Puerto Vallarta is the center of festivities on the Nayarit coastline of Western Mexico. Its warm, tropical weather pairs perfectly with delicious food and ice-cold beers on the beach in a way that makes relaxation almost reflexive.
Located a mere 2.5hrs by air from Los Angeles and 3.5hrs from the Bay Area, Vallarta makes an excellent long-weekend for those coming from the Western United States, but its charms may tempt you to stay longer. In fact, there is a large expat community living both seasonally and full-time in Puerto Vallarta and it’s easy to see why.
Note: Some stays, tours, passes, and meals were provided at no cost to the author. As always, all opinions remain my own. I hope this article is useful for you.
Accommodations in the City of Puerto Vallarta
Deciding on a home-base for your time in the Nayarit Riviera will have an effect on the type of vacation you will have there. While there are many options between half an hour and an hour to the north and south, in this post we’ll stay focused on the actual city itself.
There are many hotels on the northern end of the city of Puerto Vallarta that offer resort-style accommodations at mostly quite reasonable prices. On a previous trip, I stayed at the Sheraton Buganvilias (starting at $115 per night), which featured two sizable pool areas and excellent views from every room. One thing to consider about the northern hotel strip is that you’ll probably end up taking a taxi to go anywhere; coupled with the resort and all-inclusive nature of these properties, this could be a significant drag on exploring more of what Puerto Vallarta has to offer. However, if you’re just looking to relax in a resort environment, this part of the city has some excellent options!
In the heart of Old-Town Vallarta, you’ll find more boutique-style hotels and some budget-conscious accommodations. There are also numerous vacation rental properties in this area. The good news is that any property in Zona Romantica will be walking-distance to the Malecon (boardwalk) and the beach, but there are some better positioned than others.
On my most recent visit to Puerto Vallarta, I found a truly stellar rental property through Airbnb. My host, Jeff, who goes by “PVKid,” has a number of units available for rent in a building called Plaza Mar Condominiums (starting at around $100 per night).
My rental unit (#303) was an air-conditioned one-bedroom with a well-supplied kitchen, sizable living room area, and an ocean-view balcony. The unit and the rest of the property were impressively clean and stylishly decorated, while the gated entrance with a doorman and 3X weekly maid service made me feel totally at ease.
The top-two reasons to stay with PVKid at Plaza Mar though are its prime location and the incredible rooftop pool area. Set directly in front of Los Muertos beach and at the southern edge of the Malecon, I found it to be the perfect starting point for all of my exploring in the city and beyond. I’d also have been perfectly content to swim all day in the secluded pool and then watch the sun set into the ocean from my rooftop perch.
While I used Airbnb to rent this property, you can also contact PVKid directly at www.puerto-vallarta-rentals.com and let him know I said “Hola!”
Things to do in the Puerto Vallarta Area
Relaxation is a priority for most visitors to Puerto Vallarta. In Zona Romantica, it’s possible to get a high-quality, one-hour massage for between $20-$40 and there seems to be a spa on every street-corner. Mix a few massages in with yoga at one of two studios in the area (Yoga Vallarta, DavannaYoga) and you’ll find your center in no time at all.
The strength of the dollar leads to great shopping bargains as well. In Puerto Vallarta, you’ll find opportunities aplenty to buy souvenirs and crafts that are of real quality and even if you don’t haggle, you won’t have to spend much. In particular, I loved looking at all of the beautiful patterned blankets and thatched bowls. The easiest place to do this shopping is along Basilio Badillo, which also has some of the most popular restaurants in town and is the street to take if you want to go to the bus stop to head south.
In fact, you definitely want to find that bus stop, because for a paltry 8 pesos ($0.50) it will take you to a series of coastal gems that you will not want to leave Puerto Vallarta without visiting. Buses leave towards Boca de Tomatlan every ten minutes or so from the Oxxo convenience store at the corner of Constitution and Basilio Badillo.
As you ride the bus down the southern coast, the mountain juts up from the sea, which has had the effect of limiting development and provides stunning views of verdant green jungle from beaches in tiny coves. A good time would be had no matter where you exited the bus (tell the driver where you want to stop anywhere along the route), but here I’ll share three of the best, including one that is almost totally off the tourist radar:
Playa Mismaloya & Los Arcos – In 1964, a Hollywood movie called “The Night of the Iguana” was filmed at Mismaloya and the cast and crew liked the area so much that many bought homes there; this was actually a major catalyst for Greater Puerto Vallarta’s development into a vacation destination.
Rent a boat on the beach to go snorkeling at some magical rock outcroppings just off the coast (I negotiated $40 for “a few hours,” which included snorkel gear and an english-speaking guide). Upon returning to the beach, sit under an umbrella and order a “Coco Loco” to celebrate!
Coastal Path from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas – This hiking path begins to the left side of the sleepy beach town of Boca de Tomatlan. I forded over from the beach at a narrow inlet, but there is also a bridge you can ask about that’s not too far out of the way. Once on the path, it’s hard to get lost because you just head south in an obvious way.
About 45 minutes into the hike, you will reach Playa Colomitos, which is as far as I got on my most recent trip because I found everything there so beautiful that I couldn’t bear to leave. If you choose to continue, it’s another hour or so to the end of the trail and there are other beautiful beaches along the way. Taxi boats are available for pick-up and drop-off at any of these beaches and I flagged one down to take me back to Boca de Tomatlan for 50 pesos ($3).
Cascadas Palo Maria Hike – Hidden on the mountain-side of this same stretch of Nayarit Coastline is a series of waterfalls that have remained almost entirely a locals’ spot. The 30 to 45-minute riverside route is not advertised from the road, nor is it marked once it begins, but if you follow the river from the bridge at Puente Palo Maria, you will eventually arrive at a beautiful waterfall with a pool of water beneath it. In general, my advice is to follow the fence along the right side of the river as much as possible before rock-hopping up the river seeking out other sections of only lightly worn trail.
My travel companion and I spent some time hanging out in the pool below the first waterfall, checking out the fish and climbing into the crevice beneath the falling water. After a while, we pressed onward, braving the climb up to the next tier (with use of anchored cables – attempt at your own risk!) of what is a series of seven waterfalls. This place is undeniably magical and you cannot help but become enchanted by it.
Between the many opportunities for day-time fun, it would be easy to spend a week in Puerto Vallarta without running out of things to do. It was a real challenge to pack so many adventures into a shorter trip, especially in light of the charming environment that Puerto Vallarta provides at night as well.
An Evening in Zona Romantica & Along the Malecon
No visit to Puerto Vallarta would be complete without an evening stroll up and down the Malecon, which lines the waterfront for about mile heading north from Plaza Mar. You’ll find an endless number of restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities and it’s probably the top spot for people-watching in all of Vallarta.
If you want to have a truly memorable night that touches all the bases, follow this itinerary:
6 pm – Be in front of Pancho’s Takos when they open to avoid a long wait at the always busy spot. The delicious tacos start at 13 pesos each, meaning you can get filled up on four at just $3 US. They’ll also be happy to serve you a Corona with lime for about $1.50 US, so despite its popularity, you could spend the whole night here without breaking the bank.
7 pm – Walk the Malecon, stopping for some sliced mango or to watch the nightly performances occurring in the open-air amphitheatre. After about 10-15 minutes of walking north, you’ll reach Cerveceria Union, a popular restaurant with the largest selection of craft beer in Puerto Vallarta. In addition to the beer selection, Cerveceria Union is located next to a row of clubs for dancing and this is also where people tend to congregate to go out for the night. For $3-5 US per beer, you can have the prime spot to watch it all begin to unfold with a Vallarta sunset as the backdrop.
9 pm – Walk up the street that meets the Malecon at Cerveceria Union one block and you’ll see sharply-dressed promoters on the right encouraging you to check out Bar Morelos. This place is where you can get your cocktail fix and when I went, my companion and I were able to settle into a bottle-service couch since we had come before they got busy. During our time there, we ordered one drink each but as the night continued the servers kept coming back with new cocktails for us to try, gratis!
10:30 pm and Beyond – After Bar Morelos, you can walk back to the Malecon where you will find the main clubs starting to ramp up or head further into the side-streets of Zona Romantica until you hear the type of music that suits your fancy. For a dive experience complete with colorful characters and live music most nights, try Gringo Loco, but don’t go there looking for a Mexican cultural experience!
Lesser-Known Food Options in Puerto Vallarta
While I’ve already shared a few of my favorite places to eat and drink that are firmly on the tourist radar, I made some more fruitful discoveries by exploring on my own and talking to the locals. Here are some more great options you might not read about elsewhere:
Tacos Los Tres Hermanos – This is a tiny taco stand across the street from the bus stop to go south. I frequented this spot on three occasions, each time taking advantage of his four tacos and a coke for 50 pesos (less than $3)! The owner (Angel) set me up with tacos al pastor, pollo, asada, and chorizo; all were excellent with onions, cilantro, and freshly made salsa. It was all the more charming that Angel’s son of maybe 11 or 12 was happily bouncing around helping his dad and making sure I had everything I needed. This place is 100% authentic, friendly, and cheap!
Tuesday Ceviche Market – A friend heard great things about the fresh ceviche market on Los Muertos Pier. While I didn’t get to check it out myself, the prospect of seafood this fresh, accompanied by live music seems like a real winner. Check it out on Tuesdays from 12-4pm.
El Barracuda – This one is for those who have positioned themselves on the north end of the city of Puerto Vallarta in the large hotels. El Barracuda is walking distance, has its own beach area, and features numerous seafood options as well as killer guacamole. On my last day in Vallarta, I sat on the deck with the breeze blowing through and casually ate chips and guac for several hours while also partaking in some cold beer. The views of the coast and the opportunity to take a quick dip in the water are not unique to this place, but of the similar establishments I visited, this one is the best.