One Colorful Palette - Exploring Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay-Main

Cobblestone streets imply quaint, small, nostalgic ... a village, right? Maybe, but Puerto Vallarta's no village. The bay itself is the seventh largest in the world, and the area is populated by more than 300,000 people. Even so, the skeptic in you might balk at calling this seemingly compact place a city, as I did when I moved here last spring.

Sixteen months later, I'm still discovering Puerto Vallarta, which to most visitors denotes all of Costa Banderas. Between San Francisco to the north and Yelapa to the south there is enough variety to impress any traveler. From gnarly surfers and polished golfers to dance vixens and fishers, Vallarta has wowed the best of them.

If you're here to relax, Sayulita, one hour north of Puerto Vallarta, is pure gold. No stress, just international surfers, lounging locals and paradise. Don't let Sayulita's youthful verve intimidate you. Surfing can be done by almost anyone who can swim. One instructor there promised my friend she'd be up after just one lesson. She was - and not just because she's young. We met a couple in their early 60s who had just finished a day in the waves. He, a former surfer, had rented a board from a local shop in order to give it another go. As far as we could see, he'd done well: no missing limbs and a smile that said he'd be doing it again tomorrow.

Northeast of Sayulita sits an even smaller village, SAN FRANCISCO, known locally as "San Pancho", which is purported by some surfers to have the best waves on the west coast of Mexico. It is also known for its untamed natural beauty, making it a favorite among naturalists. Mango processing remains the backdrop of this oceanscape, but many Canadians and Americans have made a luxurious home here. Long, clean beaches, horseback riding and a few beachfront restaurants make the area extraordinary for visitors and residents alike.

For some serious pampering, Punta de Mita, the peninsula at the northern tip of the bay, is home to the Four Seasons Golf Club Punta Mita. Sadly, only guests at the resort or those with reservations at one of its restaurants are allowed on the premises. Everything from the spa to the golf course to the beach is exclusive. You want it? You pay for it. And so, if Sayulita is pure gold, the Four Seasons is pure platinum.

If paying less suits you better, try El Anclote, a beach at Punta de Mita frequented mostly by Mexicans and locals. Though it's a secluded beach, it's often packed with groups of leisure seekers. It's a nice spot to have lunch, enjoy some water sports or stroll down the mile of beach where million-dollar homes are being built.

The sleepy fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, "La Cruz" for short, lies between the grand development of Punta de Mita and the simple charm of Bucerias. A perfect place to wander, both the empty streets and the sparse beach leave your imagination to itself. Life here goes at a slower pace, yet the area is beginning to experience further development as foreigners discover its leisurely lifestyle.

Bucerias, a relatively busy Mexican village to the south of La Cruz, bodes well by day or night. Sit under a palapa, take a horseback ride along the beach or just cool off in the ocean. On our last visit to the beach, a local told us to watch for manta rays in the shallow surf. Really?! I love seeing them when I'm diving, but not at all used to feeling the gentle fellas under foot. Suddenly everything from seaweed to driftwood made me flinch. Alas, no mantas that day, but keep your eyes open when you're in the area.

A 15-minute drive south brings you to Nuevo Vallarta, an area with more timeshares than you can fully appreciate in one lifetime. Although many facilities in the area are for guests of the resorts only, Paradise Plaza Shopping Center is open to the public. An upscale mall, it hosts some 90 shops selling ice cream, specialty coffees, clothing, groceries and more. For something greener, you might reserve a golf time. Golf courses at the Mayan Palace, Flamingos and Paradise Village all invite public bookings. If the romantic bug bites you, or you're a bit of a nature nut, a long walk might be your sport of choice. Just the place for it, the beach stretching from Nuevo Vallarta to Bucerías is the longest in the bay.

Marina Vallarta sits on reclaimed land just five minutes south of the airport in Puerto Vallarta. Some 355 boats moor here at various times throughout the year, making it the largest marina in Mexico. On most days, yachts like Tully, the 120-foot dream belonging to the owner of Telmex, capture the wondering eye. In the evening, pan a full view of the city lights while sipping a drink at El Faro, the bar atop the lighthouse at the Marina. On chilly nights, the staff will even provide a blanket to bundle up in.

For a closer look at things, venture out on a 40-minute walk around the Marina Vallarta Golf Club and residential area behind the harbor development. At the hottest points in the day you are sure to see at least one lizard or iguana scurrying across your path. If you're lucky, you might even see a crocodile. Last July I watched a seven-foot-long croc, mouth gaping, sunning itself by a pond on the east side of the Marina Vallarta golf course. Though the Vista and Marina Vallarta Golf Clubs are private, some hotels have agreements allowing their guests to use the courses at a 20% discount. Ask around.

If you've come for fishing, several charter companies can all but guarantee an encounter with Dorado, marlin, sailfish and others. Later that evening, share your stories of the high seas with friends during dinner.

The area from Marina Vallarta south to El Centro is known as the Hotel Zone. This is where the primary concentration of hotels and resorts is located - towering buildings with all the amenities set in a tropical paradise. All the resorts in this area are located on the beach, with the convenience of numerous restaurants, shops, nightclubs and shopping centers all within easy walking distance. Also in this area is the public sports complex, open to all free of charge.

South of the Hotel Zone, EL CENTRO is where a lot of it happens in Puerto Vallarta: dining, shopping, dancing and people-watching. The extrovert in your crowd will probably entice you out to the Malecón each night. Few people tire of this boardwalk along the bay. How can they? Glistening water and brilliant sunsets invariably steal you away and the bronze statues by Colunga, Bustamante, Barquet and the like adorn the Malecón with Mexican creativity and pride.

Stop here and there for a photo while making your way to the arches at the south end. Or show it off while promenading up and down the boardwalk like the Latinos. At Los Arcos amphitheater in front of the arches, live performances entertain people of all ages and taste every Sunday evening. During the May Cultural Festival, the stage becomes particularly vibrant with international song and dance.

In El Centro, small shops and sprawling markets fill the buying experience with challenge and surprise. Don't neglect the back streets behind the Malecón. Juárez, Hidalgo and their cross streets boast countless shops, art galleries and remarkable restaurants. When it's time for a little sightseeing, why not go for something nostalgic? Since the '50s Americans have been residing full- or part-time behind the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in El Centro. The concentration of foreigners in this one area earned it the name "Gringo Gulch" from locals. In 1963, while filming "The Night of the Iguana," Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton brought Hollywood magic to the area when they took up residence here. Today you can tour Taylor's former residence (and lie on her bed!) on a visit to Casa Kimberley.

Isla Río Cuale, the island running between El Centro and the South Side, offers a tasty, serene, or creative diversion from the traffic overhead. On your way east along the island, beyond all the venders, check out the Cultural Center where, throughout the year and particularly during the month of May, international performers bring their best to the stage. Two suspension bridges link the island to the "mainland," and if you've got my karma a few young boys will start shaking it right around the time you reach the middle. No worries, though, they're short bridges.

Playa Los Muertos on the South Side bustles day and night with a diverse mix of travelers and locals, making this part of town truly international. Though it's sometimes referred to as Old Vallarta, the area's high energy screams otherwise. If you're up for an adventure, parasail, jet ski or take a banana boat ride here any time of the day. With a subtle gesture you'll have a boat operator rushing over and getting you into position faster than you can say, "Aaah! What am I doing?"

Eventually you'll need a break from the sun. That's the time to hit Olas Altas street, which runs parallel to the beach. Try one of the countless restaurants in the area, which range from ethnic to Mexican, fusion to traditional. Basilio Badillo, also known as "Restaurant Row," is another important street on the South Side, with its own impressive concentration of restaurants (as its name implies) and numerous shops.

After all these titillating diversions, the opulent houses of Conchas Chinas will focus your vision. The area can be viewed by boat from the water, or toured in person. A casual day of snorkeling at nearby Los Arcos in Mismaloya may be just what you're up for. If so, you can take one of several excellent organized snorkeling tours or try the scenic bus ride from the South Side to Mismaloya for $4.5 pesos and hire a boat, driver and snorkeling gear from there. Angelfish and turtles hang around close to the surface at the arches, while trumpet fish, puffer fish and a variety of moray eels lurk a little further down.

Spend $180 pesos and 40 minutes on one of the water taxis that leave the pier at Playa Los Muertos daily between 10 and 11 am and you'll arrive at Yelapa. Tranquility marks the beach here. On one visit, we lazed at our table and admired three sun-baked children loading bricks into panniers on docile horses. Snorkeling can be planned on any visit like this, but kids doing chores is a quaint discovery. Other relaxing possibilities await you at Playa Las Animas and Quimixto, villages en route to Yelapa. Let the water taxi driver know in advance and you can be dropped at either place for a seafood meal, a day under a palapa with a book or a hike up to the waterfall at Quimixto.

After traveling to more than 20 countries, I've learned to approach each place differently. You can try to pack every day full of activities and probably wipe yourself out, or you can take your time and explore. Banderas Bay needs to be explored. It's full of color and flavor and a wide variety of experiences. With the tropical climate and casual mood here, taking one cobblestone at a time will keep you on the right path to a memorable vacation.