Once upon a time, not so many people made the effort to see what lies north of Puerto Vallarta along the beautiful and verdant Nayarit Coast. This has changed of late, however, as the “Riviera Nayarit” has emerged as a major tourist destination in Mexico.

Riviera Nayarit runs from modern, upscale Nuevo Vallarta north along the coast to the port city of San Blas, but for our purposes, we’ll start just north of Punta Mita along the coast, at Sayulita. The beauty of coastal Nayarit—lush mountain and shoreline forests, orchard-swathed plains, and curving yellow strands of sand—is largely natural. Dotted along in coves and sheltered bays are the hidden beach towns, some lively and thriving, others tranquil and serene. Sayulita, San Francisco, Lo de Marcos, Rincón de Guayabitos, Chacala, and San Blas—each of these towns is distinct and offers different types of lodging, dining, and recreational opportunities. Whether you are looking for a quiet respite from the crowded streets and beaches of Puerto Vallarta or a nonstop beach party with hundreds of potential new friends, there’s a place for you just a couple of hours away.

View of Sayulita and the bay from a house on Nanzal Hill. Photo © Justin Henderson.

View of Sayulita and the bay from a house on Nanzal Hill. Photo © Justin Henderson.

The first stop along the coast is Sayulita, once mostly the home of fishing families, coconut and mango farmers, and oyster divers. You can get to Sayulita directly from Punta Mita by the former “back” road, now rebuilt after the flood of 2010, which took out major sections of the road, and an easy-cruising two-lane blacktop. Or stick to Highway 200, also nicely refinished in 2012. You can’t miss the Sayulita turnoff from Highway 200, as many used to do; there is a giant Pemex gas station complete with an Oxxo store at the junction. Both are more pervasive than Starbucks or McDonald’s are in the United States, and far more garishly painted and lit.

Sayulita is now home to a decent-size group of primarily American and Canadian part-time expats—these are the people who own the houses on the hills—and also hosts a large seasonal migration of surfers, stand-up paddleboarders, vagabonds from the wilds of Europe and beyond, Mexican hippies, and a mixed bag of offbeat characters. During Semana Santa, Easter Week, Mexico’s biggest holiday, it seems half the student body of the University of Guadalajara comes down to camp on the Sayulita beach and party all night long. The Sayuleros, Mexicans and norteamericanos alike pack up and leave or batten down their hatches and stay while the town goes wild. It’s kind of fun to watch once or twice.

While the general feel is that of a fun and funky beach town, a bohemia with waves, Sayulita has managed to go upscale at the same time. There are gourmet restaurants, high-end boutiques for clothing and jewelry, and plenty of people with serious money—the hills are more than dotted with trophy second homes for a few hundred wealthy norteamericanos. But there are also hand-to-mouth hippies, craftspeople, low-rent surfers, mystics, lunatics, and all manner of strange characters.

Surfers in action at Sayulita beach. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Surfers in action at Sayulita beach. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Along with its natural beauty—an archetypal vision of a colorful, tranquil beach town on a perfect little bay—one of the things that makes Sayulita such a magical, welcoming, and unusual place is the mix. There’s space for everybody, and as long as you mind your own business and do no harm, nobody really cares what you do. The most aggressive people in town are a few of the local surfers, some of whom seem seriously annoyed that all these people have arrived in town to “steal” their waves. Purist tourists will complain that there are too many gringos, that it isn’t “Mexican” enough, that everybody speaks English, and so on—and they’re right. But that doesn’t diminish Sayulita’s charm.

A few miles farther north, San Francisco (locally called San Pancho) still retains its sleepy beach-village ambience, but it is also home to an established community of well-to-do North American vacationers and retirees, old hippies and old money comfortably intermingled. Nestled between the sidewalk restaurants and Internet cafés are art galleries, upscale boutiques, and international restaurants. If Sayulita is Greenwich Village, San Pancho is Greenwich, Connecticut. A gorgeous golf course and a working polo field where professional matches take place serve to further enhance the monied ambience. In San Pancho, they welcome a little bit of the Sayulita hippie vibe, but they would rather it leaves by sundown.

Beach and estuary in San Francisco, also known as San Pancho. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Beach and estuary in San Francisco, also known as San Pancho. Photo © Justin Henderson.

The magnet of Lo de Marcos is its wide, family-friendly beach, sheltered by headlands on both sides and bordered by a sprinkling of beach bungalows and palm-shaded RV parks and campgrounds. The same is true of Rincón de Guayabitos, but even more so. It’s the hands-down favorite resort with Mexican families of the entire Nayarit Coast, largely for its many budget but comfortable housekeeping bungalows and tranquil, kid-friendly waves. A battalion of North American winter RV retirees have picked up the same message and stay the winter, fishing, barbecuing, and playing cards with fellow longtime returnees.

The beach list goes on: lovely Playa Chacala, with its creamy half-moon beach, regal palm grove, homey local lodgings, gated and upscale new private development, nearby classic surfing wave, and a pair of rustic-chic hotel-spas; and farther north, the broad Bay of Matanchén, with its beachfront hotels, trailer parks, waterfall hikes, crocodile farm, and occasional world-class surfing around the north end of the bay at Stoner’s Point.

The ruins of an 18th-century church lie atop the hill in San Blas. Photo © Justin Henderson.

The ruins of an 18th-century church lie atop the hill in San Blas. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Next comes San Blas, rich in history revealed in its ancient hilltop fortress and its restored customs house and museum downtown. In the present, San Blas has become a jumping-off point for natural adventures. These include forest boat tours through its orchid-festooned, wildlife-rich mangrove wetland; an excursion to offshore marinelife sanctuary Isla Isabel; and an overnight in Mexcaltitán. The “Venice of Mexico,” it’s the ancestral island home of the Aztec people, who wandered east from Mexcaltitán around AD 1100 and within 400 years had built one of the world’s great cities and conquered Mexico.

Excerpted from the Tenth Edition of Moon Puerto Vallarta.