Puerto Vallarta, Mexico’s Ideal Destination – Puerto Vallarta, West Coast of Mexico

Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta, West Coast of Mexico

If you think of Mexican beach resorts and images of Cancun come to mind – then you haven’t been to Puerto Vallarta! PV, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, has been a favourite holiday destinations for Americans since the 60’s. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the film “The Night of the Iguana” are responsible for shining the spotlight on this unsuspecting fishing village transforming a natural wonder to a holiday blockbuster. The reason for PV’s popularity can be found both onshore with its authentic Mexican Downtown and Zona Romantica districts and out in the warm waters of the beautiful Bay of Banderas, home every winter to whales, dolphins and orcas.

Beautiful Views
Beautiful Views
PV is smack in the middle of a 30 mile wide bay – one of the largest in the world – and the original town is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range. At the end of PV’s most popular beach – Los Muertos – the mountains briefly kiss the sea giving the optical illusion that this is in fact the end of the bay. Here, condominium blocks cling almost one on top of the other and their dizzy heights are rewarded with amazing views down across the town and beyond to the northern horizon. It is only when you are out on the water that the southern half of the bay becomes visible and you can spot the isolated coves accessible only by boat.

With PV’s popularity came the development of the Hotel Zone full of rather ugly 1960’s style hotels followed by the fairly recent addition of Vallarta Marina with its expensive yachts and more upmarket hotels. Today the tourist spread has overtaken the coastal airport, located 25 minutes to the north of Downtown PV, to a new area unsurprisingly named Nuevo Vallarta that crosses the border into the northern state of Nayarit. Taxis and the slightly decrepit looking buses are the best way to get around as distances can be deceiving and the pavements lacking in places.

There is nothing Americanised about downtown PV despite the invasion of tourists and cruise ship day-trippers. The old town has had small makeovers like the seaside boardwalk which starts outside the unobtrusive open air theatre, Los Arcos, and stretches northwards along the ocean’s edge. Quirky 20 foot statues appear to have climbed out of the sea and provide much amusement and photographic opportunities. Cobbled streets and high pavements work their way through the town in a friendly grid pattern before opening out at the main plaza. Here, locals and tourists alike congregate every weekend to listen to the brass band playing proudly in the antique bandstand; old timers straight out of the movies sit on benches tapping their feet and watch as the impromptu dance floor quickly fills with waltzing couples.

The beautiful Our Lady of Guadalupe Church with its clock tower – the town’s highest building – sits discretely off-centre and one street back from the main plaza. This is the real heart of PV and you will eventually be enticed away from the sea and the bustle of the plaza towards its entrance doors. The streets that run off from the plaza are full of beautiful silver shops, upmarket souvenirs and art galleries. As you follow the streets south you eventually come to one of two bridges that traverse a small island – Isla Rio Cuale. The island and surrounding river provide a unique and picturesque home to two restaurants and a fleamarket. It is a refreshingly cool place to visit during the day and a romantic setting for dinner in the evening.

There is a real shift in atmosphere as you cross the bridge and enter Zona Romantica. It feels much more residential with its two storey buildings with verandas and balconies. The ground floor shops are brimming with colourful Mexican pottery or have restaurants and bars spilling out onto the pavements. Mixed with small hotels and apartments it doesn’t get much more bohemian than this. If you can imagine a cross between Key West and New York’s SoHo but with a Mexican twist then this is the Zona Romantica. The main streets to discover are Olas Altas and Basilo Badillo where a good selection of restaurants can be found. Like the river all the streets here eventually lead down from the mountains to the ocean and Los Muertos Beach.

The beach is quite narrow at places and packed with sunbathers perched out of reach of the crashing waves perfect for body surfing. There are a couple of small beach-front hotels but the majority of the beach is occupied by bars and restaurants whose deck chairs and sun loungers are set out in rows in the sand creating a beach club atmosphere. You can make yourself at home for free as long as you keep the waiters busy with drink and food orders. Our favourite was La Palapa where the friendly staff worked hard all day bringing cold drinks and delicious snacks and welcomed us back each day like old friends.

Perhaps the only drawback to spending the day by the beach is being inundated by locals dressed in white selling everything from jewellery to sculptures. Then there were the parasailing or jet ski-ing enticers and the food vendors selling mouth watering cups of water melon and pineapple or grilled fish and shrimp on skewers served with a wedge of lime. A polite “no gracias” is enough to see them on their way although the merchandise is exceptionally eye catching and buying on the beach is certainly the sun worshipper’s way to shop.

As the beachfront restaurants set their tables for dinner, it’s time to decide where to enjoy PV’s romantic sunset. You can walk from Los Muertos beach to the main plaza and boardwalk albeit on a mixture of sand, broken concrete and the new pedestrian bridge. The bridge provides a great vantage point to watch the sun’s spectacular decent or alternatively there are many bars to enjoy a sunset cocktail or bucket of beer. It is worthwhile aiming to be on the main boardwalk near the Los Arcos open air theatre when the sky eventually turns black as this is where most of the action is; or grab an armchair in the window of one of the trendy ocean front bars and wait for the Marigalante galleon ship to come into shore. Every evening a spectacular fireworks display is fired from her bow and turns the sky above the promenade into a Disney-like extravaganza. It might be the climax of the ship’s dinner cruise but for those of us on dry land it signals the official start to evening.

One of the hardest decisions is deciding where to eat as there is just so much choice. The majority of the restaurants are along the ocean front downtown and in Zona Romantica. Everything from five star gourmet restaurants to McDonald’s there is something for everyone. The question will be whether you can be bothered to get dressed up for dinner as PV leaves you feeling so laid back. If you have had your fill of Mexican fare there are no shortages of cuisines from all over the world, not to mention fresh seafood. You can choose to eat on board a ship, with your feet in the sand, al fresco on a pavement, balcony, river’s edge or walled garden. The choices are endless.

Fun in PV!
Fun in PV!
I did promise that PV had something for everyone and for those looking for adventure there is a diverse cocktail of activities. The Bay of Bandaras is full of sea life and whale watching trips, snorkelling, diving, fishing and sailing are just some of the activities on offer out on the water. On shore there are golf courses, canopy tours in the tropical semi-desert forests, excursions into the Sierra Madre Mountains to visit Mexican villages or short air excursions to Guadalajara and Tequila. You can go horseback riding or hire a car and explore further round the southern part of the bay. To get some idea of just what there is on offer, check out the website of one of the main sightseeing specialists.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to coming to PV is that you don’t have to stay in a hotel which all adds to that relaxed “at home” atmosphere that is so evident. There is an enormous selection of condominiums and villas either on the mountainside or further south along the coast at Conchas Chinas. Unfortunately, PV’s popularity has meant that the time share operators and promoters of the new hotels in Nuevo Vallarta are here with vengeance. They come cleverly disguised as sightseeing/tour operators giving away free trips in exchange for a half day visit to their properties. The good thing is that they can’t come out and approach you on the street which means it is fairly easy to walk on by without stopping.

Like the whales, it is not surprising that so many visitors chose to come back year after year to enjoy the warmth of the Bay of Banderas. As we packed up our belongings at the end of a glorious day on the beach our waiter, Carlos, came over to bid us adios. He didn’t seem at all surprised when we said we would be back although he did look puzzled that we couldn’t tell him the precise date!

How to get there
British Airways to Dallas and connecting flight with American Airlines

The River Café, Isla Rio Cuale, Tel: (322) 223 07 88
La Palapa, restaurant and beach club, Playa Los Muertos,
Tel: (322) 222 5225
La Terrazza Di Roma, Marina Vallarta, Tel: (322) 221 0560
Daiquiri Dicks, 314 Olas Altas, Tel: (322) 222 0566

Vallarta Adventures

Villa/Condominium rental
Mexico Villa Rentals