Next »

Puerto Vallarta Spotlight

Colonial charm, premier beaches, and a celebrity past set PV apart

By Stephanie Johnnidis

November 16th, 2005

With its colorful colonial village, jungle-covered slopes, miles of palm-shaded shores, and idyllic waterfront setting along the turquoise waters of Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), one of the world's deepest bays (and Mexico's largest), Puerto Vallarta (known as PV in shorthand), is not just another Mexican resort town.

Granted, many are initially seduced by its 26 miles of rambling beaches and sandy coves, but most come away with memories of the town's old-world ambiance. Indeed, PV's appeal is undeniable: The city proper, a fabled hillside hamlet, brims with muddled alleyways, red-tiled roofs, and balconies draped in bougainvillea. Miles of golden seafront, dotted with newer towns and resorts, stretch to its north and south, while the local color of an old Mexican fishing village mingles with modern upscale influences. While you may find one too many fast-food joints and beach peddlers selling Mexican novelties made in Taiwan, as you stroll El Centro's winding cobblestone streets, the echo of church bells ringing in the distance and traces of local customs go a long way to make you feel like you're exploring a remote seaside village rather than a popular beach resort.

Its romantic pedigree is renowned, too, thanks to Jon Huston's 1963 film, The Night of the Iguana, which thrust this onetime Mexican fishing village into the spotlight (the movie set in fact still stands on Playa Mismaloya). Richard Burton, the film's leading beau, arrived with Elizabeth Taylor (who was not a cast member), and the two lovebirds (also both married to others at the time) took up shack in a local villa. While celebrity news hounds covered the affair internationally, word also spread about the star-studded destination, and subsequent decades have seen a huge influx of visitors, who come to bask on the beach and explore the scene that romanced two of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Since Dick and Liz abandoned their villa (which can still be visited – now known as Casa Kimberly), the once provincial town has swelled; booming developments have risen along the sprawling coast and the population has reached 350,000. While the newer Marina and Nuevo Vallarta resort areas appeal to vacationing families who tend to prefer an oceanfront location and the convenience of the all-inclusive resort, in our opinion, the best of Puerto Vallarta remains El Centro. Here, you'll find a bit of history, a traditional plaza, an oceanfront walkway filled with local vendors, artists and musicians, and rising above the city like a beacon, the symbolic tower of Our Lady of Guadalupe church. We're also keen on the abundant activities and attractions on offer away from the sand: cultural festivals and exhibits, first-class restaurants, jungle excursions, exciting nightlife, romantic hideaways, archaic mountain villages, and even a few spa and eco-friendly retreats give PV the edge over competing destinations like Cancun and Acapulco.

On a sun-splashed three-day visit, you'll be able to explore the timeless Mexican village and, of course, hit the beach, while a weeklong stay will ensure some serious sun and surf, a jungle adventure, as well as a day trip to the secluded bohemian village of Yelapa and the famous beaches of Punta De Mita, 26 miles north.

Ancient cultures, distant villages, colonial treasures, and unspoiled sands are easily discovered just outside PV's resort area. Two must-do off-the-path trips will get you into the Sierra Madre mountain range, to an indigenous village and a 17th-century mining town, both of which will seem like escapes from the 21st century. Meanwhile, the pristine sands of Punta De Mita, the most renowned stretch of shorefront along Mexico's Pacific Coast, awaits just a short drive north.

One of the world's last remaining indigenous tribes, the remarkable Huichol Indians live just outside (or, rather, above) Puerto Vallarta, in the remote village of San Andres Coamihata, in the Sierra Madre mountains. The intriguing descendants of the Aztecs remain untouched by modernity and maintain centuries-old traditions such as oferendas, handmade prayer offerings to the Gods containing strong mythological depictions. Vallarta Adventures (December–April only; 6hrs; $245) runs half-day tours of this fascinating village on Fridays; prices include a charter flight, services of a tour guide, and beverages throughout.

You can also explore the 17th-century mining town of San Sebastian – one of the oldest settlements in Mexico – also nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains. A scenic 15-minute flight there and back also provides awesome aerial views of the region – cascading waterfalls, misting mountains, bucolic villages, and the like – and gets you there quickly and painlessly (winding roads and perilous brush make flying the preferred means of transport, especially in rainy season). The isolated pueblo had its heyday in the 1700s and has hardly changed since, making it something of a living museum, as its 600 residents retain their traditional way of life, living off corn, cattle, and, more recently, coffee. The serene town has a quaint cobblestone plaza, a 17th-century church, and some old mine ruins that can still be visited – all surrounded by the Sierra's verdant forest. Vallarta Adventures ($145; 5.5hrs) is again your best bet for tours; prices include flight, guide, lunch, and soft drinks.

For a more relaxed outing, head to the magnificent, beach-trimmed Punta De Mita, a 1500-acre peninsula at the northernmost tip of the bay where three bodies of water – the Bay of Banderas, Pacific, and Sea of Cortez – meet. Although it is a hike from Puerto Vallarta's modest sands, the white-sand beaches here are far superior, as are the offshore waters, which are loaded with magnificent coral reefs. Plans are in the works to develop an array of exclusive resorts, luxury complexes, and golf courses here but for now, you'll just have to share the sand with guests from two upscale resorts. Local buses make frequent daily trips to the peninsula, leaving from the Sheraton in the Hotel Zone; the trip takes about 1.5 hours, and the latest bus returns at 9pm.

Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice

Sign up for the Top 25 Newsletter to get exclusive weekly deals