What to Do in Puerto Vallarta
Whether it's your first visit or you've been to Puerto Vallarta several times before, don't forget to include these destinations and experiences on your vacation to-do list.
By AAA Travel Editor
When it comes to the requirements for a quintessential Mexican beach vacation, Puerto Vallarta's pretty much got it all: tropical beauty, luxury resorts fronted by golden-sand beaches, charming cobbled streets, local restaurants with outstanding food and outstanding views, shopping galore, evening strolls along the malecón, lively nightlife. Even amid stateside big-box stores and expats from el norte, there's Old Mexico charm to spare and countless fun things to do with friends.
Spend time exploring El Centro . The very definition of quaint, it's a compact area of narrow streets, whitewashed stucco buildings and views of jungle-covered hills rising above the city. Just make sure you wear a pair of comfortable shoes; the cobblestones can be tough on feet unaccustomed to them.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe , its steeple topped by a distinctive crown, is El Centro's principal landmark. The interior is lovely—whitewashed walls, paintings and statues. (If you go in and have a look around, respect those who are worshipping.) Vendors at the small market operating in front of the church sell food and religious paraphernalia.
Vallarta's always had an artsy vibe, which is on eccentric display courtesy of the Malecón Sculptures along downtown Paseo Díaz Ordáz. We love the way-out-there “La Rotunda del Mar” (Rotunda of the Sea), a group of half-human, half-alien abstract bronzes by Alejandro Colunga. Local artist Ramiz Barquet's “La Nostalgia” depicts a couple in love; public installations of Barquet's works can be seen throughout town.
If you need a little culture fix (or it's a rainy day), Vallarta has a couple of museums. The little Cuale Museum , at the western end of Río Cuale Island, has a nice collection of archeological artifacts, primarily pottery. In the center of town, the Naval History Museum has a collection of navigation instruments, boat miniatures, maps, paintings and photographs, as well as vintage weapons like muskets.
Another fun thing to do is to take a boat tour. The experienced guides at Ocean Friendly Tours will take you out on Banderas Bay for a whale-watching excursion that might include the unforgettable experience of whales “singing” underwater or the sight of a mother and her calf. The boats only hold about 10 people, which makes the encounters with these fascinating creatures more up-close and personal.
Embark on a day trip (by tourist bus or taxi) to the Vallarta Botanical Gardens . The trip itself is an adventure, along a road that winds up into the Sierra Madre foothills. The natural vegetation at this altitude is dry forest rather than tropical jungle, and the emphasis is on native Mexican species. The Vallarta Conservatory of Mexican Orchids provides a greenhouse environment for hundreds of varieties of orchids, many of which are found only in Mexico.
Looking for things to do outdoors? Hit the beach; Puerto Vallarta has several nice stretches of sand. At Playa de Oro it's white, and the wide expanses are good for long walks. Vendors rent jet skis and other water sports equipment, although the waves here can be pretty formidable.
Playa de los Muertos is favored by locals, and it's the best beach in Vallarta for people watching. You can sit under a thatched palapa and watch the passing parade while knocking back a couple of cervezas, and nearby restaurants are just steps away. Vendors roam the beach, but shaking your head no if you're not interested in purchasing anything usually will keep them away.
Playa Mismaloya , south of town, is more of a trek. This is the beach that put Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination back in 1963, when film director John Huston shot scenes here for “The Night of the Iguana” and star Richard Burton was visited by Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he was carrying on a torrid affair. Surrounded by jungle-cloaked hills at a point where the Mismaloya River empties into the ocean, this is the quintessential tropical beach—soft sand, palm trees and humble local restaurants at the water's edge serving grilled fish and cold beer.
Vallarta offers a huge variety of hotels for a memorable beach vacation. Keep in mind that June through September is the low season; you'll catch a break on rates but the weather is hotter and more humid, and mosquitoes and sand fleas can plague the beaches.
Many travelers opt to stay at Nuevo Vallarta, north of the city, where expensive deluxe hotels cater to your every whim. You won't need to leave the premises if you're checked in at the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit . This all-inclusive spa hotel has its own pristine beach, a three-tiered infinity pool, championship golf courses, tennis courts and four gourmet restaurants.
Also in Nuevo Vallarta, The Grand Bliss is luxurious—and hip (check out the lobby). The resort's pool is a short walk through lush gardens and has a swim-up bar, and the beach is lovely. You can also take part in activities like releasing protected baby sea turtles to the ocean.
A bit less pricey is the Hard Rock Hotel Vallarta , another all-inclusive property. Somewhat smaller than Nuevo Vallarta's megaresorts, it also attracts a rowdier crowd intent on partying like rock stars. Upper-floor rooms offer the best views.
There are more luxury properties at the Marina Vallarta resort development. The Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa sprawls along prime Banderas Bay beachfront. The Casa Velas Hotel Boutique is a gated resort with an adjoining golf course; it's a good choice for a romantic getaway with your significant other.
At the Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort , book one of the rooms with a private plunge pool; now that's an indulgence. Traveling with kids? Try the family-oriented Now Amber , where there are kids' and teen clubs with plenty of age-appropriate activities.
Many gringos are quite happy to scarf down wings and pitchers of beer at popular Mexican chains like Señor Frog's—but you can do that back home. Instead, search out local restaurants that offer a more refined dining experience. The menu at El Arrayan name-checks a variety of classic Mexican dishes, from the Yucatán's cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus juice) to chile en nogada (a stuffed pepper concoction with colors representing the Mexican flag). This converted hacienda is built around an open-air courtyard.
Cafe des Artistes is a long-time Vallarta favorite. Located on a hilltop in El Centro, it's perfect for a special occasion. The food is a hybrid of French and Mexican influences, creatively prepared and beautifully served. Pricey, but worth it, a meal here is one of Puerto Vallarta's best things for couples to do.
The focal point at Emiliano , in the Casa Velas Hotel Boutique, is a beautiful midnight blue pool. It's a stylish local restaurant (leave your Jimmy Buffett T-shirt in the hotel room) with a reliably good continental menu. Reservations are required for non-hotel guests.
If you're not in the mood for fancy-schmancy, schlep on over to The Sea Monkey Restaurant & Bar on the Beach . Knock back a cerveza (or iced tea) and dig into a plate of nachos while wiggling your toes in the sand under a thatched palapa roof.
While the Mexican standards—barbecue ribs, grilled fish and homemade guac at Chico's Paradise are all perfectly fine—it's the location along a boulder-studded river with a waterfall that makes this casual restaurant one of the area's most fun places to go. Bring your suit and go for a swim after lunch. Chico's is about 15 miles south of downtown Puerto Vallarta, so it's easier to get to if you have a car (unless you don't mind paying the expensive taxi fare).
Traveling By AirGustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport is off Mex. 200 (Avenida Francisco Medina Ascencio, also called the Carretera Aeropuerto), about 7 kilometers (4 miles) north of downtown. Alaska, American, Delta, Sun Country, Southwest, United and Virgin America airlines all fly direct to Puerto Vallarta from the United States. Other airlines providing service to the city include Aeroméxico, Air Canada, Interjet, Volaris and WestJet.
The ticketing and arrival area is on the main level; customs is located in the baggage claim area. Beyond customs is the main lobby, where tourists are likely to be approached by overly friendly time share salesmen offering to arrange discounted ground transportation; unless you're willing to endure a high-pressure sales pitch, ignore them. The departure area, which requires a boarding pass to enter, is on the upper level. Phone (322) 221-1537 for airport information.
Colectivos (minivans) operated by Transportes Terrestres provide shared transportation for a per-person fare from the airport to area hotels. Tickets can be purchased at booths just outside the terminal. Specially licensed airport taxis also take passengers to hotels. In both cases, fares are based on a zone system. Zones are posted at the minivan and taxi ticket booths; ask if you don't know the zone in which your hotel is located.
Traveling By CarPuerto Vallarta is some 1,200 miles south of the border at Nogales, Ariz., via Mex. 15/15-D and Mex. 200. Traffic on the Mex. 15 free road (libre in Spanish) slows considerably in the city of Mazatlán and beyond. Alternately, the Mex. 15-D toll road (cuota) is usually wide open. Tolls are hefty, however. While dollars are usually accepted at toll booths near the U.S. border, have pesos on hand for the entire route.
Mex. 161 connects San Blas, on the Nayarit coast, with Puerto Vallarta, bypassing Mex. 15's uphill slog through Tepic, the state capital. While it's not any faster than 15, the Mex. 161 route is quite scenic. The generally well-maintained two-lane road snakes through jungle-cloaked hills and passes farmland. If heading south from San Blas (which is accessible from Mex. 15 via Mex. 54), take the marked Puerto Vallarta turn-off just before the entrance to town and head south. Mex. 161 connects with Mex. 200 at the town of Las Varas; from there, proceed south. Plan on a 3-hour drive from San Blas to Puerto Vallarta.
Note: Mex. 200 is a precipitously winding two-lane road that passes through mountainous terrain. In addition to numerous twists and turns, road shoulders are narrow and have steep drop-offs. Only experienced motorists familiar with mountain driving should attempt to navigate this route, and never drive it at night.
Traveling By BusPuerto Vallarta's main bus station, Central Camionera de Puerto Vallarta, is just off Mex. 200 (the highway to Tepic), about a kilometer north of the airport. The major first-class lines operate out of this station.
Vallarta Plus offers daily first-class bus service to and from Guadalajara (about 5 hours). Elite travels the route as well, and also offers service north to Tepic, Mazatlán, Mexicali and Tijuana and south to Manzanillo, Zihuatanejo, Acapulco and Puerto Escondido. Some buses require transfers or stop along the way, while others do not; the ticketing agent will be able to clarify routes and answer questions. ETN (Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales) offers “executive-class” service to Mexico City, Guadalajara and Manzanillo.
Visiting By Cruise ShipPuerto Vallarta is a port of call for the Carnival, Celebrity, Holland-America, Norwegian and Princess cruise lines, most arriving from Los Angeles during the peak tourist season. Ships dock at the Maritime Terminal at the Marina Vallarta complex, about 3 miles north of downtown. Across the street from the terminal are shops, snack bars and guided tour kiosks. Taxis congregate around the terminal area; a ride downtown is negotiable but generally runs about $8 (U.S.).
City LayoutNorth of the Río Cuale the primary thoroughfare is Mex. 200. Officially called Avenida Francisco Medina Ascencio, it changes names several times. The stretch of busy four-lane highway heading south from the airport and running behind the beachfront Hotel Zone is also known as the Carretera Aeropuerto (Airport Highway). South of the Hotel Zone, the road narrows and becomes Avenida México and then Paseo Díaz Ordáz as it runs along the waterfront.
El Centro , the central downtown area, is small and compact, hemmed in between the mountains and the bay. The Río Cuale divides it into two sections. The malecón (oceanfront boardwalk) runs along Paseo Díaz Ordáz from north of the river south to the Romantic Zone, creating a pedestrian-only esplanade along this stretch of Ordáz. Drivers heading through downtown should use either Calle Morelos (one-way southbound) or Avenida Juárez (one-way northbound) as alternate routes.
Vacationers and locals alike come to enjoy the sea breeze, people watch and ponder the beautiful—and often bizarre—collection of bronze sculptures. Master sand castle artists create additional eye candy on the narrow shore below the seawall. Across the street you can browse boutiques and souvenir shops, scout the nightclubs or sip a margarita on one of several local restaurants and watch the sun set over the bay.
The heart of Vallarta, tree-shaded Plaza de Armas (also called Plaza Principal), sits just off the malecón between avenidas Morelos and Juárez. A central gazebo and a statue of Don Ignacio L. Vallarta, for whom the city was named, adorn this traditional town square where schoolchildren chase pigeons and overheated street vendors nap on wrought-iron benches. Tourists stroll by on their way to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe , its crown-topped spire soaring above the city. Visiting the Plaza de Armas and Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe are two of the top things to do in Puerto Vallarta.
On Avenida Juárez, facing the north side of the plaza, is City Hall (Presidencia Municipal). The mural of Puerto Vallarta hanging above the stairwell was painted by local artist Manuel Lepe. On the west side of the plaza between Avenida Morelos and the southern end of the malecón is an outdoor amphitheater, the site of evening concerts. The white arches (Los Arcos) backing the amphitheater were rebuilt after being destroyed by Hurricane Kenna in 2002.
The area known as Gringo Gulch was named for the intellectual and artsy Americans who settled in Puerto Vallarta during the 1950s and '60s. This steep ravine overlooking the Río Cuale is lined with red tile-roofed, colonial-style villas, many of them tucked away off cobbled alleyways festooned with blooming bougainvillea.
To reach the gulch, walk up Calle Zaragoza toward the hillside above town. The street appears to dead-end, but look closely and you'll see a steep stone staircase. Climb it to continue on Zaragoza. The original Casa Kimberly, Elizabeth Taylor's former residence, was demolished in 2011; a same-named boutique hotel now stands at the site.
Río Cuale Island (Isla Río Cuale), a long, narrow island in the middle of the Río Cuale, can be accessed from the northern and southern sections of El Centro by two road bridges, a pair of wood-plank suspension foot bridges and a concrete pedestrian bridge that spans the mouth of the river. A walkway shaded by fig and rubber trees and lined with souvenir stalls runs its length, and there are several riverside places to eat. A statue of John Huston, who directed “The Night of the Iguana,” stands in a shady plaza just east of the Avenida Insurgentes road bridge.
The area south of the Río Cuale, the Zona Romantica, is one of Vallarta's oldest neighborhoods. Although the whitewashed building facades don't look that different from what you see north of the river, the narrow cobbled streets have a more ragged “Old Vallarta” feel. An eclectic mix of shops, local restaurants and bars line east-west Basilio Badillo, 5 blocks south of the river.
The Zona Romantica's main beach is Playa de los Muertos , a popular stretch of sand lined with casual thatch-roofed restaurants and mid-range hotels. North of El Centro, luxury properties fronting pretty Playa de Oro (Golden Beach) form the upscale Hotel Zone. High-rise resort towers boast sweeping views of palm-fringed Banderas Bay.
Running behind the Hotel Zone is busy, four-lane Avenida Francisco Medina Ascencio. While it's not exactly ideal for a romantic stroll, the boulevard does offer a convenient assemblage of shopping centers packed with a predictable lineup of mini-markets, banks, gift shops, restaurants and American fast-food joints. Plaza Caracol, near the Fiesta Americana Puerto Vallarta All Inclusive , is anchored by a Gigante supermarket.
Marina Vallarta is a resort destination unto itself. This complex near the airport encompasses major chain hotels, upscale condos, an enormous marina and yacht club and the 18-hole Marina Vallarta Club de Golf.
Deluxe mega-resorts occupy beachfront real estate, while the marina boardwalk is lined with tourist-geared shops, galleries, cafés and restaurants. The marina is a good choice if you're a first-time visitor or part of a package tour, although it lacks the charm of Puerto Vallarta proper.
Nuevo Vallarta, about 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of the airport, is just over the Nayarit state line at the mouth of the Río Ameca. This planned resort area is a mix of condominiums, time share units, private bayfront homes and fancy all-inclusive accommodations.
A bit farther north is the village of Bucerías (“place of the divers”), an enclave of cobblestone streets, walled villas and tidy little hotels. Some travelers prefer this lower-cost alternative to Puerto Vallarta for its many shops, town square market and casual open-air restaurants. The 5-mile stretch of white sand is the longest along the Banderas Bay coastline. The shallow shoreline is perfect for wading, body surfing and shell collecting, and the beach draws throngs of local families on Sundays. Bucerías is most easily reached by bus; minivans also shuttle passengers from the airport to the village and back.
Rental CarsKeep in mind that rental cars are expensive, and downtown parking is difficult. For sightseeing in and around the city, take advantage of the green-and-white or blue-and-white city buses that cover the area from Marina Vallarta south to Mismaloya Beach.
Note: AAA members enjoy discounts through Hertz for vehicles booked in the United States. Consult your local AAA club or phone Hertz, (800) 654-3080.
BusesCity buses are inexpensive and take passengers to almost all points along Banderas Bay, from the airport south through the Hotel Zone, into downtown via the Ignacio Vallarta Bridge, and to points as far south as Mismaloya Beach. The fixed, one-way fare (no transfers) is 7.5 pesos; it goes up to 22.5 pesos for more distant destinations like Nuevo Vallarta or Bucerías. Exact fare is appreciated, but drivers will make change for a $20 peso note.
Stops are designated by a white bus outlined on a dark blue sign. If traffic is light, it's often possible to flag down a bus anywhere along the street. Destinations and routes (for example, “Centro,” “Mismaloya,” “Las Palmas” or “Marina Vallarta”) are posted on the front of the bus or painted on the windshield. As you climb aboard and pay your fare, tell the driver where you want to be let off. Most drivers don't speak English but they do understand, for example, “El Sheraton Hotel, por favor.” Local routes are normally covered from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
TaxisTaxis are plentiful and cover the same routes as buses, but are more expensive. Fares are based on set rates and defined zones. The average fare within town is about $5 to $6 (U.S.); trips from downtown north to the Hotel Zone or Marina Vallarta will run up to about $8, depending on the destination. A ride across town from Marina Vallarta south to Playa de los Muertos is about $12 to $14.
Fares normally are posted in each taxi and are printed in the Vallarta Today newspaper. Many hotels post a list of rates to specific destinations, which can come in handy if you're unfamiliar with the city. Taxis also can be hired by the hour or by the day for out-of-town trips.
Always ask how much the fare is (“Cuanto?”) and come to a decision before you get in the cab, which might save a few pesos. Resist efforts by any driver to steer you to a particular local restaurant; some restaurateurs pay commissions to drivers for bringing them customers. It also is customary not to tip drivers, unless they assist with luggage; in that case 10 pesos per suitcase or travel bag is appropriate.
ParkingParking in the compact downtown area is scarce, and driving around the city in general presents a challenge. During the winter tourist season from December through April the narrow streets are jammed; from July through October heavy rains can make them flooded and muddy. Many roads leading in to Puerto Vallarta are just two lanes and descend from the mountains; drive with caution.
Guides/ToursThe standard city tour provides an all-purpose Puerto Vallarta orientation. A short version of the tour covers the local sights by air-conditioned minibus, including the main plaza, cathedral and the exclusive neighborhoods of Conchas Chinas and Gringo Gulch. A shopping trip is usually made to either Isla Río Cuale or the Municipal Market.
The jungle tour is a longer version that throws in trips to a tequila tasting room and Mismaloya Beach, plus lunch in a tropical setting at Chico's Paradise. Hotel pickup and drop-off is included in the fee; lunch is not. Several companies offer daily city and jungle tours lasting 4 and 6 hours, respectively. Make arrangements through your hotel or at one of the guided tour reservation booths you'll see all over town.
If you’re interested in adventurous things to do, Los Veranos Canopy Tour offers daily 4-hour excursions to their zipline course near Mismaloya Beach. Transportation from the tour office on Mex. 200 (just south of downtown) is included. Reservations are required; phone (322) 223-0504.
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.