In Depth Note: For current information about safety/security issues in Puerto Vallarta, refer to the U.S. State Department website (travel.state.gov).
On the shores of sparkling blue Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags), jungle-cloaked mountains plunge into the Pacific. Here lies the treasure at the foot of the Sierra Madre: Puerto Vallarta. Luxury resorts fronted by warm water and golden-sand beaches are the main draw for visitors content to simply unwind, soak up the sun and watch waves wash ashore—and we can't say we blame them. But dig a little deeper and it won't take long for the city's alluring combination of modern sophistication and vintage character to get under your skin.
Adventurous travelers began trickling here during the 1940s and '50s, but it took a Hollywood director and a scandalous romance to put Vallarta on the mass tourism radar. Long before TMZ photogs chased celebutants and washed-up pop stars around the globe, the paparazzi pursued real movie stars. Elizabeth Taylor came to Puerto Vallarta in 1963 to be near Richard Burton, who was on location filming John Huston's “The Night of the Iguana,” as the two were having a highly publicized extramarital affair. Photographers followed their every move, and Vallarta instantly became world famous.
Along cobbled streets you'll find the usual line-up of gringo-friendly businesses, from casual Mexican restaurants and hip clothing boutiques to American chain stores and party-til-dawn nightclubs. But Vallarta (as the locals call it) also has an artistic bent. Surrealistic sculptures dot the bustling beachfront malecón (boardwalk), a prime destination for sunset strolls.
One-of-a-kind art galleries and shops pepper the compact downtown area. Souvenir stalls line shady Isla Río Cuale, a long, slender islet in the middle of the Río Cuale, the river that bisects the downtown area on its journey from mountains to sea.
The Marina Vallarta complex sits just north of the Hotel Zone. Here, discount chains like Costco and Walmart serve an ever-growing population of Mexican transplants and expatriates from el norte. Yet somehow such name-brand consumerism doesn't overshadow Vallarta's prevailing Old Mexico charm.
The weather is balmy year-round, but it's nicest from mid-December through mid-April. This is also the time preferred by migrating humpback whales that swim down from the frigid Arctic to the warm Pacific waters. Book your travel reservations several months in advance to guarantee cheap airline flights if you intend to visit during the winter high tourist season.
Vallarta is very casual; most visitors wear shorts and T-shirts. Slacks or nice jeans for men and summer-type dresses for women are appropriate for more upscale local restaurants and some nightclubs. A sweater comes in handy for winter evenings; an effective sunblock is a must all year.
Pack a hat and bring along an effective insect repellent, as mosquitoes can be a nuisance at any time of year. A formula containing at least 40 percent DEET will usually do the trick. If you arrive without bug dope, Autan Classic is a widely available Mexican brand.
Puerto Vallarta, JA
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
6 meters (20 feet)
In case of emergency, dial 060 and ask to be connected to an English-speaking operator. For non-emergencies phone (322) 290-0507.
Avenida Francisco Villa #900 (second floor); phone (322) 225-0000 (English may not be spoken fluently). The office is open Mon.-Fri. 9-3 and can assist with time share, taxi, store and other consumer-related issues.
Ameri-Med Hospital, in Plaza Neptuno at the entrance to Marina Vallarta (Boulevard Francisco Medina Ascencio), (322) 226-2080; CMQ Downtown Hospital, Basilio Badillo #365 at Insurgentes, (322) 223-1919; Red Cross (Cruz Roja), Avenida Río Balsas (at Avenida Río de la Plata), (322) 222-1533. All of these facilities are open 24 hours.
Local phone calls
If you don't have a cellphone, use public Telmex phones marked “Ladatel” rather than calling from your hotel room, which almost always incurs a hefty per-minute charge. Ladatel phone cards are available in various denominations from most local stores. Avoid phones with pictures of credit cards or decals saying ”3 minutos gratis” that advertise long distance calling to the United States and Canada; the charges will be outrageous.
Vallarta Today is an English-language daily newspaper geared toward tourists; it has information on everything from local restaurants to currency exchange rates.
Avenida Independencia Puerto Vallarta, JA . Phone:(322)224-1175
Banks are usually open Mon.-Fri. 9-5, although hours for exchanging foreign currency may be restricted and there's often a long waiting line. Currency exchange houses are open longer hours. ATM withdrawals are in pesos; receiving U.S. dollars usually requires a Mexican bank-issued ATM/credit card. Stores, restaurants, taxi drivers and street vendors will often accept dollars, but keep in mind that the minimum wage in Mexico is very low and workers in resort areas depend on tips to make a living. Always tip in pesos if possible, since U.S. coins are useless and dollars must be converted.
Crimes targeting tourists are infrequent, and it's safe to walk the downtown streets. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash in public and don't wander along back streets after dark. A hotel safety deposit box is a good place to keep money, passports, airline tickets, tourist permits and so forth. Bilingual “tourist police” wearing white safari outfits and baseball caps patrol the downtown area and are generally friendly and helpful.