Scarlet and I have been having an amazing summer. She’s nine (!) so we’re halfway done with summer breaks. Gah! I try to make every minute count… until I’m exhausted, and then I sleep. Then I wake up and remember: Only 8 more summers to go! This line of thinking keeps me inspired to spend as much time together as possible with the little love of my life, Scarlet. So a few weeks ago we flew down to Puerto Vallarta (only 2.5 hours from LA), rented a car, and hit the road to drive up the coast of Nayarit. You may be thinking “Driving through Mexico?!? Isn’t that dangerous??” You may be right, but it’s not as scary as you think. We had a 98% awesome experience driving through Nayarit, with one pretty serious bump in the road. I’ll tell you about it when we get to that point. So here’s what we did on our adventure: I would do it all over again, and Scarlet agrees.
If you’re looking for a unique perspective on how to travel to and experience Riviera Nayarit – getting outside of the resorts and getting a taste of actual Mexico – you’ve come to the right place. I’m not gonna sugar coat it for you – there are plusses and minuses to doing it this way, but I have to say I would rather do it this way or not do it at all, despite everything that happened.
Get the full scoop on driving through Nayarit after the jump…
A Road Trip Itinerary on Riviera Nayarit with Kids
Dealing with the Airport
We started our trip with a direct flight from LAX to Puerto Vallarta – this is a huge plus for West Coast families – it’s just a 2.5 hour direct flight to a beautiful Mexican destination! We arrived at the airport, and because I am experienced at traveling through Mexican airports I didn’t get overwhelmed by the chaos and knew what to do – we just made a beeline to the Hertz desk for our rental car. It’s always a bit of a hot mess at any airport in Mexico, compared to US airports, but it’s manageable. You just have to be very clear on where you are going and not get distracted by anyone in a uniform trying to offer you advice or rides or literally anything – ignore them all! Just say “No, gracias” and move along. Everyone is so personable and nice that you can easily get confused if you ask for help, so don’t… just know where you are going and go there.
Some Rental Car Knowledge
So we headed to the Hertz desk, met a dude who directed us to take a shuttle to the Hertz office where grabbed our car. All was well. And they gave us a brand new car! I thought this was awesome, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have accepted it. Let me tell you why – brand new cars in Mexico, just like in the US, do not have license plates. They have provisional licenses just like we have, which are stuck to the front windshield – this caused numerous delays at every resort (because resorts want to keep track of you in case you get into trouble – it’s a good thing, but they mark your name and license plate number every time you enter or leave and record where you are going and when you plan to return. Kudos to them, and it definitely makes you feel safer to know they are watching out for you, but it’s a pain in the butt when you don’t have a license plate and therefore get the third degree (usually in Spanish) every time you drive). So next time I will demand a car with an actual license plate. But despite this slight annoyance, and with this added knowledge, I would still drive in Nayarit again.
An Itinerary to Start With
So our first stop from the airport was our hotel for the night, The Iberostar Playa Mita. This is an all inclusive hotel about 20 minutes from the airport. The view is beautiful, the rooms are nice. If you choose to stay here, ask for an ocean view room, and really try to get one right on the beach. It’s a bit of a hike to an ocean view room from check-in, but it is worth the walk. They have a few pools (where I was happy to sit right here and watch Scarlet swim), a great kids club, a show every night, and a variety of cuisines at restaurants you can eat at with a reservation (Scarlet loved the hibachi grill), and it’s close enough to the cute towns of Nayarit that you have at most a 30 minute drive. Our room had the most lovely sunset view. A beautiful evening view means a lot to me, and I assume to most parents who will be trapped in the room around bedtime because their kids need to sleep.
Generally the drinks at all inclusive hotels are weak and sweet, and this was no exception. If you want to enjoy your alcoholic beverage without a sugar high, order wine, which you can watch them pour from the bottle. I was traveling alone with my kid, just me and Scarlet, so I wasn’t planning to have too many cocktails, but the one margarita I ordered was terrible (tasted like a candy cane, why???). I switched to wine and I was happy with the selections. Scarlet was enjoying it all, (hello, this view?) but was most enthralled with the turn down service. This child has been all over the world to some of the fanciest hotels on earth, but a turn down service where they take your stuffed animal lovies and strew them about a landscape of rose petals?? Yeah, she loved the Iberostar Playa Mita. I agree that this small touch meant a lot. She felt like they really “got her” and I felt like a big tip was in order for the wonderful mom who turned down our room.
The first morning of our trip was really the best. When you wake up in a foreign country, in a comfortable bed, your belly full of good food, your eyes full of beautiful blue waves, your ears full of crashing waves that didn’t come from a playlist, and then you look at your itinerary and see a day of adventure ahead of you? We had such joy as soon as we opened our eyes and the curtains. Scarlet is a veteran traveler and one of her favorite things to do is get up early, put on a robe (bonus points for hotels with robes) and sit on the balcony to enjoy the view. How could you not fall in love with a place that your kid wants to do this in? The first thing on our plan that day was to eat breakfast (the Iberostar buffet was awesome) and hop in the car. We drove a few minutes down to Punta de Mita. The town was adorable but we could not find our hosts – my iphone works in Mexico (I have ATT unlimited) but google maps was still steering me to an empty stretch of beach where my tour was supposed to meet up. No worries – you’re in Mexico… people are friendly and helpful and welcoming to tourists. Own your tourist-ness and ask for help, you will get it 9 times out of ten. So we asked for help from some randos on the street and were directed to the office of Punta de Mita expeditions. I have to be honest, I had some second guesses when we saw their dilapidated office – but they were all relieved when we got onto the boat. It’s unusual but factual – our best experience of the whole trip was on our first day! We hopped in their car and headed down to the water, climbed on the boat and put on life jackets. Before we could start our snorkeling expedition we had to head over to the St Regis to pick up the other guests. We got there and waited..the other guests were running late. Our guide was so fun and so great with Scarlet, he asked her if she wanted to climb out of the boat onto the sand while we waited. And so she did… We actually had to wait awhile, almost an hour, but when you’re on vacation in Mexico waiting on the beach, do you feel stressed? Do you ask what’s taking so long? No, you don’t. You just look for seashells. And you find some and bring them back to the boat and then go look for more. and more. And then finally you realize your other guests aren’t gonna show, so you get your whole nature tour to yourself! So we headed back in to the Bahia de Banderas to the Mexican national park know as Islas Mariettas. This place is MAGICAL! I thought it was a pile of rocks until we actually got close to it – it’s a wonderland. We snorkled, saw so many colorful fish, but the best part was the birds! The blue-footed booby especially – the bird has blue feet! It only can be seen from these little islands and the galapagos. , and all the secret caves. Scarlet was scared at first – worried about sharks – but then she just got brave and fell in love. We wandered in and out of the boat and in and out of the islands. Truly a magical afternoon. After snorkeling, our guide from Punta Mita expeditions offered us two options for our second adventure of the day – post up on a secluded beach or paddleboard on the open ocean. I assumed my nine year old would choose the former so I let her pick. I was wrong! She went full paddleboard! On the open ocean! We were all so proud of her that we decied to let her drive the boat home. Can you imagine a more magical day? I would truly return just to do this again so she could paddle board and Carleton could see it.
After this magical experience, we headed back to the Iberostar to change and drive around. Our first stop was the lovely town of Sayulita. Yes, it is overrun by expats, but it is still gorgeous. Scarlet fell asleep in the car, which gave me time to find a parking spot (about $5 US and a 5 minute walk, not so bad), then we wandered over to Don Pedros, the popular restaurant on the beach. Yes, it is worth it. Wehad some delicious fish tacos, but the most fun was when I gave Scarlet my camera to explore the crowded beach. This is my favorite picture she took: She also got pretty serious about her sand art . After we finished our lunch we explored Sayulita. Here is one of my favorite moments…. We also had to visit the famous choco-banana stand but decided on Paletas for our treat . Sayulita had so many beautiful restaurant courtyards that are tempting me to go back just to spend an afternoon there! The colors alone were enough to inspire me. This railing is in my memory bank forever.. I told Scarlet she could have $10 to negotiate and buy whatever she wanted. This is what she chose: .
Oh! We are still on our first full day in Nayarit!! From Sayulita we drove about 10 minutes North to San Pancho. They say this is a town unspoiled by tourists but that is not true – it’s 90% tourists, but most are from Mexico. It was very hot and we were very hot so Scarlet jumped into the water. . We planned to have dinner at Bistro Organico at Hotel Cielo Rojo, but it was closed for the season. This was a big disappointment as this place is supposed to be amazing! Instead we headed back to the Iberostar for a shower and another beautiful sunset.
We woke up early, packed up our gear, put on our best muu muus and headed out to the Four Seasons Punta Mita. Can I tell you how much I want to go back here? No, I cannot, because words cannot express it. This is a magical place, a place I feel I must return to (and going someplace twice is not usually my thing). The view from the entrance sets it up for you, even on a hot, humid, cloudy, rainy gray day like ours… Perfection while I drank my coffee. Then the infinity pool. View for days. The spa itself was amazing.. maybe mostly because they have the best kids’ club in Nayarit, which Scarlet was enjoying while I got my massage. But the view from the private hot tub in the room isn’t bad either? I really want to go back so I can hang out at the adults-only pool and bar. Right? But I was happy just to spend one day here with the love of my life, on top of this magical cliff.
After that magic, we were off to the Villa Estancia Nayarit. This place is more of a time-share, with a big beautiful suite full of amenities, but a little isolated. The view from our room was beautiful but other than that, I wasn’t too excited about it. The next morning we decided to venture out with our car to the neighboring towns, and I am so glad we did. We headed to Bucerias, the town along the coast that most tourists will never visit. It’s so charming! We had breakfast at Karen’s (so good – chipotle eggs benedict for me and pancakes and such for my mini) . WE headed over to Wibit Mex so Scarlet could play on the inflatable sea-bouncy party they’ve created. As soon as we saw it I was like NO F’IN WAY am I letting you do that! Another mom who was there plus the staff assured me that there were 5 lifeguards and nothing to worry about so we strapped a life jacket on her and let her go. She loved it. I think Bucerias might have been her favorite stop in Nayarit.
From there we had a yummy traditional Mexican lunch at El Brujo , wandered around Bucerias for a bit before packing ourselves back into the car and heading to Grand Velas Nayarit.
The Grand Velas is another all inclusive resort, but there is something special about this one. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I am from LA, which I mention only to point out that the Puerto Vallarta airport is so close, that I have been to this area many times – upwards of ten at least. I don’t usually enjoy the all-inclusives because they somehow seem to be exclusive of an actual Mexican experience. But something about this resort is just done right, and the price is much more accessible than say, the Four Seasons.I had one of the best massages of mu life here, and this was definitely Scarlet’s favortie kids club. It’s pretty.. and I like that the no-reservations breakfast-lunch-dinner buffet is right on the beach but there is just something extra about this place. If I was looking for a cost-conscious yet luxurious vacation in Nayarit, this is the hotel I would choose. The candied poblano pepper dessert alone might have sold me, but there was something more to it than that. Some sort of magic happens at this Grand Velas resort.
So, if you made it this far you might be wondering what my initial talk about a bump in the road referred to. I will be straightforward with you. Whatever you have heard about driving in Mexico, it is probably true. I have driven down through Baja California Nord from home many times over the years. I have travelled through many cities and states of Mexico – to Mexico City, Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas, Ciudad del Carmen in Campeche, Tulum in Quintana Roo, etc. All of them are worth visiting. All of the states of Mexico are unique. You can’t pin the drug cartel problems on the entire country, the same way you can’t pin problems in New York on Idaho. But still, corruption exists all over Mexico in a way it does not in the US. Most areas of Mexico, especially areas that rely on tourist dollars, try to make it easy for you to visit and travel from place to place. No one should be afraid of being the victim of cartel violence or anything that crazy when you travel to tourist-friendly areas of Mexico (no one is advising you to visit the states of Chihuahua or Sonora), but you are never isolated from police corruption. So after this lovely trip that I just walked you through, on our last morning in Nayarit, on our way back to the airport in Jalisco to drop off the rental car and head home, we were pulled over. Lights circling, sirens blaring, us sitting in traffic on a commuter bridge that has been under construction and just ruining traffic between Nayarit and Jalisco for a while. I knew what was happening as I pulled to the side, and told Scarlet to keep quiet as the police questioned us. They said they pulled us over for our missing license plate. When I showed them the provisional sticker in the window, they said it’s all okay. Then they accused me of speeding. Scarlet piped up “My mom was not speeding! We were sitting in traffic!” I gave her the serious mom-eye that told her to keep quiet. I ended up negotiating a bribe so we could get to the airport in time. All in all it was about $40 US, which was worth it to me. If Ssarlet had not been there, I would have handled it differently, because this was not the first time I have been down that road and certainly will not be the last. But I am an experienced traveler and willing and unafraid to have these negotiations. If you want to experience the beautiful towns of Nayarit, I think you should, and I would still recommend you rent a car and take your kids. But I would also warn you to just be prepared with a poker face and a little cash. There are ways to avoid paying these fines/bribes, but those are for another article. When you are with your kids just be prepared to pay them. Don’t worry for your safety or your life – they don’t want to hurt you. They just want a little cash. So after all that was said and done, Scarlet and I made it to the airport, turned in the rental car (gave the Hertz people mad grief about the missing license plate), and mommy was like, I need a margarita before we get on that plane. Deep breaths. Scarlet on the other hand, was fine (maybe because I let her have her first coke ever)…
Whew, so there you go. The good, the bad, and the overall amazing life experience that one week in Nayarit, Mexico can leave you with.
So what do you think, would you do it, knowing what you know now?