have to swim 60 feet through a sea cave—at low tide, there’s enough air in the cave that you can paddle through without having to hold your breath. But the morning my family and I motor up to the craggy volcanic cliff at Marietas Islands National Park, several miles from the mainland, the tide is up, and the cave mouth is only a slit that disappears in a belch of spray with every incoming swell.

We beat closer to a boat anchored near the cave mouth, and Francisco, our guide, speaks in Spanish to a uniformed park ranger standing beside a small red warning flag.

“The beach is closed,” Francisco says, confirming what I already feared. 

Hidden Beach isn’t the only reason we’ve come to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, but images of the surreal crescent of sand locked inside an ancient crater inspired the trip. Last winter, the colder and drearier Fairfax grew, the more I dreamed of spring break in Mexico—not surrounded by tequila-swillers in Cancun, but exploring this little-known, 192-mile stretch of mountainous coastline. 

Much of Nayarit state is undeveloped, though that’s changing as more and more Americans discover its charms. The once-sleepy surf town of Sayulita has become a hot spot for hip Californians. Yet despite the new crop of yoga studios and vegan restaurants, Sayulita and other villages maintain a strong cultural identity. 

Even the high-end resorts at Punta Mita, a privately developed 1,500-acre promontory of land at the southernmost end of the Riviera Nayarit, try hard to honor Mexican cultural traditions. That’s where we start our weeklong trip, at the impeccable Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, about 45 minutes from the airport in Puerto Vallarta, the popular cruise ship port of call. 

I’m here with my wife, Heather, and our children, Luther, 17, and Eliot, 13, during their school break. After a few days, we’ll move to the recently opened W Punta de Mita and then drive north in our rental car to the town of San Blas, which is famous for its colonial history and wildlife-rich mangrove swamps.

But for now, I focus on the cave mouth, which appears to be gasping for air with each receding swell. 

“We go explore the islands,” Francisco says. “Maybe the tide will be lower when we return.”

The Marietas are uninhabited—by humans, that is. 

The rocky promontories, crusted with guano and bristling with bromeliads and cactus, teem with bird life. Blue-and yellow-footed boobies perch and waddle on rocky shelves. Laughing birds, with their signature shriek, rise and dip while fishing and hectoring. Big black frigatebirds, distinctive for their forked tails, swoop in and snatch fish from other birds, which is why they’re known as pirates of the sky.

Our captain, a quiet, steady man named Juan Luis, maneuvers our canopied skiff up next to the cliff. A few beats later, a swell lifts the boat, smacks a fissure in the rocks and a plume shoots 20 feet into the air, raining down on us. Even our teenagers are impressed. 

Back at the cliff, the flag is still red, so we wait. Several other tour boats have arrived, but we’re first on the list. 

Half an hour later, with daylight showing at the far end of the cave mouth, the ranger gives us the high sign. We buckle into flotation vests and red caving helmets—protection against rogue waves—and leap in the water. Heart thumping, I paddle towards the opening. The water rises, narrowing the air gap, and falls. I time the swells to make it past a jagged low point, and a tiny breaker carries me to the strip of white sand. Soon, we’re all on Hidden Beach, joined by a dozen other excited tourists in bathing suits and helmets. It is strange to be looking up, past the plant-festooned ledge at the blue sky, after all the time spent back in wintry Virginia staring at aerial photos offering a glimpse of the interior. It feels great. 

The cave swim isn’t the only adventure of the trip. On day two, my daughter and I wake early to go spearfishing. Eliot and I learned to freedive 18 months earlier in Grand Cayman. Now we have another chance to buddy up, this time while hunting for lunch with Spearmex, a local freediving and spearfishing academy that partnered with Four Seasons Punta Mita to create the Catch and Cook Adventure program.

After a quick breakfast, Eliot and I meet Spearmex owner Sebastian Melani, a world champion spearfisherman originally from Argentina, and his crew at the water’s edge. A swell blew in overnight. Waves pound the beach, forcing us to board a few miles away and then motor over to a sheltered cove for a speargun lesson.

The choppy seas have also churned up the sand, clouding the normally clear waters. As Eliot and I float at the surface, scanning the jade void for spadefish, pompano and triggerfish—whose firm, mild flesh is prized for ceviche—the current sweeps us away from our hunting grounds. We keep having to re-board and start over. Melani, clearly disappointed, explains that the Pacific is in transition in April, from the cold, green-water season of winter to the warmer, clearer, blue-water season of summer. Luck isn’t on our side.

Spearfishing off the coast of Punta Mita.

We don’t leave empty-handed, though. Melani sends us back to the Four Seasons with a five-pound red snapper he shot during a deep dive. Eliot decides to meet her brother for lunch by the pool, so Heather and I join chef Hector Leyva, a short, happy culinary whiz from Oaxaca, at a shaded private dining patio beside Ketsi, the resort’s beachfront grill. Leyva shows us how to make classic guacamole in a molcajete, the traditional, three-legged volcanic-stone grinding bowl. As we dip chips, he fillets and cubes the snapper and makes a ceviche with charred pineapple and a splash of mescal. It’s delicious—and just the start. Leyva makes up for our meager catch with extra snapper and octopus, which he grills over charcoal. 

It’s hard to leave the pampered luxury of the Four Seasons, but our next stop—the W Punta de Mita, eight miles away—is a soft landing. Opened in spring 2016, the W is a funky, design-forward resort featuring 119 guest suites in the form of modernistic concrete boxes fanning a hill above a private beach. We stow our gear and head to the pool, following a stunning floor mosaic made from more than 750,000 tiny ceramic tiles. 

Inspired by the colorful beadwork of the Huichol Indians, who live in the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains, the blue-green Camino Huichol starts at the reception area, spills down a flight of stairs and climbs another flight to an observation deck above the pool. From there, we peer down on an attractive mix of young couples and families, all hanging out and sipping drinks in lounge chairs and private cabanas. We stake out our own relaxing corner, while the kids explore the network of concrete paths on bicycles, which the resort scatters around for guests to borrow. Later, I rent a stand-up paddleboard and join a couple of locals at a nearby reef break, where the waves—small enough for a novice, like me—are so crystal clear it’s hard to see them coming. 

That evening, we’re tempted to take the rental car into Puerto Vallarta, 20 miles to the east, for dinner. Raised on episodes of The Love Boat, which followed the guests and crew of the Pacific Princess on their voyages between LA and PV, I’m curious—but not curious enough to brave the cruise ship crowds. Instead, we grab a table at the W’s Spice Market, created by New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The menu leans towards Southeast Asia, not Mexico, but the variation is nice and the food is excellent. 

The next day, we set out for San Blas, 90 miles up the Pacific coast. We decide to stretch the two-hour drive into a leisurely half-day. First stop: Sayulita, the bohemian surf village, which spills down the coastal ridges and huddles around a sandy cove famous for its dependable swell. We park the car and stroll, enveloped by crowds of Mexicans celebrating Semana Santa, Holy Week, the country’s most popular holiday. Streets are festooned with banners of hand-cut paper known as papel picado. The beach is packed with umbrellas. Families hunker in the shade, lunching on warm tamales and tortillas pulled from plastic coolers and listening to a brass band threading the maze of vacationers. Swimmers splash in the shallows, while surfers ride chest-high breakers farther out. 

Heading north, we stop in San Francisco, also known as San Pancho, a beach village reminiscent of Sayulita but not as much of a tourist magnet. At the north end of town, the beach, stretching to a faraway headland, is wide and mostly empty. Back on two-lane Highway 200, we snake inland through hilly farmland and then follow Route 16 back towards the coast. It’s late afternoon when we descend from the mountains to the swampy lowlands around San Blas. 

an Blas, a sleepy port town of around 9,000 people and very few paved roads, definitely feels like authentic Mexico. I navigate the rutted cobbles to the Hotel Garza Canela, owned and operated by the Vasquez family since 1970. It’s not fancy, but it’s the nicest place in town. And the hotel is known far and wide for its restaurant,El Delfín, led by Chef Betty Vasquez, one of the foursisters who run the place and something of a culinary celebrity in Mexico. 

With Easter weekend approaching, the sleepy port is waking up. We join vacationing Mexicans for a tour of a stone fort, known as the Contaduría, high above town on San Basilio Hill. Built in 1770, the Spanish stronghold, which included a colonial accounting office and church, inspired the Longfellow poem, “The Bells of San Blas.” 

The first Spaniard landed in San Blas in 1531, but the town wasn’t officially founded until 1768. It was important as the departure point for Junípero Serra, the priest who established the network of missions in California, and for trade with the Philippines. But San Blas never amounted to much due to its small, silt-choked harbor and mosquito-clouded mangrove swamps.  

Those flooded mangroves, however, are a nature-lover’s wonderland. They’re part of La Tovara National Park, home to crocodiles and a Pacific Flyway stopover for several hundred different species of birds. A fleet of vintage wooden boats, painted blue and white and lined with benches, shuttle visitors through the wetland. The Hotel Garza Canela, which means cinnamon heron, arranges a private tour for us with Chencho, a 45-year mangrove veteran. While the other tour boats zoom past, Chencho putts through the watery channel, pointing out all sorts of herons—great yellow, imperial, cinnamon, boat-billed—hidden within the tangle of mangrove branches. In places, the tunnel of growth opens up, and flycatchers and swallows dart and dip in the sunlight. We see crocodiles along the way, including one giant basking on the muddy bank. We dock and pile out for a tour of the Kiekari Crocodile Preserve, where the prehistoric monsters live behind chainlink fences.

“Do you want to go swimming?” Chencho asks—in Spanish, which makes me wonder if I have misunderstood. 

“Swimming?” I ask. “Here, with the crocodiles?”

“No, no,” he laughs. 

We pile back into the boat and motor to Camalota Lagoon. Fed by a gusher of a spring, the lagoon is clear and blue-tinged—and sectioned off by an underwater fence, which is good enough for me. We dock and follow a boardwalk past a snack bar to the far side of the lagoon. I plunge into the cool waters, trying not to think of the crocodiles surely waiting just beyond the barrier.

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue. Click here to see our recommended itinerary for hopping around the Riviera Nayarit.

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