These days just saying the word “Mexico” in the US conjures up thousands of images and emotions in varying degrees, spanning politics to parties. As much traveling as I’ve done, I had yet to visit our southern neighbor. No spring break in Cancun. No family all-inclusive on the Riviera Maya.
There are 31 states and one federal district in Mexico and so many languages and dialects with regional diversity in food and customs that you’d need a lifetime to understand even a little about each of them. Mexico is a country as rich in culture and history as it is deep and wide. Rather like the United States.
We chose Puerto Vallarta, PV or simply “Vallarta” as it’s known, because we’re lucky enough to have family members who have a vacation home there. With so much to see I began as I usually do with a healthy dose of online research. I suspected I could scare up some interesting things for our entire family to enjoy that would surprise even the expats.
Vallarta’s got heart and soul and downright grit. You can dig in here and discover so much just by wandering around and talking to people. It’s got a small town. It’s also gay friendly. PV is to Mexico what Fire Island is to New York City. I can see why so many northerners come down for holiday or to stay. I’d like to go back and see more. Until I do, here are some of the places we most enjoyed on our whirlwind first-time visit to the Love Boat’s most loved port of call.
There are no direct flights from the mid-Atlantic and a limited number of carriers and flights into Puerto Vallarta. American Airlines offers a flight with an overnight layover in Dallas. It’s an attractive option if you have someone to visit, or if you don’t mind spending the night there. It’s one ticket, and if you don’t check a bag even easier.
[HOP TIP: Some businesses shut down in the low season, typically June – September. Check websites for times and availability.]
First, let’s talk basic geography. I knew we’d be staying in Emiliano Zapata aka Colonia Emiliano Zapata aka Zona Romantica which is south of the Río Cuale. Three possible names, same place. North of the Río Cuale is the area referred to as Centro also referred to as old town or downtown or Viejo Vallarta. A bunch of different names, all the same place.
The renovated Malecón boardwalk runs along the western edge of both areas bordering Banderas Bay all the way to Playa Los Muertos. In the Río Cuale itself, easily crossed on automobile and pedestrians bridges, is an island, Isla Cuale, also offering cultural attractions, shops and restaurants.
Look at a map. All will become clear. It’s very handy to have the geography in your head to orientate yourself while walking and for giving directions, say to a taxi driver, who may be confused by these interchangeable terms.
You don’t need a car. We explored all of these areas, almost exclusively on foot. Uber and taxi service is widely available for anything further afield or for those who aren’t up to a lot of walking.
[HOT TIP: Wearing solid footwear makes navigating the cobblestone streets and uneven pavement safer and more comfortable.]
EATING & DRINKING
I pre-booked the Original Downtown walking food tour by Vallarta Food Tours, which proved to be an excellent introduction to the area as well as great local food. I’ve included some of those stops in my recommendations. Buen Provecho!
- Margarita Grill — Fresh guacamole prepared tableside. Pino Suárez 321
- Yarita Bakery — Get your sweet fix on. Pastry, donuts, cookies, cakes. Basilio Badillo 244
- Cafe KT — Coffee drinks, including non-dairy lattes. Basilio Badillo 313-A
- Tacos Robles — A popular taco stand, adding brick and mortar. Try the traditional meat stuffed fried taco dorado. Constitución
- Mariscos Cisneros — Excellent seafood; try the stuffed pepper taco. Aguacate #271
- Aguas Frescas — Possibly my favorite new thing! We tried every flavor of this most refreshing drink and loved them all. Basilio Badillo, Insurgentes
- Los Muertos Brewing — Nice watering hole with locally made beer. Lázaro Cárdenas 302
- La Palapa — Dinner on the beach surrounded by the sound of lapping waves, tiki torches and candles, wonderful company and delicious food? Yes please! Romantic or otherwise, it’s all superb. Los Muertos Beach, Pulpito 105-3 Col.
- Tacos El Cuñado — Taco stand since 1968. Francisco Rodriguez, near the Pier
- River Café — Superb choice for dining on the island. Grab a table with a river view and enjoy exceptional service, delicious food in this unpretentious setting. They also have a vegetarian/vegan menu. Much appreciated. #4 Isla Río Cuale
- Vallarta Factory — One stop shop for chocolate, coffee and cigars. Who doesn’t love consumable souvenirs? Nice place to take a rest with a coffee or drink and people watch too. Libertad #100
- Gaby’s Restaurant — The mole was excellent and so was the tortilla soup. It’s a quaint place with a great story, family owned for decades. Calle Mina 252
- Orgullo Azteca Candy Store — Authentic Mexican candy factory and store. Avenida Juárez #449
Undoubtedly it was the paparazzi’s interest in one of the greatest love affairs of the 20th century that gave PV its reputation as a romantic seaside town and it began in the hillside neighborhood known as Gringo Gulch. Here on the north bank of the Río Cuale overlooking the bay, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, carried on their love affair. Burton with his own casita, gifted Taylor the stunning Casa Kimberly across the street for her 32nd birthday, and built Puente del Amore, the Bridge of Love, to connect them.
Casa Kimberly is now a luxury boutique hotel and spa with a restaurant and tequila bar, the Iguana, a nod to John Huston’s film “The Night of the Iguana”. Call ahead for a table and go just before sunset. The views, the setting, the food and the service will sweep you off your feet as surly as it would these star-crossed lovers.
- The Iguana Restaurant and Tequilla Bar — Calle Zaragoza 445
- Mundo de Pewter (Pewter World) and Mundo de Azulejos (Tile World) — Lots of tiles, glassware, pottery and pewter. Venustiano Carranza 374
- Serafina Boutique — Nice collection of leather bags, belts, jewelry and clothing made in Mexico. Calle Basilio Badillo 260
- Cassandra Shaw Jewelry — Excellent quality silver made in Mexico by Cassandra or other local designers. Basilio Badillo 276
- Muy Guapo Mexico — Unique collection of contemporary and vintage art and objects. Venustiano Carranza 310
- Ropero de Jovany — Vintage clothing and accessories for men and women. Venustiano Carranza 300
FIRST-TIMER MUST SEES & DOS
The second tour I pre-booked was a unique cultural immersion by Human Connections, the likes of which I have never seen elsewhere. This non-profit offers educational programs to connect travelers with local artisans to facilitate cultural understanding and social change. Tours originate from their office in Bucerias (you can taxi or Uber from Emiliano Zapata, about 45 minute drive).
We met three local artisans: Francisco, a traditional painter, Rolando, a weaver and restaurateurs Diana and Lucy. It was refreshing to hear their stories in a personal way, listening and asking questions. Purchase anything you’d like to buy directly from the artisans. We ended our tour on the third stop, lunch at Concina Las Flores where Diana and Lucy not only cooked us a delicious lunch, but also showed us how to make tortillas! Win, win, win.
Boating on Banderas Bay — Any way you can get out on the water, go snorkeling, fishing, yachting, sailing or motor out to Yelapa. Many charters available.
Mercado Municipal Río Cuale — Shop the Municipal Market where you can practice your bargaining skills, in Spanish that is. Agustín Rodríguez s/n, Centro
Sapphire Ocean Club — Why pay for a beach club to see the sand and surf? Let’s see, for 200 pesos per person you get access to towels, a lounge chair and umbrella on the beach (where a waiter will serve you), pool and outdoor showers, a lovely bar and restaurant and massage services. Why not? Run a tab and pay when you’re ready to leave. Malecon #1, Playa Los Muertos
La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe — I can hardly ever resist photographing the architecture of beautiful religious buildings and this endearing monument is no exception. The catholic church is one of the city’s most treasured landmarks. Easily recognizable, its crown dominates the skyline. Open daily. Hidalgo #370, Centro