Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco
PV beaches are varied. Downtown's main beach, Los Muertos, is a fun scene, with shoulder-to-shoulder establishments for drinking and eating under the shade. There's year-round action, although water-sports equipment rentals may be available on weekends only during the rainy season. The itinerant vendors are present year-round, however, and can be annoying. Olas Altas Beach, which runs north from Los Muertos, has the same grainy brown sand but fewer vendors and services and sometimes waves big enough to surf or boogie. During vacation periods it's just as lively as Los Muertos Beach. North of the malecón and Hotel Rosita, more stretches of sand front minor hotels. Hotel Zone beaches offer adults opportunities to play with aquatic toys, especially in high season. The sand here is often pocked with rocks, depending on the season and tides, and narrow in places. The beach at Marina Vallarta, between PV and Nuevo Vallarta, is swimmable but mainly uninspired except for the beach toys and hotels that offer refreshments. Again, sand here is lacking in front of some hotels, especially at high tide. South of Vallarta proper are Conchas Chinas, a few smaller beaches, and Mismaloya. The wild beaches farther south (on the north side of Cabo Corrientes, from Las Animas to Yelapa) didn't have electricity until the 1970s or later. They tend to fill up with day-trippers between December and April but are well worth a visit. At Los Muertos as well as beaches in the Hotel Zone and Marina Vallarta, you can find Jet Skis, parasailing, and banana-boat rides in high season (December-April) and on weekends year-round.
It's hard to decide which is more satisfying: shopping in Puerto Vallarta, or feasting at its glorious restaurants. There are enough of both to keep a bon vivant busy for weeks. But while gourmands return home with enlarged waistlines, gluttonous shoppers need an extra suitcase for the material booty they bring home.
Puerto Vallarta's highest concentration of shops and restaurants shares the same prime real estate: Old Vallarta. But as construction of hotels, time-shares, condos, and private mansions marches implacably north up the bay, new specialty stores and gourmet groceries follow the gravy train. To the south, the Costalegre is made up primarily of modest seaside towns and self-contained luxury resorts, and shopping opportunities are rare.
More than a half-dozen malls line "the airport road," Boulevard Francisco M. Ascencio, which connects downtown with the Hotel Zone and Marina Vallarta. There you'll find folk art, resort clothing, and home furnishing stores amid supermarkets, and in some cases bars, movie theaters, and banks.
A 15% value added tax (locally called IVA, officially the impuesto al valor agregado) is levied on most larger purchases. (Note that it's often included in the price, and it's usually disregarded entirely by market vendors.) As a foreign visitor, you can reclaim this 15% by filling out paperwork at a kiosk in the Puerto Vallarta airport and other major airports around the country. That said, most visitors find the system tedious and unrewarding and avoid it altogether. You must make purchases at approved stores and businesses, and your merchandise must total $115 or more. Even if you plan to pay with cash or a debit card, you must present a credit card at the time of purchase and obtain a receipt and an official refund form from the merchant. Tax paid on meals and lodgings won't be refunded.
First-time travelers come for the sun and sea, but it's PV's wonderful restaurants that create legions of long-term fans. You can pay L.A. prices for perfectly decorated plates but also get fresh-caught fish and hot-off-the-griddle tortillas for scandalously little dough. Enjoy a 300-degree bay view from a cliff-top aerie or bury your toes in the sand, dressed up or completely casual. It's the destination's great variety of venues and cuisine that keeps returning foodies blissfully content.
During the past 30 years, immigrant chefs have expanded the culinary horizons beyond seafood and Mexican fare. You'll find everything from haute cuisine to fish kebabs. Some of the most rewarding culinary experiences are found outside of fancy restaurants and familiar chain eateries at the street-side tacos stalls and neighborhood fondas, humble spots serving bowls of chile-laced pozole and seafood-heavy Mexican comfort food.
The trend of the day is restaurant-lounges. Ten years ago, DeSantos (co-owned by the drummer of the Mexican rock band Maná) was the first to combine dining and dancing in a hip new way, with its noisy, ground-floor bar-restaurant and pulsing dance club above. Today DeSantos, Ztai, Mandala, and other lounges provide places to party with the locals beyond their cool and chill dining rooms.
For those who prefer dining alfresco (and wearing flip-flops) to the glamour scene, almost every popular beach has a palapa shanty or two selling fish fillets and snacks, sodas, and beer. Some offer the Pacific Coast specialty pescado sarandeado (butterflied red snapper rubbed with salt and spices and grilled over a wood fire) or the devilishly simple (and fiery hot) dish aguachile, a ceviche salad. The catch of the day may vary, but the white plastic tables and chairs in the sand are permanent fixtures.
Centered in the middle of a large bay, Bahía de Banderas, Puerto Vallarta is the traditional hub for area beach hotels. Look for smaller budget hotels downtown, and oceanfront high-rise hotels to the north in the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera), Marina Vallarta, and Nuevo Vallarta. Even farther north, Riviera Nayarit is where to go for unique B&Bs, boutique hotels, and some truly luxurious villas.
Having reached critical mass, Puerto Vallarta's hotel scene is more about upgrading than building new properties. In the Centro and Zona Romántica neighborhoods, expect refurbished budget and moderately priced hotels (with the exception of luxury property Hacienda San Angel). Continue north into Zona Hotelera for condos, time-shares, and high-rises.
Areas directly to the north and south of the city continue to add vacation properties. Just north of town in Nuevo Vallarta, look for the new condo-hotel Taheima Wellness Resort & Spa. South of town in Costalegre, the boutique ecoluxe oasis Hotelito Desconocido has reopened after two years of renovation with an extensive new holistic spa.
The most development is occurring in Riviera Nayarit, where the 100 mi of coastline between San Blas and Nuevo Vallarta are experiencing a building boom. Once the private playground of surfers and beachgoers seeking waves and long stretches of solitary sand, many popular beaches are now becoming resort destinations. Playa Destiladeras, between La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and Punta Mita, is home to the new Fairmont Rancho Banderas—an upscale family-focused resort of one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas. The area is also home to the 2,100-acre Litubú development that is set to have two golf courses, the new La Tranquila resort, private homes, a beach club, and public shopping and dining.
No matter what you're looking for—from cliff-side condos with beach access to small inns with trails leading into the jungle, from enormous pools with swim-up bars to private plunge pools—almost any hospitality wish can be fulfilled here.
Outdoorsy Vallarta switches gears after dark and rocks into the wee hours. When the beachgoers and sightseers have been showered and fed, Vallarta kicks up its heels and puts the baby to bed. Happy hour in martini lounges sets the stage for an evening that might include a show, live music, or just hobnobbing under the stars at a rooftop bar.
Many hotels have Mexican fiesta dinner shows, which can be lavish affairs with buffet dinners, folk dances, and even fireworks. Tour groups and individuals—mainly middle-age and older Americans and Canadians—make up the audience at the Saturday-night buffet dinner show at Playa Los Arcos and other hotels. Vaqueros (cowboys) do rope tricks and dancers perform Mexican regional or pseudo-Aztec dances. The late-late crowd gets down after midnight at dance clubs, some of which stay open until 6 am.
The scene mellows as you head north and south of Puerto Vallarta. In Punta Mita (aka Punta de Mita), Bucerías, Sayulita, and San Francisco (aka San Pancho), local restaurants provide live music; the owners usually scare up someone good once or twice a week in high season. Along the Costalegre, tranquility reigns. Most people head here for relaxation, and nightlife generally takes the form of stargazing, drink in hand. If you're visiting June through October (low season), attend live performances whenever offered, as they are few and far between.
Although there's definitely crossover, many Mexicans favor the upscale bars and clubs of the Hotel Zone and Marina Vallarta hotels, while foreigners tend to like the Mexican flavor of places downtown and the south side (the Zona Romántica), where dress is decidedly more casual.