Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Never underestimate the power of a good beach, a spectacular view and a crispy fish taco.
I was reminded of this travel truth during a recent jaunt in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, a sun-kissed coastline of sand and jungle, cocooned in between the Pacific Ocean and the Western Sierra Madre Mountains, some 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta
The venue for this vacation realization? Iberostar Selection Playa Mita, a 451-room, all-inclusive resort, in a gated community, that opened in 2013 – Iberostar’s first property in the region – in lush Punta de Mita.
In January, PAX was invited, exclusively, to get a closer look at this family-friendly resort, which has spacious suites, a sprawling pool (and splash zone for kids), personalized service and French, Teppanyaki, steak and Mexican specialty restaurants that look, taste and feel, well, like real restaurants.
To the casual eye, this hilly, nature-hugged compound – built on a cliff, with its own lagoon – checks a lot of boxes.
It has those essentials that make vacationers coo – starting with a superb beachfront. The breezy shoreline, with brown sugar-like sand and roaring Pacific waves – a natural soundtrack – is the stuff long walks on the beach are made of.
Situated at lower elevation, down from the hotel’s main grounds, the beach invites guests on a relaxing stroll towards a not-so-far mountain (Monkey Mountain) where land, ocean and sky meet.
There are no looky-loos on this idyllic stretch: Iberostar Selection Playa Mita has no intimate neighbours, with exception to an 18-hole golf course and, soon, an adults-only Iberostar Grand, which is in the early stages of construction.
And so, from the resort’s ocean-facing spaces on the “Cora” building’s rooftop – a sunset bar, terrace (for outdoor events) and Star Prestige section (for VIPs) – you’re guaranteed unobstructed views of Nayarit’s wish-you-were-here coastline.
At the right hour, it’s Sunset Central.
Meanwhile, the talk of the resort are these crispy fish tacos served at El Toston, a lunchtime snack bar and grill (where grab-and-go tostadas and ceviche are also dished), next to the beach.
Like a Lay’s potato chip, you can’t just eat one of these Baja-style beauties, folded in shredded cabbage and creamy sauce. Here, fish tacos are consumed by the plateful.
It’s the simple things that make vacations great. But there’s more to this near decade-old resort than sand, sea and taco.
With a commitment to involve Nayarit’s Indigenous roots, and evolve with changing tastes, Iberostar Selection Playa Mita is breaking away from its own brand conventions with experimental (and exciting) ideas.
And it’s changing the way Iberostar operates in Mexico.
The land of the Wixárika
It all started with a giant jaguar head.
When Iberostar Selection Playa Mita opened in 2013, it unveiled a striking sculpture depicting the head of multi-coloured jaguar – an enduring symbol of ancient Mexican civilizations.
Created by artists Francisco Bautista and his daughter Kena, “La Cabeza de Jaguar” (or “The Jaguar's Head”), today, can be found in the main lobby, watching over the hotel’s main check-in desk.
Look closely, and the piece is loaded with symbolism that is sacred to the Wixárika (or Huichol), an Indigenous group – descendants of the Aztecs – inhabiting Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental range in Nayarit, Jalisco and other states.
Capturing the region’s mythical and spiritual side – a legacy that goes back some 15,000 years – this fiberglass feline (which symbolizes strength) is lined with more than three million beads (!) that were glued on by a team of six people who constructed the head in two-and-a-half months.
It’s one of the largest pieces of Wixárika art ever made, with the greatest number of beads, according to the artwork’s description, which hotel guests can access by scanning a QR code at check-in.
Since its debut, this jaguar has informed the conceptual direction of Iberostar Selection Playa Mita, guiding it away from flatness to a place where nature and ancient culture are the protagonists.
Sunset fire & Mariachi bands
Over time, nods to local ancestry have been added. For example: the rooftop sunset bar, once called “Sea Soul,” is now the “Wirikuta” bar, named after a desert of the same name that’s sacred to the Wixárika people.
Here, brightly-coloured pom-poms – locally-woven crafts referred to as the God’s Eye – hang from the bar’s pergola, beaming power and protection.
The resort’s buildings, last November, were also renamed.
Instead of “Building A, B, C, and D,” there’s more dynamic titles like the “Jaguar” building (where golf-view suites, the spa and gym are located) or the “Cora” (the name of another local Indigenous group), where oceanfront suites are found.
There’s also an invitation to immerse in local tradition – special shows, like “Sunset Fire” (an ancient Wixárika ceremony that takes place at the sunset bar, at sunset) and a live Mariachi band are part of the weekly program.
Every two weeks, there’s a Mexican fiesta, and on nights that fall close to a new moon, there’s sunset yoga.
These small-but-big changes, which ramped up in January of 2022, represent a new chapter for Iberostar Selection Playa Mita as it redefines itself in a post-COVID world.
“We’re trying to give the resort its own personality,” said Landry Pineda, head of sales, commenting on the property’s repositioning. “We felt we could do things differently here.”
“We’re in the middle of nature"
Not that there’s anything wrong with sameness. If anything, Spain-based Iberostar owes its success to the consistency it brings to its more than 100 resorts worldwide.
But if there was a property for trying new things, it’s this one. Of the 11 all-inclusive hotels Iberostar operates in Mexico, Iberostar Selection Playa Mita is the only one on the Pacific – in a luxe playground, no less.
Punta de Mita is adjacent to Punta Mita, a gated 1,500-acre resort and real estate community that been known to attract A-Listers, from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga to Tom Cruise.
“We’re in the middle of nature,” as Pineda put it. “It’s a quiet place that you don't find in most touristic areas.”
Ten years ago, Iberostar Selection Playa Mita had the bay mostly to itself, but commercialization eventually led to the opening of more high-profile luxury hotels, intensifying competition (and expectations).
Tastes have also changed coming out of COVID as the market demands more authentic, upgradable options.
The tweaks at Iberostar Selection Playa Mita haven’t been limited to cultural details. There are pilot projects happening at the amenity/service level, too.
For example: on the ground floor of the Sunset building, parts of a balcony wall were removed so select suites could function as walk-outs. Hammocks were also installed.
Over in the Cora building, home to oceanview junior suites, the third level now offers guests their own concierge, balcony hammocks, and 24-hour room service (it’s 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. elsewhere).
There are new off-property adventures, too. Every Wednesday, the resort invites guests on a hiking excursion to Monkey Mountain down the road – shuttle ride included.
It’s exclusive experiences, like this, that people are craving, Pineda explained. Even if it means paying more.
Case in point: two years ago, for New Year’s Eve, the property offered a private party (at an extra cost) that included perks, like a bottle of bubbly, among other things. The first year drew 80 guests. This past year, the crowd grew to 150.
“Guests want to be recognized with something different,” Pineda said.
Unlock Sayulita & San Pancho
It also helps when there are trendy towns nearby to fill out the menu of things to do.
Some 15 minutes down the road from Iberostar Selection Playa Mita is Sayulita, a fishing town where tourism has exploded (possibly because it was a filming location for TV’s Bachelor in Paradise).
Sayulita is all about the stroll – the full-sensory walk down cobblestone roads, beneath colourful street flags, and past rows of art galleries and restaurants, where fresh seafood and Mexican fare is served.
It’s also a surfer’s paradise. Rentable surf boards sit upright, waiting on the beach, and throughout the day, amateur and pro surfers can be seen in the ocean, tearing into waves.
From Sayulita, 15 minutes more down the road, is San Pancho (San Francisco), where the pace is slower.
This beach town is similar to Sayulita, but smaller and less crowded. In a way, it’s a more grown-up version of Sayulita’s party-hard reputation.
The area is also a gateway to Marietas Island Park, a group of uninhabited and protected islands, a few kilometres off the coast, where the famous “love beach,” or "hidden beach” – a sandy spot found within an open crater – is located. (This is a must-do).
Not all Iberostars in Mexico are evolving like Iberostar Selection Playa Mita, but they will soon, Pineda said, noting how some resorts are already implementing changes.
The Punta de Mita property, meanwhile, is encouraging support for the Wixárika community through the sale of handmade pieces.
Which drives the point home: one of my biggest travel pet peeves are resorts that do nothing to incorporate local history and culture.
I’ve been to some properties where guests knew absolutely nothing about the destination they were visiting. Hotels that block the outside world are partially to blame for this trend.
This won’t happen at Iberostar Selection Playa Mita. Here, you know exactly where you are.
Travel advisor need-to-knows
Iberostar Selection Playa Mita is family oriented, but adults/couples may enjoy it, too.
Its multi-level layout offers quiet nooks – enhanced by stone and Indonesian-wood elements – for reading, chit-chat and private dining, away from crowds.
Iberostar “Selection” (compared to regular Iberostars) means bigger suites, no restrictions on specialty dining, a 24-hour coffee shop, more bar options and 12 hours of included room service.
Star Prestige is an upgrade option with perks, like private check-in, upgraded drinks and an oceanview VIP space with loungers, cabanas and jacuzzi access (the staff, here, are amazing).
“Rocktails” is a cocktail tasting experience for adults in the property’s disco where dancers/bartenders pour drinks inspired by pop/rock hits, from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” It costs extra, but the audience participation factor is worth every sip. Great for groups!
The resort is free of single-use plastics, including plastic water bottles. In their rooms, guests receive large glass carafes, which they can fill with purified water from dispensers in the hallways.
Guests flying with Air Canada can also receive special privileges, such as preferred suite views and a complimentary bottle of tequila on arrival. Ask your rep for details.
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