Puerto Vallarta is where cobblestoned streets lined with traditional Mexican architecture and bougainvillea give way to the sparkling aquamarine shoreline. And it’s one of Mexico's most popular vacation destinations.
Shoppers head to Corona and Morelos streets in search of quirky shops and the best selections of Huichol Indian art and original cotton fashions. Foodies have their choice of cooking classes, food tours on foot, or local-guided market excursions. And if you just want to sightsee, start your stroll along the statue-studded Malecón boardwalk and breathe in the sea air. Puerto Vallarta is as action-packed or relaxed as you want it to be. Here are the top 10 things to do while you’re there.
An afternoon parading along the Malecón, Puerto Vallarta’s scenic 11-block beachfront promenade, will reveal many of the city’s finest attributes: its artistic traditions, seaside charm, restaurants galore, and buzz of holiday-making energy.
The walkway, which hugs part of Bahía de Banderas near the hotel zone, is lined with bars, shops, boutiques and restaurants. The people-watching is priceless thanks to the many street performers who put on free shows throughout the day. And photo-snappers and art aficionados will love discovering each of the famous sculptures lining the path.
Beach or culture? That’s often the choice during a one-day stay in a port, and Puerto Vallarta offers the best of both in a convenient package. Playa de los Muertos, the most famous of the city’s beaches, fronts the historic downtown center, and its sparkling new pier is a focal point. From here you can canvas all the sightseeing streets of the Romantic Zone to the south, which boasts the highest concentration of restaurants and shops; and Gringo Gulch to the northeast, where Hollywood icons of the 1950s once lived and played in the picturesque hillside homes. You can even tour the famous Casa Kimberley, the former residence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Hollywood discovered Puerto Vallarta when Night of the Iguana was filmed here, bringing star Richard Burton and his legendary love Elizabeth Taylor. The pair would stay and play here for many years, buying each other homes and making international headlines. The city still retains that glittery footprint, from Gringo Gulch to La Palapa beach club to the boutique luxury hotel Casa Kimberley, the former residence of Burton and Taylor. Typically, a City Highlights tour will include at least one Liz-inspired nostalgia stop. If you want a more authentic and leisurely experience, visit one of her regular haunts independently—perhaps have a drink at the Iguana Tequila Bar in Casa Kimberley or enjoy lunch and sunbathing at La Palapa.
If you’ve got a multi-generational group with teens or tweens to entertain, this all-day excursion offers hijinks on the high seas—no strenuous physical or mental activity necessary. You’ll be transported by pirate ship with pirates on board to an island filled with pirate themed things to do. It’s full of fun for the whole family: face-painting and fun jumps “off the plank,” family kayak tours and faster-paced banana boat rides, beach volleyball, snorkeling and treasure hunts. For smaller children, the high point will probably be “Pirate Show” complete with sword fighting, pirate smack-talk and cannon blasts. For adults, it might be the open bar or the moments sailing on the bay.
Dolphins are one of the most fascinating mammals, but fewer and fewer people want to see them in a constrictive man-made setting. This dolphin encounter allows humans to interact with the beloved sea mammals in the dolphins’ natural environment. Participants will boat out to waters where dolphins generally can be found, and if conditions allow it, enter the water and swim with a Bottlenose dolphin pod under supervision from professional biologists. Another tour offers the chance to visit a turtle encampment, and if you have enough time in port, you can do a package of both activities.
Many animals and plant species flourish in the coastal area around Puerto Vallarta. The Bay of Banderas and greater Mexican Pacific teems with dolphins and whales, sea turtles and manta rays, and more than 400 avian species make this area particularly alluring to bird watchers. Inland wildlife-spotting excursions may encounter jaguarundis, coatis or iguanas. There are many ways to see the wildlife, ranging from horseback journeys to ATV rides to canopy tours. Vallarta Adventures is a trusted tour operator that offers a wide variety of sightseeing excursions by land and sea.
The Marietas Islands are a national park and wildlife sanctuary with incredible diversity of marine life and land animals. One of the most popular excursions uses Zodiacs to take people out to the islands for an afternoon of snorkeling and/or dolphin interaction.
El Salado Mangrove Estuary at Estero del Salado Lagoon is a beautiful expanse of white mangrove, home to over a 100 of species of colorful birds, excitable monkeys, lizards and more. Depending on the season, visitors can also participate in the estuary’s crocodile and turtle release programs. www.esterodelsalado.org.
Puerto Vallarta’s culinary scene is diverse. The city’s gustatory treasures range from the most simple-- i.e. charcoal-grilled fish on a stick from a food stall—to the most rarefied Five Star Diamond experiences by international chefs. It is not only reasonable but also encouraged to nibble the entire day away during a port stop here. You could do a walking tour of taquerias or a market visit with a local chef or a cooking class at one of the city’s top restaurants. Start your foodie adventure by checking the offerings from foodie-recommended Puerto Vallarta Food Tours.
Although tequila is Mexico’s most famous spirit, the more obscure agave spirit raicilla is the connoisseur’s discovery when visiting Puerto Vallarta. Many cruise excursions include a tequila factory tour as one stop on a sightseeing excursion. Cultural tours of the Sierra Madre often include a raicilla tasting as well—usually held in a hacienda or in the traditional village of Tuito, together with a visit to an old-fashioned tequila factory and a cheese-making family.
Puerto Vallarta draws some of Mexico’s top folk artists from around the country. One popular form is Huichol folk art, made by the indigenous people of Jalisco and neighboring Nayarit. It is distinguished by vivid contrasting colors, human/animal motifs, patterns and symbols. The two most common mediums are beadwork and yarn “paintings.” You can find Huichol and other folk art styles from the Peyote People collective of local artists at Colectika Gallery in the historic downtown area at Juarez 222.
From its magnificent crowning steeple—almost reminiscent of Russian Orthodox monuments in its grandeur–to its red brick exterior and the fascinating blend of native and Christian religious motifs played out during major festivals, this cathedral is the city’s beloved icon from every angle.
Inside, the famous art pieces and jaw-dropping construction are balanced out by a sense of piety and humble worship from thousands of worshippers who visit daily.
Puerto Vallarta lies on the Bahia de Banderas, or Bay of Flags. Each year, from November to March, 300 humpback whales call it home to reproduce and nurture their offspring. The first calves are born in February; by early April, the whales track north, where they spend the summer months off the California coast. The mammoth creatures, each more than two car-lengths long and weighing 40 tons, are surprisingly graceful. They're acrobatic, too, breaching skyward and raising huge watery plumes as they careen back into the sea. A whale-watching tour is thrilling stuff.
When asked why he always painted angels in the sky, Vallartan artist Manuel Lepe responded, "Because Puerto Vallarta is a paradise." He created images of flying children, angels and Puerto Vallarta itself that reflected his childlike exuberance and radiated color, light and jubilance. During his short lifetime—Lepe died when he was 48—he created some 500 paintings, some of which can be viewed at the Galería Manuel Lepe.