The name “Riviera Nayarit,” a not so subtle allusion to Europe's famed rivieras (and, closer to home, the Riviera Maya), suggests the luxury—and the accompanying price tag—of a spare-no-expense vacation. And it's true, you can find that here, primarily in the exclusive, gated community of Punta Mita , the compound where the Four Seasons and St. Regis are located, as well as in the not-yet-finished development of Litibu, where the recently opened upscale hotel La Tranquila will eventually be joined by two upper-end Iberostar properties.
Despite all the luxury, budget travelers have plenty of options for exploring the communities along the 200-mile Pacific coast north of Puerto Vallarta. And there are many reasons why they should.
In contrast to the overly-Americanized Cancun, where it's difficult to find any remnants of authentic Mexican culture, Riviera Nayarit is home to four indigenous groups (the Coras, the Huicholes, the Mexicaneros, and the Tepehuanes) who actively maintain their distinct cultural traditions. The Huichol community is particularly accessible to travelers, who can see their colorful, intricate bead art and yarn paintings and learn about their culture at the Galeria Tanana in the town of Sayulita.
There's also a growing community of expats, many of them young and middle-aged Americans and Canadians who want the more laid-back lifestyle of a beach town. “Hippie chic” expats have joined their Mexican peers to open funky clothing and home decor boutiques, art galleries, and cafes, bakeries, and restaurants, all of which invite browsing, lounging, and munching. All of this is set against the stage of the Pacific Ocean, which itself is framed by the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountains, a combination that produces stunningly photogenic sunsets.
Travelers who already know Puerto Vallarta and are interested in exploring further north should use Nuevo Vallarta as their jumping off point for the region. Those who don't yet know Puerto Vallarta could combine the two areas (Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit) on a single road trip up the coast.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer based in New York City.