Santa María del Oro: Trip to a Mythical Lagoon

Alexis Velasco
Jan. 29, 2020

One of Western Mexico’s attributes is its several types of ecosystems; thus, visitors can enjoy multiple natural splendors. On this occasion, we leave the coast and head toward the mountains to visit a lagoon approximately three hours from Puerto Vallarta by car. For a long time, this body of water was surrounded by mystery, as its depth was unknown. In addition, there is a legend attributed to it. Currently, it is one of the main points of interest in the state of Nayarit.

Laguna de Santa María del Oro is located in the municipality that bears the same name, referring to the area’s patron saint and the mining activity during the period of the Viceroyalty, when our country was part of the Spanish colonies. To get to this town, head north on Highway 200, and take the route toward Compostela. Approximately 30 minutes after passing this town’s toll booth is the exit to Tepic, and shortly after that the turn-off that leads to Santa María del Oro. Through the car’s windows, you can appreciate the mountainous and forested landscape characteristic of this area. The temperature also changes, and a milder climate can be perceived. Therefore, it is a suggested escape for any seasonal resident or visitor who wishes to take a break from their beach vacation to explore other areas.

The municipality is a very traditional community, whose nerve center is the main square, adorned by a kiosko. Two blocks away is the Templo del Señor de la Ascensión (Temple of the Lord of the Ascension), a Baroque-style monument dating from 1594. According to historical records, Spanish conquistador Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán came to these lands, attracted by their wealth, and donated this property to the community. Attached to this building is El Curato, a space open to the public that displays sacred art and has a garden. It is an ideal place for contemplation and understanding of the close relationship between religion and the people. Also, visitors can take a few minutes to rest in its tranquility before returning to the car and heading to the lagoon, which is just a little over six miles away.

Imposing Beauty

On one side of the road leading from town to the area’s main attraction is the Mirador Jacarandas, an esplanade ideal for getting a first look at the size of Laguna de Santa María del Oro and the small houses along the shore, as well as taking a picture with the panoramic view as background. As the lagoon is asymmetric, its diameter measures approximately a mile and a quarter at the most distant points and a little over a half mile at the nearest.

Throughout the years, many theories have arisen among the townspeople regarding the emergence and size of this natural wonder. One of them suggests that it is a secondary crater of the Ceboruco volcano, located in the municipality of Jala. This theory probably led to the myth that the lagoon is bottomless; however, a recent study by the Laboratorio de Paleolimnología del Instituto de Geofísica de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Paleolimnology Laboratory of the Institute of Geophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico) determined that the maximum depth is just over 195 feet.

Additionally, there is a myth that this site was born as a result of the forbidden love between Tepozilama, daughter of the king of the city of Michiztlán, and Prince Pintontli, an enemy of the king. When the king learned that the couple was secretly seeing each other, he ordered that they be tied in a tree without being able to touch each other. The tears they both shed formed the lake. Although the story is obviously fictional, its beauty is comparable to that of the landscape.


Laguna de Santa María del Oro holds the Blue Flag certification from the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), an international organization that recognizes beaches and marinas that meet optimal standards in terms of water quality, display of information, security and services. Thus, activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, water skiing, bumper balls and even swimming can be enjoyed with no problem. Hotels located around the lagoon provide the necessary equipment, or you can go to one of the tour operators in the area, such as SAMAO Adventures. This company also offers tours to the waterfalls Cascada de Las Ánimas and Cascada de La Silla, located in the nearby town of El Real de Acuitapilco.

Other experiences available in Santa María del Oro include horseback riding, cycling, hiking, zip-line and rappelling. Most recreational options are available on weekends.

Like most tourist towns in Mexico, the town around the lagoon welcomes visitors with monumental colored letters, in this case the initials SAMAO. Behind this installation, there is an esplanade and a floating dock that provide an impressive view. Under no circumstances should you forget to charge your camera before visiting this point.

Typical Food and Sweets

Around the lagoon you will find several restaurants where you can taste the typical food of the region while you enjoy the beautiful view. Naturally, most of the ingredients come from the lagoon itself and the surrounding villages, as the main activities in the municipality are fishing and agriculture. Probably, the most representative dish is Chicharrón of Fish, made from floured and fried tilapia fillets, a real gem you can accompany with tortillas and homemade chipotle dressing. Other dishes available include Seafood Empanadas, Ceviche and Fish Fillets prepared in assorted ways, as well as shrimp in various presentations: a la Diabla, Aguachile, Breaded and Garlic Mojo.

After savoring these delicacies, you can enjoy typical desserts such as Cocadas, made with shredded coconut, cajeta, milk and honey, as well as the unique Jamoncillos or Dulces de Leche that contain sugar and pecans. Some establishments also offer Capirotada al Horno, a traditional kind of bread pudding made with piloncillo.

The Ideal Retreat

Laguna de Santa María del Oro is a very quiet place, and for that reason it attracts the type of visitor that seeks a relaxed and peaceful stay. Although there are several hotels in the area, one accommodation option stands out due to its facilities, style and services. This is Santa María Resort Boutique Collection, a series of suites and wood cabins facing the lagoon. The complex enjoys a privileged privacy and is surrounded by nature, making it the ideal retreat for families, couples or friends who wish to savor a few days away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Additionally, it has a restaurant, a common area where you can make use of a pool, access to the shore and floating docks. Watching the sunrise or sunset from this location or from the comfort of your cabin, accompanied by a cup of coffee, is a unique experience. Surely, after a few days of rest, you will feel renewed for your return to Puerto Vallarta.

One Last Stop

On your way back to the port, you probably will want to make a stop in the municipality of San Pedro Lagunillas, which has a lagoon of similar size to Laguna de Santa María del Oro. The town is visible from the road and the turn-off is very clear. It is a good opportunity to continue discovering the charming spots and natural beauty of the state of Nayarit. Buen viaje!

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