Puerto Vallarta and around

Now a highly commercialized sun-and-sand holiday resort increasingly marred by congestion and widespread condominium developments, Puerto Vallarta still has its advantages. With a wonderful location on the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags), one of the most striking bays in Mexico, it has wonderful beaches and dolphins frolicking in the clear waters. The resort caters to low-end mass tourism as well as high-end, member-only visitors (particularly in the northern suburbs). In the spring, Puerto Vallarta and its environs are top destinations for college students and timeshare residents, many of them North American retirees. While the weather is pleasant year-round, the high season runs from November to April. Prices drop considerably during the low season, although they remain high compared to less developed areas.

The stepped and cobbled streets of the old centre, particularly around the well-preserved Zona Romantica, are picturesque, and accommodation and restaurants, while edging towards the higher end in this more gentrified area of town, are still varied enough to suit most budgets. There is plenty of good hiking in the surrounding hills and water sports and diving are easily accessible. Increasingly it has become a base for excursions and for special-interest trips including ornithology and whale watching. And of course there are the beaches - more than 50 of them ranging from pristine, deserted shores (mostly to the north) to ultra-luxurious strands that flank the private marinas closer to the city. Development is heading inexorably north towards the still relatively untouched fishing villages that dot the bay. Travellers wishing to see what Puerto Vallarta was like 40 years ago, before the arrival of international tourism, should take a trip north to any of these villages.

Orientation

Greater Puerto Vallarta is drawn out along 25 km of the west-facing curve of the deeply incised Banderas Bay. It can be split into six sections.
North Central
is the oldest, with the main plaza, cathedral and seafront
malecón
as well as an uninviting strip of pebble/sand beach.
South Central
, across the Río Cuale, is newer but similarly packed with shops and bordered by the fine, deep sand of Playa de los Muertos.
South
Shore
is where the mountains come to the sea, there are several cove beaches and a scattering of big hotels. The
Hotel Zone
, leading north, is a long stretch from town towards the cruise ship terminal and the airport, with mediocre beaches, many big, mass-market hotels and several commercial centres.
Marina Vallarta
, further north, has a dazzling array of watercraft, a golf course, smart hotels and a poor quality beach (you can't walk far because of condominiums built around the marina and/or construction along the water's edge).
Nuevo Vallarta
, 15 km north of the centre, in the neighbouring state of Nayarit (one-hour time difference), which has a golf course and marina, along with dozens of modern all-inclusive hotels strung along miles of white-sand beach, but far from amenities (meaning guests pay a handsome sum to acquire them at the complexes themselves).

Most travellers will find the North or South central areas the most convenient to stay in. The accommodation in these areas is mostly attractive bed and breakfasts with some sense of style, not at all the cookie-cutter mega-complexes found further north.

Tourist information

The
tourist office
, www.visitpuertovallarta.com
, is in the government building on the main square.

Sights

The North and South central areas are the most interesting for the majority of visitors. They are divided by the Río Cuale and a narrow island where souvenir shops, cafés, galleries, language schools, and the small
Museo Arqueológico del Cuale
, are located. The museum has exhibits on significant archaeological treasures found within the region, traditional Mexican arts and crafts, folklore displays, and some well-preserved pre-Hispanic items. The most dramatic beach in the centre is
Playa de los Muertos
, apparently named after the murderous activities of pirates in the late-16th century, although the 'dead' tag could apply equally to the fierce undertow or possibly to the pollution that affects this corner of the bay. The authorities are trying to get people to use the sunnier sobriquet of 'Playa del Sol'.
Playa Conchas Chinas
is probably the best beach close to town, being quiet and clean (at any holiday time, though, every beach is packed).

The waterfront
malecón
is the focus for much of Vallarta's shopping, dining, drinking and dancing activities, or at least those to which the general public is welcome. There are more than 200 shops, restaurants, bars and clubs packed along the strip that extends about 16 blocks from Río Cuale to 31 de Octubre along Paseo Díaz Ordaz. Crowded, hot and noisy, it defies all attempts to modify it, and while it is probably the one spot in Vallarta where you're likely to see people at their worst (crowd behaviour here is deplorable in every sense), it is also the one place in the area where everyone seems to come together on a nightly basis to enjoy themselves, whether it's browsing through the dozens of jewellery shops and art galleries, partying until dawn in one of the many clubs, or eating and drinking in one of the restaurants that open to the ocean.

Be sure to take in an evening performance at the far end by the
Voladores de Papantla
(Flying Men of Papantla). This folkloric show features men of the Papantla region performing rivetting aerial dances. Four men at a time perch atop an 8-m pole to which their feet have been tied, while musicians on the ground below play traditional songs. At a designated point in the men above launch themselves, head first toward the ground, spinning as they descend. It's no joke and is actually quite dangerous and breathtaking.

During the rainy season (June to September) some trips are not possible. From November
to April, humpback whale watching is organized. A recommended trip including snorkelling
is with John Pegueros, who owns the schooner
Elías Mann
.

Playa de los Tomates
, a 25-minute walk north of the marina (buses every hour from the marina), has good birdwatching, half a dozen beach restaurants and very few tourists. You can hire a boat to go to the mangroves. On the way
Las Palmas
, 25 km northeast of Puerto Vallarta and inland, is the workers' pueblo of
Ixtapa
, established by the Montgomery Fruit Co in 1925. Near here are post-Classic stone mounds scattered over a wide area.

Exactly 10 km south of Puerto Vallarta, along the coast road is
Mismaloya
, where in 1963 John Huston made
Night of the Iguana
with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. (Arnold Schwarzenegger's
Predator
was also filmed in nearby El Edén.) It is a lovely beach backed by a steep subtropical valley, even though the
La Jolla Mismaloya
hotel looms over the sands. The beach is clean and you can hire umbrellas and chairs for the day, US$2; beware of the undertow at low tide. The film set has been developed as
Iguana Park
. You can go horse riding in the region (as far as the Sierra Madre) with at least six different registered outfits.

Heading north from Puerto Vallarta the coast road continues to
Las Varas
for 96 km and then veers eastwards to
Compostela
for another 34 km, where it turns north again towards Tepic, 65 km at the interchange with Route 15. From Puerto Vallarta to Las Varas the road passes some very attractive beach resorts, the first of which is
Bucerías
. Next along Route 200,
La Cruz de Huancaxtle
is slated to be the next big development and is home to the largest marina on the coast, but for now still retains much of its original charm and is highly recommended as a day trip. The beach here is not as attractive as elsewhere, but the town remains for the moment a true
pueblo pescador
(fishing village) with an ambience than is rapidly disappearing elsewhere along the bay.

Los Veneros
, is a pretty cove with fairly safe swimming. Access is through a private beach club reached down a 7-km private road through woods to the beach. The resort is beautifully designed and clean with two restaurants, bar, café and gardens terraced towards the beach. The food is excellent and there's no extra charge for sunbeds/umbrellas. You can take a shuttle bus from Los Veneros bus station.

Punta de Mita
, a fishing village and beach resort at the tip of a peninsula, has fish restaurants, miles of beach and abundant birdlife. There are boat trips to the nearby Islas Marietas, where there are caves and birds. Camping is possible on the beach. Simple accommodation is also available.

North of Punta de Mita are beaches on the coast road including
Chacala
, a pleasant free beach lined with coconut palms, good swimming, cold showers and a restaurant; it is reached by an unsurfaced road through the jungle.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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