Pack your sunglasses and slather on the SPF! Bountiful rays are on the menu in the beach paradise known as Puerto Vallarta.
Embraced by the Sierra Madre Mountains and cozied up to Banderas Bay in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, Puerto Vallarta feels very, well, Mexican. With rich cultural traditions evident at every turn and the kind of welcoming atmosphere that makes you feel like you already belong, PV is the real deal that’s also safe and accessible for newcomers. It’s a town of harmonious opposites. Tradition and tourism. Sun worship and renowned nightlife. Relaxation and recreation. Comfort food and culinary innovations. You could zip line through the forest canopy or go whale watching one day and find yourself gallery hopping on an art walk tour the next.
It’s all in Puerto Vallarta and at a price point where you can truly indulge. So, go ahead! Order the guac!
CATCH THE SUNSET
The sun is an all-day attraction here. Locals and visitors alike can be found soaking up the sun on one of the many beaches or while stand up paddle boarding in the gentle, glistening waves until that magic moment when the whole town seems to stop, take a collective breath, and gather to watch the sunset in all its honey-gold and fiery orange glory.
Finding the best spot to catch the sun’s descent is something of a sport. The right beach, the right open air restaurant, the right spot on the Malecon, all at the right time for the best show in town.
The aptly named beachfront restaurant and bar combo, Solar/Barracuda is located along Camarones Beach and boasts refreshing drinks and top notch sunsets. Or experience wow-worthy sundown views at the more upscale, open air La Capella Restaurant located in the downtown area and just steps away from the “Bridge of Love” where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor famously started their love affair during the filming of Night of the Iguana in 1963. As the celeb gossip spread and word got out about this dazzling location, expatriates flocked and it became known, lovingly, as "Gringo Gulch."
The Arcos amphitheater (looks like something out of ancient Rome; is really just something out of Mexico circa very modern times) as well as the Triton and Siren mer-people statues located along the Malecon also serve as photo-friendly sunset-watching venues. If you time it just right, the adept shutterbug can even create the on-camera illusion that Triton is passing the sun to the Siren.
BELIEVE IN MAGIC:
The winding Malecon, or seaside boardwalk, not only provides free and ample seating for the nightly sunset show (see above), musical performances and daring feats based in indigenous tradition (see the Papantla Flyers below) but a little escape into the longstanding Mexican tradition of magical realism.
While you won’t be whisked away into a wormhole (or will you?), anyone biking, running, strolling, or testing out their high heels on the nearly mile-long stretch is instantly transported through the whimsy and fantastical themes of the many sculptures lining it. Most sculptures are donations from local artists. Not local as in they own a second home nearby and pop in once a year but local as in you may walk by them, unassumingly manning their booth at the farmer’s market. Nearly all the installations are interactive and have the well-worn, polished spots to prove it!
“La Rotonda del Mar” or “The Roundabout of the Sea” is a fan favorite and the kind of sculpture you could visit time and time again and still discover something new. Completed by Alejandro Colunga in 1996, the sculpture feels like something out of the world of both Seuss and steampunk, futurism and fairy tale. Cast in bronze, the work features 8 “adults” who appear part creature, part towering throne encircled by 8 small “children” who could almost be mistaken for tiny fire hydrants. Slow down and have a Goldilocks moment as you move from chair to chair; experiencing a new vantage point and taking on each character’s playful identity.
Test your athletic ability (and your fear of heights) with another fantastical installment known as “En Busca de la Razón” or “In Search of Reason.” Some may call them aliens, others may say pillow heads, but according to artist Sergio Bustamante it’s a mother standing at the foot of a ladder while her two daughters ascend the rungs, higher and higher looking for, as the title suggests, reason. Despite some speculation that the mother is scolding her kids to “get down here right this instant” it is widely believed that she is encouraging her children to aspire to greater things. Which is exactly what most visitors do who inevitably take the suggestion and start their climb. Sometimes all the way to the tippy top! Who could resist the photo op and the call of these participatory pieces? But be careful!
Like what you see? Get more of Bustamente’s work at his gallery located just down the street from the famed Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
See those stacks of rocks along the beach? They might be gone tomorrow! Such was the inspiration for artist Jonás Gutiérrez when he created “El Sutil Comepiedras” or “The Subtle Rock Eater” in 2006. What other explanation could there be? High tide? But what fun is that? Instead, this 7 foot bronze statue with a big eggplant-like obsidian belly and oversized clown-like shoes is the culprit; coming out at night to stock up on his diet of neatly arranged stones.
No walk along the Malecon would be complete without a stop and photo opp at the much beloved “El Caballito.” The sculpture, formally entitled “El Niño Sobre el Caballo de Mar” but known simply as “El Caballito” or “The Seahorse,” has a storied past to say the least. It is based on an original statue by artist Rafael Zamarripa who placed the naked, cowboy-hat wearing boy riding a seahorse on a concrete block in the ocean at Las Pilitas.
As you might imagine, a few strong storms took their toll and eventually Zamarripa decided enough was enough and provided PV with a large replica that would live safely on the boardwalk. Today the little seahorse and his unclad companion are flanked by giant letters that spell out “Puerto Vallarta.” These are the creations of artist Carlos Terres who based the colorful designs of landscapes and children on the folk art style depictions of local hero, Manuel Lepe Macedo. You can celebrate Manuel Lepe Macedo day on April 17th each year.
Interested in indigenous art? Look no further than El Malecon boardwalk itself. Right beneath your feet are forty five symbols that represent things like cacti flowers, snakes, humpback whales, and much more.
TAKE A HIKE
With so much beautiful PV to see, why not see it all at once? Puerto Vallarta is rife with vistas and lookout points to catch all the action at once. The trick is getting there! Making your way through parts of Puerto Vallarta can feel a little like triathlon training but the rewards are more than worth the trek. Just plan on proper footwear so you’re ready for those 45-degree-angle, cobblestone streets. Really.
As you snake through the flower-filled, tile-laden staircases of the central region, you’ll reach lookout point number one: Faro de Matamoros. Black and white striped with a metal spiral staircase to boot, the Tim Burton-esque structure was once a beacon used to guide ships to port from 1932 to 1978. Remodeled in 2006, the Faro de Matamoros now offers an enclosed terrace and serves as a prime location for panorama views where the bay seems to stretch on to infinity and the crown-topped terrace of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish appears more regal than ever gleaming in the sunlight.
Oh! And don’t be intimidated by the tiny, hidden pathways. While you may feel like you’re walking through someone’s backyard, treat these like sidewalks to get from point A to point B.
If you’re feeling brave and like you really want to work on those calf muscles, make your way to the Mirador de La Cruz. No shame in stopping to take a breath or two. After climbing a series of seemingly vertical staircases, scenic views are yours to enjoy in the company of a giant, towering cross and a sleek observation deck. A popular choice by day but also by night when the lights of the city dance across the water and twinkle.
Between 9 and 9:30 PM each evening, the Marigalante Pirate Ship hosts a short fireworks display from Banderas Bay. While you’ll likely hear the series of pops and booms from most anywhere, guarantee your unobstructed view atop one of these lookout areas or treat yourself to a front row seat and book a romantic dinner for two at La Capella Restaurant.
HAVE SOME ALONE TIME...ON THE BEACH
Los Muertos Beach in downtown PV is poppin’ round the clock which is definitely exciting! But if you want to spend some time in the surf and sand without much company, hop on a “lancha” and find your little slice of secluded paradise.
Lanchas or water taxis are accessible from a worn wooden dock in the little fishing village of Boca de Tomatlán and take you to where you need to go in just minutes. No more than five minutes west lies Colomitos Beach, a narrow, tranquil cove edged with large rocks. Here you’ll discover warm, turquoise waters, oversized coconuts to drink, and wooded trails to explore just beyond the sand. Note that you are likely to encounter the occasional small party boat but if you’re a fan of the musical stylings of Cher that should be no problem!
From there, hop a lancha to more beaches that have that almost-private feeling including Playa Madagascar and Playa Caballo, the latter offering shaded spots, soft waves, peaceful vibes, and immediate access to Casitas Maraika.
Like some chic version of Swiss Family Robinson, the treehouse-style restaurant and hotel is the perfect respite for nature lovers and those in search of a fruity beverage.
Further along the coast you’ll find Playa Las Ánimas, Quimixto, and Yelapa which are certainly more popular with the range of restaurants and beach sports to prove it, but still feel like you’re getting away from it all. Shocking as it may seem (joke), these are also great spots to catch the sunset!
On your way back to the center of town, be sure to stop by Los Arcos de Mismaloya, a national park composed of two massive islets and their smaller sidekick. Enjoy a quick view and a pic from the road or make a day of it snorkeling and diving to get up close and personal with some colorful fish friends throughout the many caves and tunnels.
When sunbathing on the beach you might just make a new friend! Keep an eye out for iguanas large and small scurrying everywhere and practicing their best camouflage routine while hanging off trees.
GET BACK TO NATURE
Take a quick trip to the south zone of Puerto Vallarta to spend some time in the great outdoors exploring the lush tropical jungle interior and learn more than you ever thought possible about orchids!
The Vallarta Botanical Gardens is a local treasure composed of 64 sprawling acres of trees, cacti, cacao, even carnivorous plants, and yes, the seemingly infinite varieties of orchids.
Not to mention a free range menagerie of birds, insects, reptiles, and even jaguars, ocelots, and pumas. But no need to worry, these large cats only come out at night!
The passion project of Robert and Betty Price, two Americans from Georgia who simply fell in love with PV upon their first visit, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens opened to the public in 2005 with an ever-growing collection of both indigenous and exotic specimens.
Since then, the gardens have maintained their mission of education, conservation, and the appreciation of all nature has to offer.
While you can’t see it all in a single day (some locals make a point to visit the gardens at least once a month), you can try to catch the highlights until you meet again. Go nuts with the bug spray and saunter down to the vanilla plantation area before visiting the Rio Sendero.
Seek some shade on the picturesque Bridge of Dreams, take a peek at the rows of agar-filled beakers through the laboratory observation windows, catch a glimpse of Military MaCaws flying in pairs through the palms, and find a little respite at the Our Lady of the Garden chapel which is home to a small pet cemetery as well as weddings and other events.
If you see a large, yellow plant that almost looks like a claw, you’ve come face to face with the real life logo of the garden that can be found growing throughout the grounds. These are Tillandsia compressa, native to Mexico and South America and a real eye catcher!
SIP AND SAVOR
EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY
Hungry? You’re in the right place! Whether you’re waiting in line at a popular dinner spot, picking up something for a few pesos on the Malecon, or affixing your napkin ever so carefully at a fancier joint, it’s all mouth-watering and true to Mexican fare.
For street eats, a family-run oyster stand set up in the sand close to Los Muertos Pier is a go-to for fresh daily catches at totally affordable prices. Quench your thirst with some “tuba,” a strangely satisfying concoction of coconut juice, apples, and walnuts sold by the cup-full all along the Malecon.
Basilio Badillo Street set in the colorful Romantic Zone is chockablock with reasonably-priced restaurants, high energy, and patrons ready to have a good time. Musicians line the streets (and often visit your outdoor seating area) and the tacos are bountiful. Cafe de Olla, Pancho’s Takos, and El Mole de Jovita are just a few standout venues. Los Muertos Beach is just a block or so over where you can look out at the ocean while you dine. Try La Palapa or El Dorado for seafood that lives up to the hype.
If you’re looking to break out your Sunday best in el centro, Café des Artistes is a glamorous garden oasis that does cost a few bucks. Pipis has some of the smoothest guac in town, prepared right in front of you by a nimble-handed pro while a Mariachi band takes requests ranging from Mexican standards to covers like Justin Beiber’s “Despacito.” Gaby’s sits atop one of those charming tiled staircases; offering balcony views and the kind of grande Margaritas that build up your biceps. ¡Buen provecho!
While many restaurants do take credit cards, some of the wonderful hole-in-the-walls (and some you wouldn’t expect) are cash only! Check in advance and be ready with pesos in your pocket.
Your love affair with Puerto Vallarta begins with a flight straight into PVR and continues to grow with each return trip. Direct flights from cities across North America and beyond don't hurt either! Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, and Newark are just a few of the USA locations flying directly into PVR while Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Calgary represent some non-stop Canadian highlights. As Puerto Vallarta is an extremely popular destination for R&R seekers and families throughout Mexico as well, Tijuana, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, and Monterrey also offer easy breezy passage.
And it’s the kind of place visitors from other states in Mexico, the US, Canada, and beyond keep coming back to over the years. Like visiting an old friend who always has something new and exciting to share.