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.
Puerto Vallarta's tropical El Centro (downtown) is bordered by swaths of beach and stretches over the Río Cuale. It includes both the Old Town and the malecón (boardwalk) in a fairly compact and easily walkable area. If you prefer to get oriented via a sightseeing tour, check out Puerto Vallarta Tours ($27); their City and Tropical Tour lasts five hours and covers the yacht-filled Marina, Centro, Old Town shopping, and a visit to Playa Mismaloya, all from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.
Back in town, other methods of transportation include public buses (daily 6am–11pm; 50¢), which go the length of town, to and from the airport, through the Hotel Zone, across the river, and back. Buses are clearly labeled with their destination; the Zona Hoteles line heads to the hotel strip; the Playa Mismaloya bus goes to the beach south of town every 10 to 15 minutes. Taxis are also abundant and normally inexpensive – just be sure to negotiate your price before you get in or you may get ripped off; cabs from downtown to the Hotel Zone and Marina Vallarta should cost around $5; count on $10 from Marina Vallarta to Mismaloya. A word to the wise: Have your dinner plans set before you get in a cab – many cabbies have deals with restaurants and receive commission for the diners they bring in – or you may end up at an unappetizing taco joint.
A perfectly fine day can consist of strolling through Centro and along the boardwalk that fronts the bay. It's hard to miss La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Calle Hidalgo 370; 7.30am–8pm daily) Puerto Vallarta's iconic symbol and most prominent landmark. Visible from almost anywhere in Centro, the bell tower is topped with an ornate filigree crown which, surprisingly, replicates that worn by Carlota, the onetime Empress of Mexico, who allegedly lost her mind after her husband was executed in the late 1860s. Inside, beautiful religious and traditional Mexican art cover the walls; devout church-goers can even attend a bilingual mass, held on Sundays at 10am.
A short walk away is Puerto Vallarta's main square, Plaza de Armas, which is especially popular in the early evening, when locals and tourists descend upon it to enjoy its sunset views and merry scene. Nearby is the much-photographed seahorse statue; a short walk south on the malecón will take you past more fantastical seaside sculptures to the Plaza Aquiles Serdán, where you'll find the tiny Los Arcos amphitheater, with its four famous arches.
Continue walking three blocks south along the river, to the Mercado Municipal Río Cuale (municipal market), where you'll find a hodgepodge of Mexican wares, from traditional frocks and religious triptychs, to hand-painted ceramics, woven belts, and beaded jewelry. More outdoor vendors and markets await mid-river, on the lush Isla Río Cuale, which is accessed by bridge and also home to the quaint Museo Río Cuale (Mon-Sat 10am–3pm & 4–7pm; Sun 10am–2pm; free), showcasing local paintings and pre-Columbian figurines.
For a more romantic outing, pay homage to the couple that started Puerto Vallarta's honeymooning trend by visiting Casa Kimberly (Zaragoza 445; daily 9am–6pm; $8), the onetime abode of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Sold in 1990, the house is now a bed-and-breakfast-cum-museum nestled in a hilltop area known as Gringo Gulch, and full of the couple's belongings, including Taylor's daybed, Burton's altar-like bar, tableware, and other personal curios. You can also admire the arched pink bridge that that connected the casa to the house across the street.
No trip to Puerto Vallarta would be complete without at least one stroll down the famed malecón, the waterfront boardwalk that stretches from the center of town towards the Hotel Zone. Either during the day or after sunset, the lively and often crowded promenade is dotted with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and street artists. Grab a drink, a bite, and people-watch to your heart's content (see our favorite spots to eat and drink, below).
HITTING THE BEACH
Town activities aside, the main reason people come to Puerto Vallarta is to bask on its 26 miles of sandy shorefront. We've covered our favorite beaches here as well as a slew of hidden coves and secluded strands that are only accessible by boat.
The closest beach to town–and the finest back when Puerto Vallarta was still a tiny, isolated village–is Playa de los Muertos. Its name – Beach of the Dead – recalls the numerous battles that once transpired between Indians and pirates along these shores. Although it's a bit rocky, it's nonetheless a fine spot to pass the hours whether lounging on the beach, sipping cocktails, strolling the boardwalk, sampling fresh seafood, or browsing local craft stores. Gentle waves make for nice swimming, but you're unlikely to get any surfing or boogie boarding here, except for occasionally at the southern end. Watersports like jet-skiing ($50 for 30 minutes), water-skiing ($75 for an hour), and parasailing ($25 for a 10-minute ride) are available in front of Hotel Playa Los Arcos and the Tropicana Hotel. At the end of the day, sunset cocktails at the famous waterfront restaurant, Daiquiri Dicks (reviewed below), are a must.
Just south of Playa de los Muertos, Playa Conchas Chinas (Curly Shells Beach) comprises several small sandy coves that stretch for about a mile below rocky, condo-filled hillsides. Gentle waves wash the shores, which make for pleasant swimming, and you can also fish off the rocks or snorkel in the calm pools – just bring your own gear, since rentals aren't available here.
Another popular choice is Playa Mismaloya, six miles south of town, which served as the setting for the film Night of the Iguana and still hosts the restored movie set in a restaurant on its tiny cove. A strand of beachside palapas now fronts the lagoon's edge, while fishing boats sit beached along the shore. Since this stretch of sand is quite small, it tends to get quite crowded, especially as the entrance to the first-class Hotel La Jolla de Mismaloya sits right in the middle. But the water here is clear and calm and has great snorkeling immediately north, at Los Arcos, a federal underwater park and eco-preserve that's considered the best snorkeling site around. For snorkeling tours and info, check out Puerto Vallarta Tours; tours head out twice daily at 9am or 2pm, include lunch and equipment, and cost $32. If you don't want to get wet to see it, glass-bottomed boats pass over with a visit to a fish-filled lagoon along the way.
A quieter option lies just down the road, at Boca de Tomatlán, where a rocky cove anchored by a rustic village is nestled at the mouth of the Río Tomatlán. The shore is dotted with fishing boats and you can choose to cool off in the ocean or in freshwater poolsformed by the meeting of the river and the Pacific Ocean. You'll have to head here (or the pier at Playa de los Muertos) anyway if you're planning to hop on a boat to one of the offshore islands (see below); water taxis take off from the shore here. While waiting for your ship to sail, as it were, you can rent lounge chairs from beachside palapas for a few pesos.
For more peaceful and secluded sun-kissed sand, you can hop on a boat from Playa de los Muertos or Boca de Tomatlán and spend the day at one of PV's four famous far-flung islands: Yelapa, Las Marietas, Quimixto, or Las Animas, some 20 to 60 minutes away by boat.
Of the four, Yelapa is probably the most favored and offers pedestrian-only shores – mules are the main form of transport here – with abundant natural splendor and seclusion. You can easily while away the hours here by snorkeling, parasailing, horseback riding, sampling fresh seafood from beachside palapas, and walking around the tiny village. You can also hike inland, upriver, to a picturesque waterfall. If you can, spend the night at Verana, a luxe hand-built eco-hotel with breezy bungalows and a sumptuous spa – easily our favorite overnight.
Of the remaining three, Quimixto has a South Pacific ambiance and a beautiful cascading waterfall, just a short hike from the rocky beach, that invites visitors to splash around. You also run the chance of seeing local cliff-divers plunging into the pools from on high.
For supreme solace, Las Animas, some 15 miles off the coast, is an uninhabited beach where you and yours can savor some serious peace and quiet while basking on the beach, swimming, snorkeling, and dining on the sand. Feast on delicious snapper, fresh as they come, from a palapa bar and satisfy your sweet tooth with a freshly baked coconut pie. Just don't miss the last boat back to the mainland; there are no places to stay overnight.
Finally, Las Marietas comprise a group of islets with an array of wildlife and isolated beaches; they're a prime spot to watch for turtles, dolphins, and tropical fish. The rocky terrain here also veils lots of hidden caves and coves.
If you'd rather head straight to your isle of choice, water taxis will take you there for approximately $20-25 round-trip from Playa de los Muertos and $4-12 round-trip from Boca de Tomatlán. Make sure you check return times and don't miss the last boat because there are no land routes back to PV from most of these beaches.
Ecotours flourish in Puerto Vallarta, from birding and kayaking, to canopy tours that allow thrill-seekers to act out their inner Tarzan and glide from treetop to treetop via pulleys and cables. Of course, given the seaside location, you can also swim with dolphins and scuba dive. We've listed some of our favorite non-beach activities, below.
A road across from the entrance to Mismaloya Bay winds up the mountainside to the lush rainforest vegetation of the Sierra Cuale Mountains. Here, you can trek through the jungle where Arnold Schwarzenegger's blockbuster Predator was filmed, and reach a turtle preserve where you can watch baby Olive Ridley turtles hatch. Canopy tours (Thur–Tue; 4.5hrs; $75; www.vallarta-adventures.com).< are the best activity going here.
Whale-watching excursions are another exciting way to spend a day (available December 16–March 31; $65+ with breakfast, lunch, open bar, and equipment), as they include visits to secluded islets and isolated beaches; note that Pacific dolphins are spotted in the Bay of Banderas year round, but humongous humpbacks are best seen in winter, when they migrate to these warm, protected waters.
If you'd rather swim with dolphins, book an outing with Dolphin Adventure ($60 for an encounter; $128 to swim with them) to get up close and personal with Flipper and friends in a calm lagoon.
Back on land, you can hop on a steed for a guided horseback ride at Rancho Palma Real, just 40 minutes northeast of Puerto Vallarta (Carretera Vallarta; Tepic 4766; 322/221-0501; 4 hours; $55). Another good nearby ranch is Rancho El Charro (Av. Francisco Villa 895; 322/224-0114; 3 hours; $49), in the mountain foothills.
Puerto Vallarta also has nine golf courses and is gaining kudos for its greens. For bay views with your swing, try the Jack Nicklaus-designed Vista Vallarta Club, venue of the 2002 PGA World Cup, in the foothills of the mountains (from $163 with shared cart). The 18-hole Marina Vallarta Golf Course (322/221-0073; open 7am–dusk) is another good choice; it's open to the public for $121/day and includes shared cart.
Finally, for a traditional sports showcase, bullfights are held at La Paloma bullring, across from the town pier, every Wednesday afternoon from November through April (5pm; $25; ask at your hotel).
The best one-stop agency for jungle, scuba, and whale-watching trips is Vallarta Adventures (888/303-2653 or 322/297-1212), whose four-and-a-half-hour canopy tours depart daily (except Wednesdays) at 8:30am, 10:30am, and 1:30pm, and include non-alcoholic beverages and light snacks for $75. The same outfit also runs scuba outings to the exotic sea life and brilliant coral reefs of the underwater coves of Las Caletas and the sunken eco-reserve of Los Arcos; their 7-hour snorkeling tour of Las Caletas include expert guides, snorkeling and kayaking equipment, buffet lunch, and beverages from about $78/person. Alternately, the biggest scuba outfitter, Chico's Dive Shop (Diaz Ordaz 772; 322/222-1895), is right on the malecón and offers 4-hour dives from about $58/person.
Location is the main determining factor for choice accommodations in Puerto Vallarta. Whether nestled hillside in Centro or along one of the sprawling beaches in Nuevo Vallarta, you can find a broad range of worthy accommodations from budget to luxury, intimate to all-inclusive. We've covered our top choices to suit any budget.
Upscale resorts and lavish boutiques abound but, for unparalleled romance and luxury, you can’t top Hacienda San Angel (Miramar 336, Col. Centro; 322/222-2692), a superlative colonial-style hacienda made up of several villas; one of them, originally purchased by Richard Burton as a gift for his former wife, Susan, offers commanding views of the palatial town, the bay, and the tower of the church steeple. While the beach and Old Town are within walking distance, this heavenly, antique-filled hotel is so exquisite, and dotted with such lush courtyards, pools, and trickling fountains, that you may not want to leave at all. Another top high-end option, nestled beachfront in Nuevo Vallarta, is the award-winning Grand Velas(Av. Cocoteros, 98 Sur; 877/398-2784), a world-class all-suite resort with a posh spa, breathtaking ocean views, and a classy all-inclusive option that will have you feasting on top-notch gourmet cuisine and sipping sexy martinis, instead of noshing at all-day buffets and imbibing watered-down margaritas.
For moderate accommodations, we’d recommend the ideally located Hotel Playa Los Arcos (Olas Altas 380; 322/222-0583 or 800/648 2403) that touts the best year-round value rates. Plopped right in the middle of Playa de los Muertos, but still within walking distance of El Centro and the hopping sidewalk café scene, the curved hotel's recently redecorated rooms are done up in charming Colonial Mexican style and come with terraces or balconies. For an atmospheric villa stay at a reasonable price, we also recommend the Quinta Maria Cortez (Sagitario 132; 888/640-8100), a delightful sanctuary set on a dazzling cove on Playa Conchas Chinas, just south of Mismaloya. The unique villa offers seven charming suites doused in eclectic adornments, antiques, and original art; most also have a kitchenette and balcony. Finally, for more modern tastes, we like the Villa Premiere Hotel & Spa (San Salvador 117, Col. 5 de Diciembre; 877/886-9176), a tony new property that’s perfectly located right on Playa de los Muertos. This fresh hotel offers chic, contemporary digs with an intimate ambience, and a fabulous spa that’s reason alone to stay here; all-inclusive options are available, but guests must be 16 and older so this is not a good choice for families.
A great budget find on the beach is the perennial favorite, Hotel Rosita (Diaz Ordaz 901; 322/223-2000) located at the north end of the malecón and offering spacious, Mexican-tiled and white-stucco rooms overlooking either the palm-shaded patio and pool or the main street. Another great option, just a stroll away from the malécon and Los Muertos Beach, is the Hacienda Hotel & Spa (Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascencio 2699; 322/226-6667 or 888/430-4277), a charming spa oasis set amid tropical gardens – waterfall and all – with fine villas that exude an upscale and homey ambience.
Puerto Vallarta is renowned for its diverse fare, from traditional Mexican to Chinese. Celebrated chefs have settled in, creating innovative and flavorful dishes that have visitors abuzz. During the peak-winter season, most hot spots require a reservation but tables are easily up for grabs in the off months. If you're coming to town to sample its renowned gourmet fare, keep in mind that some restaurants may be closed in September or October.
Our favorite upscale eateries include the bistro-style Café Kaiser Maximilian, just south of the river (Olas Atlas 380-B; 322/223-0760; open Mon-Sat 6-11pm), which offers delectable International favorites at cozy tables inside and along the sidewalk – it's great for people-watching. For a romantic and delicious night, feast at Café des Artistes (740 Guadalupe Sanchez; 322/222-3228; open 6-11.30pm daily), a pricey but worthwhile seafood and French-fare dining experience complete with candle-lit tables, a garden patio, tuxedoed servers, and live piano music. For a Mexican/Mediterranean medley, check out Trío (264 Guerrero; 322/222-2196; open for dinner daily & lunch Mon-Fri in high season) where a quiet meal can be enjoyed at a candle-lit table; the daily changing menu emphasizes fresh fare like pan-roasted sea bass with glazed grapes and you can also opt to have your coffee and dessert at the rooftop bar. For a Thai twist, head to Archie's Wok (Francisco Rodríguez 130; 322/222-0411; 2-11pm Mon-Sat), a popular restaurant founded by John Huston's personal chef (and friend); Archie's wife carries on the cuisine today, with a menu of coconut fish, spicy fried Thai noodles, sautéed veggies and succulent meats. Be sure to reserve in advance.
For more moderately priced meals, we'd recommend the following mid-range restaurants. Beachside daiquiris are a must at Puerto Vallarta's longstanding Daiquiri Dick's (Olas Atlas 314; 322/222-0566; open 9am-5pm and 6pm-10.30 daily; closed September), which boasts a great location on Playa de los Muertos and serves as a prime après-sun cocktails-and-seafood spot; try the sesame-crusted tuna. If it's à la mode you crave, the trendy downtown restaurant and lounge, de Santos (Calle Morelos 771; 322/223-3052; open 5pm-1am daily; bar open to 4am on weekends), is one of PV's hottest nighttime scenes, with a cool and contemporary setting and Mediterranean cuisine, like crispy calamari and delightful thin-crust pizza. Another fine choice on the malecón, Las Palomas (Paseo Díaz Ordaz 610; 322/222-3675; open 8am-11pm daily) cooks up genuine Mexican-style eats in a colonial-style setting; breakfast is your best bet here with an assortment of south-of-the-border morning favorites like traditional huevos rancheros, but lunch and dinner are equally good, with alfresco dining on an upstairs terrace and a sizeable bar that often hosts live marimba music. Then there's newbie El Arrayán (Allende 344; 322/222-7195; open 1-11pm) which has become one of Puerto Vallarta's preferred spots for scrumptious local delicacies in a quaint open-air setting around a cozy courtyard; try the scallop ceviche to start and satisfy your sweet tooth with chocolate flan for desert. For homemade guacamole and other yummy taco-joint eats, like sizzling fajitas and chimichangas, Pipis (Guadalupe Sanchez 807; 322/223-2767; open 1-11pm daily) is the place to go; expect live music, colossal fresh-fruit margaritas, and an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet of traditional Mexican food and unlimited champagne on Sundays.
The best cheap eats around include the tiny hole-in-the-wall El Repollo Rojo (Red Cabbage Café), south of the river (Calle Riviera del Rio 204A; 322/223-0411; open 5–10.30pm); it may be hard to find, but it's well worth the search for its Mexican specialties like roasted chicken in a sweet/spicy mole sauce or covered in cream sauce and stuffed with ground beef and raisins. For an inexpensive breakfast haunt, be sure to head to Rollie's (Av. Revolución; 329/291-3053; open 8am-noon daily; closed May through October), offering yummy omelets, pancakes, and blended fruit drinks, all accompanied by Rollie's famous fried potatoes. Open late (till midnight) and consistently good, is the perpetual favorite, Fajita Republic (Pino Suárez 321; 322/222-3131; open 9am-midnight daily); as its namesake suggests, fajitas are the most-ordered menu item, with a delightful selection of grilled steak, chicken, shrimp, vegetarian, and combo options.
Most of the worthy nightlife in Puerto Vallarta is located along a three-block stretch of Calle Ignacio L. Vallarta, on the south side of the river. You'll find it all, here, from mariachi music and sports bars to salsa clubs and discos. The malecón also hosts a fair share of venues, mainly beachside palapas and casual cocktail joints. Here are some of our favorites from upscale and trendy lounges, rowdy pubs, surfside watering holes, and romantic taverns.
Settle in at the swanky Kit Kat Club on Playa de los Muertos (Pulpito 120; 322/223-0093; open 6pm-2am daily) where the hip set come to lounge on plush animal-print settees and sip martinis while listening to groovy beats. The young and unruly will love the ever-popular Señor Frogs (Ignacio L. Vallarta and Venustiano Carranza; 322/222-5171; open 11am-4am daily) where the 20-something crowd throws back tequila and rocks out to bumping tunes in the huge air-conditioned club. de Santos (also covered in our Where to Eat section) also doubles as a nightclub; after a marvelous Mediterranean dinner, you can either groove to house and techno music courtesy of a state-of-the-art sound system or head to the rooftop terrace to sip cocktails on oversized beds under the moonlight. For authentic Cuban flair, we suggest La Bodeguita del Medio (Paseo Diaz Ordaz at Allende; 322/223-1585; open 11.30am-2am daily), situated right on the malecón; cigar aficionados can also purchase their own Cubans at the bar's tiny shop and survey the bay while relaxing in the upstairs room. Kick up your heels to some serious salsa at the J & B Salsa Club (Av. Francisco Medina Ascencio, km 2.5; 322/224-4616, 10pm–6am Mon–Sat), a local hot spot with a live band on Fridays and Saturdays. For a romantic atmosphere and amazing views, take your sweetie to El Faro Lighthouse Bar (Royal Pacific Yacht club; 322/221-0541; open 5pm-2am daily), a killer jazz cocktail lounge set at the top of the Marina lighthouse; the place has fantastic panoramic views, so try and get there for sunset.
Beach & Waterfront Bars
A beachside tropical setting awaits at La Palapa Restaurant & Lounge, nestled right on Playa de los Muertos (Pulpito 103; 322/222-5225) is a great spot to wind down a day at the beach with a sunset snack and a cerveza. Another great beach spot is Daquiri Dicks (also mentioned in Where to Eat section); head here for lunch and frozen refreshments by day or dinner and drinks with a sunset view. For a night on the water, try Puerto Vallarta's famous Rhythms of the Night cruise (888/303-2653, $78), which sails to John Huston's former home in unspoiled Las Caletas cove where you dine at candle-lit tables and local dancers perform – the entire night is a special treat.
Puerto Vallarta offers plenty of shopping options that will satisfy even the savviest shopaholic. Despite the lack of locally made products, an abundance of fine goods are imported from other spots in Mexico. Puerto Vallarta is also home to a growing artist community and various shops showcase locally made sculptures, paintings, and crafts collected from all over the country. Note that most shops are closed on Sunday.
All the essential south-of-the-border staples like straw hats and bags, beaded jewelry, woven belts, and painted ceramics, are sold at the municipal market stands near the malecón. Be sure to bargain here, and keep in mind that many items will be repeated throughout the market, so if you don't reach your desired price with one vendor, you can always try another.
South of the Cuale, along Olas Atlas and again on Basilio Badillo Street, you'll find several shops that specialize in jewelry and home furnishings; try Safari Accents (Olas Atlas 224) for original, eclectic creations like beautiful candleholders, colorful gilded mirrors, painted icons, and more; Gallardo Eclectic Art (Basilio Badillo 250) for jewelry, handmade carpets, fine art, and clothing; and the attractive Viva (Basilio Badillo 274), for chic accessories, including jewelry from over 450 international designers, espadrilles, and ballet slippers.
Beginning at the river, downtown along Juárez, are several worthwhile craft stores. Head to Galería Vallarta (Juárez 263) for an abundance of Mexican handicrafts collected by the owners, including ceremonial masks and one-of-a-kind artwork and paintings. Continue a little further up to Instituto de Arte Jalisciense (Juárez 284), a small government store offering loads of reasonably priced crafts from Jalisco and Oaxaca. A few blocks farther are two great finds: Querubines (Juárez 501A) and La Reja (Juárez 501B) which have excellent traditional buys like vases, textiles, and papier-mâché adornments.
There are several art galleries scattered around Puerto Vallarta; one of the finest in the area is Galería Uno (Morelos 561; 322/222-0908). It features a wide array of contemporary paintings by Latin American artists and launches new exhibitions every week in high season.
No doubt, a great souvenir is a bottle of Mexico's own tequila. At La Casa del Tequila (Morelos 589; 322/222-2000), you can take your pick from a premium selection – and even sample fine tequila drinks out in their garden patio; an on-site taco bar also serves up yummy tacos with a variety of delicious salsas.
When To Go
Weather is usually always comfortable in Puerto Vallarta with a semi-tropical climate averaging a daily temperature of 75 degrees. Honeymooners and beach bums descend in droves during the winter but the summer months aren’t half bad, as the dramatic spurts of thunderous rain typically dissipate almost as fast as they begin. Temperatures in July through August are about 10-15 degrees warmer than the rest of the year, but cool breezes flowing down from the mountains provide a refreshing reprieve. November through April is the prime tourist season, when the cobblestone streets get clogged and beaches crowded. To get the best bang for your buck, and fewer crowds to boot, we recommend visiting in shoulder season, and particularly October and May. As November rolls around, there’s no shortage of fêtes to kick off the tourist season. Although the events draw hordes of visitors, making these periods a busy and often more expensive time to go, they’re worth the trip to experience some of Mexico’s time-honored traditions and rich culture. A few of the season’s top draws include the annual Sailfish & Marlin International Tournament, Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Festival, and the Fiesta de las Artes, all in November; the most important and widely celebrated religious and social holiday, the Feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe on December 12, when, according to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec Indian outside Mexico City in 1531 (it’s also a special date for Puerto Vallarta in particular since it’s the day the city was founded in 1851); and the International Festival of Tequila, which showcases some 200 kinds of Tequila, as well as international liquors and wines, also in December.
Best bang for your buck:
May & October
A number of US and Mexican airlines fly to Puerto Vallarta from the States; most flights from the East Coast, though, require transfers at Midwestern cities.
Some of our preferred carriers include Alaska Airlines, which flies nonstop from the western U.S., including cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. American Airlines has daily nonstop flights from Dallas/Fort Worth, in high-season only, and five days a week from Chicago O’Hare. You can also fly nonstop from Houston on Continental or America West from the Western U.S. There’s also Frontier that flies nonstop from the Denver hub, USA 3000 that flies direct from Midwestern cities, Delta, Northwest, and Sun Country Airlines. Mexican carriers like Aeromexico fly from multiple US and Mexican cities, including Los Angeles, Guadalajara, La Paz, León, Mexico City, Morelia, and Tijuana. Mexicana offers nonstop flights from Los Angeles, Chicago, Mazatlán, and Mexico City. Flying time from New York is about 6.5 hours; from Los Angeles about 3 hours.
Another option that may save you expenses is to book an air-and-hotel package. Dozens of travel providers offer affordable vacations to Puerto Vallarta; many are all-inclusive and include all meals and drinks to boot. Just be careful when choosing your hotel option; many packages include Hotel Zone hotels, which are located far from Puerto Vallarta’s charming Centro – you may find yourself spending most of your time at your hotel as a result. Here are a few of our favorites: Expedia, Pleasant Holidays, Liberty Travel, Orbitz, Travelocity, SunTrips, and Funjet Vacations.
Getting Into and Around Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta’s airport is only about 6 miles north of downtown so getting to and from the airport is a snap. Taxis and minivans will take you right to your door; fares to Marina Vallarta and the Hotel Zone range from $10-15, rides downtown (Centro) are about $20, and further south to hotels near Mismaloya go for about $30. Airport cabs price their fares by zone; the best way to save some cash on the ride is to hail a yellow city cab across the highway from the airport – use the overpass to get there – you'll pay approximately $6 instead of the airport taxi $20. Local buses, marked Olas Atlas or Centro, will also get you where you want to go for only 40 cents.
Once you’re settled at your hotel and ready to explore, you can hop on one of the city buses (be sure to read the destinations scribbled on the windows to check for your stop) that travel up and down the main thoroughfare (Carretera Aeropuerto). Bus stops are located every two or three blocks along this street and others around town, and are marked by blue-and-white signs. Driving in Puerto Vallarta – especially in peak-season when the roads are jam-packed – can be pretty daunting for the average suburban driver. Car rentals also tend to be expensive (about $40-$50 a day) but if you’re planning to do a lot of exploring of the city’s north and south, it may be the most convenient solution. There are plenty of rentals to choose from: Avis, 322/221-1112; Budget, 322/223-1354; Hertz, 322/221-1413, to name a few.