Puerto Vallarta is a beautiful vacation destination in Jalisco state, located on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The proximity to the ocean as well as the alluring Mexican town is what has brought my husband and me here for two years in a row. Below are recommendations based on our adventures in Puerto Vallarta.
If you’ve been researching Puerto Vallarta, you’ve no doubt seen the gorgeous pictures of the Hidden Beach at Marietas Islands. There are a few things you should know before booking tickets. My first piece of advice is wait until the last minute and then purchase your tickets only once you are sure that the Hidden Beach is open. On our first trip, my husband and I bought tickets well in advance and were bummed to find out that the beach had been closed for the summer due to pollution. Of course, our tour guide didn’t tell us this until we were approaching the island. We spent 6 hours on the tour, circling the island. It was a real disappointment.
My second warning is that even if the beach is open, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to swim to the Hidden Beach. As the tide levels vary, so does the access to the beach through the tunnel. I have also heard that beach access is limited to only a couple hundred people a day, if your tour leaves mid-morning, you may be out of luck. That being said, my brother-in-law’s family was able to go onto the Hidden Beach November, 2017 via a boat tour and loved it! They said it’s just as beautiful as the pictures depict it to be.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Another iconic Puerto Vallarta landmark is The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. You can attend a service in English on Saturday, or they have services available on Sunday in both English and Spanish. You don’t necessarily need to see the inside of the church to witness its beauty. The outside is stunning and easy to spot as you explore the Malecon.
If you’re a fan of snorkeling, I recommend a voyage out to Los Arcos. Getting here is fairly simple, you can take a taxi/Uber/Lyft and say you’d like to go to Los Arcos (The Arches) and they’ll drop you off near the beach. Or, you can take the local bus and hop off at Los Arcos overview area. Alternatively, many boat tours make a stop at Los Arcos, and will provide the equipment you need to snorkel. Otherwise, expect to rent equipment from a nearby shop. The water isn’t perfectly clear; it won’t be the best snorkeling of your life, but it’ll still be beautiful!
Zona Romantica or The Romantic Zone appears in Puerto Vallarta guides everywhere, and is said to be young, festive and full of great bars and restaurants. Zona Romantica is located between the Rio Cuale on the north, Santa Barbara Street on the south, Insurgentes Street on the east and Playa de Los Muertos on the west. Many opt for a hotel, hostel or rental house in Zona Romantica due to the convenience of being right in the middle of all the action.
I’ve heard wonders about the Botanical Gardens but have never gone. On our airplane, we met a sweet couple who had been to Puerto Vallarta over 30 times. They said the Botanical Gardens was one of the best they had ever been to, and while it’s a trek out of town, it’s a real treat.
While visiting Puerto Vallarta, you are bound to end up on The Malecon, the sidewalk along the coast filled with shops, restaurants and bars. You can also enjoy street performers, iconic statues and local vendors. I recommend going in the evening when the temperature cools a bit. The Malecon is definitely touristy, and if you are walking with your spouse you will hear, “Are you on your honeymoon!?” a thousand times. The locals are friendly, my husband and I were just surprised by all of the attention.
Casa Kimberly was the home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a power couple of the ‘60s. Their relationship was a Hollywood scandal, as they were both married to other people at the time. They’d vacation together at Casa Kimberly, which has a beautiful walkway connecting the two homes. Some say their relationship is what has sparked paparazzi and tabloid obsession with celebrities’ personal lives. Today, Casa Kimberly is a hotel, restaurant and spa. Reservations required. Fun fact: The Elizabeth Taylor suite goes for $825.00 a night.
Where to stay
The large resorts are located in the Hotel Zone, a couple miles north of the Malecon/Zona Romantica etc. The Hotel Zone doesn’t have much in terms of tourist attractions, so you are restricted to the restaurants within your hotel unless you take a taxi or bus to town. The Hotel Zone is clean, well kept, and easy to navigate as most people speak English.
Staying in Old Town or Zona Romantica will put you in the center of the action. You will be within walking distance to restaurants, bars, shopping and Los Muertos beach (the best beach in the area). Your options for lodging include boutique hotels, hostels and rental houses. We didn’t experience any issues staying in Old Town, we also really enjoyed our stay at Sheraton Buganvilias in the Hotel Zone. They’re just two very different trips. Ask yourself, are you looking for a resort vacation or a local adventure?
Getting around town
In my opinion, the local buses are a little tricky. On our first trip to Puerto Vallarta we took the bus just about everywhere. Sometimes our bus would stop here, sometimes it would stop there, sometimes it would go on this road, sometimes on that road. It wasn’t terribly reliable. Once, we were on the wrong bus that was labeled similarly to our usual bus. It was a couple days into our trip and we knew the area well enough to know we were going the wrong way. We told the driver, he let us off on a random road and we signaled for a taxi. For more details on the bus schedule and pricing, click here.
If you’re one of the lucky few who has international cell phone service, you’ll be able to Uber or Lyft through town with ease. The rates are fixed, giving you the peace of mind that you are paying a fair amount for each ride. We were with a large group and we were all calling Lyfts at the same time, little did we know that this drove up the cost in our area, marking it as a “high traffic” stop. This doesn’t happen often in the United States, but due to the limited amount of drivers in the area, the rates go up if you’re in a “popular” spot. If you’re worried about giving directions in Spanish, use Uber/Lyft to mark a drop off location.
You need to be on your ‘A’ game if you take a taxi in Puerto Vallarta. In other words, be sober, be alert, be assertive. Ask the taxi driver for a quote before getting in the car. This is very important as the quote is negotiable only when you have the upper hand, outside of the car. Know how much the ride should cost beforehand by asking hotel employees or other locals. Once, we were overcharged because we were in an unknown area and had no clue how much it should cost to get to our second destination. The next taxi driver charged us $50 pesos less than the first driver. That converted to about $3 USD, regardless, we learned our lesson the hard way.
We haven’t had much trouble getting by with limited Spanish in Puerto Vallarta, but I recommend learning some basic vocabulary such as, “How much is this?” “How do I get to (insert location here)?” Most hospitality industry workers speak English. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask the front desk for directions and advice before leaving. Some locals speak English, but it’s hit or miss. On our last trip, I ran into a shoe shop in a fit of hanger (hungry anger), and the woman didn’t speak any English. I scared the crap out of her, yelling, “Where are the nearest tacos!?” I swear she almost called the police.
Where to eat
If you’re looking for an upscale, romantic experience away from town I highly recommend Le Kliff. I loved this place and I still think it may be the best steak I’ve ever had. Getting to the restaurant is easy, call a ride and they’ll know exactly the place you’re talking about (it’s a popular tourist attraction). However, it is unlikely that a taxi or Lyft will be in the area to pick you up. You can get a phone number from your taxi driver on the way down and hope that when you call he comes back for you, or, you can let the restaurant know that you need a taxi called. This is a beautiful restaurant located on the side of a cliff.
There are several levels to the restaurant and it’s a great spot to take photos. I recommend making a reservation for just before sunset. Be warned, this is a popular spot for weddings. Call and ask if the restaurant is open to the public before going.
If you’re looking for a good local taco shop, Pepes Taco is the place to go. The food is reasonably priced and incredibly delicious. This place came highly recommended by friends who had been to Puerto Vallarta and by the locals. It’s a casual restaurant within walking distance of Old Town.
The River Café is located on the Rio Cuale. We came here for breakfast and had a great time. The prices are reasonable, some of the lowest we saw in the area. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I didn’t have any complaints. It was fun to be right along the river on a beautiful outdoor patio. If you’re a fan of cats, this a great place to sit and cat watch as many of the strays live along the river.
Chico’s Paradise was a party! This multi-level restaurant is off-the-beaten-path, and as was the case with Le Kliff, it’s hard to get transportation back from the restaurant to town. It’s worth it, there are cliff divers! The diver, who mentioned several times that he was in the Beverly Hills Chihuahua movie, would do back flips, front flips and blindfolded dives into the river while we watched from our table. Visitors are welcome to swim in the water, but it’s very cold.
We stopped at a few bars along the Malecon, including Day Off Beach Bar and the Cheeky Monkey. Mostly, we drank at our hotel bar or we stopped at the liquor store. The nightlife is supposed to be great in Zona Romantica, which has a predominately gay nightly crowd.
Where to shop
The Rio Cuale is the local, year around outdoor market featuring a few restaurants and a variety of souvenir shops. The Rio Cuale is great to do at least once on your trip, and is an opportunity to grab gifts for people back home. To get to the Rio Cuale, you will need to pass over the bridge near Playa de Los Muertos, or, cross a nearby suspended rope bridge. Remember to look up! Iguanas fill the trees and are difficult to spot. Remember to look down! Cats run all over this place.
During our second trip, there was a market at Marina Vallarta, just a few miles north of Puerto Vallarta. It was a blast going out at night, listening to the music and sampling empanadas. Keep an eye out for local events like these. They are usually filled with homemade goods rather than souvenirs.
Day trips from Puerto Vallarta
Yelapa was quite the journey for us! We took two buses and a water taxi and only stayed for a few hours. We left because the beach and sidewalks were covered in large, intimating crabs. Trust me, I wish I was kidding. We attempted to walk through a pass that led to a waterfall hike and had to turn back. There were crabs on the ground, on the walls and on the ceiling. One fell onto my husband and I said, “I’m out!” This was a cool town, really quiet and no road access. The only way to get there is by water taxi. Pretty exciting!
I am a huge fan of Sayulita! It’s a 90 minute bus ride from Puerto Vallarta. The bus tickets cost approximately $70 pesos (about $4.50 USD) for two people. The town has a cool surfer vibe to it and it was great to get out of town and experience something different. Read more about our trip in my post, 20 hours in Sayulita, Mexico.
Are you planning on going to Puerto Vallarta? Have any additional questions? Comment below and I’ll be sure to respond! Remember to check out Puerto Vallarta Facebook groups, too. They are often full of recommendations and coupons provided by the locals.
Thanks for reading,