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Pacific Paradise

Get close to nature this winter with
an escape to Mexico's Riviera Nayarit.

The sunrise over the beaches of Mexico's Riviera Nayarit is not necessarily a glorious event. It's as if Mother Nature, totally exhausted from the over-the-top efforts of the previous night's Pacific sunset, requires an extra cup of Mexico's powerful green coffee before she can even think about nudging the earth into rotation toward the sun's rays.

Resort

Above: A view of the Pacific Ocean from the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit. Grand Velas Riveria Nayarit photo

In Title: Whale watching is a popular pastime in the area during the winter. Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Below: Huichol Indians sell handmade jewelry, blankets, clothing, and colorful art in some of the towns of the area, including Sayulita and San Pancho.

Artesons

Sunrise comes slowly in muted, sleepy colors, but that doesn't mean you should not set your alarm to witness the earth's arousal from a good night's sleep, particularly if you're in the area around San Blas. This is where about 80 percent of the Pacific Coast's migratory birds like to spend their winter, and they are not at all critical of the low-key sunrise. This is their time of day, and if you like birds, this is your time as well.

Winter on the Riviera Nayarit

Riviera Nayarit (nie-ya-REET) is not hard to locate on a map of Mexico. Basically, fly into Puerto Vallarta (which about 5 million visitors do each year) and then turn north. The state of Nayarit in Western Mexico has almost 200 miles of sandy beaches, fun little villages, and lodging options for people of all vacationing styles.

Your visit can be low-key by enjoying nothing more than absorbing the sun's warmth on a beach festooned by palm trees or as adventurous as deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. Try your overnight survival skills on expeditions deep into the jungles of the Sierra Madre Mountains, or make your own tequila. Release a few freshly hatched sea turtles into the ocean, or just get a perfect winter tan.

But if you come for bird watching, you will want to visit La Tovara National Park near San Blas. National parks in Mexico are not as developed or as revered as in the United States, but they are protected slices of nature nonetheless. The San Cristobal River drains fresh water from the Sierra Madre into the Pacific Ocean near San Blas creating an eco-region dominated by mangroves and marshland that birds literally flock to.

The best way to experience the park is a boat ride through the mangroves at sunrise. Bring binoculars or a good telephoto lens if you have them, but they are not necessary to see hundreds of birds and alligators within just a few feet of the boat.

If you know birds, you'll see the boat-billed heron, as well as blue herons and white herons, bumblebee hummingbirds, and roseate spoonbills, just to name a few of the species. If you don't really know birds, just sit back and enjoy the richness of nature.

Each January, the local hotels, restaurants, and mangroves fill with ornithologists from around the world for the International Festival of Migratory Birds. One of their favorite hotels is the Garza Canela, named after the boat-billed heron.

Winter also is a great time to see humpback whales enjoying the warm Pacific waters. You can book a whale-watching tour from almost any hotel concierge, but stay at the colorful Decameron Los Cocos all-inclusive hotel in Rincón de Guayabitos and there's a very good chance you can watch the whales at play in the peaceful Jaltemba Bay from your balcony.

Rincón de Guayabitos, about 40 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta airport, is one of Nayarit's many adorable little towns worth your time to explore. Guayabitos is Spanish for guava and at one point, guava trees were about the only trees to be found here. It's a delightful community with an energetic artisan market in the church plaza and a cross-section of native residents and ex-pats who bring their love of cuisine and nature to their shops and restaurants.

Sea Turtles and Surfer Dudes

The Riviera Nayarit is all about loving Mother Nature, and nowhere is that more visible than in the effort to protect the endangered leatherback and green sea turtles. Punta Mita is a point that juts out into the Pacific about 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. Fifteen years ago, while much of Punta Mita was being developed into high-end homes or resorts, great care was taken to protect the sea turtle breeding grounds here. Now, six hatcheries on Punta Mita work tirelessly to continue that effort.

The Four Seasons Punta Mita, the first resort built here, offers daily outings to one of these hatcheries so that you can see for yourself the struggle that baby turtles have getting to the ocean and surviving. The cost per person is $50, but a vast majority of that cost is donated to the hatchery. Lifting a baby turtle out of its incubator and setting it down in the sand, a few feet from the ocean, and helping it find its way to the Pacific is one of the best things you could ever do. The best time to participate is from September to February.

The program at the Four Seasons Punta Mita is coordinated by Enrique Alejos, a cultural concierge, the only cultural concierge in the entire Four Seasons brand. From the amazing sea turtle release program to tequila tastings to the language of the local Huichol tribe, Enrique shares his passion in such a way as to make time spent with him a highlight of your stay.

Consistently a AAA Five Diamond resort, the Four Seasons Punta Mita was purchased in 2014 by Bill Gates. It's not likely that you'll see Bill and Melinda during your vacation, but they do check in here a couple of times a year.

Another great town to explore on the Riviera Nayarit is Sayulita. This is where you'll enjoy fabulous surfing conditions and lots of surf pros available to teach you. As with San Blas and Rincón de Guayabitos, Sayulita has a large ex-pat community and a number of artists who make fabulous jewelry, clothing, and paintings sold in local boutiques. The heart of any Mexican town is its plaza or town square, and that's where you'll find the local Huichol Indians selling their handcrafts every day. Seriously, this is where your souvenir shopping should take place.

Finally, make an effort to explore San Francisco or, as the locals call it, San Pancho. The town only has about 1,200 year-round residents, but it has a huge polo club. From November to May, visitors and locals alike come to San Pancho to see a polo match. If you've never seen one, this is your chance.

Or, if you've never seen Cirque de Soleil, San Pancho also provides that with its own distinct flare. One of the principal partners of Cirque de Soleil has a home in San Pancho and was impressed with the efforts of the local community center to provide activities for children. So, Cirque de Soleil provides significant resources in the form of trainers, equipment, and costumes for the annual Cirque de los Ninos or “the Circus of the Children” each March.

These are just a few of the reasons why Nayarit is a fresh choice in winter getaways. Mexican tourism officials also note that anywhere on the Pacific coast is about 10 percent less expensive than the Caribbean coast at this time of year. Yep, that ought to do it.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.

November/December 2015 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Let AAA Travel help you plan a trip this winter to the Riviera Nayarit. Pleasant Holidays, a member of the Auto Club's family of companies, offers several packages to this destination, as well as others throughout Mexico. For more information, contact your AAA Travel professional near you.


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