Beaches, Activities & Excursions
Travel agencies can provide information on what to see and do in Puerto Vallarta and can arrange tours, fishing trips, and other activities. Most hotels have a tour desk on-site. Of the many travel agencies in town, I highly recommend Tukari Servicios Turísticos, Av. España 316 (tel. 322/224-7177; http://tukari.agenciasviajes.mx/), which specializes in ecological and cultural tours. Another source is Xplora Vallarta (tel. 322/226-6349; http://exploravallarta.com/en.php), in the Huichol Collection shop on the malecón. It has listings of all locally available tours, with photos, explanations, and costs. One of the tour companies with the largest -- and best-quality -- selection of boat cruises and land tours is Vallarta Adventures (tel. 888/526-2238 in the U.S., or 322/297-1212; www.vallarta-adventures.com). I can highly recommend any of their offerings.
For years, beaches were Puerto Vallarta's main attraction. Although visitors today are exploring more of the surrounding geography, the sands are still a powerful draw. Over 42km (26 miles) of beaches extend around the broad Bay of Banderas, ranging from action-packed party spots to secluded coves accessible only by boat.
In Town -- The easiest to reach is Playa Los Muertos (also known as Playa Olas Altas or Playa del Sol), just off Calle Olas Altas, south of the Río Cuale. The water can be rough, but the wide beach is home to a diverse array of palapa restaurants that offer food, beverage, and beach-chair service. The most popular are the adjacent El Dorado and La Palapa, at the end of Pulpito Street. On the southern end of this beach is a section known as "Blue Chairs" -- the most popular gay beach. Vendors stroll Los Muertos, and beach volleyball, parasailing, and jet-skiing are all popular pastimes. The Hotel Zone is also known for its broad, smooth beaches, accessed through the resorts.
South of Town -- Playa Mismaloya is in a beautiful sheltered cove about 10km (6 1/4 miles) south of town along Hwy. 200. The water is clear and ideal for snorkeling off the beach. Entrance to the public beach is just to the left of the Barceló La Jolla de Mismaloya (tel. 322/226-0600). This is where the Night of the Iguana, the movie that made Puerto Vallarta famous with the international jet set, was filmed.
The beach at Boca de Tomatlán, just down the road, houses numerous palapa restaurants where you can relax for the day -- you buy drinks, snacks, or lunch, and you can use their chairs and palapa shade. The boat to Verana also goes from here.
The two beaches are accessible by public buses, which depart from Basilio Badillo and Insurgentes every 15 minutes from 5:30am to 10pm.
Las Animas, Quimixto, and Yelapa beaches are the most secluded, accessible only by boat. They are larger than Mismaloya, offer intriguing hikes to jungle waterfalls, and are similarly set up, with restaurants fronting a wide beach. Overnight stays are available at Yelapa.
North of Town -- The beaches at Marina Vallarta are the least desirable in the area, with darker sand and seasonal inflows of stones. The entire northern coastline from Bucerías to Punta Mita is a succession of sandy coves alternating with rocky inlets. For years the beaches to the north, with their long, clean breaks, have been the favored locale for surfers. The broad, sandy stretches at Playa Anclote, Playa Piedras Blancas, and Playa Destiladeras, which all have palapa restaurants, have made them favorites with local residents looking for a quick getaway.
You can also hire a panga (small motorized boat) at Playa Anclote to take you to the Marietas Islands just offshore. These uninhabited islands are a great place for bird-watching, diving, snorkeling, or just exploring. Blue-footed booby birds (found only here and in the Galápagos) dawdle along the islands' rocky coast, and giant mantas, sea turtles, and colorful tropical fish swim among the coral cliffs. The islands are honeycombed with caves and hidden beaches -- including the stunning Playa de Amor (Beach of Love) that appears only at low tide. Humpback whales congregate around these islands during the winter months, and pangas can be rented for a do-it-yourself whale-watching excursion. Trips cost about $40 per hour. You can also visit these islands aboard one of the numerous day cruises that depart from the cruise ship terminal in Puerto Vallarta.
Diving & Snorkeling
Underwater enthusiasts, from beginner to expert, can arrange scuba diving or snorkeling through Vallarta Adventures (tel. 888/526-2238 in the U.S., or 322/297-1212, ext. 3; www.vallarta-adventures.com), a five-star PADI dive center. You may snorkel or dive at Los Arcos, a company-owned site at Caletas Cove (where you'll dive in the company of sea lions), Quimixto Coves, the Marietas Islands, or the offshore La Corbeteña, Morro, and Chimo reefs. The company runs a full range of certification courses. Chico's Dive Shop (tel. 322/222-1895; www.chicos-diveshop.com), with its main shop at Díaz Ordaz 772-5, near Punto V bar, offers similar diving and snorkeling trips and is also a PADI five-star dive center. Chico's is open daily from 8am to 10pm, with branches at the Barceló, Fiesta Americana, and Playa Los Arcos. You can also snorkel off the beaches at Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán; elsewhere, there's not much to see besides a sandy bottom.
Arrange fishing trips through travel agencies or through the Cooperativa de Pescadores (Fishing Cooperative), on the malecón north of the Río Cuale, next door to the Rosita Hotel (tel. 322/222-1202). Fishing charters cost from $300 to over $1,000, depending on the size of the boat and trip duration (4-8 hr.). Smaller boats (7m/24 ft.) can accommodate up to four people, while larger boats (12m/40 ft.) can accommodate up to 10. It's open daily from 8am to 9pm, but make arrangements by phone a day ahead. You can also arrange fishing trips through such generalist websites as www.boatbound.co and www.getmyboat.com, both of which put travelers in contact with captains in port cities around the world (and so often have very good prices).
Puerto Vallarta is an increasingly popular golf destination. The Joe Finger-designed private course at the Marina Vallarta Golf Club (tel. 322/221-0073; www.marinavallartagolf.com) is an 18-hole, par-71 course that winds through the Marina Vallarta peninsula and affords ocean views. It's for members only, but most luxury hotels in Puerto Vallarta have memberships for their guests.
North of town in the state of Nayarit, about 15km (9 1/4 miles) beyond Puerto Vallarta, is the 18-hole, par-72 Los Flamingos Club de Golf (tel. 329/296-5006; www.flamingosgolf.com.mx). It features beautiful jungle vegetation and is open from 7am to 7pm daily, with a full pro shop and palapa restaurant and bar. Free transportation is offered to and from local hotels.
There are two breathtaking Jack Nicklaus Signature courses at the Punta Mita Golf Club (tel. 329/291-6000; www.fourseasons.com/puntamita/golf). The original Pacifico course features eight oceanfront holes and an ocean view from every hole. The second and more-challenging course, Bahia, intertwines with the original course and also affords stunning seaside holes; its finishing hole is adjacent to the St. Regis Resort. The courses are open only to members or guests staying in the Punta Mita resorts, or to other golf club members with a letter of introduction from their pro.
Another Jack Nicklaus course is located at the Vista Vallarta Golf Club (tel. 322/290-0030; www.vistavallartagolf.com), along with one designed by Tom Weiskopf. These courses were the site of the 2002 PGA World Cup Golf Championships.
The Robert von Hagge-designed El Tigre course at Paradise Village (tel. 866/843-5951 in the U.S., or 322/297-0773; www.eltigregolf.com), in Nuevo Vallarta, is a 7,239-yard course on a relatively flat piece of land, but the design incorporates challenging bunkers, undulating fairways, and water features on several holes.
Travel agents and local ranches can arrange guided horseback rides. Rancho Palma Real, Carretera Vallarta, Tepic 4766 (tel. 322/222-0501), has an office 5 minutes north of the airport; the ranch is in Las Palmas, 40 minutes northeast of Vallarta. It is by far the nicest horseback-riding tour in the area. The price includes continental breakfast, drinks, and lunch.
Another good option is Rancho el Charro, Av. Francisco Villa 895 (tel. 322/224-0114, or cell 044-322/294-1689; www.ranchoelcharro.com), which has handsome, well-cared-for horses and a variety of rides for all levels, departing from their ranch at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Rides range in length from 3 to 8 hours, and in price from $75 to $135. Rancho el Charro also has multiple-day rides -- check their website for details.
Swimming with Dolphins
Dolphin Adventure (tel. 888/526-2238 in the U.S., or 322/297-1212; www.vallarta-adventures.com) operates an interactive dolphin-research facility -- considered the finest in Latin America -- that allows limited numbers of people to swim with dolphins Monday through Saturday at scheduled times. Cost for the Dolphin Signature Swim is $139. Reservations are required, and they generally sell out at least a week in advance. Dolphin Encounter ($89) allows you to touch and learn about the dolphins in smaller pools, so you're ensured up-close-and-personal time with them. The Dolphin Kids program, for children ages 4 to 8, is a gentle introduction to dolphins, featuring the Dolphin Adventure baby dolphins and their mothers interacting with the children participants ($79).
Many hotels in Puerto Vallarta offer excellent tennis facilities; they often have clay courts. The full-service Canto del Sol Tennis Club (tel. 322/226-0123; www.cantodelsol.com) is at the Canto del Sol hotel in the Hotel Zone. It offers indoor and outdoor courts, a full pro shop, lessons, clinics, and partner matches. Courts cost about $25 per hour.