Getting to Know Mexico's Coast with the Most
While a traveler ready for a beach vacation in Mexico is spoiled for choice, our deal experts find themselves returning again and again to one stretch of coastline that offers amazing beaches, authentic culture, stunning resorts and plenty of photo fodder for that Instagram feed.
Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit are found side-by-side on Mexico's Pacific Coast, an easy flight of less than 4 hours from much of the U.S. (nonstop from 15 airports). If you've missed this spot on previous trips south of the border, it's time to pay attention and start planning for a 2021 getaway. And if you've already been, it never hurts to pick up a few tips for your next trip.
Explore Puerto Vallarta
While the impulse may be to sneak off to your luxury resort and hide away for the length of your stay, you'd miss out on much of what makes this area so unique and memorable. It starts with Puerto Vallarta, a vibrant town that inhabits an enviable location between the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Bahia de Banderas. You're going to want to spend time exploring here.
Get your bearings by looking for the crown atop the neoclassical Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which dominates the downtown skyline, and is close to the central Kiosk area (think of it as the town square). From there, we'd recommend heading in one of two directions. For a workout and an amazing panoramic view, take the steep hike up the hill to the Mirador Cerro de La Cruz and try out the wide-angle lens on your camera.
As you head back toward the bay, you'll end up on the Malecon -- a lively beach walk and popular jogging spot that includes numerous sculptures and art installations, alongside street vendors and shops.
We love spending our evenings in Puerto Vallarta in the aptly named Romantic Zone south of Downtown, where narrow cobblestone streets connect boutiques, restaurants, galleries and cafes. Don't miss the chance to get a taco al pastor (or two) at Pancho's Takos (it's worth the wait) and watch the sunset from Playa los Muertos.
You'll find some of the best resorts in the world in Riviera Nayarit
Located just north of Puerto Vallarta is Riviera Nayarit, a 200-mile string of high-end resorts and beach towns that wind their way up Mexico's Pacific Coast.
The northern coastline of Bahia de Banderas attracts travelers who come here to unpack and unwind across the immaculately manicured luxury resorts of Nuevo Vallarta or Punta Mita. Four AAA 5-Diamond resorts can be found along this 60-mile oceanfront stretch. (As a point of reference, there are only 119 such hotels in the whole world.)
Punta Mita, home to 5-star heavyweight brands like Four Seasons and St. Regis, is a peninsula that forms the far northern edge of the bay. Roughly an hour from the airport, these resorts feel more like intimate hideaways with the requisite glossy magazine cover-worthy infinity pools and private white-sand beaches, perked up with special touches such as butler service and private outdoor rain forest showers (at the St. Regis) or celeb chef dining and sea turtle releases (at Four Seasons).
Nuevo Vallarta is closer to the airport and short taxi ride to Puerto Vallarta. Here you'll find several luxury and upscale resort options lining the beach, including the Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, the rare all-inclusive option to earn top ratings from Forbes Travel Guide (among others). Golfers will find plenty of options in the area -- including the Jack Nicklaus-designed course at the expansive Vidanta Nuevo Vallarta Resort.
High-end resorts hug the quiet beaches and leafy hillsides immediately south of Puerto Vallarta and can be a good option if you're planning to go exploring beyond the resort.
There's much more to 'sea'
While the area's many swimmable beaches will check the watersports box for some travelers, you really should plan on spending a day or two on the water when you visit.
The marina at Nuevo Vallarta is a launching point for one of the most popular excursions in the area -- and soon to be the most popular photo on your Instagram feed -- a boat trip to the Marietas Island and the famed Playa Escondida (hidden beach). To reach the beach, you'll need to book in advance -- reservations are limited to just over 100 visitors per day. But once you swim through the opening to the surreal beach within an island, it'll all be worth it.
Humans aren't the only visitors to this stretch of Mexican coast. The warm waters of Bahia de Banderas and the surrounding ocean draw migrating whales for a winter vacation of feeding, mating and birthing. As a result, whale-watching here reaches its peak between December and March. You can pick up whale-watching tours at the Nuevo Vallarta or Puerto Vallarta marinas -- and don't be afraid of taking a smaller boat tour, which has a lower environmental impact and allows you to get closer to the whales as they breach, sing, roll and blow. Humpback whales are especially curious and are known to float around tour boats for several minutes.
There's a lot more to do both above and below the surface, whether it's surfing the El Anclote break near Punta Mita or scuba diving at El Morro near the Marietas or snorkeling in the waters of the Los Arcos Marine Park near Mismaloya or swimming with whale sharks up near San Blas.
Not all of the fun is by the beach
Once you've had enough of gorgeous sunsets, warm water and fresh seafood, there's much more to explore away from the coastline in the Mexico states of Nayarit and Jalisco.
Canopy River Tours offers zip-lines and ATV tours through the rain forest and Sierra Madre Mountains, just about 20 minutes from Puerto Vallarta. The ATV tour is especially unique, as it includes a stretch across the 1550-foot-long Puente Jorullo, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Your tour finishes with a tequila tasting, for good measure.
While we're on the topic of tequila, Mexican law states that the spirit can only be produced in Jalisco (along with a few other municipalities). You could venture all the way to the town of Tequila -- more than 4 hours away from the airport -- but if you want a quick introduction to the drink and the difference between blanco, reposado and anejo, there are many tasting options in Puerto Vallarta -- including a Tequila Museum.
Some of the best spots here aren't on the map
While some of the aforementioned locales will dominate your time spent in the area, make sure to leave space in your schedule to explore both up and down the coast, where you'll find pristine beaches so empty they might as well be private, sleepy villages where the fish tacos will rival any Michelin-star meal you tried at the resort and rustic towns with authentic Mexican culture. Here are a few of our favorites.
North of Punta Mita, you'll find the boho town of Sayulita, which counts a high number of ex-pats among its residents, thanks to the excellent surfing and unhurried vibe. Ask for whatever the fresh catch of the day is at Don Pedro's and make sure to shop the local crafts and artwork at Révolucion del Sueño.
The imposing walls and cannon of La Contaduría fortress overlook the town of San Blas, about two hours' drive from Puerto Vallarta. Once an important port for colonial trade with several buildings still intact from the 18th century, the big draw now includes touring the mangrove canals of nearby La Tovara National Park, looking for herons, turtles and crocodiles.
South of Puerto Vallarta, some of the best spots can only be reached by panga (water taxi). Pick one up at Boca de Tomatlan and coast right onto the sand in the fishing village of Yelapa. Calling it "undiscovered" is a little cliche, but it is off-the-grid in the truest sense -- no cars, no big chains and few modern conveniences. Just a long beach, fresh seafood, good company and an amazing sunset.