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Anyone who calls Puerto Vallarta a “fishing village” hasn’t been there in 50 years. Expect a resort city of 500,000-plus residents and tens of thousands of snowbirds and tourists, with all the attendant congestion.
During the high season of November to March, as many as 8,000 visitors a day arrive by cruise ship alone.
Yet amid the resort hotels, the big-box stores and the expat mansions perched on jungle-clad hillsides, there are tons of reasons to love PV. The growing city now stretches for miles along beautiful Banderas Bay, but its cobblestone core is as intriguing as ever, its beaches just as inviting, its restaurants among Mexico’s best and its activity options incredibly diverse.
The red-tiled roofs rising between the green slopes of the western Sierra Madre and the deep blue of Banderas Bay make Puerto Vallarta instantly recognizable in photos and help the city retain its authentic appeal despite growth and modern construction.
Get your bearings by strolling the seaside esplanade, aka the Malecón, which is dotted with sculptures and bordered by shops, galleries and restaurants.
Viejo Vallarta (Old Vallarta ) is centered around the Rio Cuale, which flows through town and is crossed by numerous bridges. Here many colonial-era houses have been converted to boutiques, restaurants, galleries and nightspots, their architectural integrity maintained by laws that ban neon signs and decree that all buildings be painted white. Puerto Vallarta is a good place to buy artwork of the indigenous Huichol people, typically masks and animals made of wood and covered in beeswax into which beads are set, or "paintings" made with yarn pressed into beeswax. Both feature incredibly intricate patterns and designs.
The central square (zócalo) is a great place to rest your feet and watch the world go by. Isla de Cuale, an island in the middle of the river, is a shady oasis with handicraft stalls and attractive places to grab a bite.
More shopping and dining opps are concentrated in the Zona Romantica, on the south side of the river and stretching to the Malecón. If you love bargaining for traditional Mexican crafts and clothing, don’t miss the Rio Cuale Flea Market, two stories of leather, textiles, pottery and such where the prices get better as the day goes on.
There are many choices, and your ship will likely offer transportation to several. In the downtown area, Playa Los Muertos and Playa Olas Altas are popular with locals as well as tourists, both with beach bars, vendors and activity options galore. The southern section of Los Muertos, dubbed “Blue Chairs” after an adjacent resort of the same name, is one of Mexico’s best-known hangouts for gay men.
South of the city is Playa Mismaloya, made famous in “Night of the Iguana,” the 1964 Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie that put PV on the map. The much-photographed Los Arcos rock formation is offshore. North of the city, Bucerías, a community that attracts snowbirds from the United States and Canada, is flanked by gentle surf and soft sand.
Canopy zip-line tours are all the rage here as elsewhere in Mexico, and they’re not a bad value for the money, especially if you snag a coupon or an online deal that includes transportation. Canopy Los Veranos was the first player and remains a leader with 15 “zips” covering about two miles. Vallarta Adventures offers day-long “extreme adventure” tours including a zip-line course (with Mexico’s longest line at 4,000 feet), rappelling from treetop platforms, off-roading through the jungle, and hillside water slides. At least a half-dozen other operators keep prices and experiences competitive.
Puerto Vallarta’s tour operators have the market covered like a blanket. From boat excursions to snorkeling, scuba diving, parasailing, fishing, kayaking, horseback riding and golf, it’s all here.
Cookin’ Vallarta aims squarely at cruise-ship passengers with hands-on sessions that start with a trip to a local produce market and include lots of background on Mexican cuisine. For another local perspective, sign up with Puerto Vallarta Food Tours for three hours of sampling regional specialties at off-the-beaten-path eateries in the downtown area or in the seldom visited Pitillal neighborhood near the cruise-ship terminal.
Meet the locals on guided walking tours that explore neighborhoods, architecture, gardens, culinary specialties and more.
If you’ve got the bucks, Dolphin Adventures will provide an unforgettable experience. So will Vallarta Adventures’ day tour to Las Caletas, a beach hideaway once the home of film director John Huston. Older kids will thrill to a zip-line canopy tour (see above). A pair of wooden ships, the Pirate Ship and the Marigalante, appeal to the young and the young at heart with sword fights, pirates swinging from yardarms and other “yo-ho” themed silliness. Daytime excursions on both vessels include lunch and a two-hour beach stop.
High season: November–May.
Low season: July–September is hot and humid,
Rainy season: Summer is when PV gets most of its 50 inches of annual rainfall, along with the occasional tropical storm.
Ships dock at the cruise terminal about three miles north of town. Three large ships can be accommodated, while a fourth can anchor in the bay and tender passengers to shore.
Taxis are plentiful and rental cars are an option. Local buses run set routes up and down the coast and are the cheapest way to go.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian visitors need a valid passport.
Language: No, not everyone speaks English. But most who deal with tourists do, and you’ll have no problem navigating your way around town even if you don’t know a word of Spanish.
Currency: The Mexican peso. Change money at ATMs, which are easy to find.
Safety: The U.S. Department of State issues travel warnings for many areas of Mexico, mostly where crime and violence related to drug cartels have increased. Puerto Vallarta itself is not typically one of those places and, like most tourist areas in Mexico, is generally considered safe. See Cruiseable's safety tips for cruise passengers. To learn more about safety in specific areas, log onto the State Department's web page on Mexico travel warnings.
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“The region’s surfing and yoga culture draws legions of devotees here, but well-heeled travelers may be surprised to hear that the food I tasted in Vallarta surpassed meals I’ve paid triple for in New York.”
“In common with many Mexican resorts, it has a dual character: in the chi-chi Zona Romantica you’ll find some exceptional art galleries and upmarket boutiques among the souvenir shops; further from the beaches, there’s a vibrant city barely troubled by the visitors, with street food as tasty as you’ll find anywhere in Mexico.”
“Years of work and millions of dollars have revamped the Malecón into an eye-popping, 12-block-long art show peppered by dozens of sculptures, mosaics and paintings, along with all kinds of indoor and outdoor galleries.”