San Pancho surf is upcoming on the Riviera Nayarit. Just to the north of Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta, it’s certainly one of the most enchanting and authentic Mexican towns to chase the waves.
The surf in San Pancho at a glance
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- Really (like, really!) cool beach town
- Challenging waves for intermediates
- It’s a beautiful beachfront
- Some hard corals and rocks underneath
- Not really a beginner break
- Short rides
This is a part of our greater guide to surfing Mexico.
What will I find in this guide to Playa San Pancho
- An introduction to San Pancho surf
- Where is San Pancho?
- A guide to all the San Pancho surf spots
- Where to stay for surfing in San Pancho
- A guide to the San Pancho surf season
- Surf shops in San Pancho
- Where to eat in San Pancho
- Things to do when you’re not surfing in San Pancho
An introduction to San Pancho surf
We’re almost reluctant to talk about San Pancho. This hidden little spot on the ever-popular Riviera Nayarit has managed to retain a little of the Mexicana charm that other nearby towns haven’t (Sayulita, we’re looking at you). Its cobbled streets and pastel-painted casas are a vision of the real Mexico. You can spend mornings listening to coconut sellers in the street below (coco frios!). There are evenings of sizzling tacos and cold cerveza by the shore. If all that sounds nostalgic, it’s because it is. We can’t wait to return.
San Pancho surf is getting increasingly popular. We’ll be honest – the break itself isn’t all that amazing. Yes, it’s consistent and quite punchy. However, we’d rate it as a mediocre beach break that’s heavy on the closeouts and downright nasty when you get on the wrong side of the reef. However, staying here means you can be within easy striking distance of some of the best Nayarit surfing, from La Lancha surf to Punta Mita and beyond.
In addition, you don’t really come to San Pancho for just the surf. You come to stay in a vibrant little beach town with a long length of stunning golden sand backed by palm trees. Come for the cool Mex-Veggie eateries on the main street. Choose it for the chilled surfer vibes and roastery coffee shops. Seriously, we love this place way more than nearby Sayulita as a spot to bed down. Just be aware that you’ll need to travel to the best breaks in the region.
Where is San Pancho?
San Pancho sits on the iconic Riveira Nayarit. It’s about an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta. You can access it on the main 200 Highway by car. Alternatively, there are regular local buses from PV’s downtown. The nearest airport is the Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport in Puerto Vallarta. That’s about 45 minutes direct transfer to the south.
A guide to the top San Pancho surf spots
San Pancho is fronted by a long and lovely stretch of yellow sand. That’s where all the surfing happens. You’ll find that there are actually plenty of peaks to get stuck into both south and north. However, the locals have identified two that are the most consistent and the most popular: A point on the south end of the bay and a wedge near the river mouth. We take a look at both of those, along with a few nearby options on the line up of Nayarit surf spots.
Playa San Pancho point
Although you can find waves pretty much anywhere along the shoreline, the far south end of Playa San Pancho hosts the main surfing spot. It’s a left-hand point that breaks off the rugged headland that juts out from the fenced-off resort. Expect a five-minute walk from the main street (that’s if you’re quick) to get here. The paddle out is usually nice and easy. With the best conditions, the wave is hollow and glassy and moves nicely from right to left. Unfortunately, it’s only with big summer swells that the spot holds up well. In the winter, it’s more likely to be a closeout that can draw you in like a tumble drier.
Playa San Pancho beach break
The river mouth part of Playa San Pancho is another of the main peaks that’s recognizable on this stretch of shore. It’s not a very forgiving wave. It sucks up quick, has strong rips, and even some big patches of jagged coral underneath – a real hazard at low tide. For intermediates and pros, it’s a fun drop in that’s very fast and can get hollow. On big days, there’s an inevitable closeout and winds can really cause it to mess up. We’d say beginners beware – don’t be temped by the foamy stands on the sand. You’re better off waiting for a surf trip down to La Lancha surf beach.
Surfing around San Pancho
The truth is that most surf travelers will base themselves in San Pancho and drive around the surrounding area to find the best breaks. The cream of the crop are in Sayulita and Punta Mita, both of which are to the south. There’s also little Lo de Marcos a little to the north. Organized surf trips from SP usually go to one of those.
Lo de Marcos
Lo de Marcos is the next break you come to if you follow the Riviera Nayarit surf coast north from San Pancho. It’s an even more chilled fishing town than Pancho itself, actually. Still only afew rows of breeze-block cabanas front the beach. There’s a taco stand here; a coconut seller there. Very nice. Very chilled. Surf wise, look to the southern end of the town’s beach. Conditions are famously unpredictable, but dry season swells tend to offer neat little right handers off the point. Better for beginners than Pancho. Less busy.
Sayulita isn’t hailed as one of the very best surf towns in all of Mexico for nothing, you know! It’s got a mellow beach break that’s cracking for beginners, along with smaller sections of reef that hit the spot for improvers in the intermediate category. It’s a short 15-min drive south of SP and a much livelier surf town overall!
Check out our complete guide to the surf in Sayulita to learn all about it!
We wouldn’t say that you should totally discount San Pancho as a surf destination if you’re a beginner. Instead, come to stay and enjoy the chilled beach vibes, but look to the La Lancha surf for your days on the waves. The spot is about 30 minutes’ drive away. You could do it by car, but we’d recommend an organised surf tour. La Lancha is often their go to place. Why? It has two breaks: One for complete beginners (a light right-hander over sand) and one for improvers (a speedier left-right wedge that’s further out.
Close to La Lancha, Stinky’s sits on the front shores of the Bahia de Banderas down in Punta Mita. It’s a lovely little spot that’s known for its consistency. Good at low tides and can also handle those hefty summer S-SW punches. Bottom is a blend of rock and sand. There are left and rights but it’s predominantly left. Great choice for starters on low days. Also nice for longboards. (Don’t worry about the name – it’s inspired by the local fishing boats, not the pollution).
What we’d take on our San Pancho surf trip…
WEAR (men) XCEL Premium Stretch Short Sleeve Performance Fit Rashguard | Always travel to the tropics with a rash vest. We love the Xcel Stretch range, because, well…it’s stretchy. And it cuts out 98% of damaging UVA/UVB light.
WEAR (women): Billabong Salty Daze Wetsuit Vest | A key piece of kit for longer sessions. The waters here aren’t cold but you want to be in for, what, four hours at a time, right? Also keeps the wax from rubbing your skin. And looks great.
BOARD: Lib Tech Nude Bowl Surfboard | One of the most versatile shortboards we know, the Nude Bowl has extra volume to ease the paddle out, balanced out by a high-performance nose, and a low rail for speed. It’s like the dream versatile board – perfect for long-haul surf trips.
CARRY: Dakine John John Florence Mission Surfboard Bag | Eek! We hate flying with our precious quiver. This JJF board bag has some of the best padding you could hope for.
The best San Pancho hotels
San Pancho is still an upcoming destination on the Riviera Nayarit. That means hotels and B&Bs seem to be opening here all the time. Some of our favourites currently in the mix are…
Habitaciones Samy ($$)
Small byt friendly Habitaciones Samy strikes a great balance between cost and comfort. The rooms are compact but have everything you need for a great surfing trip in San Pancho – plush mattresses, clean bathrooms, seating areas. The location puts you right on the main street, a short walk to the breaks of Playa San Pancho but also between some great cafes and taco stands.
Hotel Ysuri Bambu ($$)
The spacious suites at Hotel Ysuri Bambu are just a short walk from the bars and restaurants of San Pancho, but also within earshot of the waves. Designed with a twist of Mexican art and heritage in mind, they have natural wood features and artistic flurries. Some have balconies, others have access to leafy garden spaces.
PAL.MAR Hotel Tropical ($$-$$$)
Whitewashed walls and bamboo-clad towers welcome you to PAL.MAR Hotel Tropical. They make this boutique B&B lodging really look the part. In the garden out back is a glimmering pool and shaded sitting areas for that post-surf R&R. Rooms and minimalist with a touch of Mexicana charm. Every option has air con and a private bathroom.
Hotel Casa San Pancho ($$-$$$)
This is a nice spot! Tucked away from the action on a side street, it’s a terracotta-coloured villa with a clutch of rooms. Some have breezy terraces where you can sit and take in the street scene below. Others open onto the central courtyard where there’s a lovely 8-shaped pool. You’ll get views of the Sierra Madre from the patio and access to a lovely lounge that’s kept cool and relaxing.
A guide to the San Pancho surfing season
The San Pancho surf season runs roughly in line with the greater Nayarit surfing season. To put it simply – there’s always a swell here. That’s part of the charm. The real question is what sort of wave you’ll find, which all really depends on the swell direction. That does change, bringing different sorts of conditions to different spots in the San Pancho region.
Dry season/winter (November-March)
We’d say this is the best time of all to come surfing in San Pancho. There are lots of reasons. First off, the weather is at its peak. Hot, sunny days are broken by only occasional downpours. But it’s not too humid. You can still kick it on the beach and not sweat like you’ve run a 10k. More importantly, N-NW swells come across the Pacific to crash down on the Nayarit surfing beaches. They curl beautifully into Banderas Bay to create glassy conditions most mornings. Couple that with N-NW offshores near La Lancha and cross-shores in San Pancho itself and you’re looking at some nice times.
Wear: Rash vest/board shorts/2mm wetsuit
Wet season/summer (April-October)
The summer is almost always bigger, less predictable, and wetter than the winter months. Predominantly powered by southerly swells, distant ocean storms, and westerly winds, the beach breaks of Pancho can easily go overhead and more. In Banderas Bay, the pros will be waiting for some serious swell days that can go double or triple overhead even. Waking early is key before the rains come (this is rainy season and afternoons tend to be the worst). Downsides to surfing in summer are a lack of shape to some waves and occasional messy days.
Wear: Rash vest/board shorts/2mm wetsuit
Did you know that surfers are three times more likely to develop melanoma than non surfers? Yikes…
A good block is totally essential!
We’ve got the complete lowdown on the best surfer’s sunscreens on the market right now, focussing on the creme-de-la-creme. AKA: Zinc-infused blocks that are easy to pack and apply.
Surf shops in San Pancho
San Pancho has some seriously good surf shops. You’ll only need to hit the main street of the town, Av. Tercer Mundo. There, clusters of cafés and eateries mingle with all sorts of boutiques and surf outlets. Our pick are:
Pancho made, and pretty cool, Vida is a store that stocks surf wear, surf accessories, and all sorts of other stuff. Drop in to catch homemade tees and singlets that are great for strolling to the beach in. Friendly staff with a smile really make it what it is. Oh, and that short walk to the break from the door!
Nativa Surf Shop
Nativa is probably the most established surf shop/school in San Pancho right now. A swish logo and a great location make it a top pick for all your gear needs. Better yet, it’s locally owned – not a gringo store. It’s also brill for good deals on group lessons down at the popular La Lancha spot.
Where to eat in San Pancho
San Pancho surf swells are guaranteed to rustle up a hefty appetite. Thankfully, you’re in Mexico. That means the food will never disappoint. Here are a few of our favourite picks from this enthralling little corner of the Nayarit coast…
Taquería Los Arbolitos
It. Doesn’t. Get. Better. Than. This. Seriously, we love Taquería Los Arbolitos. Cheap (like $4 gets you a full meal with a beer sorta’ cheap!) and welcoming, it’s a joint that ticks all the boxes for local eats. The tortillas are real corn and freshly made each day. There’s a mix of fillings, from meat to cactus and soya for the veggies. You’ll also get access to an awesome salsa bar with some challenging habanero dips. The setting is lovely, just off the main street beneath a row of painted plane trees. Can’t beat it.
Pizzas and Mexican food in one lovely little garden restaurant – that’s Dolce Jardin. We ate here several times in 2019 and went home happy. Local food is freshly prepared with a heavy focus on BBQ meats, but there’s also veg stuff to boot. The salsa buffet is banging. And the pizzas are probably some of the best the town has to offer.
Cerveceria Artesenal San Pancho
Skip food and head for a post-surf beer at this wonderful Cerveceria Artesenal San Pancho. There’s hardly a better memory than glugging a cold one (a craft cold one, at that) on the cobbled streets behind the beach after a few waves. We did and got treated to live folk music that went on well into the night. Top crowd. Top beers.
Things to do when you’re not surfing in San Pancho
Hike the jungle
There’s a great jungle trail that leads all the way from San Pancho to Sayulita. It takes an hour or so to walk in total, but brings you through some dense pockets of coastal forest. Look out for high palm trees and swinging vines. There are also monkeys about (or so someone told us, but it’s probably just a bird – see comments!), but we could only hear them when we ventured this way in 2019. Halfway between the two towns, the trail emerges onto a gorgeous beachfront that’s hidden by steep cliffs.
Discover remote Playa De Barro
More hiking to the north of San Pancho take you past some of the largest hilltop villas in the area. Beyond those are more jungle trails and the occasional Pacific lookout. Eventually, you can hit Playa De Barro. It’s a truly gorgeous spot. We discovered it at the start of 2019 and found we were the only ones there! Some come for the natural “mud spa” that’s on the south end of the beach. We went to enjoy clear blue sees, watch the birds flying overhead and have some sand space to ourselves.
Just 15 minutes away by taxi, the town of Sayulita is a hubbub of energy compared to chilled SP. It’s probably worth a night or two if you’re the hedonistic type. There are cocktail bars with top deals on margaritas and tequila. There are pumping surf hostels filled with young travelers catching their first waves. Generally, good vibes.
This ultimate guide to San Pancho Surf is always being updated and changed. If you think we’ve missed something or gotten something wrong, we’d sure love you to get in touch. You can use email or just drop a message in the comments below.
This is just one part of our guide to surfing in Mexico!