It could be any day along the Pacific coast of Mexico, but on this day it’s Puerto Vallarta. The morning broke with a puff of clouds lolling upon the Pacific, casting a veil across the fishing boat dropping anchor in Banderas Bay. Tourists drop their lines into the water, prop their poles on the side and pop open a beer. These tourists are hoping to catch fish—dorado, bonito, yellow fin, mahi-mahi, even marlin—but I can’t help but wonder if some are here to catch something else as they unwind on the gentle waters.
You can hear the first party boat before the clouds have a chance to break. Music rises over the waves as voices surf the high notes. A catamaran, its bronzed passengers gripping the sidelines with one hand and a drink in the other, rushes along the coast in a race against outbound schedules. These tourists are fishing also—not for the fruit of the sea, but for pleasure, experience, thrills, relaxation. Anything that steals the stress even for an hour revives the soul in ways not yet known.
By 10 a.m. the morning clouds have broken, their edges now laced with blue like a doily thrown against the sky. The bay responds to the sun with slivers of sapphire gleaming upon the gentle swells.
Americans fell in love with Puerto Vallarta back in 1963 when the paparazzi-fueled affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made such headlines as “Liz and Dick Love Nest Found in Mexico.” Burton bought a lavish home on a hill in the area called “Gringo Gulch” for Taylor’s 34th birthday and there she stayed while Burton filmed The Night of the Iguana in the jungles nearby. Later, they bought the house across the street and connected the two properties with a bridge now called the “love bridge.” Sadly, the love nest known as “Casa Kimberley” fell into disrepair through the turbulent years after Burton died and has yet to be restored to its former glory.
Whenever a celebrity discovers a destination, trends and tourists follow. Up until the Burtons made Puerto Vallarta their south-of-the-border home, it was a sleepy little fishing and farming village. There was no Sheraton, Westin or Marriott and certainly no time-share condos. As Puerto Vallarta became a must-go place of the rich and famous, the town crept up the verdant hillsides with vacation villas, small boutique hotels, shops, restaurants and nightclubs.
Puerto Vallarta is an ideal blend between the old and the new, the trendy and the traditional, the cultural and the cosmopolitan. Of the top three resort destinations in Mexico—the others being Cancun and Cabo San Lucas—Puerto Vallarta has managed to maintain its Mexican identity, while also providing a net of friendliness and security for international travelers. The locals here, from the shopkeepers, to the hotel staff, to the beach vendors, seem genuinely happy to share the best about their Vallarta.
Everything in Vallarta navigates from a beachside strip called the Malecon—a cobblestone street and boardwalk lined with shops, restaurants, galleries and clubs. You’ll find many of the usual brand names like McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, Outback Steakhouse and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but those who prefer local cuisine will enjoy such favorites as La Palapa, which serves Mexican and international fusion dishes at white-linen tables right on the beach, to upscale offerings like Café des Artiste, Trio, the River Café or La Distileria. Vista Grill, nestled on the hillside of Colonia Alta Vista not only serves world-class gourmet cuisine, but has one of the best views of Banderas Bay in all of Vallarta.
Dining in Vallarta’s upscale restaurants isn’t cheap. You can expect to pay close to the same prices for a gourmet meal here as you would at home, but you can be sure that the beef is prime grade or better and the seafood is fresh.
If you’re wanting authentic Mexican food, however, don’t be afraid to try some of the streetside vendors or taquerias. For the best tacos and burritos, look for streetside taquerias where the locals gather. Marisma Taqueria on Calle Naranjo, just blocks from the Malecon, has been the favorite of Vallartenos for more than 20 years. Marisma, the owner, still works at her shop nearly every day, serving up fish tacos on fleshly made corn tortillas stuffed with your choice of batter-fried fish, shrimp, marlin, crab and calamari. At roughly $1.30 each, there is no better food and value in all of Vallarta.
Winding through the streets of Vallarta you’ll find all of the expected tourist shops selling cheap souvenirs and trinkets. Cigar aficionados can get hand-rolled cigars made with Cuban tobacco in a number of cigar shops throughout town.
If you’re looking for something more personal, consider stopping by Mundo de Azueljos—The World of Tiles. Here you’ll find thousands of designs in hand-painted tiles, from bathroom sinks, to kitchen trivets, to complete sets of dishes. Tiles can be personalized with special designs or names, so it’s a good idea to visit here on the first day of your trip, as the personalization takes at least two days for the kiln firing.
After you’ve strolled through the marketplace, you may want some refreshment. Cerveza is a staple in the cantinas, along with tequila and all of its mixed concoctions. Why not stop in to a tequila shop and do some tasting? Good tequila, golden, aged agave tequila known as anejo is like liquid gold on the tongue. You don’t knock this back in shooters or mix it in margaritas, you sip it from a snifter like a fine brandy. You’ll get a good tequila education and free tasting at Tequila Corner on Calle Agustin Rodriguez.
Vallarta offers so much more than just drinking, dining, lying on the beach or shopping for jewelry bargains. Even before the Taylor-Burtons put Vallarta on the map, Banderas Bay was renown throughout Mexico for its stunning rock formation called Los Arcos (The Arches). A protected marine park, Los Arcos’s convenient location just off the south coast of Vallarta makes it easy to access by dive boats leaving from the Malecon or from Marina Vallarta. The underwater grottos surrounding Los Arcos attracts a wide selection of sea life. It’s not unusual to spot giant mantas, eagle rays, sea turtles, butterfly fish, parrot fish, puffers, angelfish, needlefish and damsels.
The waters of Banderas Bay are also home Pacific bottlenose dolphin and the loggerhead, hawksbill, and pacific black sea turtles. Many of the hotels along the beach participate in a sea turtle rescue program in conjunction with the Mexican government and under the management of the University of Guadalajara. Tour operators will take visitors out to the turtle rescue camps and teach rescue ecology.
Vallarta Adventures operates a Dolphin discovery center where you can swim in a tank with a group of trained dolphins. You can buy sessions for up to an hour in the water learning and practicing the training signals with the dolphins. The pinnacle of the experience is catching the dolphin’s flippers and riding it around the tank as it swims on its back. Being in the same water with these majestic animals, touching their smooth skin and sharing in their exuberance is magical.
The Sierra Madre Mountains that edge Banderas Bay are more than just a stunning backdrop to the setting. Adventurous types will find thrills in a zip-line journey from peak to peak or peak to valley. This outing is not for those with physical infirmities and it’s not for the faint of elevation, either. After climbing a platform, you’re locked into a seat harness, double checked for latching, and away you go zipping through the jungle. You’ll see all kinds of tropical flora and fauna, possibly even parrots and macaws, in addition to orb-web spiders bigger than your hand.
Accommodations in Vallarta can be found for everyone at most every budget. As Vallarta grew in destination appeal, timeshare condos went up all over the city and can be a great option for families who need more space and want to cook their own meals. The Sheraton Buganvilias is the largest resort in terms of rooms, it has plentiful meeting spaces for special events like weddings and anniversary parties, and is close to the heart of Vallarta. Of the big resorts in the Hotel Zone, Fiesta Americana is the most authentic in Mexican design. The Westin or the Marriott over at the marina area have beautiful accommodations with name brand recognition.
Dozens of all-inclusive resorts dot the coast with the ultra-luxurious Gran Velas and Vallarta Palace in Nuevo Vallarta to the north, to the secluded La Jolla de Mismaloya to the south.
If you’re looking for old-world romance, consider Hacienda San Angel. You might walk by the unassuming walls of this historic property and never know what timeless elegance lies inside. Once through the heavy wooden doors, you’re greeted with a serene courtyard right out of Colonial Mexico. Polished Saltillo tile, fountains, tropical flowers and magical stairways lead you into three levels, each more beautiful than the previous. The rooftop level overlooks the entire coastline. This is the perfect spot to sip a margarita and watch the sun slip into the bay one last time before you head home with a heart full of Old Mexico memories.
This story also appears in The Huffington Post, November 4, 2014.