Nestled between the aquamarine waves of the Pacific and the lofty Sierra Madre Mountains is Puerto Vallarta. This popular tourist destination, once named as la ciudad más amigable del mundo (“The Friendliest City in the World”), beckons visitors with its colorful architecture, rich culture, friendly locals, and world-class beaches. In addition to the Puerto Vallarta beaches, the Mexican seaside offers myriad dining experiences, soft and extreme adventure options, and eco-diversity.
Puerto Vallarta at a Glance
Situated on the Pacific Ocean’s Bahía de Banderas in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Puerto Vallarta is much different than Caribbean resort destinations like Cancun, Tulum, and Cozumel which have white powdery beaches and iridescent turquoise water. Puerto Vallarta beaches are coarse and golden and the ocean can be a bit rougher. You’ll also likely see more families, couples, and retirees than spring breakers, which we consider to be a good thing. Puerto Vallarta offers a wonderful opportunity to get a dose of authentic Mexican culture.
Because of Acapulco’s increasing gang and drug violence, Puerto Vallarta has absorbed much of their previous booming tourism. Puerto Vallarta has also become a popular retirement destination for US and Canadian retirees.
The port of Puerto Vallarta is a popular cruise ship destination during the tourist season, but it’s also easy to drive around there, too.
- Founded: December 12, 1851
- Language: Spanish (2nd – English)
- Currency: Peso (but $US accepted at many places)
- Area: 502.19 sq mi
- Population: 203,342
- Altitude: 23 ft.
When to Go
And with temperatures which can run anywhere between 70℉ – 92℉ depending on the season, there almost isn’t a good time to go.
Puerto Vallarta’s climate is typical tropical wet and dry with an average daily high temperature of 86 °F (high), 70 °F (low); and average daily humidity is 75%. The rainy season runs from mid-June through mid-October, although precipitation tends to be concentrated in large rainstorms.
- Flower Festival – last week of February, at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.
- Electro Beach Festival – beginning of March. Dancing festival
- May Festival -last week of May/first week of June. Anniversary of the municipality.
- Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) – November 2. Honoring the dead in Mexican tradition making catrina skeleton dolls and cempasúchil flowers
- Virgin of Guadalupe – December 1 – 12
- Las Posadas – December 20 – candlelight caroling
Here are my favorite Puerto Vallarta beaches and activities.
1 Los Muertos Beach
Puerto Vallarta lies at the inner recess of the Bay of Banderas, the largest natural bay in Mexico. There are several beaches to choose from, but Playa Los Muertos is my favorite. According to folk legend, the beach’s name (Dead Men’s Beach) comes from a battle between pirates and local miners after which bodies were thrown all over the beach,
Ironically, despite its “dead” moniker, this attractive strip of crystal aqua water is the most popular offering water sports in addition to sunbathing and swimming. The calm, mile-long beach is walking distance from the Malecón and Romantic Zone. Umbrellas and palapas are available for rent, and waiters from the beachside restaurants are happy to take orders for food and drinks, delivered right to your beach chair or towel.
200-foot Los Muertos Pier, built in 2013, is hard to miss, jutting out into Banderas Bay. A walk to the end of the pier gives visitors a stunning view of the shoreline.
Puerto Vallarta recently tried to change the unfortunate name of the beach to Playa del Sol, but thus far it has not stuck.
Other Puerto Vallarta beaches include:
Majahuitas – a secluded idyllic beach reached by boat from Playa de Los Muertos. Great for snorkeling but no amenities so be sure to bring anything you need or want.
Yelapa – a sleepy fishing village with a couple of buildings, a sandy beach and an abundance of tropical vegetation.
Playa de Las Gemelas – two beaches separated by a sea wall. No food or facilities so be sure to bring your own.
The pedestrian-only walkway is the heart and soul of the city, stretching from downtown Puerto Vallarta to Los Muertos Beach. The stunning boardwalk also serves as an open-air museum, filled with colorful sculptures lined up along the Pacific Ocean.
The exquisite outdoor sculptures were put in place starting in 1960 and include the Friendship Fountain dolphins, the iconic Sea Horse (the unofficial symbol of Puerto Vallarta), the four stone arches, and Mexican dancers and others.
On the other (town) side of the esplanade are historic buildings, boutique shops and cafes and bistros with the mountains as a distant-but-scenic backdrop.
By day the malecón is buzzing with activity; in the evening, it’s a good place to view the stunning Pacific sunsets. Be prepared to encounter the enticing aromas of local Mexican, Mediterranean, and Cuban cuisines, as well as pizza and American-type franchises for the younger palate.
On weekends, street performers provide merry entertainment. Papantla Flyers, Mexican acrobats who climb to the top of poles and then perform thrilling spins and feats, often perform on the malecón, usually around 6 p.m.
3 Zona Romantica
For the most authentic Mexican flavor of Puerto Vallarta, head to the old part of the city called The Romantic Zone or Viejo “Old” Vallarta. Here you’ll find the highly-sought-after charming cobblestone village streets typical of the Mexico of days gone by. A little inland from the malecón, the narrow streets are lined with rainbow-colored colonial buildings, boutique hotels, family-owned shops, expat homes, street food, and taco stands. The bustling activity and open markets are part of the appeal. Delectable dining can be found on “Restaurant Row,” Basilio Badillo. Viejo Vallarta is a vibrant area of fun at night, too, with mariachi bands frequently playing live in many restaurants.
4 Pirate Cruise
All aboard the Marigalante for a day-long adventure on the high seas! After serving a full breakfast, the pirate crew entertains with shows, singing, and swordfights. The shows are not just for kids, but fun for all ages. Pirates actively encourage participation and seek “volunteers” to take part in the shows and games. The ship anchors at Majahuitas Beach for a 2-hour beach party, with a treasure hunt and tug of war for the kids, and snorkeling and banana boat rides for all. After a grilled buffet lunch, the ship sets sail for the return to port with even more shows and entertainment. I had anticipated the pirate ship would be too kitschy, but to my delight, it was a rowdy good time for all ages.
I’ve done many, many ziplines over the years, but The Los Veranos canopy tour was my first and remains my favorite. It lays claim as the original eco-friendly zip-line adventure in Puerto Vallarta, boasting more than a decade of experience.
After a safety briefing and harness fitting, daredevils of all ages, including children as young as six years old, can participate in this thrilling adventure. The lush jungle course encompasses more than two miles of cable, zooming screaming tourists from treetop to treetop with views over the Orquideas River and rainforest. The longest stretch is more than a quarter of a mile long with a stunning birds-eye observation of the gorge below.
The property has a restaurant and an animal sanctuary with monkeys, a Burmese python to hold, or test your daring and let a furry tarantula (pet) crawl to across your face.
6 Marina Vallarta
Another great jaunt should include Marina Vallarta. 15 minutes north of downtown Puerto Vallarta, the marina is in a swanky 580-acre upscale resort area where you’ll find all the 5-star hotels, upscale resorts, spas, golf course, bowling alley, and a lineup of million-dollar yachts. In the heart of the marina is a paved boardwalk with boutique shops as well as a heaven for foodies. For a beautiful panoramic, head to the main landmark, the El Faro Lighthouse, which also hosts is an outdoor bar/restaurant.
7 Isla de Rio Cuale
Just a couple of blocks off the malecón is Isla de Rio Cuale where visitors can bargain hunt at the daily flea market. Isla del Rio Cuale is a small island formed when the River Cuale splits into two. Two suspension bridges cross from mainland Puerto Vallarta to the Isla de Rio Cuale. The area is a haven for artists, hippies, and bohemians.
I enjoyed shopping at the Rio Cuale Flea Market, a two-story marketplace with stall-after-stall of souvenirs, textiles, jewelry, and handicrafts. The area around the flea market is like a rabbit warren of small shops. I also found some great Talavera pottery. Like most tourist places in Mexico, bargaining is expected and it’s all good-natured and part of the cultural experience.
After my fill of shopping, we found a variety of bohemian refuges to refresh. One place offered a refreshing shot of “Cucaracha” – one of my favorite Mexican traditions since my early 20s!
The Cucaracha consists of 2/3 tequila and 1/3 Kahlua, poured in a tall, thin shot glass at the table, shaken up then poured down the throat of the participant by the waiter. Great fun!
You can’t visit Mexico without sampling some of its excellent tequila—either straight or in an excellent margarita. Also worth trying is the legendary mezcal which is similar to tequila but with a more smoky taste. In fact, mezcal is the preferred spirit of Mexican locals over tequila. A great way to learn more about Mexico’s favorite liquors is by doing a mezcal or tequila tasting tour, where you learn about the fermenting, distilling and aging process.
Facing the west, Puerto Vallarta offers some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. Whether you are on the malecón, a sailboat, catamaran, pirate ship out on the Bay of Banderas, you’ll delight in the brightly-infused orange and pink sunsets as the sun dips into the depths of the Pacific. Spotting dolphins and/or whales is a bonus, and there’s often a fireworks display after darkness sets in.
10 Our Lady of Guadalupe
The beloved La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe has been called “one of the most endearing” of the city’s landmarks by U.S. News & World Report. A block from the main square, dominating Vallarta’s El Centro skyline, it’s the most recognized and photographed spot in the city. The church’s red-brick tower which is topped with a wrought-iron crown being held aloft by angels can be seen from blocks away.
11 La Isla Marietas National Park
La Isla Marietas National Park is an uninhabited famous for its gorgeous hidden beach accessible by swimming or kayaking at low tide. There’s a maze of caves and tunnels for kayaking here, as well as an incredible variety of marine life, making it a heaven for divers and snorkelers. If you prefer to stay above water you can kayak through the tunnel.
To get to La Islan Marietas National Park, you can either drive or take one of the boats that depart every day from the Los Muertos Pier
12 Midnight Tacos
My favorite thing to eat was street tacos after midnight! Served al pastor, the spit-grilled pork seals in the flavor and juices. Similar to how it’s done in the Middle East, slices of meat are carved from the spit as it grills and placed into the warm, soft tortillas. The street food vendors don’t even start serving until midnight, so if you’re a night owl like me, it’s worth the wait!
Honorable mention for food/entertainment, albeit very touristy, Senor Frogs is a fun place. The food is only mediocre, but the lively atmosphere and encouraged audience participation is a lot of fun.
Puerto Vallarta seamlessly fuses traditional Mexican culture and rich history with tropical beaches and chic nightlife. Where else can you zipline through the jungle, swim in an underwater cave, dine on street food and upscale cuisine, and watch one of the world’s best sunsets from a catamaran in the same day?
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.