Banderas Bay is one of the deepest bays in the world. It is the largest natural bay in Mexico, and contains many of the attractions that draw millions of visitors each year. Generally the entire more than 62 miles of sweeping horseshoe shoreline along this lovely bay is referred to as “Vallarta,” which is in the state of Jalisco. However, close to half of the Bahia de Banderas is located in the state of Nyarit, along what is called the Riviera Nayarit. The state line is located few minutes’ drive north of the Puerto Vallarta Airport and its Old Town. The topography of the shore along Banderas Bay changes from the south (where jungle covered mountains tumble right down to the ocean) and the north (where the mountains are set back from the shore and the beaches are wider and longer).
Banderas Bay Map
There are many world-class luxury hotels and resorts on Banderas Bay all along the coast, with the ones farthest south providing a secluded, tropical atmosphere. The heaviest concentration of resorts is found in the Nuevo Vallarta area, beginning around the airport and a bit to the north. Here are seemingly endless stretches of sand, two large marinas and a yacht club, scores of restaurants, and some of the best shopping in the region.
The villages that line the beaches on Banderas Bay were primarily sleepy little fishing and pearl diving villages before the 1960s when tourism really began to take off. Some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving sites in Mexico and Central America are located in this large bay, and you can still dive for pearls on some tours. One of the best dive sites in Banderas Bay is found on the Islas Marietas Islands, just offshore in the northern part of the bay and made famous by the underwater legend Jacques Cousteau.
This is a protected marine reserve that is full of eels, octopus, seahorses, and giant manta rays that can reach 25 feet across. From November through March, it is a prime whale watching spot, as it is a nursery for humpback whales and their calves. From June through December, it is a nesting spot for Olive Ridley sea turtles and occasionally the huge endangered leatherback turtles. Bahia de Banderas is also a prime sport fishing spot, offering sailfish, marlin, tuna, and other game fish. Several of the mainland beaches on Banderas Bay are also sea turtle nesting sites. It is as the hatchlings make their way from their nests in the sand to the ocean that they are at their most vulnerable, and there are some beach restrictions during this period.
Oddly enough, the two states that border Banderas Bay are in different time zones, and Nayarit is an hour earlier than Jalisco. Do check if you plan on visiting a specific business, because some businesses keep Puerto Vallarta time. Mostly, this is to bring more customers to some of the Nayarit restaurants and nightlife where you can continue dining and partying after the rest of Nayarit has closed down for the night.
The far southern part of Bahia de Banderas is less developed because of the mountainous terrain and because a large section of land belongs to the indigenous Indian community. Some areas, such as the jungle town of Yelapa and Las Calesta, are really accessible only by boat. Drives along the coast road here reveal stunning vistas. This area is becoming more and more popular, and you will find both cheap hotels and luxury hotels. The beaches on Banderas Bay in this area are smaller, and occupy pristine spots in small secluded coves and lagoons.