Adventure International

7 Must-Do Activities in San Pancho in Mexico

Dive into the small-town charm of San Pancho by trying these 7 must-do activities in Mexico Riviera’s “Cultural Capital.” San Pancho, which is what the locals have christened San Francisco Mexico, is located along the 200-mile stretch of coastline in the Mexican state of Riviera Nayarit. It reminded me so much of the tight-knit community that I discovered in Isla Holbox, Mexico.

This settlement dates back centuries. Originally indigenous tribes settled this region in the Pacific Coast, in the shadow of the Sierra Madre mountains. Later Don Francisco Cortés de Buenaventura named it Azapan in 1524. But the Spanish later renamed the town San Francisco de Azapan. 

But let’s fast forward to this sleepy beach time today. The first hint that San Pancho is going to steal your heart is the bright red “Golden Gate (San Francisco Mexico) Bridge” in the town center. Pose for an Instagram shot at this iconic city symbol. 

Unfortunately, this is where the comparison ends. You won’t find a crooked Lombard Street, sourdough bread, or pigeons crash-landing on your head in San Francisco Mexico.

Surfing

You also won’t see any cable cars in San Pancho, although you might want to hop on a surfboard on the beach. It is a two-minute walk from the town square to the Pacific Ocean, which rolls out like yards of blue taffeta. 

Turn left after the beachside restaurant. You can’t miss the home-styled sign: “San Pancho surf lesson.” 

At 930 am, the sun worshippers hadn’t appeared yet. But two surfers’ storefront tents beckoned with glistening boards and the sound of music.

Swimming

But there is no pressure to surf if you prefer to just swim or float in the Pacific Ocean. (Body surfing is also a cool alternative if you are afraid of getting hit in the head by a surfing board.)

I highly recommend saving time for a long stroll along the ocean. Head toward the mountains in the distance. If you’re lucky, you might even get a canine escort.

Street Dogs

Yes, that is right. This little Mexican town may have one dog for every two humans. During my visit, I saw the friendliest dogs everywhere—they walk down the street, run on the beach, sleep in the town square, and play tag together.

My favorite crew was a young Husky and a little Mexican dog that ran circles on the beach, chasing each other. I honestly don’t know how a Husky can survive in this heat. It was 85 degrees F in December when I visited San Pancho.

You’ll also see pet owners walking their dogs on a leash. My favorite was a little girl who minded her two little dogs on a sleepy Friday morning. She dressed them in pink outfits. 

I asked if there was a pet shelter where visitors could volunteer. “San Pancho Animales (SPA) rescued 197 dogs, worked with 250 “flight angels,” spayed and neutered over 500 animals, and helped over 100 dogs with emergency care and food. SPA’s mission is to eliminate animal suffering in and around San Pancho, Nayarit, Mexico,” according to the website. (Check out my article about volunteering at a Refugio Animal Shelter in Isla Holbox, an experience that I will never forget.)

Local Artisan Markets

Every Tuesday, there is a farmer’s market in San Pancho. Expect to see the most colorful fruits and vegetables, including exotic prickly pears. A vendor will even behead a coconut (with a machete) if you crave fresh coconut juice.

But the local artisans set up tables in the main square seven days a week if you want to buy the Huichol handcrafts, which include beaded necklaces, bracelets, or rings.

“The native Huichol Indians can be found near Sayulita in the foothills and the highlands of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountain range in Riviera Nayarit. The Huichol are direct descendents of the Aztec.”

Riviera Nayarit

I couldn’t resist buying three pairs of beaded flower earrings!

Murals

Never forget to search for street art when you visit a small Mexican village. Behind every corner or hiding in an alley, murals loom large. I love to see a town turn into an outdoor art museum.

In San Pancho, there is a long wall painted with workers in the fields picking the crops. 

Sope Festival

San Pancho may become world-famous as the home of the gourmet sope. A traditional Mexican “street snack,” the sope features a fried masa base. The rim around the edge keeps all the savory toppings from falling off.

Cameron Mao, the owner of Su Pancha Madre Restaurant, put San Pancho on the map after he established the town’s first Sope festival in 2021.

Starting with just six chefs, the festival doubled in one year. Now chefs from as far away as New Zealand and France participate. The 3rd Annual “Festival International de Sope” will be held December 15-17, 2023 in San Pancho.

If your visit doesn’t align with the festival’s dates, you can still sample Mao’s gourmet sopes.

Su Pancha Madre Restaurant

Su Pancha Madre Restaurant is a one-of-a-kind place for foodies to congregate in San Pancho.

“We’re not a food business; we are a special project to offer another kind of Mexican food, artisan products & pre-Hispanic ingredients.”

Cameron Mao

Head for the canary-yellow house which is tucked away on Argelia esq. Calle Mexico. Enter the garden patio to find a comfortable table. Your walls are leafy. Soon Mao arrives with a fresh drink hand-mixed with three different fruits and sesame seeds. The concoction will shock your tongue.

But the wonderful surprise is when his staff places a plate in front of you. Two corn sopes are hand-dyed red, green, or orange. Mao uses natural die sources, such as carrots, beetroot, and spinach. Your sope might be covered with meat, fish, poultry, or vegetables. There may be a base of refried beans. Be brave and accept Mao’s offer of a fiery hot salsa.

More Information

I booked my all-day tour to San Pancho and Sayulita through Vallarta Adventures. Our guide enthusiastically told us about the culture, customs, and traditions of the two towns. She made the tour so special!

The tourism bureau for Riviera Nayarit provides information on the different small towns located on the “Mexican Riveria,” which is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Western Sierra Madre mountains. Come see 200 miles of coastline. The southern border is located just 10 minutes from Puerto Vallarta International Airport. Riviera Mayarit won Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards 2021.

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  • A Capone Connection
    December 9, 2023 at 11:08 am

    I’ve only ever done excursions in Mexico when I was cruising but I really want to go there directly and see more of it. Thanks for the helpful info on San Pancho. I am saving this for when I’m planning a trip.

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 3:15 pm

      I will be writing about multiple towns that I visit on the West Coast of Mexico. I hope it inspires you to visit. I love it here.

  • Linda (LD Holland)
    December 9, 2023 at 11:21 am

    I love all the fun activities to do in San Pancho. Water activities are always a big draw for us in the Caribbean. But we love when we find street art that is colourful and reflects local life. Great that you had a good guide to show you the local gems.

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 3:14 pm

      I always book a walking tour from a local when I travel. You get to learn so much about the culture and make a new friend.

  • Sara Essop
    December 9, 2023 at 12:55 pm

    San Pancho looks like such a charming town. And I’d love to try a sope while I’m there too!

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 3:13 pm

      Sopes are so YUMMY! I can’t wait for my next sope.

  • Stephanie
    December 9, 2023 at 1:06 pm

    San Pancho looks like such a fun destination! I love street art and would love to explore its murals as well as the local markets.

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 3:12 pm

      You might want to leave your wallet at the hotel. It is very hard to resist the beautiful hand crafted jewelry at the local markets.

  • Erica
    December 9, 2023 at 2:50 pm

    San Pancho looks like a wonderful place to visit! Thanks for an informative and inspiring article about it. I would love to enjoy the combination of learning about the history and culture, relaxing on that beautiful beach, and enjoying the delicious sopes!

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 3:12 pm

      Thank you so much. I am excited to visit these smaller towns on the Riveria while I stay in Puerto Vallarta’s old town.

  • Hannah
    December 9, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    San Pancho looks like such a charming place to visit! I’d love to explore the artisan market and see the murals. What a lovely place! Thanks for the great guide!

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 5:04 pm

      You are welcome! I love to write about the less discovered small towns and villages for my blog. San Pancho (and the street dogs) stole my heart!

  • Hannah
    December 9, 2023 at 4:16 pm

    Mexico is one place I’m very excited to visit very soon and really enjoyed reading this and look forward to more articles to help inspire my future plans 🙂

    • Terri
      December 9, 2023 at 5:03 pm

      I have visited multiple places in Mexico over the years and I always enjoy the hospitality & culture. Watch for multiple Mexican posts in the weeks ahead.

  • Amy Tull
    December 9, 2023 at 5:05 pm

    You paint a lovely picture of Su Pancha Madre. I will just have to visit! (And I will love meeting all the dogs!)

    • Terri
      December 10, 2023 at 8:37 am

      Thank you. My readers know that I am cat crazy and dog crazy. I love when I can meet the locals (aka pets) when I travel. I am still looking for the Mexican gatos (cats)!

  • Sharyn
    December 9, 2023 at 7:14 pm

    Mexico is so on my list of countries to visit. It was 20 years ago my last visit. Having grown up at the beach I can easily see myself spending time there – might even get back up on a surfboard!

    • Terri
      December 10, 2023 at 8:36 am

      You must come back to Mexico if it has been 2 decades. This is my first visit back since the pandemic. I now plan to visit once a year. I need to explore other regions of Mexico. I think my next beach getaway will be Isla de Mujures.

  • Laureen Lund
    December 9, 2023 at 9:25 pm

    I have never heard of this lovely little place…it looks just like somewhere I need to go. Saving for future…thanks for all the tips.

    • Terri
      December 10, 2023 at 8:34 am

      I like to find the smaller towns to write about when I get the opportunity. I could definitely come back to San Pancho and spend a week of R&R plus sopes!!!!

  • Anja
    December 10, 2023 at 7:42 am

    This look so lovely and will go on my wish list map. Is it easy to get there from a major airport?

    • Terri
      December 10, 2023 at 8:32 am

      It is very easy. San Pancho is just an hour away from Puerto Vallarta International Airpirt. There are local buses. I did the day tour as I wanted to see two towns.

  • Jolayne
    December 11, 2023 at 6:37 am

    What a fun and colorful place. Planning a visit around the Sope Festival would be perfect.

    • Terri
      December 11, 2023 at 9:07 am

      San Pancho is the locals’ secret for the best beaches for swimming and surfing. I imagine participating in the Sope Festival would be great fun.