Puerto Vallarta: Mexico’s vibrant beach city you shouldn’t overlook

15 October 2019, 14:39 | Updated: 15 October 2019, 15:18

Puerto Vallarta is the holiday destination you need to check out
Puerto Vallarta is the holiday destination you need to check out. Picture: Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board/Jardin Nebulosa/Canopy River
Naomi Bartram

By Naomi Bartram

Forget Cancun and Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta’s impressive coastlines, taco tours and rugged mountains are not to be missed.

It might have started as a humble fishing village, but when director John Huston arrived to film The Night of the Iguana in 1963, a touch of Hollywood glamour and the controversial affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton transformed this city into a celebrity hotspot.

Luckily, Puerto Vallarta hasn’t lost its humble routes, and with palm-lined beaches, turquoise waters and year-round sunshine — there’s plenty to love. Here’s how to explore Puerto Vallarta the right way…

What areas to visit in Puerto Vallarta

Vallarta wraps around the Bay of Banderas - the second largest bay in the world - and is surrounded by the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.

Driving from the airport into the city, you’ll pass a jungle-lined road overflowing with high-priced yachts, luxury hotels and public beaches.

The Good Fortune Unicorn on the Malecón
The Good Fortune Unicorn on the Malecón. Picture: Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board

But along from the Marina and Hotel Zone, lies downtown Vallarta - or Centro - which harbours the vibrancy of Mexico through its pretty squares, cobbled streets and friendly people.

Curious travellers can check out downtown Vallarta and the famous boardwalk - or Malecón - like a true local by taking a walking tour. Exploring the history of the city with Vallarta101 is also a solid excuse to get a glimpse of the yummy restaurants, try some rice water from a street vendor and experience Puerto Vallarta’s impressive art scene.

How to find adventure in Puerto Vallarta

PV offers up more than a sleepy walk around the town centre, and if you want excitement, you won’t have to look far. Firstly, get yourself a boat to Las Caletas with Vallarta Adventures, which is hidden along the Riviera Nayarit.

Here you’ll get to experience Mexico’s very own adventure paradise surrounded by a jungle-clad mountain backdrop. As well as relaxing in the hammocks and making full use of the free bar, be prepared to kayak, snorkel, paddle board and zip line.

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If a boat trip is more your thing, head to Opequimar Marina where Wildlife Connections offer dolphin tours. Not only do their professional biologists give you a run-down on the marine life, they also offer the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get into the water with the dolphins.

And for the adrenaline junkies among you, just a few kilometres away from the Hotel Zone, you'll find Canopy River which offer RZR buggy rides through the jungle. But these tours are not for the faint hearted as they cross the longest suspension bridge in the world at a whopping 150 meters high.

Where to eat in Puerto Vallerta

For killer authentic Mexican cuisine, hit the streets with Vallarta Food Tours and experience the buzz of Puerto Vallarta like a native. During the three and a half hour-long evening taco tour, you’ll munch your way through the city’s best roadside eateries, sampling everything from cow cheek to fish tacos.

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But if you’d prefer a sit-down meal, get yourself to La Lulu. You’ll need a strong stomach to taste their local moonshine known as Racialla, but the asian-inspired food is fresh and delicious.

For a special occasion, Cafe de Artistes is a mexican-French fusion of elegance and luxury. Chef and Founder, Thierry Blouet, has created a truly incredible taster menu boasting fresh ingredients and the best wine in Puerto Vallerta.

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Or, enjoy a relaxed meal at Azafran located in the heart of the Zona Romántica. Here you’ll find fantastic homemade European cuisine, friendly service and the best fresh pasta you’ll ever taste from chef, Andreas Fischer.

Cafe Des Artistes brings some French glamour to Puerto Vallarta
Cafe Des Artistes brings some French glamour to Puerto Vallarta. Picture: Cafe Des Artistes

And for the night crawlers…

You might not think it, but Puerto Vallarta is paradise for night crawlers and is pretty much a 24-hour city if you know where to look.

For after-dark parties, stick to South of the Río Cuale to the Zona Romántica which has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants. Here you’ll come across LGBT hotspot The Top Sky Bar. A sunset terrace restaurant by day, by night this place also hosts energetic dance shows and live DJs.

Carrying the party on into the early morning, just around the corner Mr. Flamingo is a happy-hour cocktail tavern which transforms into a booming club and spills out into the streets until around 3am.

Where to stay in Puerto Vallerta

While the population is only around 250,000, the city sees a whopping two million tourists every year. And with 12,400 hotel rooms spanning the entire city, places to stay range from tiny boutique properties to 5 star all-inclusive resorts.

Popular with families and couples, the Now Amber hotel is nestled in the Hotel Zone and is set literally on the beach overlooking the crystal-clear waters of Banderas Bay.

The resort is only five minutes from the famous boardwalk and it’s balconies give visitors a front row seat of those beautiful sunset views.

But if it’s ‘adults only’ you’re after, their sister Hotel Secrets is just next door. The vibe here is definitely luxury and it’s home to an onsite spa and gym, as well Asian, Italian and French restaurants.

King room with a balcony at Now Amber resort
King room with a balcony at Now Amber resort. Picture: Now Amber

How to experience authentic Puerto Vallarta

Spend just a few days in Puerto Vallarta and you’ll soon realise it's a geographical sweet spot. If you’re looking for a truly Mexican experience, San Sebastián del Oeste is the place to start.

Set within the Sierra Madre hills, the historic Mexican town dates back to 1605 and is one of the few places which has totally kept hold of it’s old-town charm.

You can admire cobbled roads, multi-coloured bunting, and of course those incredible views over the mountains.

And while you might not expect this sleepy town to offer up much more than a food truck selling creamed corn (which is delicious FYI), hidden restaurant Jardin Nebulosa serves incredible food surrounded by a tranquil garden.

Jardin Nebulosa boasts top class food in humble settings
Jardin Nebulosa boasts top class food in humble settings. Picture: Jardin Nebulosa

The other natural jewel of Puerto Vallarta is the Botanical gardens located just an hour away from the Centro in Cabo Corrientes.

Opening to the public in 2005, the conservatories here house everything from orchids, rhododendrons, bromeliads and magnolias, to vanilla and chocolate.

There is now a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta from London Gatwick with TUI airline.

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