Last month I visited San Pancho, Mexico, a little beach town on Nayarit’s Pacific coast. For years, I’d been hearing that San Pancho was the new Sayulita… a town that retained its small size, local charm, community atmosphere and great surfing.
It’s true that San Pancho today has a lot of similarities to the Sayulita of 2005, but it is also a unique destination in its own right. With a community center fully committed to preserving the town’s culture, ecosystem and quirkiness, and a multicultural population that celebrate both Mexican and international traditions, San Pancho is a great place to spend a weekend… or longer!
Where is San Pancho?
Can’t find San Pancho on your map of Mexico? That makes sense, as the town’s official name is actually San Francisco. “Pancho” is the Spanish abbreviation for Francisco (kind of like how we shorten “Michael” to “Mike”), and this little town has always preferred the little version of its full name.
You’ll find San Pancho on your map of Mexico by looking a little bit north of Puerto Vallarta, on the country’s central Pacific Coast. It’s less than five kilometers from Sayulita, its more-famous neighbor that is slightly to the south. While it’s possible to walk through the jungle from Sayulita to San Pancho, it’s generally easier to get between the two towns by private car, taxi or local bus.
Hotels in San Pancho
San Pancho is a small town with a small(ish) selection of hotels, hostels and vacation rentals. I would recommend looking for a place that is one or two blocks back from Avenida Tercer Mundo so that you can have a quiet night’s sleep while still being close to the action in the center of town.
Hotel Cielo Rojo
Of all of the hotels in San Pancho, I would highly recommend that you stay at Hotel Cielo Rojo. This is where I stayed during my most recent visit (which was not sponsored – they didn’t know I was a blogger and I paid full price for my room) and I am still obsessed with the stunning decor and top-notch customer service. For a full run-down of all the things I loved about my stay, check out my review of Hotel Cielo Rojo.
Hotel Casa San Pancho
This is the top-rated hotel in San Pancho. Set back from the main street, it is a ten-minute walk away from the beach and five minutes from popular restaurants and shops. At Hotel Casa San Pancho, the design is more modern and minimalist than at Hotel Cielo Rojo, but what it lacks in personality it makes up for in amenities (including a swimming pool and shared lounge area) and a wider assortment of breakfast dishes (including homemade bread every morning!).
Hostal San Pancho Hostel
Spent all your money on a new surfboard? Hostal San Pancho Hostel is the best budget hostel in San Pancho with clean, comfortable dorms and private rooms, a shared kitchen area and a spacious lounge to relax in after a taxing day of surfing. It’s a five-minute walk from the hostel to the main beach, along San Pancho’s main road.
Other Vacation Rentals & Hotel Options
Restaurants in San Pancho
For a small town, San Pancho has a surprising number of really great restaurants. There’s a good balance of traditional Mexican cuisine, healthy food and international flavors at the many restaurants lining Avenida Tercer Mundo (the main street running from the highway to the beach).
Bistro Organico Restaurant
Located inside Hotel Cielo Rojo, Bistro Organico is open daily for breakfast and lunch, with seasonal opening hours for dinner. They have a fantastic menu of both sweet and savory dishes, mostly plant-based but also featuring some local dairy and seafood (but no red meat!). Check out my review of the hotel to see the pretty fruit bowl they serve to hotel guests for breakfast, or just stare at that omelet with herb-roasted potatoes and avocado (with a fresh green juice to boot!) until your mouth waters.
El Gallo Restaurant
Before I stayed overnight in San Pancho, I first visited as a day trip from Sayulita. As I was walking into town I passed El Gallo, a large courtyard restaurant built around an open kitchen. It was actually their expansive menu of traditional Mexican breakfast dishes that sealed the deal and had me checking into Hotel Cielo Rojo the next day. Service here is a little bit slow because it’s a big restaurant and they don’t have tons of servers, but the food is definitely worth the wait. My chilaquiles enmoladas (fried tortilla strips sauteed in a dark Oaxacan mole sauce) were served with refried black beans, sauteed mushrooms and an assortment of fresh salsas, and everything was delicious.
La Voz de Mi Tierra Restaurant
A cute little 100% vegan restaurant has popped up on the corner of Avenida Tercer Mundo and Calle Africa. Called La Voz de Mi Tierra (The Voice of My Land) is a great concept, with a curated menu of sandwiches, bowls, smoothies, baked goods, coffee and tea. I had a sandwich with guacamole, hummus, grilled portabello mushroom, lettuce, tomato and onion, along with a pot of loose-leaf peppermint tea. There’s only seating for about four or six people here, but it’s a great place to grab a to-go meal before a hike or excursion.
Cafe Paraiso Bakery and Coffee Shop
Cafe Paraiso is a homey cafe and bakery on Avenida Tercer Mundo. Every day they serve an assortment of fresh-baked goods (I opted for a pineapple-carrot muffin as a light lunch during my day trip to San Pancho) and many locals say they have the best coffee in town. Sit inside on the comfortable couches and lounge chairs, or grab an outdoor table for a little people watching.
La Michoacana Ice Cream Shop
If you’ve ever traveled in Mexico, you are probably familiar with the La Michoacana brand name. Chances are good you’ve seen – and probably visited – an ice cream shop serving hard ice cream and a huge assortment of pre-made ice cream bars (called paletas). What you might not have known is that over the years, La Michoacana has essentially gone rogue, and today there are approximately 15,000 ice cream shops using this brand name, mostly operated somewhat underneath three completely unrelated parent companies but with a few operating completely independently. Basically, anyone can open a La Michoacana, serve whatever they want and use the name in their branding, but it’s not corporate-owned or even a franchise. There are actually two ice cream shops in San Pancho that use the La Michocana name – the one shown above, which is quite large, and a smaller corner store closer to the beach. Stop by either if you’re looking for a cool treat on a hot day (and a business lesson!).
Sorry, no photo! Maria’s Restaurant was so packed during my entire stay that I felt weird about taking a photo that would inevitably show the other diners, ranging from other travelers to families celebrating a quinceanera. I visited for dinner on my first night in San Pancho, opting for a two-course meal featuring their house salad and a vegetarian pasta dish (with a margarita too, of course!). Both of my dishes were delicious, even if they weren’t particularly Mexican. I can see why this is one of the busiest restaurants in San Pancho! This is a great place for dinner with a group, but definitely swing by earlier in the day to make a dinner reservation if you want to dine at normal dinner hours.
Things to Do in San Pancho
San Pancho isn’t the place to visit if you’re looking for an action-packed holiday. However, if you’re looking to relax and recharge, or if you’re a confident surfer, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for on San Pancho’s shores.
San Pancho Beach / Playa San Pancho
The expansive beach at the end of Avenida Tercer Mundo is San Pancho’s gem. The rougher waters and stronger undertows make swimming a near-impossibility, but there’s plenty of space for everyone to lay out their beach blanket, pop up their umbrella and relax with a good book or a cold beer. There are a few beach chair rentals available from the bar on the beach, but it’s also worth asking your hotel if they can provide the essentials (Hotel Cielo Rojo provided me with a beach chair, umbrella and towel).
Surfing in San Pancho, Mexico
If you’re already a confident surfer, you won’t want to miss the surfing in San Pancho. There are surf board rentals right on the beach and at the surf shops along Avenida Tercer Mundo. The experts at the surf shop can direct you to the best breaks, but during my visit it was pretty clear that most people were surfing on the south end of the beach. If you’re not a confident surfer, it’s best to get comfortable on the waves in Sayulita before trying the larger waves in San Pancho.
Shopping in San Pancho
San Pancho has a nice assortment of independent boutique entshops, most of which are still featuring local and handmade items (rather than mass market souvenirs imported from China). There are some lovely clothing, jewelry shops and home decor, and the Galeria San Pancho (near the beach) has an eclectic mix of all three. San Pancho has lots of surf shops that can hook you up with all the gear you’ll need while you’re on the water (buy or rent) plus all the cool clothes you’ll want to wear on land.
The Entreamigos Community Center
One of my favorite things about San Pancho was the Entreamigos Community Center. This huge building is clearly the community hub, featuring a multilingual library, youth programs, classes for the local community on topics like gardening, parenting and entrepreneurship, athletic facilities, a vegan cafe and – yes – clean public toilets. There is also a lovely gift shop inside, where the products include local artisan goods, organic health and beauty products made from local ingredients, and accessories and home decor made from recycled materials. It’s lovely to see the community coming together for the common good… and it’s definitely worth leaving a donation during your visit!
San Pancho Turtle Releases
As you approach the main beach in San Pancho, you’ll this sign that proudly announces the one million baby turtles that were released on San Pancho’s beaches between 1990 and 2015. Led by Project Tortuga, San Pancho is working to save its local sea turtle population through conservation efforts that include protecting sea turtle eggs, releasing the hatchlings and educating the community about environmental issues. Nesting season typically runs from May through November, so contact Project Tortuga if your visit falls in that time frame and you’d like to help out!
Day Trips Out of Town
There are lots of interesting day trip opportunities that are accessible from San Pancho. You can try scuba diving or whale watching with a Sayulita- or Punta Mita-based tour operator, who can easily arrange transfers from Punta Mita. They can also organize excursions to the Marietas Islands, where you can see the world-famous blue-footed boobies and visit the pretty hidden beach. Brave travelers might want to visit the El Cora Crocodile Sanctuary in nearby Nuevo Vallarta, or head north to the La Tovara Springs near San Blas to see crocodiles in their natural habitat (rental car required).
Of course, you can always escape San Pancho for the day by hopping one of the regular regional buses that travel to Sayulita, Bucerias and onward to Puerto Vallarta.
San Pancho Life
Thinking of setting down in San Pancho, Mexico for more than a week or two? There are quite a few things that make San Pancho life special, from the wide array of holistic lifestyle services to the town’s commitment to eco-friendly practices.
Healthy Living in San Pancho
San Pancho is an up-and-coming hot spot for travelers and digital nomads interested in living a healthy lifestyle. There are several yoga studios in San Pancho, including Yoga San Pancho, Uitsikoatl Yoga Studio and El Estar Yoga. Most offer drop-in and registered yoga classes, as well as occasional teacher training programs. Body treatments are available at Angelical Spa, and I also saw a weekly drop-in meditation class being advertised on one of the community noticeboards. Keep an eye on these bulletin boards for information about services offered by visiting natural health professionals!
San Pancho Co-Working Spaces
I saw a small co-working space on Avenida Tercer Mundo, but I can’t find any information about it online. Until their web presence is established, your best access to (relatively) high-speed internet with a side of strong coffee is probably at Bistro Organico.
San Pancho Recycling
As a frequent visitor to Mexico, I have often bemoaned the amount of recyclable materials that end up in the trash. I was so impressed to learn that Entreamigos Community Center has implemented a recycling program for plastic, glass and metal, with recycling bins set up all around town. Do you part to keep San Pancho clean by generating less waste and, when you can’t avoid using disposable packaging, making sure that it gets recycled. Future San Pancho will thank you!
In case you missed it, I recommend staying at Hotel Cielo Rojo during your visit to San Pancho.