For simplicity’s sake, and tourism, the entire 100-km horseshoe-shaped coastline of Banderas Bay (Bahía de Banderas) is known as Vallarta, although it’s divided almost equally between two states – Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is, and Nayarit, which begins an eight-minute drive north of the international airport in the middle of the Ameca River bridge. Take note that these states are on different time zones and it’s always an hour earlier in Nayarit. Some businesses there, however, have adopted Puerto Vallarta time, so you might want to double check if you’re making any special arrangements.
And coincidentally, the topography changes right around the state border. In Jalisco, jungle-covered mountains tumbling into the sea create all kinds of neat coves and intimate beaches with a South Seas feel, while in Nayarit the mountains are lower, more rolling and further inland, the beaches longer and wider.
The bay itself is Mexico’s largest and one of the world’s deepest, with recorded depths of more than 3,000 feet. Offering superb sport fishing for sailfish, marlin, tuna and other game fish, it’s home to dolphins, manta rays and even quirky little seahorses – and a nursery for humpback whales November through March and Olive Ridley turtles June through December, huge leatherbacks joining them on occasion.
While Puerto Vallarta itself is the bay’s main attraction, the majority of tourists arriving by plane stay in Nuevo Vallarta, just 15 minutes north of the airport. Relatively new, as its name would suggest, this rapidly growing resort and residential development boasts a dozen large hotel complexes on seemingly infinite stretches of wide sandy beach, many of them all-inclusive, luxury villas and tropical gardens lining its canals. Boasting more than a hundred shops and restaurants, the air-conditioned Paradise Plaza Shopping Center is great for walking around and picking up some groceries, souvenirs or an ice-cream cone. Two beautiful golf courses are open to the public, and there’s a yacht club and two marinas – the newest one at Paradise Village boasting 300 slips. A Dolphin Discovery Center and good restaurants are further reasons to check it out, buses stopping at every hotel and tourist site, walking distances between them considerable.
Continuing north you arrive at the bustling Mexican town of Bucerias, which means “the place of the scuba diver,” its renowned golden-sand beach stretching as far as the eye can see and the water shallow a long way out. A resident population of 17,000 includes a surprisingly large number of Canadians who value its kicked-back ambiance, neat little restaurants ranging from upscale eateries to a string of palapa restaurants on the beach offering sublimely fresh seafood, pizza and more, shopping at the colorful open-air market and playing golf among diversions.
A little further north is the still-sleepy fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, slated to become the site of a state-of-the-art marina and boardwalk servicing the many new residential developments on Costa Banderas and a part of a nautical ladder along Mexico’s gorgeous west coast. In the meantime, new restaurants are popping up to enjoy.
At the mouth of the bay is a privileged peninsula called Punta de Mita, its beach, Anclote, a great place to have lunch while watching whales and the boats entering and leaving the bay. And if you want to see these giants up close, or visit the Marieta islands just offshore – surrounded by coral reefs, this is both a natural and government-protected sanctuary for birds and turtles and a great place to snorkel – boats are always departing from here, the ride a lot shorter than if you headed out further south. Punta de Mita is also home to the master-planned, 1,500-acre golf resort and residential development called Punta Mita, anchored by the world’s best hotels, including the Four Seasons and soon La Solana Rosewood. Access to this ultra-luxe development is strictly limited to registered guests.
A new road means you can now head north to the funky fishing village of Sayulita through dense jungle without backtracking to pick up Highway 200, this new loop between “La Cruz,” Punta de Mita and Sayulita enlivening the trip. Here surfing is king, engaged in by folks of all ages and abilities and boards available for rent. This is a neat town for strolling, with a pleasant and shaded main plaza and lots of restaurants and shops.
At low tide you can literally walk along the beach to the smaller village of San Francisco, three kilometers north. Known locally as “San Pancho,” it boasts great waves too, the beaches long, wide and spotlessly clean. And the food here is surprisingly good, with a large variety of restaurants. The main street is a delight, retaining its small-town Mexico feel with just a hint of gentrification, and an eco-tourism resort offers a wide range of adventurous activities, including horseback riding and kayaking.
While technically neither Sayulita nor San Pancho is right on the bay, no local overview would be complete without them.
Now, heading in the opposite direction, south from the airport, you’re in Marina Vallarta in about three minutes. Plaza Marina offers just about everything, even a McDonalds, a sky-high Neptune marking the entrance to the marina itself. Here yachts are anchored at more than 300 slips, fishing charters arranged, and the boardwalk with its shops, galleries, restaurants and bars offers leisurely hours of entertainment. And in the evenings, the El Faro lighthouse-turned-bar provides the area’s best bird’s-eye views. On the beach are half a dozen major hotel resorts, along with several high-rise condominium developments. Surrounded by private homes, with a luxurious Mexican Boutique Hotel right in the middle of it, the Marina Vallarta Golf Course is open to the public. This is where you might get lucky and spot a crocodile, the nearby government-protected El Salado Estuary home to a sizeable population of them.
Next is the Maritime Terminal, where the cruise ships dock and tour boats depart, with up to three ships docked at any one time and Sam’s and Wal-Mart right across the street. A word of advice when taking public transportation: Specify clearly whether it is the Maritime Terminal (Terminal Maritima) or Marina Vallarta you want, since they are two distinctly different places and the walk between them is considerable!
The Hotel Zone is next, so named because a string of four- and five-star hotels line the long, wide stretches of beach here, the Pitillal River flowing to the ocean between the nH Krystal and the Holiday Inn hotels – where big changes are in the works. New residential developments include both private homes and oceanfront high rises, plus a new road, Avenida Rio Amazonas, offers a “short cut” to Avenida Francisco Villa. This area also is where you will find the public sports complex and Puerto Vallarta’s largest indoor mall, Plaza Caracol, now with a multi-screen movie theater.
El Centro, or downtown Puerto Vallarta, is where the action is, the heart and soul of the town. Its focal point is the sculpture-dotted seaside promenade called the Malecon, which hosts all kinds of impromptu and regularly scheduled entertainment and is the place to see and be seen. Don’t miss it! Strolling it takes you past lots of great shops, restaurants, bars and Puerto Vallarta landmarks – like the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Main Plaza beside City Hall, the Los Arcos amphitheater, and the Isla Rio Cuale, the small attraction-filled island in the river book ended by a cultural center and a museum. And just a cobblestone street or two in from the ocean are the municipal flea market, world-class galleries and much more that is well worth seeking out. And should you venture a couple of blocks further inland, perhaps climbing street-linking stairs to do so, you’ll discover intriguing residential neighborhoods El Cerro and Gringo Gulch, the views from their winding, hilly streets spectacular. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton’s former love nest, Casa Kimberley is here, recognizable by a pretty pink bridge.
Emiliano Zapata is a popular area, the new pedestrian bridge linking the Malecon to the Los Muertos Beach promenade making it more accessible than ever. This is the Emiliano Zapata colonia or neighborhood, oft referred to as Olas Altas and the Romantic Zone. Its overall tenor is bohemian and funky, Los Muertos beach long and very active – especially on Sundays, when the locals flock to it. Atmospheric streets stretching between the town’s most popular beach and the mountains are chock full of one fascinating venue after another, including a great many of the town’s best restaurants. Plus this is an area where people actually live, so it has a nice rhythm and energy. The Los Muertos pier is where you catch the pangas that take you to beach towns further south, most of which are accessible only by boat.
Altavista, Amapas and Conchas Chinas are residential neighborhoods spanning Highway 200 Sur and home to a lot of expatriates, the latter particularly upscale with great views. Its long-established lower section is right on the ocean, the upper part climbing the mountainside.
The South Shore evokes thoughts of Italy’s Amalfi Coast and other gorgeous coastal drives one can take in this world, with luxurious homes, condos and hotels both on the beach and literally built right into the mountain lining this prime real estate.
When you see the Los Arcos rock outcroppings you know you’re nearing Mismaloya, which is both a pretty jungle-backed cove – the site for director John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana,” the movie that put Puerto Vallarta on the tourist map back in 1963 – and a village. On the water are a luxurious resort hotel, condominiums and some casual palapa restaurants, the actual town a short drive or 15-minute stroll inland.
Boca de Tomatlan is yet another gorgeous cove, this one quieter and more primitive, with rustic restaurants, a small beach, and the Horcones River emptying into the ocean. Pangas frequently depart from here for beaches further south.
Those southern playas include Las Animas, a gorgeous secluded beach favored by in-the-know locals; Quimixto, which is also a small town; Las Caletas, director Huston’s former hideaway; Majahuitas, home to a rustically luxurious Mexico Boutique Hotel; and Yelapa, the quintessential jungle town with interesting characters.