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Let me start by saying that I have a big soft spot for Mexico. From the history and food in Mexico City to the colorful facades of Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Allende. Not to mention, the beaches and cenotes on the Yucatán Peninsula in popular areas like Tulum and Valladolid. Not I introduce to you a lesser known part of Mexico: San Pancho, Nayarit
I decided to ring in 2022 in a new part of Mexico (a new part for me at least) on the western coast of the country — Riviera Nayarit. We spent three weeks exploring with a few days in the bustling surf town of Sayulita, just south of Puerto Vallarta, and the majority of our time in the much sleepier surf town of San Pancho (San Francisco).
San Pancho is an eco-conscious community where you’ll find way more long-term visitors and expats than your typical tourists here One thing that struck me when I first arrived in San Pancho is that everyone seems to know one another, locals and visitors alike. There is a lot of creative spirit in San Pancho. From artists to musicians. You’ll find beautiful murals hand painted all across the town. And there are adorable dogs everywhere. Literally everywhere!
Read on to find out the best things to do in San Pancho Nayarit, and why I fell in love with this sleepy Mexican surf town.
How to get to San Pancho
By far the closest airport to San Pancho is the international airport in Puerto Vallarta. You can find direct flights to Puerto Vallarta from a number of major US cities including New York, Los Angeles Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis. Flights to Puerto Vallarta are served by major airlines including Delta, JetBlue, American and United. A direct flight from NYC to Puerto Vallarta takes 5 hours, while Puerto Vallarta can be reached from LAX in just 3 hours. Check out flights on CheapOAir here.
By taxi or Uber
San Pancho is located 50 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta. The easiest way to get here from the airport is by taxi or Uber. While Ubers do not operate in Riviera Nayarit, they will often drop you off at a considerably lower price than a taxi. We paid 600 MXN pesos with Uber. In order to grab your Uber you will need to cross over the pedestrian bridge to meet your driver on the other side of the highway in front of Tacon de Marlin. For your return trip to the airport you can book a taxi or hire a local driver.
Here is the number of a local taxi driver: +523221599710.
If you’re feeling adventurous, there is also a bus that is super easy that drops you off right in town. It picks up in front of Tacon de Marlin and cost 25 pesos.
Rent a car in San Pancho
Lastly, you may also want to consider renting a car if you plan to explore the regions around San Pancho. Check out rates on rentalcars.com.
The official name of this town is San Francisco, but other than the maps and hotel bookings, you won’t find anyone referring to it as that. Locally, the area is known as San Pancho. But look out for the proper name when you are booking your hotel.
When to visit San Pancho
Much of San Pancho closes down during the rainy season, which lasts from May to October. This means that the best time to visit San Pancho is from November to early May.
We arrived around New Years when prices were high and the city was filled, especially in nearby Sayulita. However, once January started the mass of crowds died down and it was super pleasant.
Things to do in San Pancho, Nayarit
Take a yoga class
In any laidback surf town, you can expect to find some yoga studios. And don’t worry, San Pancho is no different. Check out El Estar in town for a range of daily classes, including Vinyasas, Hatha Yoga, and guided meditations. I really enjoyed my classes at the studio, which take place outdoors. You can take a drop-in class for 200 MXN pesos. There is no need to pre-register, but they can get busy so make sure to arrive at least a few minutes before class.
San Pancho has some of the most beautiful beaches. While the main portion of the beach can get a bit busy with lots of hawkers, walk just a few minutes in either direction and you’ll find plenty of space. Our favorite spot was the little cove if you walk 10 minutes or so to the left from the main beach stretch. The beaches in San Pancho are much more spacious than in Sayulita, so it is worth a day trip if you are staying in Sayulita.
If you turn right and continue about 15 mins down the beach you’ll find a truly empty beach (and a beautiful beach club).
San Pancho is known for it’s amazing sunsets. While the beach is filled with tourists during the day, the local scene is in the evening when the sun begins to set. You’ll even notice that it is common to clap once the sun makes it’s final descent.
Especially since we were working during the days in San Pancho, we made a point to catch as many of these epic beach sunsets as possible!
Enjoy San Pancho’s amazing restaurant and bar scene
San Pancho has amazing food. We spent two weeks eating out three meals a day, and there were still so many places that we didn’t get a chance to try out. I don’t think we ever had a disappointing meal while in San Pancho. It’s honestly shocking to me that such a small town has such diverse food offerings. You’ll find everything from the best street tacos and amazing slices of pizza to gourmet seafood dishes and even restaurants that cater towards vegetarians.
Go for a surf (or take a lesson)
San Pancho is definitely a beach town. While not quite as beginner-friendly as Sayulita, it is definitely known for its surf. If you’re interested in taking a lesson, head left when you enter the main stretch of the beach and you’ll find a small stand. You can both rent a board or book a private lesson. There are a number of shops in town doing the same, as well as surf camps and trips to other nearby beaches.
Disclaimer: the waves in San Pancho are big. Like way too big for a beginner like me. But if that is the case for you, I recommend heading over to Sayulita for the day for a surf there.
Spend the day at the beach club
I’m not usually a beach club kind of traveler, but Tierra Tropical Beach Club is where it is at. We came here after some friends recommended it and the vibes were great. For $25 USD you can snag a day pass. Unlike other beach clubs that are busy and loud, even on the weekends this spot is super peaceful. We had the place practically to ourselves. You can visit for a beachfront drink or snack from the restaurant if you don’t feel like shelling out the money for the day pass, but you won’t be able to use the facilities.
If you’re staying in town, I recommend walking here via the beach rather than the steep cobblestone road.
The Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde is an environmental organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered Nayarit sea turtles. During the summer and fall months you can witness and participate in the hatching of baby turtles right in San Pancho.
I will for sure be going back so I can experience this myself.
Visit (or volunteer at) the EntreAmigo Community Center
EntreAmigos is a community center and non-profit in San Pancho. You’ll find a library, playground, donation center, and cafe. There are plenty of amazing volunteer opportunities at the center for anyone who is interested in learning more about giving back to the community.
Listen to live music
One thing that I absolutely love about San Pancho is that there is always live music somewhere! On any given night there would be local performers in the streets by the restaurants. However, there are a number of evening locales that are known for their live music. Here are my favorites:
- Cerveceria Artesanal
- El Gallo
I’ve already mentioned San Pancho’s great restaurant scene, and I’ll dive into more details on that below. But what San Pancho also does well is brunch. Just imagine this POV: you wake up early for a yoga class or morning surf. Maybe you spend the morning wandering the beach before the crowds. No matter how you’re spending your mornings, brunch is a must. Here are a few good options:
- Maria’s (omelets, waffles, massive fresh juices)
- El Gallo (Mexican-style brunch with tacos and chilaquiles)
- Loncheria (pancakes, waffles, burritos)
Take a day trip to Sayulita
The two areas of San Pancho and Sayulita are just 10-15 mins apart by car, but San Pancho is often overlooked as it doesn’t have the party scene that Sayulita is so famous for. We spent our weekends out in Sayulita, and our work week with a bit of peace and quiet in San Pancho. Expect to pay 200 MXN for a one-way ride to Sayulita from San Pancho. You can grab a taxi at the stand in the center of town at Parque de la Hermandad.
Go shopping at the San Pancho Artisanal Market
San Pancho Artisanal Market is a must-visit for great food. It operates once a week on Tuesdays from 10am-2pm. You’ll find a number of stalls serving organic goodies, produce, homemade kombucha and more. We stocked up on a great haul of food for the week, including an amazing bread from a Chilean company.
If you’re looking for something to eat in the moment, there is a sprouts stand serving vegan tacos. The tacos are filled with sprouts, pineapple, avocado, and hot sauce – and they are amazing. They are large and filling, so just one should suffice.
One of the coolest experiences to have in San Pancho is the ability to spot whales out in the water from the beach. And this isn’t a rare occurrence, if you keep your eyes peeled you can spot multiple during the peak migration season.
There are also tours that you can book to go whale watching by boat!
Go for a hike
Basing yourself in San Pancho you are surrounded by tons of beautiful areas to hike in. You can even hike from San Pancho all the way to the nearby surf town of Sayulita. Around 4 miles each way, this hike around 1 hour and 30 minutes and offers some gorgeous beach views along the way. Once in Sayulita, there is the popular Monkey Mountain hike.
Explore Calle Tercer Mundo and shop at the local boutique stores
Calle Tercer Mundo is the main street in San Pancho, Nayarit. This town lifeline is filled with restaurants, boutique shops, and pretty much anything else you may need during your visit. Walking down the street you’ll find everything from cute boho clothes (often with a steep price tag) to the neighborhood pharmacy. You’ll find cheap street tacos and pricy fancy restaurants.
Fun fact: Other than this main road, all of the other roads are named after third-world countries and continents. The countries run east to west, while the continents from north to south!
Where to eat in San Pancho, Nayarit: the best San Pancho restaurants
Despite being a small town, with a population of only around 3,000 residents, there is no shortage of food options in San Pancho. From massive burritos for $2 from Loncheria to some of the best tuna tostadas from Barracuda for just a few bucks more, you won’t go hungry.
And if you somehow manage to eat your way through all of San Pancho’s delicious food options, Sayulita is just down the road with a bustling food scene.
Where to eat breakfast in San Pancho
- Maria’s – Maria’s is a classic spot for when you’re looking for a great brunch! Known for their eggs and pancakes, the food at Maria’s won’t disappoint. They also do a great chilaquiles verde, if you want something a bit more local. Don’t skip out on the fresh squeezed orange juice or the green juice, both served in a massive glass. Literally, the large organic is the bigger than my head. I recommend splitting one juice for two people!
- El Gallo – If you’re looking for a traditional Mexican breakfast, look no further than El Gallo. Located a bit away fom the main stretch of town, this beautiful outdoor restaurant has an amazing meny of local dishes at super reasonable prices. My personal favorites are their Chilaquiles Verde and their Pepian (peanut mole) chicken tacos. Come in the evening to enjoy some live music, dancing, and great mezcal cocktails.
- Bistro Organico Cielo Rojo – Simple, organic dishes in the back courtyard of San Pancho’s oldest hotel. I recommend coming for brunch.
- Dough Joe’s – If you’re looking for a sweet treat for breakfast, make a stop at Dough Joe’s for one of their famous doughnuts.
Where to eat lunch and dinner in San Pancho
- Barracuda – In the three weeks that we spent in Sayulita and San Pacho, we must have eaten at Barracuda as least five times! While everything that we tried on the menu was great, do not miss out on the tuna tostadas. Priced at only 80 pesos each, two of these are enough for a meal itself. Both the raw and seared option are great!
- Yasmina itzalanyasayan – Yasmina’s is super vegetarian-friendly, with a number of Thai-influenced dishes. All of the dishes are amazing – from their Mexican pad thai to their salads. Order the spiralized salad (dinner menu only) and thank me later. This is a great, casual option for either lunch or dinner. Note: they do not serve alcohol.
- Ikan – Easily some of the best shrimp tacos I’ve ever had! My personal favorite menu items are the shrimp tacos, grilled octopus tacos, and octopus tostadas. Tacos are around 70 pesos each, with mains on the pricier end.
- Loncheria – We ate at this simple loncheria so many times during our stay in San Pancho. Why? Delicious, massive burritos and quesadillas for 40 pesos. Need I say more? Make sure to order a fresh juice as well!
- Taqueria El Pocas – Every top San Pancho restaurant list needs a classic, cheap street taco option! Taqueria El Pocas, right by the park, is just that. Go for the simple al pastor tacos for 15 pesos each. Looking for a veggie option? Try the mushroom tacos!
Where to Stay in San Pancho
There are a ton of amazing options of places to stay in San Pancho. Airbnbs and hotels tend to book up during the busy season, so I recommend booking in advance if possible!
There are a few things to consider when deciding where to stay in San Pancho. San Pancho is a super walkable town so nothing is too far of a walk, however there are definitely some hills. One of our favorite airbnbs required quite the uphill trek to reach it (but it was amazing nevertheless). This is something to consider when picking a place to stay.
Some spots are also considerably closer to the beach, but in exchange can be a bit loud at they are right in the main center. However, no matter where you are, the roosters are always up before the sun for an early wake up call. I recommend a pair of ear plugs.
Another note: if you are planning to work remote, I would suggest looking very carefully into the wifi situation, especially if you’re planning on taking a lot of video calls. Fortunately our main Airbnb had an amazing balcony to work from, plus super strong wifi connection. But despite perfect cell signal in Sayulita, my phone gets a whopping zero bars throughout most of the town. But hey, it’s the type of town you’re meant to disconnect in!
Also read: my full review of Marii Hotel Costero
What to Pack for San Pancho, Nayarit
Packing for San Pancho is relatively easy, as you’ll be spending a good amount of time on the beach during your time in San Pancho. The town is super casual, as can be expected in a surf town, and you’ll find that there is rarely a need to dress up. The evenings are chillier though, so a nice pair of jeans and sweatshirt or jean jacket during the winter months will be handy! Here are a few items you shouldn’t forget:
- Bikinis and cover ups for lots of time on the beach – my favorites are from Aerie
- Travel beach towel or sarong
- Hat for protection from the sun
- Casual shorts
- A couple tank tops or bodysuits
- Maxi dresses or skirts for evenings out in Sayulita
- 1 pair of flip flops
- 1 pair of good walking shoes or sneakers for hiking
- Jeans for chilly evenings
- Passport if you are not a Mexican citizen
My San Pancho Packing Essentials
Planning to explore more of Mexico? Here are some articles to check out:
- The Ultimate Tulum Itinerary
- Tulum Solo Travel Guide
- Tulum on a Budget
- Best Tulum Instagram Spots
- 7 Best Restaurants in Tulum, Mexico
- Guanajuato City Guide
- Mexico City Guide
- Best Restaurants in San Miguel de Allende