By Judy Waytiuk
It's sunset on the Riviera Nayarit’s 300-kilometre-long perfect powder beach. At a quiet spot marked off by yellow rope laid out on the sand, about four dozen tiny baby sea turtles are wobbling clumsily on little flipper-feet to the surf. We who helped release them, one three-inch-long baby per pair of gently cupped, wet, sand-covered hands, cheer them on. It’s a sweet thrill to feel the tiny flippers scratch gently on your fingers as you tenderly lower this ever-so-small bit of life to the sand beach where, if it’s a girl, it will one day return to lay its eggs.
Thirty years ago, these little guys would’ve grown up to become bottles of turtle oil on sale in souvenir shops. But today, caring for the environment is becoming a tourism hallmark here on the Riviera Nayarit.
Local volunteers patrol Nayarit’s beaches nightly during turtle egg-laying season, gathering fresh-laid eggs and moving them to seaside nurseries, to be ushered into the sea the day they hatch. The number of Olive Ridley sea turtle nests on this beach has soared from about 500 in the early 1990s to well over 12,000 today, and all along the beach, various eco-organizations and even resort hotels tend nests and allow tourists to help with releases.
It’s A Croc
A little less tender, but possibly an even bigger thrill, are the crocodiles that pepper the region’s mangrove forest river channels leading to the ocean. South of San Blas, near the village of Matanchén, locals wait at a tidy highway-side marina to ferry passengers along mangrove canals, upriver to La Tobara, a freshwater spring that supplies water to San Blas. En route, crocodiles glower from half-submerged logs, turtles perch on more logs, and birds ranging from snowy egrets to roseate spoonbills hang out in the trees. Your open boat, called a panga, stops at the crocodile co-operative conservation centre, Laguna Keikari Wild, where injured crocs are nursed back to health and a few other wild inhabitants also occupy pens. And if you’re really lucky when you get back to the marina, one or two of the local ladies will be carrying trays around the parking lot, selling this town’s specialty: home-baked muffins – pineapple, coconut, banana – all still warm from the oven and maddeningly good.
At the small Cocodilario el Cora near the Flamingos Golf Course outside Bucerias, Jose Santos and his family tend two mated pairs of big crocs and raise babies for release. No muffins here, but you can touch a baby croc, check out a few other pens, and feed the goats. There are no flamingos here, or anywhere else in Nayarit; the name came about when the president visited in 1970 and announced he could see flamingos in the lagoon. Minions dared not tell him the birds were roseate spoonbills – so the name has stuck.
Riviera Nayarit CVB
Here There Be Whales
When it comes to wildlife, whale-watching’s the biggest traditional thrill in the Bay of Banderas, where giant humpbacks come in mid-December to breed and calve until March. What was once a boating free-for-all to see the whales has become much more carefully enforced, to better protect the whales from being annoyed by bunches of pesky little pangas. Only boats with permits can approach, must stay 30 metres away, and can only hang around for half an hour before moving on to find other whales to watch. The whales, though, are blissfully unaware of the 30-metre rule, so it’s not uncommon to see one of these stunning sea mammals breach suddenly, right by a boat. Chances of grabbing a picture of that moment are almost zero – but the memory and the pure joy of it will be permanently etched in your mind
Small Town Strolls
Along with nature, there’s plenty of traditional Mexican flavour in the villages that stud this coastline: almost two dozen small towns and tiny villages pepper Nayarit’s wide, natural beach, each with something unique worth stopping for (and shopping for) on road trips north to historic San Blas. Rent a car and do the drive yourself, so you can spend as much time as you want in a village, or grab a quick overview of the biggest ones through one of the daytrips offered by various tour operators.
Bucerias bustles with locals and tourists, and its busy town square is fringed by peddlers selling everything from fresh fruit to nuts. Many of the souvenirs are the same tchotchkes you’ll find anywhere in Mexico, but keep your eye out for genuinely unique new twists on traditional cobalt-blue-rimmed glasses, exquisitely-detailed Huichol figurines and yarnwork, or small wall sculptures of hammered, subtly-coloured metals. Pick up a bite to eat – you might get fresh oranges or watermelon straight off a farmer’s little pickup truck, or have a pina colada with coconut that was just delivered. If you’re lucky, someone may be selling jamaica, a cooling, hibiscus flower drink. In the nearby village of Mezcales, local ironwood carver Poinciano Quezada and his family love visitors to their carving shed and shop, and you can buy elegant carvings straight from the hands that made them.
Local Secret Spots
Sayulita’s Mayan mysticism collides with North American hippie/surfer culture, creating a funky, entertaining New Age-y blend. Here you can buy a cup of coffee dubbed “Seriously Gourmet Shit” at the little open-air coffee shop beside the Galerie Tanana, which specializes in Huichol work. Look for more Huichol crafts in the open markets of the villages, and watch the artist’s hands doing the nimble beadwork before you buy. And scout out a few beach peddlers if you get peckish: gone are the days when you flirted with gastrointestinal disaster if you ate from a peddlers’ cart. Now, some of the tastiest treats come from those carts and it’s safe to eat – especially the delicate, flaky Mexican pastries carried in big trays by the women who baked them. Or if you’re thinking real food instead of snack, park yourself on a chair in the sand at one of the beachside palapas, and feast on a fresh seafood meal. At Boca de Tomate on Sundays, where a local cab can take you (it’s very much local, but ex-pats who live here for much of the year have discovered it) you’ll need a group to help you eat, because the menu consists of picking your whole fish right out of the cooler, then sitting back with a few beers while the totally-traditional meal, right down to the hand-slapped tortillas, is cooked.
In little San Pancho (aka San Francisco), the beach is as good as any along the coast, and a visit to the Entre Amigos non-profit Community Centre will yield unique souvenirs made from recycled materials, as well as a glimpse into local life; bring an extra suitcase full of gently-used clothing to help supply their thrift shop for locals.
Just 20 minutes north of San Pancho, the tiny village of Lo de Marcos is another spot even more undiscovered by North Americans. Wealthy Mexicans keep weekend and holiday villas here, and on weekdays the wide, white beach is virtually empty of people. Horses still clip-clop the cobbled streets with weather-beaten riders carrying thatch or cane, and fishermen weave nets outside their small homes. You won’t find souvenir shops here; you will find complete tranquility – and grilled fish at the seaside palapas.
Busy Rincon de Guayabitos, another traditional Mexican vacation spot brimming with local flavour, sports a multi-coloured Decameron hotel popular with Mexican vacationers and priced for the budget-minded, and beach peddlers’ carts are overwhelmed by masses of inflated beach toys. Because it’s mostly a Mexican holiday spot, it’s quiet for much of the year, and you can explore uncrowded streets, check out small local and boutique hotels, browse the shops, find a charming little restaurant for lunch, or stake out a beach lounge for awhile.
Finally, a little history: in the state capitol of San Blas, a museum and Spanish fort ruins tell the story of the Spanish occupation and Mexican battle for independence in 1810. And frozen-in-the-1800s San Sebastian del Oueste, tucked in the mountains behind the coast is one of Mexico’s designated “Pueblos Magicos” and a candidate for World Heritage status (technically it’s in the state of Jalisco, but so close you don’t want to miss it). Keep your eyes peeled for artisan coffeemakers and tequila-makers enroute, to buy genuinely local.
With all there is to see, you may not get this far on your first trip to Nayarit. But once the all-inclusive resorts with top-drawer service, excellent cuisine and impeccable beaches, have drawn you here for the first time, you will be hooked by this place. You’ll be back over and over again; there will be plenty of time to explore. So kick back on that beach with a fancy drink and chill for awhile, and think about where you might go tomorrow.
Or the next day. Manana.
Riviera Nayarit CVB
A Spiritual Path
Anthropologist Susana Eger Valadez, founder and director of the Huichol Center, travelled to Mexico about 30 years ago while working on her MA Degree in Latin American Studies at UCLA. In the process of studying the Huichol culture, her life was changed forever. In 1981, she and her Huichol husband Mariano Valadez, renowned Huichol yarn painter, co-founded the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts.
The rugged terrain of their homeland – located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in the states of Jalisco and Nayarit – has provided a pocket of isolation where the estimated 8,000 descendants of the Aztecs have adapted to the demands of their harsh environment.
In doing so, the Wixarika (the name the Huichols use in their language to refer to themselves, meaning prophets or healers) have nurtured a value system and way of life that hold many lessons for the modern world.
The Huichol people are a tribe of corn farmers, artists and shamans who consider spirituality to be central to their existence. Religion is not a part of life - it is life. The gods are everywhere, including the trees, hills and lakes. Even the lowly stone has a soul.
Their culture shines as a living entity that embodies native spirituality. The Huichols’ art, symbolism, music, folklore, plant knowledge and profound religious insight are a source of inspiration and wisdom for people around the world.