Puerto Vallarta remains our favorite part of this colorful country, for its unrivaled combination of Mexican warmth, international diversity, and artistic charm. Beyond the cobblestone streets, graceful cathedral, bustling malecón (boardwalk), and festive zócalo (town square), Puerto Vallarta's welcoming atmosphere is complemented by its wealth of natural beauty and man-made pleasures, including hotels of all classes and prices, more than 250 restaurants, and a sizzling nightlife. Cool breezes flow down from the mountains along the Río Cuale, which runs through the city center. Fanciful public sculptures enhance the extensive contemporary arts scene, with the finest galleries in all of Mexico clustered together along a few small and charming blocks. As the most gay-friendly city in Mexico, Vallarta is as open-minded as it is laid-back, and folks from Mexico and the world over have relocated here, in part, for its cosmopolitan and open orientation.
Galleries, boutique shops, and outdoor markets blanket the town's cobblestone streets. You can walk everywhere, pausing along the way at a beachside cafe or on a boardwalk bench. Life here revolves around the ocean, with activities including deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, long-board surfing, and swimming with dolphins. Ecotourism activities abound—sign up for a jungle canopy tour, visit a protected island preserve, or test your sight at bird-watching. Ease yourself into an ocean kayak, watch whales migrating, or put on your scuba gear and dive with giant mantas in Banderas Bay. The range of activities in this earthly heaven is astounding.
Some folks come to Puerto Vallarta for its healing effects. Yoga retreats and fine spas have sprung up all over in recent years. There's something spiritual about a stroll along the malecón with its ocean breezes, multihued sunsets, and moonlit views of the bay. Peaceful scenic drives extend north and south of the city along oceanside cliffs and through winding jungle terrain. Those here to rest, read, and relax can choose from 26 miles of beaches, many in pristine coves accessible only by boat and framed by the majestic Sierra Madre mountains.
Dining here is delightful. The fresh fish, locally raised meats, and seasonal ingredients inspire Vallarta's many outstanding chefs, boosting the restaurant scene into one of the country's best. Creative Mexican and international dishes explode with flavor, and service is consistently gracious and warm. Wander through downtown Vallarta for fine sidewalk dining as diverse as the city itself. In Viejo Vallarta, you can enjoy a delicious Mexican meal at a casual eatery steps away from an acclaimed international seafood restaurant. You'll find French, Italian, German, and Asian venues tucked between galleries just on the other side of the Río Cuale.
Nighttime entertainment transforms the malecón into a modern Mexican party, where hipsters pack fashionable clubs, dancers swing to salsa, midnight revelers chase back tequila, and celebrations spill into the streets. A number of more chilled-out bars cater to the wine and margarita crowd. Even snowbirds jam to oldies not far from the hottest clubs. The old town is filled with fun-loving gay and gay-friendly bars. As with every aspect of this lively and lovely city, there is something for everyone.
The Riviera Nayarit
After flying into Puerto Vallarta, many travelers spend a few days in that city and then head to the 192-mile stretch of coastline that was dubbed the Riviera Nayarit in 2007 (it's in the state of Nayarit). Some 23 small beach villages dot the coastline and with the exception of just a few of them, they tend to be wonderfully cozy little hamlets, where visitors are treated with true warmth.
Nuevo Vallarta & North of Vallarta: All-Inclusives
Many people assume Nuevo Vallarta is a suburb of Puerto Vallarta, but it's a stand-alone destination over the state border in Nayarit. It was designed as a mega resort development, complete with marina, golf course, and luxury hotels. Although it got off to a slow start, it has finally come together, with a collection of mostly all-inclusive hotels catering particularly to families on one of the widest, most attractive beaches in the bay. The biggest resort, Paradise Village (www.paradisevillage.com) has a full marina and an 18-hole golf course inland from the beachside strip of hotels, plus a growing selection of condos and homes for sale. The most expensive all-inclusive resort here is Grand Velas All Suites & Spa Resort (www.vallarta.grandvelas.com; tel. 322/226-8000) at Av. Cocoteros, 98 Sur. Its impressive palapa lobby is one of the largest such structures ever built; its spa has a dizzying array of treatments, including some for children. The creation of the Paradise Plaza shopping center, next to Paradise Village, tripled the number of shopping and dining offerings in the area. It's open daily from 10am to 10pm. To get to the beach, you travel down a lengthy entrance road from the highway, passing by a few remaining fields (which used to be great for birding) but mostly real estate under construction.
A 26km (16-mile) trip into downtown Puerto Vallarta takes about 30 minutes by taxi, costs about 250 pesos, and is available 24 hours a day. The ride is slightly longer by public bus, which costs 15 pesos and operates from 7am to 11pm.
Bucerías: A Coastal Village
Only 18km (11 miles) north of the Puerto Vallarta airport and adjacent to Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerías (Boo-seh-ree-ahs, meaning "place of the divers") is a trendy coastal town on the Nayarit side of Banderas Bay. Lovely villas, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants line the main street in Bucerías Sur, the gentrified south side of town bustling with expatriates and suburban commuters. Across a walking bridge lies the north side of Bucerías, colloquially referred to as "el pueblo," a traditional fishing village where more of the local population lives.
To reach the town center by car, take the exit road from the highway out of Vallarta and drive down the shaded, divided street that leads to the beach. Turn left when you see a line of minivans and taxis (which serve Bucerías and Vallarta). Go straight ahead 1 block to the main plaza. The beach, with a lineup of restaurants, is a half-block farther. You'll see cobblestone streets leading from the highway to the beach, and hints of villas and town homes behind high walls.
If you take the bus to Bucerías, exit when you see the minivans and taxis to and from Bucerías on the street that leads to the beach. To use public transportation from Puerto Vallarta, take a minivan or bus marked BUCERIAS (they run 6am-9pm). The last minivan stop is Bucerías's town square. There's also 24-hour taxi service.
Exploring Bucerías—Come here for a day trip from Puerto Vallarta just to enjoy the long, wide, uncrowded beach, along with the fresh seafood served at the beachside restaurants or at one of the cafes listed below. On Sundays, many of the streets surrounding the plaza are closed to traffic for a mercado (street market)—where you can buy anything from tortillas to neon-colored cowboy hats. There's also an art walk every second Thursday of the month from 7 to 9pm (www.thebuceriasartwalk.com).
Bucerías doesn't offer much in the way of hotels—many people who come here rent condominiums or other vacation properties. One reliable option is the Hotel Palmeras (www.hotelpalmeras.com; tel. 329/298-1288), on Lázaro Cárdenas 35, with simple, comfortable rooms generally under $100, just a block off the beach.
The Coral Reef Surf Shop, Heroe de Nacozari 114 (www.coralreefsurfshop.com; tel. 329/298-0261), sells a wide selection of surfboards and gear, and offers surfboard and Boogie board rentals, and a surf package that includes transport to Punta Mita or La Lancha and a lesson there. The shop is on the main highway heading south out of town.
Dining—Many seafood restaurants front the beach. The local specialty is pescado zarandeado, a whole fish (usually red snapper) smothered in a tasty sauce (several varieties are usually offerred) and slow-grilled. The ceviche and lobster are excellent here, too. Most fine-dining options here are open only for dinner.
Punta Mita: Exclusive Seclusion
At the northern tip of the bay lies an arrowhead-shaped, 600-hectare (1,482-acre) peninsula bordered on three sides by the ocean, called Punta de Mita. Considered a sacred place by the Indians, this is the point where Banderas Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Cortez come together. It's magnificent, with quiet beaches and coral reefs just offshore. Stately rocks jut out along the shoreline, and the water is a dreamy translucent blue. Punta Mita has evolved into Mexico's most exclusive development, an enormous gated resort community next to the original little town that to this day has a few authentic restaurants and shops. The luxury community's master plan includes a couple world-class resorts, multimillion dollar villas and residences, and two championship golf courses. You'll find the elegant Four Seasons Resort, St. Regis, and two Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses here along with plenty of exclusive real estate for sale to the highest bidders.
Sayulita: A Surfers' Paradise
Sayulita sits only 40km (25 miles) northwest of Puerto Vallarta, on Hwy. 200 to Tepic, yet it feels like a world apart. It captures the simplicity and tranquillity of beach life that has long since left Vallarta -- but hurry, because it's exploding in popularity. For years, Sayulita has been principally a surfers' destination -- the main beach in town is known for its consistent break and long, ridable waves. Visitors and locals who find Vallarta to be too cosmopolitan have started to flock here. Although Sayulita has only 5,800 residents, it swells to nearly 40,000 visitors in high season. You'll now find more real estate offices than surf shops, and more fine-jewelry stores than juice bars, but Sayulita is still holding on to its charms.
An easygoing attitude prevails in this beach town, despite the niceties popping up amid the basic accommodations, inexpensive Mexican food stands, and handmade, hippie-style-bauble vendors. You may encounter a Huichol Indian family that has come down from the Sierra to sell their wares. Yet it's quickly becoming gentrified with new cafes, sleek shops, aromatherapy-infused spas, and elegant villas for rent.
Sayulita is most popular for surfing. Any day, you'll witness a swarm of surfers seeking perfect swells offshore from the main beach. Numerous other surf spots dot the coastline -- some more secret than others -- and a reliable long-boarders' break can be found at La Lancha and Punta Mita, about half an hour away (most surf shops will organize trips there). Other ocean activities, such as whale watching, fishing, and snorkeling trips, can be arranged through Chica Locca Tours (www.chicaloccatours.com; tel. 329/291-2065), located at the corner of Avenita Revolución and Calle Delfin.
To get to Sayulita, you can rent a car or take a taxi from the airport or downtown Vallarta. The rate is about $70 to get to the town plaza. The taxi stand is on the main square, or you can call for pickup at your hotel. The trip to the airport from Sayulita costs about $60. Guides also lead tours to Puerto Vallarta, Punta Mita, and other surrounding areas, including a Huichol Indian community. There's also a bus that operates between Sayulita and Puerto Vallarta every 15 minutes between 5:30am to 8:15pm for only 25 pesos each way.
Surfing—There are two main surf spots in Sayulita -- the most popular is the "point" break fronting the main beach in the village, which is a right long board break. A faster, left break is found just north of the river mouth, in front of the campground. There's also a calmer spot toward the beach's south end where lessons are usually given. Surf instruction and board rentals are available at Sayulita Surf Camp (www.sayulitasurfcamp.com), a highly professional outfit that only employs staff certified by the International Surfing Association. Stand-up paddle boards and Boogie boards are also available. You'll find several other surf schools on the beach during high season. Most surf shops also organize trips to La Lancha, a popular surf spot near Punta Mita with slow-rolling waves perfect for long boarders.
Where to Eat—Fine dining is hard to come by in Sayulita, but you'll find tasty seafood eateries and fish taco stands around town and by the beach. For the best burrito of your life, stop by Burritos Revolución just off the main plaza at Revolución 40 (no phone). There's almost always a line here for the cooked-to-order "surf" (marlin, mahimahi, or shrimp) and "turf" (chicken, beef, or carnitas) burritos, and a sign advises you to smile, pay cash, and not ask for any substitutions. This no-nonsense burrito shack is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm. The best fish tacos are made at the aptly named Sayulita Fish Taco (tel. 329/291-3272), also serving over 200 tequilas at Mariscal 13. Ruben's Deli (tel. 322/183-0692), located at the corner of Revolución and Delfin, prepares yummy deli sandwiches daily from 10am to 5pm.
Nightlife—Nightlife in Sayulita is as laid back by night as by day, and much of the action just happens out on the street and around the main square. Locals seem to gravitate to a different locale each night, so when you arrive, ask around to see where the evening's hot spot will be.