Puerto Vallarta Musts: Trust the Locals
Published Nov 1, 2010 - (Updated Dec 3, 2012)
What makes Puerto Vallarta such an appealing destination for so many people of different ages, nationalities and lifestyles? Undoubtedly it is the broad variety of attractions, activities and amenities available within Banderas Bay. As the area continues to grow, however, keeping a finger on the many different pulses becomes increasingly challenging. So we’ve called upon a handful of trusted locals and asked them to share must-do experiences in their areas of expertise.
Explore Isla Rio Cuale
Although difficult to find, antique photographs of Puerto Vallarta’s Cuale River often show its delta without an island. Indeed, a hundred years ago, it was not there. But thanks to nature’s whim and a bit of human prodding, Isla Rio Cuale today is home to a few restaurants, traditional Mexican art shops and Puerto Vallarta’s Cultural Center, located on the east end.
Visit the Naval History Museum
A visit to this small but important landmark next to Los Arcos on the Malecon will give you a glimpse into Puerto Vallarta’s maritime past. Lieutenant Luis Fernando Lopez Campos runs a tight ship, pun intended, both downstairs, where you will find all the exhibits, and upstairs at their underrated and affordable restaurant, where local Marines take care of business, cooking to waiting tables all part of their training. Free Wi-Fi and air conditioning are a plus.
Check Out the Xiutla Dance Troupe
The more than 200 participants of Puerto Vallarta’s Xiutla Folkloric Dance Troupe have been entertaining locals and visitors for over 15 years, as well as serving as cultural ambassadors for our city in many parts of the world. The group, directed by Enrique Barrios Limon, offers a number of free performances throughout the year at Los Arcos and at Lazaro Cardenas Park in Emiliano Zapata.
Visit a Local Tianguis
A visit to Puerto Vallarta or pretty much anywhere in Mexico, for that matter, would not be complete without a visit to the tianguis, an open air market or bazaar that is held weekly in specific locations. While each one offers a vast array of similar products, from fresh produce to inexpensive clothes and kitchen accessories, some have a distinct personality, such as the one at La Peñita de Jaltemba. Aside from the standard tianguis fare, La Peñita’s market features a large section of crafts from all over Mexico. Local tianguis schedules are listed below.
Tuesdays | Martes • Jarretaderas, Riviera Nayarit
Wednesdays | Miércoles • La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Riviera Nayarit
Thursdays | Jueves • La Peñita de Jaltemba, Riviera Nayarit
Saturdays | Sábado • Puerto Vallarta (along the Libramiento)
Sundays | Domingo • Bucerías & Sayulita, Riviera Nayarit
Discover the South Shore Destinations
It is difficult to envision Puerto Vallarta as it was before it became a major tourist destination. However, taking a boat trip to Las Animas, Quimixto, Caletas and Yelapa—all beach destinations south of Puerto Vallarta only accessible by boat—will give you a good idea of how things were just a few decades ago. Water taxi service (or panga, as we call it) is available at different times of day from Los Muertos beach and Boca de Tomatlan, a small town 30 minutes south of Vallarta, making it easy to spend a day at any of these spots. And while food options and other amenities are palapa basic, Las Animas now features a beach club where you’ll be pampered from head to toe. Finally, to fully unleash the Robinson Crusoe in you, consider spending a night or two in Yelapa, where you’ll find a small beachfront hotel and many palapas available to rent.
Gary Thompson’s Public Sculpture Walking Tour
If you are intrigued by the multiple sculptures installed along our popular Malecon or would like to know more about the local art gallery scene, the free Public Sculpture Walking Tours offered by Gary Thompson are a must. Few people in town are as knowledgeable about the local art scene as Thompson, who founded his own Galeria Pacifico in 1987. Tours start at 9:30 every Tuesday morning at the Millenium Sculpture by the Hotel Rosita, at the north end of the Malecon.
For Nature Lovers
A nature advocate like no other in Puerto Vallarta, Bob Price is the director of the Vallarta Botanical Gardens, recently named one of the top three “Best Puerto Vallarta Attractions” by US News & World Report magazine. Aside from snorkeling at Los Arcos National Marine Sanctuary and humpback whale watching during the winter and early spring months, Price recommends the following:
- El Nogalito, just south of Puerto Vallarta, and trail hike to a beautiful, hidden waterfall.
- Daytrip to the Cajon de Peña reservoir, two hours south of Puerto Vallarta, for great bass fishing and bird watching, particularly if you fancy Mexican Military Macaws.
- The Palms to Pines Scenic Highway drive to El Tuito, a beautiful, historic town one hour south of Puerto Vallarta.
- Mayto beach, in Cabo Corrientes, for sea turtle observation and feasting on fresh oysters at nearby fishing town Tehuamixtle.
- Canopy Tour at Las Juntas y Los Veranos.
- San Sebastian del Oeste, a former mining town that has remained virtually untouched for the past century or so.
- While in San Sebastian, the La Bufa mountaintop, where you’ll find Mexican fir trees growing at 5,000 feet above sea level.
A new mother and thorough researcher, Mexico Boutique Hotels Director Sylvie Laitre is an ideal source for information about Puerto Vallarta choices for families, particularly those with young children. “I was very excited at the prospect of shopping for activities for my own daughter and knowing what’s out there,” she commented, “so I went out and asked my ‘committee’ of Vallarta moms with children of all ages.” Here’s what was highly recommended or, as she puts it, “tried and tried again by these brave souls.”
- Baby sea turtle release by the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, along with a handful of other beachfront hotels and activity providers, offering the opportunity to help preserve the species by returning hatchlings to the ocean during the winter months.
- Puerto Vallarta Zoo in the morning, followed by lunch at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.
- Daytrip to Yelapa with a horseback ride to the waterfalls.
- Whale watching: “My then two-and-a-half-year-old niece went out with her dad and my brother. They saw whales—she still talks about it—and even got into the water with a lifejacket, surrounded by beautiful fish swimming around her.”
- Beachcombing for treasures: “Simple, but very cool!”
- El Tigre Golf Course, offering day passes for their children’s pool, which has mini water slides, and a nearby mini zoo.
- Pacific Paddle’s Paddle Surf Clinics for Kids: “If your child is afraid of the water, this is a great experience to conquer the fear in a comforting way.”
- Spanish Experience Center, offering Spanish classes for kids and parents (separately) so they can play, meet local kids and learn Spanish.
- Paradise Plaza’s Frame Games and Galerias Plaza: “A godsend if it rains!”
- Vallarta Adventure’s Dolphin Encounters and Mini Canopy at Caletas: “Two adventures from one great company.”
Ten Essential Experiences for Foodies
Shared by Maria O’Connor, a 20-year resident of Puerto Vallarta who, in her own words, “simply loves food.”
- Corn in a Cup: Available on the Malecón, freshly cut from the cob, with any mixture of chili powder, lime, cheese, mayonnaise and cream.
- Fish (or Shrimp) on a Stick: Very popular on Los Muertos Beach. Squeeze some lime and just add salsa—no plates needed. Hint: Grab the “fish on a stick” guy just as he is leaving home base (the grill) with fresh sticks!
- Late-night Tacos: “Not sure why, but somehow tacos just taste better after midnight and after a few cocktails!” Some favorites include Pepe’s Tacos on Honduras St., across from the gas station in El Centro, and El Carboncito, just down the street toward the ocean.
- El Tacón de Marlin (across from the airport): Not only is this institution the place to enjoy fish tacos, this particular location is a favorite among pilots and flight attendants flying in and out of Puerto Vallarta. “A pilot friend from Aeromexico was under strict orders to supply the Mexico City airport crew with burritos or else they would not let him land!” Other locations in town include one right next to Pepe’s Tacos.
- Tejuino: A tart but sweet (and very refreshing) traditional Huichol beverage made with corn and sugar cane. “The best I have found is a man who sells from his cart right next to (you guessed it) the gas station downtown!”
- Grilled Whole Red Snapper: “Fish cooked like this has an indescribable flavor and is the traditional way to enjoy it.” Look for it at beachside restaurants.
- El Orejón: Meaning “big ears,” El Orejon is an asadero restaurant in El Pitillal. Asaderos are open-air restaurants that specialize in grilled beef, lamb, goat, pig—really just about anything that can be grilled. Most asaderos are open for lunch and close down as the sun sets. “Be sure to brush up on your favorite Mexican song lyrics. After some tequila and cerveza, you’ll be singing along with the wandering mariachis!”
- Aguas Frescas and Paletas: There are many places around town that offer these. One of them is featured here.
- Comida Corrida at the Rio Cuale Municipal Market: Comida corrida (soup, main dish and a small dessert) is easy on the budget—usually under $5 USD. Upstairs at the Mercado Municipal (Insurgentes St. next to the Rio Cuale) is an ideal location.
- Tacos de Cabeza by the Bomba in El Remance: Literally “head tacos,” this popular treat may sound creepy at first. But the innards of a cow’s head—head muscles, brains, tongue, cheeks and so forth—are a time-honored delicacy throughout Mexico. Any taxi driver will know this particular location, considered by many the best in town.
Ideas for Gay and Lesbian Travelers
“Given the number of gay nightclubs in town, one might quickly jump to the conclusion that it’s only about the nightlife,” commented Andrew Briskin, along with partner Logan Miller of Go Gay! Puerto Vallarta. “The good thing is that, along with the plentiful nighttime options, there are many daytime, cultural and outdoor-related activities available for the community as well.” Briskin’s website, www.gogaypuertovallarta.com, is a clearinghouse for a variety of outdoor adventures, nightlife, travel assistance and lodging for gay and lesbian visitors and locals. From gay harbor cruises to jungle adventures, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the destination while making new friends year round. And to shift the focus away from the party scene somewhat, a Diversity Day at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens is in the works, scheduled to take place on Saturday, January 15, 2011. The Puerto Vallarta International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival will take place April 28 through May 1. In the meantime, here are some musts:
- Los Muertos Beach: Puerto Vallarta’s most popular beach is also a well-known place for gays to see and be seen while tanning, socializing and swimming.
- Sunset at the Blue Chairs Roof: And after the sun sets, a variety of live entertainment, including comedy, drag, go-go dancers, bingo and karaoke, is rotated on different days of the week.
- Friday Warm-up Cocktail Party at Casa Cupula: Named “one of the top five most luxurious gay hotels in the world” by www.gay.com, Casa Cupula’s weekly early evening mixer for hotel guests and locals is a great place to gather poolside, enjoy light fare, and tour the spectacular resort.
- Custom-made Bathing Suits: For men who like to flaunt their attributes, a visit to Alphonse Swimwear, just two blocks from Los Muertos Beach, is a must. With dozens of fabrics and a half-dozen styles to choose from, Alphonse will find the ideal design to best fit your particular body type.
It takes a savvy nightclub owner to know the competition, and Edgar Sánchez is no exception. Stereo, his own venue (Lazaro Cárdenas 267, E. Zapata) is as popular as it is minuscule and is equally deserving of a spot next to his recommendations for locals and visitors looking to experience Puerto Vallarta’s vibrant night scene.
- BarraBar: Great selection of music and videos from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, not to mention karaoke. Plaza Peninsula L-C2, Hotel Zone
- Mandala: Great Malecón nightclub for the late-night shift, with eclectic musical styles anchored by an Indian ambiance. Díaz Ordaz 640, El Centro
- Memories: The old Vallarta photographs on the wall alone are reason enough to start your evening sharing cocktails with your friends at this intimate location. Mina & Juarez, El Centro
- Party Lounge: A fun place to begin your evening, with a DJ spinning a diverse music selection. México 993, El Centro
- Roxy: If you like rock, you will love Roxy, featuring live bands performing rock favorites in English and Spanish. I. Vallarta 217, El Centro
- La Vaquita: Featuring barn decor and cow textures all around (even the Styrofoam cups used for drinks), La Vaquita is ideal for the young crowd. Díaz Ordaz 620, El Centro