Mixing Things Up in Puerto Vallarta
There are only a few places in the world that I find myself returning to repeatedly, and Puerto Vallarta is at the top of that list. It’s on a gorgeous stretch of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, right by the Banderas Bay. It’s an easy getaway, with nonstop flights from 18 US cities, most of those under four hours. And while sun, surf and cerveza are the big draws, the region’s cultural, culinary and outdoor offerings are just as spectacular.
I made my first visit 20 years ago and have returned more than a half dozen times since. Even with the rising temps of summer, the sea breeze and brief rainstorms mellow the heat, making any time of year a good time to go. Each time I’ve gone, I uncovered something new, and it’s kept me going back for more.
Read on for my tips on how to make the most of your own Puerto Vallarta vacation—whether you’re visiting for the first time or returning for an annual escape.
For the first-timer
Downtown Puerto Vallarta brims with energy, offering a wide variety of restaurants, nightlife and shopping. Take in the ocean air while strolling the Malecon (a mile-long coastal esplanade), or pretend you’re a local by walking east of the coastline, up cobblestone hillside streets, where every corner is adorned with charming Spanish Talavera street signs. You’ll be treated to some of the best views in the city.
You can park it for the day at Los Muertos Beach, popular with locals and tourists alike for its gentle surf and hillside vistas, reminiscent of the Spanish Riviera, and grab some cerveza at one of the casual beachside restaurants (think plastic chairs that sink into the sand). South of the pier is the Romantic Zone, where windy pathways by the Cuale River host vendors hawking unique crafts and other souvenirs to take home.
With so many incredible beaches and water activities, you’re going to want to explore a bit. A personal favorite is a day trip to Las Caletas, a private beach only accessible by boat through tour companies where you can snorkel, kayak and paddleboard. The whole family will go home tired after an adrenaline-filled day at its kids and teen adventure parks.
Puerto Vallarta also benefits from the jungles of the Sierra Madre Mountains, just south of the city. Here you can hike, bike, ride ATVs, go zip-lining, or cross El Jorullo, the world’s longest suspension bridge. I recommend making arrangements with local tour companies for these activities.
End your night with a casual dinner at La Palapa which combines Asian-French flair with views of the Muertos Pier (it's also an excellent place to catch the sunset.) Another water-side spot worth checking out is Mariscos El Coleguita, which serves freshly caught seafood on the marina.
For the return visitor
A weekend favorite is the Saturday Market Co-Op in the Romantic Zone where local chefs and vendors sell fresh baked goods, organic fruits and vegetables, and crafts. About a mile north, you’ll encounter the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, the iconic church in the center of the city, which is right around the corner from Gringo Gulch, an upscale residential neighborhood where Elizabeth Taylor’s former rental home, Casa Kimberly, is located. Richard Burton once rented a house across the street and commissioned the Lovers Arch that connects the two homes.
If you're feeling adventurous, channel your inner Anthony Bourdain and grab street tacos from one of the many carts that dot the downtown streets. On Lazaro Cardenas Street and throughout the Romanic Zone, you'll find delicious carne asada (steak), pastor (meat cooked on a spit) and birria (goat) tacos for less than $1 each. Wash them down with a freshly-made horchata (rice milk) or jamaica (hibiscus tea). Or stop by the Food Park where vendors have set up in converted shipping containers and food trucks, offering a wide variety of cuisine (including wings, pizza, sushi, but of course there's seafood and tacos too).
Once you venture away from the city, you’ll find beaches perfect for social distancing. At the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Conchas Chinas and Playa Las Gemelas feature a mix of locals and tourists and pristine waters. For some of the best snorkeling in the area, join a tour or take a water taxi to Los Arcos Marine Park, home to a diverse mix of coral fish, blue-footed boobies, pelicans and more.
If you missed it on your previous trip, visit the Vallarta Botanical Gardens, which showcases Mexico’s unique flora and fauna. For the truly adventurous, hire a guide and hike to Palo Maria Waterfall, which involves some climbing over boulders until you’re treated to a refreshing plunge in the springs.
How to go deeper
On the southern side of the bay is Mismaloya, a quiet seaside town where Richard Burton filmed The Night of the Iguana (1964). This and nearby Boca de Tomatlan happen to be launching points for excursions, including to Yelapa, accessible only by boat and where getting around locally involves walking or driving an ATV. I recommend an overnight stay at a local hotel to experience the true unplugged life. If your time is limited, many tour companies also pair a day trip to Yelapa with a snorkeling tour at nearby Majahuitas Cove.
If that’s not off-the-beaten-path enough for you, several towns are within an hour and a half drive of Puerto Vallarta. Trek through the mountains to the well-preserved old mining town of San Sebastian del Oeste where you can grab a meal, sample raicilla (a locally produced spirit similar to mezcal) and tour the Haraveri Botanical Garden, a protected cloud forest. El Tuito, Mascota, Talpa de Allende are also options to soak up Mexico’s colonial past.
Taxis are a friendly, safe and cost-effective way to get around the city. Or if you want to travel the way the locals do, the city buses cost around 50 cents and stop in downtown and along the road south to Mismaloya. But for the most freedom and flexibility (especially if you’re considering a day trip outside the area), car rentals are the best option.
Many organized tours leave from the marina in downtown Puerto Vallarta, so if you’re planning a few excursions and you aren’t an early riser, it might be easiest to stay in the marina or the nearby Hotel Zone. Upscale options include the all-inclusive Now Amber Puerto Vallarta or the boutique Villa Premiere. Personally, I enjoy staying near the jungles of the Sierra Madre and recommend the Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta, Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa or the adults-only Hotel Mousai.
Water taxis run from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and depart from Los Muertos Beach with stops in Playa Las Animas, Quimixto and Yelapa. You can also pick up a water taxi in Boca de Tomatlan to Yelapa.