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It was during a stay at the luxurious Marival Armony resort in Punta de Mita north of Puerto Vallarta that we had the honor of meeting Chef Betty Vázquez González. The chef is Gastronomic Ambassador for the Riviera Nayarit in Mexico and Mexico’s Top Chef judge. As the Pacific Ocean breezes blew through the open-air palapa where she gave us a ceviche lesson, she also introduced us to her beloved home of San Blas, just across the beautiful bay to the north of us. She whetted our appetites for a special meal at her restaurant there and two days of sightseeing in this lovely port town known for fishing and commerce. It turned out that San Blas is a classic Mexican beach destination enhanced by historic notoriety and charm.
Riviera Nayarit Cuisine
Riviera Nayarit is the moniker for the coastal villages and towns of the state of Nayarit. While you will be overcome with the fresh flavors of fruits, vegetables, and local meats, the cuisine of the area draws from its pre-Hispanic roots. You’ll find tlaxtihuille, a corn-based chowder, grilled fish fresh from the ocean, luscious shrimp tamales, smoked tuna and sailfish, and the aguahile, seafood ceviche. It was the ceviche that we were to learn about with Chef Betty, as she is lovingly called.
Making Fresh Ceviche
During Chef Betty’s cooking demonstration at a table filled with fresh seafood, citrus fruit, vegetables, and avocados, we learned that you can be creative when making ceviche. She put together several varieties as we watched and then… tasted.
Basically, you need fresh seafood, your choice of spices, and citrus fruit for an acidic marinade. There is no cooking involved because as the fish or shrimp sit in the marinade, the proteins of the seafood will denature, just like with cooking. You quickly end up with a bowl of seafood with the texture of cooked seafood… yet cold. For more detailed instructions, get Ceviche Recipes: A Ceviche Cookbook with Delicious Ceviche Recipes.
The tasting ended with an invitation to visit San Blas, Chef Betty’s home, where we would find her restaurant, El Delfin, and Hotel Garza Canela, owned by her family.
Local Fruits in San Blas
The next day, we loaded up the van and headed north. Even our drive to the historic port town of San Blas was filled with the color of the local foods. We stopped at several attractive fruit stands with huge bunches of plantain (small bananas which are delicious when fried and sprinkled with sugar) displayed outside. Inside, we found dried fruits, candies, and containers of freshly cut mixed fruits. The handy pamphlet, Mexico Fruit – Laminated Foldout Pocket Field Guide, can help you identify what you find in the fruit stands.
Lunch on the Beach in San Blas
Even before checking into the hotel, we stopped for lunch right on the beach for a typical meal of pescado zarandeado—grilled fish. Shaded by palapas, we shared a huge fish, perfectly spiced and tenderly grilled, washed down with several cervezas, of course.
As we sat on the beach and wiggled our toes in the sand, vendors came by with beaded jewelry and key chains. A frozen fruit juice wagon making its rounds on the beach looked enticing.
Hotel Garza Canela and Restaurant El Delfin
After our ride along the highway, and a great outdoor lunch, we were welcomed by the staff of a lovely garden hotel. Hotel Garza Canela is an older hotel with several buildings surrounded by lovely gardens with a palm-lined walkway leading up to a small chapel.
Also on the grounds is the Restaurant El Delfin (dolphin in English) and a spacious lobby and shop. Families enjoy the swimming and children’s wading pools. This is truly a place to relax and refresh. It is in a garden community, not on the beach, yet within walking distance of the center of the old town.
On one of our two evenings at the hotel, we were treated to a special meal at Restaurant El Delfin. We happened to be there on the US Thanksgiving Day, so Chef Betty and her staff (mostly family) prepared a Mexican-style Thanksgiving feast for us. She carefully planned cuisine based on Thanksgiving mainstays but with a Mexican flair… and paired the meal with hand-crafted margaritas to start!
The warmth and intimacy of the hotel and restaurant is credited to the fact that it is fully Mexican family-owned and off the usual tourist path. It is an ideal place to stay and dine if you want to experience traditional Mexico.
Exploring the Plaza at San Blas
The Port of San Blas was one of the most important ports on Mexico’s Pacific coast back to 1768 when the land was owned by the Spanish crown. There are remnants of this colonial time evident throughout San Blas and we looked forward to exploring a bit.
Early Morning Stroll in San Blas
I awoke, opened the windows in my room, and watched the light of dawn slowly bring the old town of San Blas to life. Roosters crowed and, as I got ready for breakfast, church bells rang at the historic town plaza. Several of us were up early to walk to the plaza and explore early morning life in San Blas.
Most shops were closed so we had an opportunity to photograph the colorful signs and murals. Children were walking to the local school where the schoolyard was already full of exuberant kids waiting for the day to begin. A few dogs lazily wandered the streets looking for scraps.
As we approached the Plaza, we noticed that there was an old church, seemingly falling apart, right next to the newer church where morning mass would soon be held. We were actually pleased that the town had not demolished the old church as it made a great subject for the photographers among us.
We peeked in the church where people were gathering for mass. A woman prayed at an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, as the morning light streamed through the stained-glass windows.
Exploring the San Blas Markets
It looked busy on a street off to the right so some of us headed over there and found the local fresh fish market. Older women tended stalls piled high with iced fish.
Inside the market building were several bustling restaurants with women cooking breakfast in huge pots surrounded by patrons at the counters.
Culture in San Blas
We wandered the Plaza and noticed a statue of a musician with a guitar and a woman. The statue depicted the story of la loca del muelle de San Blas (the crazy woman at the San Blas dock). The woman was the inspiration for the Mexican rock band, Mana’s hit, “En el Muelle de San Blas.”
As the story goes, a woman said goodbye to her lover as he boarded a ship at the San Blas Dock. She returned to the dock daily waiting for him to return… she even wore the same dress so he would recognize her. This went on so long she became one with the dock and when they tried to take her to a mental asylum, she could not be moved, and her spirit stayed there alone for eternity.
Birding at La Tovara National Park
A highlight of our visit to San Blas was the boat trip into the mangrove swamps in search of colorful and unusual birds. San Blas is one of the most popular birding destinations in Mexico. Birders from around the world come to see the birds, some of which are unique to the preserve.
There are several habitats in the area where you’ll find more than 400 native and migratory bird species, including 33 endemic to Mexico. You can arrange the boat trip at your hotel or book a day trip from Puerto Vallarta.
We were warned to wear long-sleeved jackets and load up with insect repellent for this trip so we readied ourselves at the dock. We were loaded into small boats holding six to eight persons each. We headed out into a network of estuaries and canals surrounded by lush vegetation. When we rounded the first corner, our boatman slowed down and we saw our first exotic bird… a Lesser Nighthawk blending in with the tree branches.
On our late afternoon excursion, we spent several hours winding our way through the jungle seeing colorful small birds, cranes, herons, a white ibis, and, my favorite (because of the name) the Rufous-bellied Chachalaca.
We even encountered turtles, iguanas, and an alligator or two. If you have a telephoto lens, this is the place to bring it. It was almost dark as we disembarked and our vans wound their way up a rural road to meet us. It was a memorable trip and back at the hotel I marked off my sightings on the “Quick Guide to the Birds of San Blas Riviera Nayarit.”
When You Visit Riviera Nayarit and San Blas
Winters are mild with an average annual temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit. We visited in late November and it was still humid. Summers are hot but if you are at an ocean resort, you’ll be fine.
You’ll reach the Riviera Nayarit just 20 minutes north of the Puerto Vallarta Airport (PVR) which boasts 50 direct flights from cities in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. San Blas is 103 kilometers (64 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta. If you do not have a car or tour company taking you, there is a bus which takes four and a half hours. I would recommend staying at a resort near Puerto Vallarta when you arrive to acclimate and then hitting the highway for San Blas the next day. On our return trip, we encountered some lengthy delays due to road work.
There is also a smaller international airport at Tepic (TPQ), closer to San Blas, but does not have direct flights for visitors outside of Mexico.
COVID-19 Considerations for Mexico
Be sure and inquire about COVID-19 restrictions and read destination websites. Also, make sure you read Department of State information on travel to Mexico as well as requirements for re-entry into the United States.
Tourist destinations in Mexico are welcoming visitors but are taking precautions. Currently, you can fly into and out of Mexico (with COVID testing) but you are not guaranteed entry/exit when you drive across the border. It is anticipated that restrictions will be lifted as the pandemic infection numbers decrease.
For more stories of adventures in Mexico see these articles by Wander writers.