It has happened almost without notice: Vallarta is emerging as a major destination for music lovers. Over 100 venues offering live music at least once a week circle the bay from Punta Mita through Bucerias and Puerto Vallarta to Yelapa. The best way to get a handle on all that's happening is to look at the significant music districts around the bay and their distinct audiences.

El Centro

In El Centro, the Malecon, considered by many to be the heart of town, bustles with late-night strollers and both live and recorded music pulsating from its 11-block strip of bars and restaurants. You'll find live Cuban, jazz, rock, Latin American ethnic, Mexican ranchero and Mariachi at 10 venues, if you count Azteca, which technically is just off the Malecon behind McDonald's. Occasional street musicians, most notably a group of drummers, also take up positions along the Malecon on weekends.

Major focal points for music for tourists, snowbirds and local residents alike are Los Arcos amphitheater, which usually hosts at least two free music concerts a week during high season and major music festivals in November and May, and the bandstand in the central square, where the municipal band sets its audience of local folks to dancing on Thursdays and Sundays.

Several restaurants in El Centro feature excellent music as well, although the music usually recedes into the background, with food solidly in the limelight. Cafe des Artistes, El Panorama, Los Milagros, Trio and Abadia Basso all offer romantic music, while Pueblo Real sometimes has jazz. The mariachi band at Pipi's Sunday Brunch also is very popular.

Tucked away in El Centro are several musical surprises that usually escape the eye of tourists, but have become popular with residents with non-tourist budgets. Gaby's, two blocks north of the Cathedral, offers reasonably priced Mexican food and music by a rambunctious 14-year-old keyboardist, nephew of the owner. La Revolucion, on Matamoros at Guerrero, has captured a lively crowd of expats (those who have moved here from other countries) for its Wednesday night open mic, where a large variety of musicians drop by to play just for the fun of it. Expat guitarist/vocalist David Lyons performs old standards, also just for the fun of it, early in the evening on most Fridays at Navigante Bar in the Hotel Rio on Morelos near the bridge, while local trouvador Armando takes the stage there every night at 10 p.m.

South Side

This is the part of town where more-seasoned tourists and expats mingle, with the Olas Altas and south Los Muertos Beach areas being particularly popular with gay tourists. Prices here are generally a notch or two lower than in El Centro, while the music is generally less frenetic and loud than along the Malecon, partially due to the fact that it is a more residential area. Musicians also usually pack up no later than 11. The exception to this is the stretch of Ignacio Vallarta between Madero and Carranza streets. For several years now, Club Roxy's rock and R&B band, The Children, has been pulling in a crowd of energetic, fun-loving expats, usually in their early 30s and up. A younger set-a blend of locals, expats and young tourists-with a smattering of older folks turns out for late-night live weekend rock and blues at Expresso Pizza. Just across the corner is Sr. Frogs, part of the Carlos O'Brian's empire, offering live rock and drawing young crowds similar to those at O'Brian's. Right in the middle of this stretch is Mariachi Loco, one of the venues most popular with Vallarta's burgeoning Mexican middle class, which features mariachi and ranchero music.

Music in South Side restaurants tends to be more highly featured than in their El Centro counterparts. The River Café on Isla Rio Cuale has emerged as a major music venue, featuring the highly regarded jazz duo Beverly & Willow this past year, with some special performances by gypsy-like duo Willie & Lobo. Ibiza Restaurant on Pino Suarez features blues, pop-rock and jazz standards by Canadian duo Don & Rhonda. Basilio Badillo street offers nightly Latin marimba at Asederos; a romantic Mexican trio at Chef Roger; and a very popular music night on Fridays at Tapas, featuring owner/vocalist Barbara Fancsik. The nearby Olas Altas district offers Mexican singer/guitarists at La Nuestra Pizza and popular harpist/flautist d'Rachael at Archie's Wok, while music at Felipe's floats over its hilltop vantage point.

Los Muertos Beach offers jazz for the suave at Daiquiri Dick's happy hour; Latin jazz from 8 to 11 p.m. at Cuates & Cuetes for party-types and at La Palapa for the romantic; late-afternoon beach music sometimes at the Beach Club, popular with gay tourist; and cabaret music at mixed-audience venues Santa Barbara, The Palm and Club Garbo and at the more thoroughly gay Paco Paco.

Hotel Zone

This area stretches from Hotel Buenaventura to the port by Sam's Club and is very different from the older parts of town. Some of the hotels have lobby or restaurant bands of note, as well as special Mexican Fiestas to appeal to tourists. More interestingly, this area is the focal point for music aimed at the Mexican audience. Very popular are the tropical dance clubs and show bars-J & B, Jabalu, Mirage and El Rincon del Piruli-that attract the wealthier Mexican clientele, who don't even think about showing up until after midnight. Night owls who discover these clubs, all within walking distance of Blockbuster Video, love them.

Pitillal, spreading inland from the Hotel Zone and home to many of Vallarta's working class, offers an entirely different musical experience. Most remarkable are the events at the fairgrounds on Francisco Villa by the river. Staged once or twice a month and promoted primarily by announcements painted on walls along main streets, these events bring in four to five top Mexican mariachi, ranchero singers, bandas and grupos for a long night of music. Also very popular with locals are Asedero el Orejon and Asedero Los Jardines, which feature mariachi and performances by popular local bands such as Banda Perla Negra and Banda Shanti's. If you want to experience "real" Mexico, this is a great opportunity.

There are also some hide-away venues in or near the Hotel Zone, mostly frequented by locals and younger expats who work in the area. Most notable and highly recommended is Blanco y Negro, home of Jaime Martinez, Vallarta's top troubadour, and late-night jazz jam sessions on Saturdays. El Andariego and Benja's Bar feature Mexican guitarist/singers, while Papa Gordo's Pizzeria & Bar, with weekend music, is emerging as a popular venue for expats who like a more down-home style.

Marina Vallarta & Nuevo Vallarta

Vallarta's two upscale marinas are not renowned as music centers; however, Marina Vallarta does have a number of five-star hotels along the beach and restaurants around the marina that attract the upscale tourist. Here you will find Mexican dinner and bar music of various flavors: mariachi, marimba, romantic trios, folk harp and troubadour. The ambience throughout this area is very quiet, with an exception being El Faro Bar atop the Marina's "lighthouse," where troubadour Gonzalo performs to a usually full bar.

On weekends, Nuevo Vallarta's Paradise Village Plaza offers afternoon music events, usually of a folkloric nature aimed at families. While Neuvo Vallarta's hotel restaurants/bars do have live music and accept diners from outside, the area is so dominated by time-share and all-inclusive clientele that outsiders seldom venture into this enclave.

North Shore

Live music takes on an entirely different flavor in Bucerias, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and Sayulita. These villages are much more laid back and the restaurants and bars are noticeably more casual. You are no longer in the city; you are in a neighborhood. And the music feels much more "friendly". In fact, the area even seems to attract a different kind of musician-more fun loving and less "professional".

Bucerias offers a number of interesting music options, with Pancha's and El Lugar perhaps the leading late-night music centers. People go there for good music and a good time. The more erudite go to Karen's Place for David Ruiz's classical guitar at Sunday brunch and some nights, as well as the gypsy-tinged Gitans' Blonds on Thursdays. Most nights, Expressions offers dinner music by guitarist/singer Tony Marquez. Other restaurants offer music on special days, especially Sundays.

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle has developed a particularly interesting reputation as the primary destination of foreign musicians, many of them from the cruiser community, who like to sit in and make their own music, a lot like the folk cafe scene of the 60s and 70s. Philo's offers open-mic opportunities on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Ana Bananas does the same on Saturdays. Some of these musicians have become so enamored with the area that they call it home during the winter or even year-round in some cases. One group of them comes together during the season in the outrageous band Bubba and the Bottom Feeders, who perform late Sunday afternoons at Ana Bananas. People even drive out from Puerto Vallarta just to have fun with these guys. Fine dining Papasito's also offers dinner music two nights a week.

A far cry from laid-back La Cruz are the gated and guarded resorts on the road to Punta Mita. According to musicians who have played there, Viva Vallarta has the best facilities in the entire area and puts on highly staged music performances. Some of the area's best musicians play at the Four Seasons resort for the elite drawn by its privacy.

Yelapa

While its popularity is slowly changing the place, Yelapa is still hippie land, the most laid-back of all destinations in the area. Music there has an ethereal quality to it, played by musicians with very artistic and New Age auras. The music isn't staged, it just happens.

There are several music stops, ranging from the Hollywood-ish El Set to the funky Prmitivo Bar, on the drive south to Boca de Tomatlan, where one meets the boat to Yelapa. The mariachi experience at Night of the Iguana in Mismaloya is particularly mesmerizing.

This overview certainly doesn't cover the entire music scene in Banderas Bay; it barely even mentions the multitude of musicians roaming the beaches, wandering the streets, strolling through the restaurants and riding the busses. Nor can it even begin to speculate about what's in store for the near future, with the swirling talk about casinos and major convention/performance facilities. What is clear, however, is that the stage is being set for Vallarta to become a renowned center for Mexican and international music.