Exploring the Best Beach Towns on Mexico’s Pacific Coast

April 16, 2021

I would rather chew glass than stay at an all-inclusive resort. On the other hand, you might question my desire to camp on a remote beach with zero facilities. In other words, one man’s dream vacation spot is another ’s hell. Choosing the right destination (for you) is the key to the perfect beach vacation. Fortunately, Mexico’s Pacific coast has a little something for everyone. I’ve spent a lifetime exploring Highway 200, which runs along the coast from Nayarit to the Guatemalan border. I can’t cover every spot in one article, but here’s the lowdown on some of the famous and not-so-famous coastal destinations in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco. What speaks to you?

If you’re looking for action…You’ll want to consider Sayulita or Vallarta.

Twenty years ago, Sayulita was a sleepy little surf town on the jungled coast of Nayarit. Now it’s one of the most popular destinations in the state, but somehow retains a certain “alternative” credibility. If you’re a hipster who likes to party, this is the place for you. Here you will find your vegan burritos, your yoga classes, your beachside dance parties, your beginner surf lessons. Verdict: my personal hell.

Sprawling along Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta is divided into two major areas: Nuevo Vallarta, and the two older neighborhoods, downtown and Viejo Vallarta (old town). Nuevo Vallarta is a hell-zone of high-rise hotels, malls, box stores, and horrifying night clubs. There’s probably some cool places, but I wouldn’t know because I avoid Nuevo Vallarta like the plague. In contrast, the older part of town can be charming if you know where to go. From the beach, the cobblestone streets climb up the jungled mountainsides, and tiled roofs peek through the greenery. If you’re on a budget, check out the hotels on the east side of Old Town.

You’ll still be within walking distance of the beach and the famous malecon (boardwalk), but you’ll also enjoy the perks of a real Mexican neighborhood: excellent tacos, carts selling fresh orange juice, and interesting little tiendas. I like Viejo Vallarta because it’s relatively small but offers a gamut of activities: from high-end restaurants to street food, from hole-in-the-wall bars to fancy gay clubs. Verdict: Fun if you don’t mind crowds of tourists. Must see: Wander through Cuale River Island, a forested park between Old Town and downtown.

If you’re looking for a mellow vacation…You’re in luck. The Pacific Coast is dotted with low-key beach towns. For a great road trip, start in San Pancho and drive Highway 200 south to Barra de Navidad.

Just north of Sayulita, San Pancho (officially called San Francisco) is still a sleepy little beach town, albeit one with a decent selection of restaurants and a large population of expats. San Pancho has a gorgeous beach, tasty seafood tacos, interesting shops, and a laid-back attitude. The only real flaw is the huge waves. Swimming here is not for the faint of heart. Verdict: Perfect if you’re looking for a low-key vacation and don’t mind big surf and a scary undertow.  Must see: If you like campy hotels, rent the penthouse suite at Villas Paradise, which is replete with 40-foot ceilings, columns shaped like elephant feet, and amazingly bad art.

Located a couple of hours south of Vallarta, Punta Perula is even sleepier than San Pancho. Here you’ll find a giant perfect beach, thatched seafood restaurants, streetside pozole, classic Mexican hotels, and snowbirds in RVs. Verdict: Ideal if you don’t mind rustic hotels and a limited (but good) range of cuisine.

If Punta Perula is too hoppin’, you’ll want to check out Tenacatita, easily one of the best camping beaches in the world (provided you have a high tolerance for mosquitos and roughing it). Located between Punta Perula and Melaque, Tenacatita is a ten-minute drive from the highway. The beach was once a hot spot for locals, Mexican vacationers, and expat campers.  But in 2010, a developer illegally seized the beach,destroyed the small restaurants and hotels, and blocked public access. The local people fought back and succeeded in getting the beach open to the public. But the battle continues. While the land is in dispute, camping is free, but there’s no facilities. Why go to the hassle? Four gorgeous adjacent beaches, a coral reef, and an amazing mangrove swamp. Verdict: for hardcore campers only. (Although the nearby town of Rebalsito has a couple of small hotels.) Must see: Watch the sunset from the roof of an abandoned hotel; take a boat tour of the mangrove swamp (information available at Chito’s Restaurant, 1 km inland); and visit Restaurante La Mosca at the Boca (ask a local for directions).

If you’re mellow but not THAT mellow…Consider Barra de Navidad or La Manzanilla.
Located just south of Tenacatita, La Manzanilla is small but packed with restaurants, bars, vacation rentals, and Canadians. The beach is nice, the region is beautiful, and the town still retains a Mexican charm. Verdict: An ideal choice if you’re traveling with a group that has a range of needs and interests. Lively enough, but still fairly chill. Must see: Walk the boardwalk through the crocodile-infested swamp.
Twenty minutes south of La Manzanilla, the old pirate port of Barra de Navidad is a fun little town with a handful of bars and a laid-back party atmosphere. Verdict: you had me at pirate port.
If you have kids…Perula is perfect because the beach is reasonably safe and the town is not overwhelming. You might also want to consider Melaque/San Patricio, a classic Mexican coastal town that shares a beach with Barra de Navidad. Melaque has tourist amenities, but retains a distinctly Mexican feel. Be sure to eat in the market. Rincon de Guayabitos has a similar vibe but is located farther north, in Nayarit. Verdict: Both towns are crowded but fun and muy Mexicano. And really, what could be better than that?