SAN FRANCISCO (SAN PANCHO) – RIVIERA NAYARIT
San Francisco, or San Pancho as it is more commonly called, is a unique Mexican village nestled between Sierra Madre mountains, verdant jungles, and white-sand beaches that stretch for miles along the Pacific coast.
Twenty-five miles north of the international airport at Puerto Vallarta, the village of San Pancho is being proclaimed as one of the next great destinations in the so-called Riviera Nayarita, a place where old Mexico fuses with the new. Cowboys in broad-brimmed straw hats trot their horses past absorbed kids clicking on cell phones. An eatery sells tacos to patrons seated in the street on white plastic chairs while, across the way, another offers strumming guitars, cloth napkins, and mahi mahi with Thai peanut sauce. The town beach, deserted most days and devoid of vendors as always, seems to exist only for walkers and sea birds to enjoy. Yet its steep sand banks, rollicking surf, and stunning sunsets are captured in photos posted all over the internet and world.
SAN PANCHO IS REAL
“San Pancho hit a nerve,” most transplants say, when asked why they chose this small town, population 2,500, in which to settle and build. Elaborating, they describe it as a picturesque typical Mexican pueblo, full of welcoming easy smilers, and a community they felt they could quickly become a part of. “It’s real,” they say in high praise. “It’s tranquilo.” Preferable to the bustle of neighboring Sayulita, they often add in a show of civic pride, which they declare a great place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there.
Not to imply, however, that there’s nothing to see or do in San Pancho:
*Birding San Pancho (www.birdingsanpancho.com) will take you to the estuary and the capomo fields to search for tropical birds.
*Grupo Ecologico (www.project-tortuga.org) will let you hold baby sea turtles before releasing them at sunset into the sea.
*Tailwinds (www.tailwindoutdoor.com) will take you on a kayak, paddleboard, or hiking trip.
*Diva Tours (www.sayulitanay.com) will arrange for snorkeling at the Marieta Islands.
*Veteran fisherman Pando will take you to the marlin fishing grounds to try your luck.
*Spa Angelical will give you a massage, with or without hot stones.
*Pilates, yoga, zumba—all are on offer in town (www.el-estar.org; www.pilatespaikea.com) — well as golf (www.lashuertasgolf.com) and polo, incredibly enough (www.polovallarta.com).
*Plaza del Sol, across from San Pancho’s only church, offers a farmer’s market every Tuesday plus regular performances on its open-air stage. Highlights are the annual San Pancho music festival in February, heralded children’s Cirque du Soleil in March, San Pancho fiestas patronales in September, Dia de Los Muertos altars in November, and Colectivo San Pancho Christmas art festival in December.
*Entreamigos (www.entreamigos.org.mx) has something for everyone. Kids and adults stream in and out of this community center all day, high season and low. Volunteer opportunities never end, given the number of ongoing and envisioned projects this organization takes on.
SO MANY RESTAURANTS
San Pancho features an amazing number of excellent eateries. That a pueblo its size consistently supports so many and such variety attests to the growth of the town, the inhabitants it attracts, and the quality of food on offer. Here are a few that diners seem to favor:
- Maria’s – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tasty breakfast; best prepared mahi mahi; friendliest service in town.
- Bistro Organico – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Gourmet organic; seasonal, local ingredients. Innovative, unique.
- La Playa – for lunch. On the beach. Angus beef burgers, seafood; best sunset view. Dancing every Sunday.
- Ola Rica – for dinner. Classy-comfortable; dependable; a delicious mix of familiar favorites and daily specials.
- Mar Plata – for dinner. Continental cuisine; an upscale steakhouse.
Some places specialize:
- Dolce Amore – for Italian. Huge portions of the best pasta, bruschetta, and salad in town. Lasagne its specialty.
- Baja Takeria – for tacos, burritos, burgers. California style. Raised the bar for all other taco places in San Pancho.
- Jellyfish – for burgers. Unique shakes; juicy burgers with gourmet toppings. Clever presentation.
- Mr. Ribs – for barbecue. Open-air grilling, out on the street. Great sauce, even greater fries.
- Darjeeling – for pizza, teas. Wood oven, thin crust pizzas; exotic hot and cold teas.
- Los Delfines – for dinner antojitos. Classic enchiladas, pozole, and coconut flan. An institution in San Pancho.
- Los Arbolitos – for dinner tacos. Traditional toppings and lots of them. Good food for less.
- Café Manana, Café Paraiso – for coffee and pastries. Lattes, cappuccinos, and more. Hundreds of paperbacks to swap.
Several cooks and caterers also are available on request, as well as a food/liquor buyer (www.groceriesforvacation.com) who will travel to Vallarta for supplies not offered in local shops.
A VARIETY OF SHOPS
San Pancho’s shops include a selection of hardware stores, paint stores, food/liquor stores, plus butcher, produce, and seafood shops. A handful of high-end jewelry and artisania shops dot Avenida Tercer Mundo, the main street, as well art galleries featuring local and foreign artists. Nextdoor Sayulita is home to an interesting collection of artists’ and artisans’ work as well.
San Pancho’s HISTORY
Before the arrival of the Spanish, and still somewhat today, the mountainous region near San Francisco known as the Sierra Madre Occidental was sparsely populated by indigenous Cora and Huichol communities. As the Spanish put down roots and began to develop ports at San Blas to the north and Puerto Vallarta to the south, the region’s population increased but at a slow pace, cut off from urban centers like Guadalajara.
Wealthy landowners soon presided over huge latifundio estates. But in 1931, as part of sweeping land reform after the Revolution, the land that comprises modern-day Sayulita and San Francisco was transferred to communal ejido ownership.
San Francisco remained a sleepy communal village, surviving on subsistence fishing and some mango and tropical fruit cultivation, until the small town struck the fancy of Mexican President Luis Echeverría in the 1970s.
First charmed enough by San Pancho to make it the site of his family vacation mansion, Echeverría then directed a flow of federal funding to San Francisco to build his dream of a “self-sufficient Third World village,” to include a technical university and food processing plant.
While the President’s vision did not come to fruition, since funding ended with his presidential term, the town still benefits today from the cobblestone streets and full-service hospital that resulted from his efforts. Recently designated a cultural center by the state of Nayarit, San Pancho finds its star on the rise once again.