39 Vallarta Essentials
Published Oct 29, 2007 - (Updated Dec 5, 2012)
Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Fall/Winter 2007 issue.
You cannot visit Paris, no matter how brief a stay, and miss the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, or spend any time in San Francisco without succumbing to the temptation of crossing its majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Each popular world destination has its very own list of must-see/must-do items and Puerto Vallarta is no exception. As Puerto Vallarta’s dot on the map of popular beach destinations increases, so does the variety of things you can explore and enjoy while you are here. Don’t find yourself heading back home without having pursued at least a few of these suggestions! Puerto Vallarta truly has something for everyone.
1. Walk the Malecon
If you plan to do just one thing while you’re here, make sure it’s this. Strolling Vallarta’s popular oceanfront promenade is by far the best way to get a feel for what the town’s all about. And thanks to the new stretch of Malecon beyond the Rio Cuale, you can now walk almost the entire way between Hotel Rosita and the south end of Los Muertos Beach right along the water! If you’re a people-watcher or enjoy feeling part of the action, it just doesn’t get any better.
2. Perfect Beaches
Banderas Bay offers a multitude of beaches with distinct characteristics – all you need are your sun block and bathing suit to find your perfect place in the sun. To experience the local way of life, go on a Sunday and join the colorful Mexican families who flock to the beach to rest and have fun on their day off. Visit www.virtualvallarta.com for the location and detailed descriptions of many of the bay’s beaches, in places such as the following:
- Boca de Tomates
- El Anclote
- Las Ánimas
- Los Muertos
- Nuevo Vallarta
- Playas Gemelas
- Punta de Mita
- San Francisco / San Pancho
3. Dive In!
Banderas Bay delivers perfect scuba diving conditions and a wealth of diving opportunities – so both experienced and beginner divers can encounter giant manta rays, schools of dolphins and an amazing kaleidoscope of tropical marine life. Just south of Puerto Vallarta is Los Arcos, a cluster of granite islands rising out of the deep water, one of Mexico’s most popular marine reserves and a must-see spot for anyone interested in exploring our rich marine life. And for the novice, most day cruises carry snorkeling equipment onboard and provide basic training for you to get your feet wet—pun intended—on this fascinating activity. Click here for more information!
4. Close Encounters of the Bird Kind
A birdwatcher’s paradise, Banderas Bay is home to more than 300 species, several tour operators offering exciting day trips that often combine related activities such as hiking and swimming. According to Alejandro Martinez (www.birdinginmexico.com), seasoned ornithologists find particular delight in spotting these five endemic birds:
- Mexican Woodnymph (Thalurania ridgwayi)
- Long-tailed Hermit (Phaethornis superciliosus)
- Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans)
- Military Macaw (Ara militaris)
- Lilac-crowned Amazon (Amazona finschi)
Banderas Bay and the surrounding waters of the Pacific teem with sea life, providing some of the best sport fishing in the world, including dorado (mahi-mahi), sailfish, wahoo, giant tuna and monster marlin. The fishing fleet welcomes you to the bay and has boats and trips customized to meet nearly everyone’s needs and budget, from small open fishing boats ideal for two people, called “pangas,” to large twin-diesel-powered sport fishers for six people or more. The fishing is so good here that three major international fishing tournaments are slated for 2008, bringing fishermen from all over the world to compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes! Click here for more information!
6. Horseback Riding
What better place to enjoy horseback riding than in Puerto Vallarta, one of the most scenic and weather-friendly locales around? With charreria the national sport of Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta several times the host to the national charro (cowboy) championships, riding opportunities offering various kinds of experiences are multiple. A variety of horseback riding opportunities is listed with most large hotels and travel agencies in Vallarta. Reputable venues are well established, offering bi-lingual, experienced guides; well-cared-for, cooperative horses suited to riding; safe, scenic trails; and liability insurance (just in case).
7. Day Trips
Ready to explore beyond our fair city’s surroundings? These readily accessible day trips will most likely enhance your overall Puerto Vallarta experience:
San Francisco (San Pancho)
A serene retreat, preferred by those looking for a quiet beach day. Read more about it here.
A surfing destination of choice, you’ll love wandering around town, shopping at its many funky shops. Read more about it here.
Many personalities, including Jack Nicholson, Bob Dylan and Hilary Swank, have chosen to retreat at this artsy fishing village. Read more about it here.
This humble Mexican pueblito is about to take off. Read more about it here.
8. Bus to Boca de Tomatlan
If you have an hour or two to spare and you’d like to take in the beautiful vistas of Puerto Vallarta’s South Shore, nothing beats taking a ride on the bus from Puerto Vallarta to Boca de Tomatlan and back – that is, unless you have your own vehicle! The inexpensive, 30-minute bus ride will take you south along the main highway, offering unparalleled views of our rugged coastline, not to mention some of the most spectacular villas on the bay. Once in Boca, choose to get off the bus and explore this quiet fishing village, which also serves as a departure point for southbound water taxis, or simply ride the bus back.
9. Harbor Cruise
Day or night, with so many good boat tours here you’re bound to find exactly what you’re looking for — booze cruise, snorkeling trip, the choice is yours. All provide stunning perspectives of the town and bay, giving you a deeper appreciation of just how beautiful they really are. On evening departures, incredible sunsets are a bonus, Vallarta Adventures’ fabulous Rhythms of the Night tour introducing you to a world of wonderment, while the “Marigalante” takes you on a wild pirate adventure. www.vallarta-adventures.com
10. Ten Essential Spanish Phrases
When your Spanish vocabulary is smaller than the diameter of an average tortilla, having these words and phrases under your belt is sure to win the hearts of any Vallartenses you may encounter:
¿Dónde está ...?
Where is ... ?
Excuse me. (when you’re trying to get through a crowd)
Excuse me. (when you’re trying to get someone’s attention)
Nice to meet you! (when you’re introduced to someone)
Don’t misbehave! (a funny local way to say “take care of yourself” when you say good-bye)
La cuenta, por favor
The check, please
Delicious! (when your waiter/host asks about your meal)
How much is it?
11. Save an Endangered Species
The Olive Ridley turtles nesting here every year between June and November have come to depend on the kindness of strangers for their survival, due to the proliferation of hotels and condos fronting their traditional nesting areas. The good news is, this gives you the opportunity be a hero by releasing these vulnerable two-inch reptiles into the sea. Turtle nurseries are located in Marina Vallarta’s Marriott, Westin and Velas hotels, the Hotel Zone’s Vallarta Torre and Fiesta Americana, and the South Shore’s Dreams and Presidente Intercontinental.
12. Crocodiles Up Close
It’s easy to associate crocodiles with south Florida canals, but did you know these fascinating reptilian creatures, ancient descendants from the time of the dinosaurs, are just as abundant in Puerto Vallarta’s surroundings? Rest assured, the only crocs you are likely to experience while in town are the comfortable multi-colored slip-ons commonly worn here—perfect for handling cobblestones. For the real thing, however, consider El Cora, an eco-friendly crocodilarium located near the Flamingos Golf Course, where four adult specimens are carefully studied in their natural habitat. And while you’re there, enjoy traditional seafood delicacies at La Laguna restaurant, where earnings are used to sustain a successful breeding program—a win-win for all.
13. Watch for Whales
Just like snowbirds, every year in November hundreds of humpback whales return to Banderas Bay, transforming it into their nursery and playground. Little in life beats seeing these magnificent creatures up close. But if you truly care about their survival, be sure to book your whale-watching trip through a responsible tour operator, mid-December through March. Click here for more information!
14. Blood, Sweat and Gears
While Puerto Vallarta may not be commonly thought of as a bicycle-friendly destination, many visitors and locals have taken to off-road cycling as the method of choice to explore our city’s surroundings, as evidenced by the increasing number of cycling tour providers. From leisurely afternoon rides along the upper Cuale River and overnight tours in idyllic San Sebastian to basic camping tours to El Tuito and Yelapa, there are ample opportunities available for all skill levels.
“Leapin’ lizards!” Little Orphan Annie would have exclaimed had Daddy Warbucks brought her and her dog Sandy on vacation to Puerto Vallarta. From small and harmless pink geckos to imposing iguanas, a variety of lizards thrive in Puerto Vallarta’s tropical climate, the latter so firmly entrenched in our culture they even form part of our city’s official emblem. Spend enough time staring at trees surrounding the Ignacio L. Vallarta bridge over the Cuale Island and you’ll undoubtedly spot one of these amazing creatures basking in the sun.
16. Nautical Activities for Everyone
Banderas Bay is a wonderland for anyone interested in boating, and the heart of all boating activities is the Vallarta Yacht Club. Located in Nuevo Vallarta’s Paradise Village, the Vallarta Yacht Club is the first and only member-operated yacht club in Banderas Bay, sponsoring many social and charitable events, including the annual Wine and Art Festival and a very popular junior sailing program. Additionally, the club sponsors several world-class yachting events, such as the J-24 World Championships, the Banderas Bay International Regatta and many more. While there, pick up a copy of “Vallarta Nautica,” our annual guide to all boating-related activities in the area.
17. Botanical Gardens
Soak in fresh mountain air and the scent of myriad flowering plants at this tranquil 25-acre respite half an hour from PV. When not enjoying unbelievably good food, hiking, bird-watching or feet-up relaxation, the Botanical Gardens is the place to learn all about this area’s tropical flora. www.vbgardens.org
18. Canopy Tours
Giving yourself a privileged bird’s-eye view of our lush tropical forest is now as easy as one, two, three, thanks to several spectacular canopy tours that can be pursued in Puerto Vallarta’s surroundings. Exhilarating and educational, this eco-activity—soaring with carefree confidence along several zip lines high above the trees—has taken off in a big way. Imitation the sincerest form of flattery, there are now more than half a dozen such tour operators, yet the original two, Vallarta Adventure’s Canopy Adventure and Canopy Tours de Los Veranos remain head and shoulders above the rest, their guides well trained and bilingual, their Sierra Madre locations unbeatable.
19. Play Golf in Style
Golf in Puerto Vallarta is becoming a way of life on the Mexican Riviera. Picture teeing off in the tropical breezes of Banderas Bay or the Pacific Ocean, courses lined with palm trees and vibrant tropical flowers, personal bilingual caddies and beautiful clubhouses with open-air dining and views of the greens. Think of pro shops equipped with everything you need or want and state-of-the-art courses that offer an optional 19th hole on an island. Condo-side courses, beachside courses, resort courses, private courses, public courses are what make golf in Puerto Vallarta.
El Tigre Club de Golf (322) 297-0773
This course has a number of obstacles that challenge the player to tame it.
Flamingos Golf Club (329) 296-5006
This traditional golf course is considered as one of the friendliest for novices because of its open areas.
Four Seasons Golf Club (329) 291-6000
Four Seasons offers eight charming holes next to the ocean, one of them being on a small rocky island in the Pacific Ocean.
Marina Vallarta Golf Club (322) 221-0545
Teeming with palm trees and lined by water. Located in the Marina Vallarta.
Mayan Palace Golf Club (322) 226-4000
Located in the hotel zone in Nuevo Vallarta, this is one of the most enjoyable golf courses for most players.
Vista Vallarta Club de Golf (322) 290-0040
One of the most spectacular golf courses, it hosted the 2002 EMC World Cup Championship.
20. Discover the Marietas
The Marieta Islands are a string of three small islands and underwater seamounts that form the gateway to Banderas Bay. Declared a federally protected nature reserve to provide a sanctuary for the diverse species of birds, turtles, dolphins, humpback whales, tropical fish and giant manta rays found here, they are a favorite snorkeling and diving location, with a variety of impressive reefs, underwater caves, tunnels and walls. Most ocean tour providers offer excursions to this wonderful ecological marvel.
21. Swim with Dolphins
Symbols of freedom, grace and serenity, dolphins have a universal appeal. Vallarta offers visitors the opportunity to have an exhilarating encounter with bottlenose dolphins in two different settings: swim with free dolphins in the bay and watch them gambol in their natural home or enjoy a one-on-one hands-on dip in a special dolphin pool. Either way, it’s a marvelous event. Better yet, try both!
22. Fiestas and Festivals
Every day is a día de fiesta in Mexico! Here is a list of official Mexican holidays and important local festivals you may want to keep in mind as you plan ahead for your paradise vacation.
23. Mexican Fiesta
Participate in an authentic Mexican fiesta by making a reservation with one of the venues featuring an evening of good food and clean fun suited for most all ages. Offered just about every night by a dozen hotels and venues around town and designed to offer you a cornucopia of food, culture and tradition, Mexican fiestas run for three or four hours in the evening. Buffet items, alcoholic drink options, activities, presentation styles and entertainment vary from one venue to the next. Prices are all-inclusive and range from approximately $520 pesos to $650 pesos, usually with special rates for children.
24. Experience Mariachi Music
Mariachi music is, by far, the most representative and recognizable of all Mexican music styles, its roots all around us in the state of Jalisco, where tequila was also born. Not only does this music exude soulful festivity, it is also a visual feast, thanks to the traditional costumes worn by its performers. It is impossible to experience Mexico without adding mariachi music to your “must do’s,” so here is a list of local places that put on a good show:
Sheraton Buganvilias, Sunday Brunch
Marival, Thursday evenings
Grand Velas, Wednesday evenings
25. Dancing in the Main Square
Sunday evenings, the plaza beside City Hall is the place to be. Right after the Municipal Band entertains 6 - 7 pm, the danzón music begins — a dignified Cuban dance that’s popular in the tropics because it’s nonstrenuous, so folks of all ages can do it.
While we take pride on our spectacular and varied gourmet dining scene, the finest in our country next to Mexico City, most locals would agree that you’d be missing out on a truly authentic experience if you didn’t dine at a cenaduría at least once while visiting
our fair city. Literally meaning “a place to have dinner,” cenadurías are small, affordable eateries where you can enjoy Mexico’s traditional dishes, such as tostadas, enchiladas and pozole, with a true homemade feel. While there are cenadurías all over town, consider two of our favorites that frequently show up in travel guides:
Cenaduría Celia (Lázaro Cárdenas 506, El Centro) and
Cenaduría Raquel (Leona Vicario 131, El Centro).
27. Stroll the Cuale Island
Traverse a swinging bridge, if you dare, to the pretty ribbon-like Cuale Island in the heart of town. Along with good restaurants, an informative little museum and PV’s happening Cultural Center — offering free entertainment on many an evening — you’ll find
iguanas in trees, benches for pausing, and souvenir stalls and shops. Indulgence in the fine art of bargaining is expected! Read more about it here!
28. Walking Tours
Puerto Vallarta is great for strolling around, particularly in Marina Vallarta, El Centro and around Olas Altas. Detailed maps for these and other areas can be found in our free “Vallarta Lifestyles Publishing Map & Mini-Guide,” which is widely distributed throughout Puerto Vallarta. Ask your concierge for a copy and explore.
A must for boating lovers, walking around the Marina boardwalk will give you a glimpse of the impressive variety of vessels docked there, not to mention gourmet restaurants, gift shops and activity providers. Click here for more information!
Malecon and El Centro
While the Malecon is an excellent walk on its own, step into any of the streets that lead to it. Be sure to explore Morelos and Juarez streets, but just about any street near the Malecon is bound to have something for anyone. And if art is your thing, you’ll find most of Puerto Vallarta’s art galleries in this area.
Sometimes mistaken for a neighborhood, Olas Altas St. is teeming with outdoor cafes, restaurants and quaint shops, plus Los Muertos Beach, Vallarta’s most popular, is only one block away, and Basilio Badillo St., where you will also find a good variety of places to explore, is nearby. Ignacio Vallarta, the southbound street into this neighborhood, and Insurgentes, its northbound counterpart, are a must if you want to get a feel for the much smaller city Puerto Vallarta used to be. Read more about it here!
29. Maritime Museum
A recently remodeled building next to Los Arcos Amphitheater is the home of Puerto Vallarta’s new Maritime Museum, where you can learn about Mexico’s maritime history. On display you will find a permanent exhibition distributed among five separate rooms, featuring ancient maps, documents, photographs, navigational instruments and paintings, all describing navigation techniques used by our predecessors. The museum is open every day, except Mondays.
30. Art Walk
One of Vallarta’s most popular perks – free, fun and scheduled weekly throughout the high season – a dozen distinctive downtown art houses host simultaneous art openings in the heart of El Centro, none more than 16 blocks from any other and most congregated within six. On every Art Walk, each participating gallery showcases the latest works of a particular artist or collective. And what’s really nice is that the artists are frequently present and always approachable, so you can easily chat with them about what you’re seeing. Check the map on page 162 for gallery locations.
31. Day of Beauty
Pamper your body at a luxury spa. Just as with the restaurants, you’ll find a healthy selection all over the bay, so take a deep breath, relax, and choose one. And if working out regularly is your thing, don’t let a burrito binge get in the way! Burn your vacation calories at any of the many health clubs.
Spend enough evenings around downtown Puerto Vallarta and you’ll find you no longer need a watch, especially around 9 pm, when the daily Marigalante pirate ship fireworks light up the night sky. Whether you are on board, strolling down the Malecon or enjoying an al fresco dinner high on the Vallarta hills, simply look up and enjoy the fiesta!
33. Vallarta Nightlife
When night takes over Puerto Vallarta, a broad variety of bars and nightclubs come to life, opening their doors to music lovers of all kinds, from romantic music to jazz, salsa and rock and roll, not to mention discos with state-of the- art sound and light equipment, where you can dance to the latest beats. The Malecon is without a doubt the best place to begin your late night gallivanting, for many of our town’s most fashionable clubs and restaurants are located there, bringing together people of all ages and interests.
34. Watch the Papantla Flyers
The magycal ritual of the Papantla Flyers will cast its spell on you the moment you hear the beat of the drum and the sound of a distant flute, indicating the beginning of a dance in which four men throw themselves into the air, flying in circles, to celebrate Mother Earth and the sun. With our spectacular Malecon sunsets as a backdrop, these four men pay tribute to the four natural elements: water, fire, earth and air. Wearing a colorful costume decorated with rainbowhued ribbons, they unwind 13 times around a 30-meter-high pole, their feet attached to it. Originating in Papantla, Veracruz, this ancestral ritual is offered weekend nights at the Malecon, near the Caballito de Mar, or seahorse sculpture. Read more about it here!
35. Malecon Sculpture Tours
Galeria Pacifico owner Gary Thompson’s Tuesday morning Public Sculpture Tours are a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours discovering one of our city’s most cherished treasures. Aside from Gary’s expertise, visitors have also been regularly enjoying the company of two of the sculptors: Mathis Lidice, who created “Millennium,” the sculpture by the Hotel Rosita that serves as a point of departure for the tour, and Ramiz Barquet, who created “La Nostalgia.” Tours begin every Tuesday at 9:30 am, starting at “Millennium,” through April 17. For more information call (322) 221-1982.
36. Sunsets at the Malecon
Sooner or later, a Puerto Vallarta sunset will cast its spell upon you, as it morphs our skies into an endless palette of orange hues. You may find yourself surveying the city from one of several hillside restaurants, or perhaps sitting at the beach with your feet buried in the sand. But only at the Malecon can you enjoy this breathtaking event along with unparalleled people-watching, as Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife awakens night after night. Some choice locations:
- La Bodeguita del Medio
- Las Palomas
- Viejo Vallarta
37. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Travel to any inhabited area in Mexico, no matter how small or far removed, and you are likely to find a church at the center of town. Ours dominates Puerto Vallarta’s skyline in countless postcards, serving as the city’s most recognizable and endearing landmark all over the world. Year after year, it welcomes thousands of Catholics, particularly during an involved 12-day festival known as the Feast of Guadalupe every December. Not only is the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe a must-visit attraction in our city, it is undoubtedly our most precious monument. Read more about it here!
39. Discover our Restaurants
It would be a shame to never leave your all-inclusive resort, no matter how great it is, to find out for yourself why everyone is raving about our restaurants. Easily 25 are gourmet by every definition of the word, which means an evening at any one of them will be a highlight of your trip. Click here for more information!