San Pancho is a small Mexican beach town in the state of Nayarit. Just over an hour north of Puerto Vallarta and ten minutes from Sayulita, San Pancho is a vibrant yet relaxed surf town.
If you’re looking to vacation on the beach somewhere away from the crowds, safe and close to an international airport, you must check out San Pancho!
San Pancho also makes a memorable day trip from nearby Sayulita or Puerto Vallarta.
Beautiful Pacific Ocean sunset at Playa San Pancho
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What is San Pancho like?
San Pancho Nayarit is unlike any other Mexican beach town I’ve visited. It’s small and rustic yet developed enough to be a comfortable vacation spot.
The moment you step foot in town, you can tell there is something unique about San Pancho. More than a tourist destination, it feels like a community. As a visitor, you’re welcomed into a beachside haven where locals and expats alike love the place they live.
San Pancho is the place to go if you want to escape from the noise and relax but don’t want to be in the middle of nowhere. You’ll be able to reach everything you need—the beach, restaurants, groceries, and your hotel—within a few blocks. There isn’t much to do in San Pancho other than relax on the beach, watch surfers, and converse with locals. There also isn’t much nightlife in San Pancho—but you can drive ten minutes to Sayulita for nightlife.
Still, San Pancho can be a great hub if you’re looking to explore the surrounding natural beauty of the Riviera Nariyat, like going whale watching or exploring the Marietas Islands. You’re also close to Puerto Vallarta, a major city and tourist hub with many things to do.
Despite being a small town, San Pancho’s restaurant scene features a diversity of cuisines, from mouth-watering Mexican delights and fresh Thai noodles to smoothie bowls and veggie burgers. Better yet, you can reach any of San Pancho’s restaurants by walking just a few blocks.
Where is San Pancho?
San Pancho is located along the Riviera Nayarit on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The small beach town is right along the Pacific ocean and off highway 200. San Pancho is also called San Francisco, Mexico, so you may see that name appear on your map.
This idyllic beach town is ten minutes from the popular backpacker haven, Sayulita, and one hour from the Puerto Vallarta International Airport. It’s also about four hours away from Guadalajara, Jalisco.
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Things to do in San Pancho
Enjoy Playa San Pancho
It’s simple, but spending time at San Pancho’s beach (San Pancho Playa) is the best thing to do in San Pancho. Unlike most popular Mexico beach towns, San Pancho’s beach does not get very crowded. You can set up your spot along the shore with a beach towel or rent a few lounge chairs for a few hundred pesos for the day.
Along the south side of the beach, you can watch surfers, enjoy food and drinks from a beach bar, rent a beach chair, and gaze into the estuary. The further north you walk along the beach, the fewer people you’ll see.
My favorite place to eat on the beach in San Pancho is Organi-K, a cafe with delicious smoothie bowls, juices, avocado toast, healthy breakfast staples, and poke bowls. They have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. The cafe is a two-minute walk to the left when you enter the beach, right next to the estuary.
San Pancho’s main beachfront restaurants include La Perla, Olivia’s Restaurant and Bar, and Las Palmas. Each restaurant is located near the main beach entrance and offers similar menu items. I’ve found the service to be slow and the food quality mediocre at these restaurants, but they are a great place to grab a margarita and snacks right on the beach.
Some of my favorite things to do at San Pancho beach include enjoying a beachside breakfast at Organi-K, reading on a beach lounge chair, and watching the sunset.
Photo by Alice Kotlyarenko
Surf or watch surfers at San Pancho Playa
You can watch surfers ride powerful waves on the southern part of the beach (near the main entrance). It’s mesmerizing!
You easily rent a surfboard on the beach for a couple hundred pesos if you want to join in the fun. However, San Pancho’s break is powerful. If you’re a beginner or intermediate surfer, I recommend you head to another nearby beach to surf. Sayulita is just ten minutes away and is one of the best places in Mexico to learn to surf.
Take a boat tour to Isla Marietas
Sometimes called the Galapagos of Mexico, the Marietas Islands are two incredibly biodiverse islands off the coast of San Pancho. These gorgeous islands are incredible place to bird watch, snorkel, and dive. This beautiful Marine National Park is home to the famous hidden beach, a unique beach formed inside a crater that is only accessible by swimming through a small tunnel.
You can visit the Marietas Islands by booking a tour from Sayulita or booking a tour from Puerto Vallarta. I recommend booking a tour from Sayulita since you can easily reach Sayulita from San Pancho by a 10-minute drive or bus ride.
Most tours include snorkeling and a bird-watching tour around the island by boat, but only some include access to the hidden beach. I opted for a tour without hidden beach access and thoroughly enjoyed it!
One of many stunning, unique views at La Isla Marietas.
Beautiful rock formations spotted on a Marietas Islands boat tour.
Visit nearby beaches
If you’re looking for a change of scenery, there are several gorgeous, secluded beaches near San Pancho. I recommend:
- Playa Malpaso, a beautiful quiet beach between Sayulita and San Pancho. Accessible by a hike through the jungle or along the beach from San Pancho or Sayulita.
- Playa De Barro, a secluded beach north of San Pancho. Many visitors enjoy a DIY spa treatment on the beach with mud from the hillside along the beach.
- Playa Clavellinas, a small, almost secret beach north of San Pancho.
Powerful waves at Playa Malpaso, my favorite beach near San Pancho.
You usually get the beach to yourself at Playa Malpaso.
Day trip to Sayulita
Just ten minutes away, Sayulita is an easy day trip from San Pancho. Sayulita is a great place to visit if you want to learn to surf, shop, try incredible food, get a beachside massage, or go on a hike.
You can reach Sayulita by bus, taxi, or rental car.
Margaritas at my favorite beach bar in Sayulita, Bar Miramar Sayulita
Strangers took this photo of me and my husband because we “looked so cute watching the sunset”
Volunteer at Entreamigos Community Center
There is a wonderful community center located on the main street in San Pancho. Entreamigos’ many local-run community development programs support those most in need.
A few of their inspiring programs include environmental education programs, a community closet with clothes that only cost a few pesos, public school improvement projects, and beach cleanups. The center also hosts a library, a thrift shop, English classes, gardening classes, sports clubs, parenting classes, entrepreneurship programs, and more.
I always encourage travelers to give back when they travel. Supporting Entreamigos is an incredible and impactful way to give back to the San Pancho community. If you have time, you can serve as a volunteer. You can also make a donation online to support their ongoing work.
Release baby sea turtles
Depending on the time you visit San Pancho, you can release baby sea turtles into the ocean with Project Tortuga.
Wildlife conservation organizations like Project Tortuga collect sea turtle eggs to protect them from poachers and predators. These organizations allow tourists and volunteers to release recently hatched baby turtles on the beach, ensuring they each safely reach the ocean. It’s a memorable experience knowing that you helped one of these beautiful animals make a big step in their life.
Email Project Tortuga in advance to join their turtle release program.
Where to stay in San Pancho
A relaxing, tropical eco-hotel
During my last visit to San Pancho, I stayed at PAL.MAR Hotel Tropical and absolutely loved it. This eco-hotel is just a few blocks from the beach and all the restaurants, yet it feels quiet and secluded. The rooms are cute and comfortable, and all of them have kitchenettes. The tropical courtyard and pool are incredibly beautiful and peaceful.
A peaceful beachfront hotel
Hotel Ysuri is one of the few beachfront hotels in San Pancho. Although the rooms are a bit far from the beach, most rooms have a view of the water through the trees. Most rooms have a balcony, and the property has a nice pool. This hotel is right by the main beach entrance and Organic-K.
An architecturally unique hotel
Hotel Casa Pancho is a beautiful hotel with a unique architectural design melding Mexican and Southeast-Asian styles. The hotel has a stunning inner courtyard with a pool and several terraces overlooking tropical vegetation. It’s close to the center of San Pancho, but you feel like you’re in a different world.
Luxurious bohemian-style boutique hotel
Agua de Luna has fifteen suites, each completely unique. Some suites have bathtubs, which can be difficult to find in Mexico. The property features a gorgeous heated saltwater pool, a rooftop area with two jacuzzis, and a co-working area.
The view overlooking Playa Malpaso.
San Pancho Itineraries
No matter how much time you have in San Pancho, you will leave feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. The first time I visited San Pancho, I was just there for a day trip from Sayulita. It only took me a few hours to realize how special this place is. The next chance I got, I returned to San Pancho for a long weekend when I was living in Puerto Vallarta. Both visits left me aching for more, yet grateful for my time in San Pancho.
One day in San Pancho
Spend the day at the beach. Rent a beach chair and umbrella along the shore and soak in the sun while watching surfers ride waves. Enjoy brunch without leaving the beach by heading to Organi-K, then go to town for dinner after the sun sets.
A weekend in San Pancho
Book your stay at Palmar Hotel Tropical in town or Hotel Ysuri on the beach. Spend one day lounging at the beach, enjoying guacamole, Mexican food, and margaritas from the beachside bars. Walk along the estuary and spot birds and other wildlife. In the afternoon, pack up your stuff and bring it back to your hotel. Take a nap or shower before returning to watch the sunset and grab a delicious dinner in town.
On your second day, explore the surrounding areas. Head to a nearby beach, book a tour to see the beautiful hidden beach on Isla Marietas or take surf lessons in Sayulita. Head back to San Pancho in the late afternoon to watch the sunset on the beach while enjoying a tasty drink.
On your last day, soak up the sun at the beach or a smaller beach nearby San Pancho. Don’t forget to try any restaurants you missed and explore the artisan markets before you head out.
A week in San Pancho
On your first day, recover from your travels at your hotel and then walk to the beach. Watch the sunset while enjoying a cocktail at a beach bar, and then grab dinner in town. Top the night off with vegan ice cream from Chichili.
Spend your second day at the beach, watching the surfers and carefully wading in the water to cool off. Walk the length of the beach and observe wildlife in the lagoon.
Book a boat tour to the Marietas Islands on your third day. You can book with the option to swim to the secluded hidden beach or book a wildlife boat tour that takes you around the islands. Arrive back in San Pancho just in time to catch the beautiful sunset.
On your fourth day, relax at your hotel before grabbing brunch in town. Spend a few hours at the beach and then explore the shops along San Pancho’s main street. Enjoy a delicious dinner in town.
Visit Sayulita on your fifth day. Leave San Pancho early and start your day off with surf lessons at Playa Sayulita. After catching a few waves, reward yourself with a delicious, filling meal at one of Sayulita’s restaurants. Walk the streets of Sayulita and do a little shopping. Refresh with a yummy frozen chocolate-dipped banana at ChocoBanana. Watch the sunset on Sayulita’s beach, catch some live music during dinner, and then head back to San Pancho for the night.
Enjoy one last full in San Pancho by relaxing at the beach or exploring a nearby beach like Playa Malpaso. Finish off your time in this special place by watching the sunset and enjoying a delicious meal.
Final Thoughts: Is San Pancho Worth Visiting?
San Pancho (or San Francisco Nayarit) is a true gem on the Riviera Nayarit. I’ve absolutely loved every minute I’ve spent in San Pancho. If you want to relax on a beach in a small, safe, welcoming community, you’ll also love San Pancho.