Sacred sites and unique art: supporting indigenous Huichol culture in Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 14.01.2021

With 192 miles of pristine Pacific coastline, the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains, sensational surf spots and a range of resort options, it’s no wonder Riviera Nayarit is a top-drawer destination for all kinds of travellers. But beyond resort-life, this region of Mexico offers travellers unforgettable experiences of a cultural kind – activities that support sustainable living and the area’s indigenous communities. Read on to discover more in our latest “Tell Us Your Story” feature.

Huichol womans, Mexico, Riviera Nayarit

Huichol women © Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Indigenous Huichol history and culture

Home to four indigenous peoples – Coras, Tepehuanos, Mexicaneros and Huichols – Riviera Nayarit is a distinctly multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual region. Known in their native language as Wixaricas (Children of the Sun), Huichol communities belong to several initiatives that foster cultural conservation and sustainable growth. They also welcome visitors who are keen to engage with their community and culture.

Richard Zarkin, Public Relations Manager for the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), explains that it’s “likely the Huichol arrival predated that of the Spanish in the 16th century and, according to Spanish writings of the Colonial period, they were one of the very few native cultures in Mexico to remain unconquered by the Europeans.” Today the Huichol retain their traditional lifestyle while making a major contribution to Mexico’s indigenous art and folk traditions, with their unique world-renowned artwork exhibited and sold throughout Riviera Nayarit. Each handmade, one-of-a-kind piece tells an historic or mythological story, often expressing a deep connection to the four elements of nature.

Huichol community members pledge to visit the five sacred places of their faith during their lifetimes, one of which is the Tatei Amara – White Rock. Located in the historic port of San Blas, Richard recommends travellers visit this site with a community member “to gain a deeper understanding of the history and ancestry of the site, as well as how to show respect to the sacred area.”

Huichol culture, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

Huichol cultural artefacts © Eduardo Ferrer/Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Supporting self-sustainability

Since its founding, the Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office has embedded understanding and support of the Huichol People into its ethos and practice. In the words of Marc Murphy, Managing Director of Riviera Nayarit CVB, “Riviera Nayarit is committed to continue supporting and sustaining the Huichol culture as it makes up part of the identity of our region. We promote the sales of their arts and crafts all across the region, as well as globally, and ensure that the design of our new properties reflect the authentic elements that embrace local Huichol culture and the region’s vibrant appeal.

Recognizing that “it is not enough to rely on tourists purchasing their goods whilst on holiday,” the Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office also supports Huichol artisans through, for example, funding their attendance of key international travel fairs like World Travel Market.

In addition, the Huichol Centre for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts was founded by anthropologist Susana Valadez, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, to provide humanitarian aid and run long-term community projects. These include Huichol language and education programmes that foster economic self-sufficiency through the production of native arts, eco-technology education to aid food and water security, and initiatives that teach sustainable agricultural practices. Known locally as the Centro Indígena Huichol, the centre’s artist in residence, Cilau Valadez, runs the beautiful Galerie Tanana in the beachfront town of Sayulita – the perfect place to pick up unique Huichol paintings, beaded sculptures and handmade jewellery, with proceeds going to the centre.

Mexico, Riviera Nayarit, Playa Los Muertos

Playa Los Muertos, Riviera Nayarit © Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Riviera Nayarit’s nature: rainforests, rare birds and mighty whales

Alongside offering travellers plenty of cultural experiences, the region is also rich in natural wonders, not least when it comes to birdlife. The best time to watch birds is during the annual San Blas International Festival of Migratory Birds, which takes place in the last week of January and early February.

The elusive rare tufted jay and endemic large spotted wren might be sighted in the heights of the Sierra Madre, while Marietas Islands National Park is home to blue-footed boobies. La Tovara National Park is a must-visit sight for nature-lovers too – taking a boat trip through the jungle-backed tangles of mangroves or to Camalota Lagoon offers opportunities to see American crocs alongside the avian delights.

Other key bird-watching sites include Tecuitata, Singayta and Isla Isabel, where visitors might also see whale sharks feeding or humpback whales breach the ocean. The wider region is a magnificent hotspot for whales from mid-December to the end of March, when these ocean giants return to the warm waters to feed, mate and give birth, among them humpbacks, orcas, blue whales, sperm whales and California grey whales. Whale-watching tours here are led by experienced guides who use small boats to minimize disturbance. What’s more, most tour companies allocate a portion of proceeds to research and conservation.

Whale watching, Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

Whale watching, Riviera Nayarit © Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Challenges: environmental, cultural and COVID-19

Richard explains that some “communities are having to uproot their lives due to lack of rainwater and thus crops/food, and are having to migrate to the city to take up work with long hours and low wages.” In addition, “there is also an emerging pattern of the younger Huichol generation adapting and welcoming more modern aspects of life, whether it be through dress or employment opportunities.”

Then there’s the COVID-19 situation, with months without tourists resulting in a major reduction in income. However, as Richard points out, “Mexico's Riviera Nayarit is one of the areas least affected by COVID-19 in Mexico and has been welcoming travellers since June, starting with domestic tourism and then international.” Looking ahead, he hopes that “the increased exposure and attention we are aiming to give the Huichol people will provide them with sufficient economic backing for the future, if another event were to cause a halt in tourism.”

San Blas, Mexico, Riviera Nayarit

San Blas, Riviera Nayarit © Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Insider insights

For a chilled afternoon in picturesque surroundings, Richard recommends the friendly surf town of Sayulita. “It has such a charm about it, the cobblestone streets are lined with boho-chic shops and art galleries. I’d amble to La Rustica where I can enjoy a beer and people-watch as they make their way to the beach.”

Come sundown, he suggests “cocktails and ceviche at the bohemian beach bar, Chevycheria. This quirky oceanfront venue has transformed a 1950s Chevrolet 3800 truck into a bar! The vibrant menu includes authentic Latin American recipes that blend tangy citrus with local seafood – it’s a taste sensation!

Painted wall in Sayulita, Mexico

Painted wall in Sayulita, Mexico © Eduardo Alberto Mugica Muro/Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Follow the story

Head here to find out more about visiting the Riviera Nayarit region, and check-out The Rough Guide to Mexico. And, if you’re dreaming of future travel adventures, head here to be inspired by our tailor-made trips.

Top image: Huichol man © Daniel Stoychev Photography/Riviera Nayarit Tourism Office

Joanne Owen

written by
Joanne Owen

updated 14.01.2021

Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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