Along the secluded, jungle-fringed beaches of the Mexican Pacific coast, things tend toward perfection.
There are perfect sunsets, explosions of orange and purple as the sun dips nightly over the bays; perfect waves, which rush toward shore in steady, unchanging curls to the delight of local surfers; and it's where you may just find the perfect shrimp, which are collected from these waters and prepared by people who have been perfecting their cooking methods for centuries.
But the once-remote coast of Nayarit state is no longer going unnoticed: the Mexican government last year dubbed it the "Nayarit Riviera" in hopes of attracting more tourists to the area. Thousands of American and Canadian second-home buyers have also discovered this stretch for their own affordable paradise.
The Nayarit Riviera stretches roughly 100 miles from the resort of Puerto Vallarta in the south to the fishing village of San Blas to the north. Along the way are hundreds of isolated beaches, quaint fishing villages and soon-to-be-booming tourist havens.
On the Nayarit Riviera you can find $15,000-a-night suites at the Four Seasons and pampering spas promising yoga under ancient jungle canopies. You can also find gritty surfing camps and humble bed and breakfasts.
A cruise along the coast
To take full advantage of the area, it's best to rent a car to cruise Hwy. 200, the modern but narrow road that has opened much of the area to development. The highway snakes along mountain passes as it runs parallel to the coast.
Any visit to the area begins in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico's least obnoxious big resort town, where cobblestone streets and aging mansions are evocative of a glamorous, bygone era. Puerto Vallarta is also known as a top culinary capital in Mexico. And while the city has a number of highly acclaimed high-end restaurants, we found the best food to be in the small taquerias along the side streets. At El Taco Loco de Felipe, two blocks up from the boardwalk, we had one of the most memorable meals of the trip: shrimp burritos filled with creamy dressing, hunks of mango and chunks of crab meat.
It fueled us for the drive to the amazing beaches and waves farther up the coast.
We headed north out of Puerto Vallarta and into the Nayarit Riviera proper. The first stage is marked by luxury developments and condominiums, culminating in the ultra-exclusive Punta Mita, an isolated peninsula that's become a favorite of wealthy celebrities.
Since we couldn't afford the $15,000 per night Coral Suite at the Four Seasons (which includes a personal butler), we moved on a few miles to the charming surfing haven of Sayulita, 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta.
Quiet villages hold charms
Sayulita sits along a bay with a metronome surf break that was discovered by pleasure seekers a decade or two ago. Today it remains free of big, all-inclusive-type resorts -- and road repair -- but it has a strong tourist presence, including American surfers. On its main beach you can rent a surfboard and get a private lesson for about $60 a day.
Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) is an amazing little beach a mile or so from downtown, so named because you have to walk through a dramatic jungle cemetery featuring tombs and altars scattered among the vegetation.
Then it was on to what many consider the jewel of the fledgling Riviera: tiny Chacala, a fishing village of 500. It's about 35 miles north on the twisting Hwy. 200, and this stretch of road consists of many colorful fruit stands with exotics such as jackfruit.
Chacala is a getaway for local Mexicans and the beach is a festive place of wandering musicians, body boarders and beachfront restaurants serving just-caught shrimp. Americans are buying homes around Chacala in large numbers, drawn by its still-undiscovered vibe. Once Chacala, whose downtown consists of one bumpy dirt road, reaches its tourist capacity, developers will no doubt move onto even more remote spots along the coast.
Lodging in Chacala ranges from two ultra-luxury spas offering yoga and meditation for up to $200 a night, to an innovative local program in which tourists stay at specially built second floors belonging to local residents. Called Techos de Mexico (Rooftops of Mexico), the program gives low-interest loans to residents to build additions and is seen as a way to get tourist dollars flowing more freely through the community.
Chacala means "place where the shrimp are," and the local cuisine lives up to its name. We dined on heavenly garlic and coconut shrimp in a beachfront palapa, all the while being serenaded by boisterous musicians as the sun set in front of us.
Too quickly, our trip wound to an end, and we made our way back through the Apocalypse Now-type jungle surrounding Hwy. 200. But memories of perfect beaches and fried shrimp on a stick won't soon fade.