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Puerto Vallarta Overview
The small, quaint fishing community of Puerto Vallarta, with its cobblestoned streets that seemed to climb straight up to the jungle behind it, was recognized as a city of Mexico in 1918 but was largely unknown to the rest of the world. But in 1963, during the filming of John Huston's "Night of the Iguana," the sleepy town was invaded by reporters hoping to catch a glimpse of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were carrying on their illicit love affair -- and a tourist industry was born.
Located on one of the largest natural bays in the world, Bay of Banderas, the region offers 25 miles of enjoyable beaches with the rugged, jungle-clad Sierra Madre mountains as a backdrop, and city life by day and night. The second-most-visited resort in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta now attracts almost three million visitors a year and has a permanent population of over 250,000.
The colonial "old town" is a favorite of history buffs, photographers and bargain hunters, while burgeoning areas such as Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta attract beach-goers, boaters and those looking for an all-inclusive resort or a reasonably priced time share. These areas, north of the city, are also where visitors can kayak through lagoons and swim with dolphins. The southern coastal areas of Mismaloya, Yelapa and Las Animas Quimixto are scenic wonders of coves and gullies, ideal for snorkeling; the latter two are reachable only by boat.
Because of its warm waters, the Bay of Banderas is a breeding ground for hundreds of humpback whales during the winter months. Pacific dolphins can be seen year-round, jumping alongside the bow wake of the many cruise ships that call here. Many tour operators offer eco-tours and photo safaris to take advantage of the abundance of marine life in the region; jungle tours, horseback treks and visits to tequila factories are some of the other excursions offered. But for those who choose to just wander around the city during a day in port, Puerto Vallarta offers a rich, rewarding experience.
The downtown area is crowded with shops, restaurants and lots of traffic. The main street along the water, the Malecon, has a seawall walkway that is flat and easily negotiable by wheelchair-bound visitors and those with difficulty walking, and is notable for the many sculptures that line the path. The streets a few blocks off of the main throughway, though, are steep and cobblestoned, difficult for even the most intrepid explorers. And it gets hot and humid in Puerto Vallarta, especially in the summer, so dress accordingly for your day in town.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island (California) • Ensenada • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
Spanish is the official language of Mexico, but almost everyone associated with the tourism industry in Puerto Vallarta speaks English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The peso is the currency used in Mexico and is roughly valued at 10 to one against the dollar. Almost all shops, vendors and taxis take U.S. dollars, but that can raise the cost of your purchase. ATMs are available everywhere and most allow you to deduct as little as 50 pesos, (or about $5 U.S.). It's important to note that the symbol for pesos is the same as the symbol for dollars -- $ -- so pay close attention to the currency in which the item you are looking at is priced. $14 in pesos, for example, is roughly $1.40 U.S., not $14 U.S.
Talavera pottery is distinctive because of its intricate patterns and bright colors. You can purchase single tiles or enough to make a mural, single bowls as gifts, or serving sets for four. There are also less expensive designs that make great gifts and souvenirs -- painted flowerpots or fruit bowls, for example -- in most of the pottery shops around the city.
Mexican silver jewelry used to be a real bargain, but it's hard to find a good deal on it now. Make sure it's stamped "925" to verify that it's real sterling, and bargain hard. If you like it and you think you've been given a fair price, you probably have.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Marina Vallarta Maritime Terminal, about three miles north of downtown. The number of ships calling at Puerto Vallarta has increased beyond the capacity of the docks, though, and many ships are on a rotating tender schedule. Check your cruise itinerary to verify whether you will dock or tender into port.
There are several restaurants and botegas near where the ships dock for those who want a final margarita before setting sail, and a small craft market to pick up those last-minute souvenirs. There are also some notable hotels with bars and restaurants that overlook the marina and the water, lovely spots to sit and watch the sunset (if your ship leaves after dark) or the sailboats coming back to the marina. Depending on which dock your ship uses, the Plaza Iguana Resort, Flamingos Vallarta, or Vista Club Playa de Oro are all within reasonable walking distance.
For those who just can't get enough of U.S.- style shopping, there are both a WalMart and a Sam's Club directly across the main boulevard from the ship docking areas, about a 10-minute walk away. Tequilas and Kahlua are definitely better priced here than in the duty-free liquor stores in town or near the ships.
Located in the Plaza Marisol adjacent to the port is an Internet Cafe, El Kiosko, with several terminals at a reasonable rate and an international phone center, and at Plaza Neptuno in the marina is The Internet B@r serving breakfast, sandwiches and Mexican specialties along with your broadband connection.
Taxis are plentiful and line up around the docks as the ships start disgorging passengers. They are regulated, but have no meters and the prices aren't posted. Negotiate before you get in; a trip to town in a taxi from the Marina Vallarta area should cost no more than $5 U.S. The yellow taxis, located outside of the port gates, are less expensive than those of the drivers walking around inside; the latter drive Federal Zone cabs, which cost more.
Buses in Puerto Vallarta are great fun, and very reasonably priced at 4 pesos (or about $0.50 U.S.) for a trip. They can be found on the main road into the city (Av. Francisco Medina Ascencio) and make several stops along the Hotel Zone before arriving into the center of Puerto Vallarta.
Rental cars are plentiful and quite reasonable, especially the ubiquitous VW Beetles seen everywhere. Be sure to check before you make a rental arrangement whether your insurance will cover you while driving in Mexico. Many companies do not.
Beach bumming at one of the resorts that line the Hotel Zone. Among the nicer options are the Fiesta Americana (check out the eight story all-hand-made palapa lobby) and Sheraton Bouganvilas (the closest resort hotel to town) but all are pleasant, accessible, and offer bars and restaurants.
The Malecon, the restored walkway that rings the bay -- occasionally waves crash against the rocks so hard that splumes of salt water rain down on passersby -- is known for its sculptures, including a nine-foot bronze sea horse. The original was knocked into the bay by Hurricane Kenna in 2002; the one there now is a replica created by artist Rafel Zamarippa. Two other sculptures of note are the whimsical high-backed chairs("La Rotunda del Mar") by renowned Guadalajara artist Alejandro Colunga and the sometimes controversial "In Search of Reason" -- a tall ladder being climbed by two children, reaching down to a mother figure below -- by Sergio Bustamonte. Opposite the main square is The Friendship Fountain, featuring three playful dolphins, created by California sculptor James Bottoms.
Every first-time visitor should pay homage to the flick "The Night of the Iguana," an all-star effort starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. The movie was filmed here and Burton bought Casa Kimberly (Calle Zaragoza 445) for Taylor, then purchased the house across the narrow cobbled street and connected the two by a precious pink bridge that arches over the lane. You can tour part of Casa Kimberly.
El Centro, or downtown Puerto Vallarta, is filled with colonial architecture, a main square (Plaza de Armas) near the Malecon that often has bands playing, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe (located at Calle Hidalgo), the religious anchor of the city. Built over a 12-year period starting in 1929, the church is filled with architectural detail. The lacy crown on top of the bell tower was replaced after an earthquake destroyed the original, which was said to be a replica of a tiara worn by the Emperor Maximillian.
Shopping in Puerto Vallarta is a mixed bag. There are lots of touristy trinkety shops that pretty much sell all the same stuff: cheap silver jewelry, pottery and glassware. Most are centered on the streets surrounding the town's main plaza. Highlights -- if you're interested in more distinctive buys -- include Cachet (Morelos 664-A Centro) for gorgeous Mexican household furnishings, Sucesos (Libertad 233) for handpainted, one-of-a-kind cotton fashions, and Sergio Bustamante Galeria (Paseo Diaz Ordaz) for funky sculptures. Other cool finds include Hecho o Mano (Zaragoza 160), which sells beautiful crafty home-oriented merchandise, from candles to wrought-iron sculptures, and Cotton Club Boutique (Ignacio L. Vallarta 150) and Gueros (Zaragoza 160) for pretty cotton fashions. At Mundo Maya (Morelos 270) you can watch artisans create hand-blown glass sculptures (they make beautiful glassware) or pick up nifty recreations of Mayan artifacts (profits are donated to environmental causes); beware, however, the on-site time share pitch salespeople. And remember, the sign for the peso is the same as the sign for the U.S. dollar ($), so be careful to make sure you know which currency is quoted.
Rio Cuale Flea Market (El Centro, by the river) might belong under "shopping" but it's really a category unto itself. The two-story market, filled with vendor stalls, is an ideal place to test your bargaining skills. Here you'll find leather goods, woven goods, pottery and silver (which used to be a good value in Mexico but is now a tourist's black hole). Try to shop just before you head back to the Marina Vallarta and your ship; that's when you can get the best bargains, up to 60 percent off the original asking price. Before that, go for a walk along the river and especially visit the island in the middle, which is shady, cool and colorful.
Been There, Done That
Become a tequila connoisseur at the new La Casa Del Tequila (Morelos 589), which has a tasting bar and sells upscale shot glasses and tequila brands. It's also got a charming restaurant offering freshly made quesadillas, salsas and tacos.
Intrepid and adventurous explorers can check out the region's jungles and waterfalls via Bike Mex Adventures (Calle Guerrero 361, 322-223-1834), which offers half- and full-day trips for all experience levels. Bike Mex provides the equipment and snacks, and tours generally head into the mountains and, time permitting, include swimming expeditions.
The eco-inclined can go whale watching, visit a turtle camp, try sea kayaking and watch birds via numerous outfitters such as Ecotours de Mexico (Ignacio L. Vallarta 243, www.ecotoursvallarta.com).
Cigar aficionados can hang out in the other-world "men's club" of La Casa del Habano (Aldama #174), Puerto Vallarta's most upscale humidor and shop for Cubans. Downstairs, the cozy, clubby (cigar-friendly of course) bar, offering everything from cappuccino to malt whiskey to tequila, is a great hideaway.
Boca de Tomatlan is a quaint little village near Mismaloya, with shops and palapa restaurants. Take a bus from El Centro (downtown) or a cab (about $15 U.S.), and spend the day.
Two courses, just minutes away from the Marina Vallarta in Vista Vallarta, in the Sierra Madre foothills, have gained acclaim since they were built in 2001. The Jack Nicklaus Signature Course is closer to the water, while the Tom Weiskopf Signature Course appears carved out of the jungle. Both are par 72, with longer fairways on the Nicklaus course and a tighter layout on the Weiskopf. (phone: 52-329-290-0030)
One of the most highly lauded courses in Puerto Vallarta (and one of the priciest) is the Nicklaus-designed course at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita. Eight holes are at the edge of the ocean, and one, a par three, 190 yards, can only be reached via a sandbar at low tide. (phone: 52-329-291-6000)
Located right in the Marina Vallarta area is the Marina Vallarta Golf Club, with a jungle-like course featuring spectacular foliage, indigenous birds and iguanas. You can rent clubs and play at a reasonable rate not too far from your ship; in fact, on some of the holes that have ocean views, you might even be able to see your vessel at the dock. (phone: 52-329- 221-0545)
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Any of the beaches fronting resorts along the Golden Zone hotel district, walkable from the port.
Best Beach for Active Types: Playa Los Muertos Beach (head to La Palapa for great peoplewatching and cocktails).
Beach as Cinematic Setting: Playa Mismaloya, set in a cove, was the site of filming for "The Night of the Iguana." Requires a taxi ride.
For an ultra-casual, ultra-local experience, check out Cocina Economica (Mercado Municipal, from 9 a.m.) at the Rio Cuale Bazaar. The restaurant serves simple Mexican fare in the center of the busy market (try the chicken tacos).
For meals with a view, try the River Cafe (Isla Rio Cuale 4, from 8 a.m.) or Oscar's Bar & Grill (the beach at the Rio Cuale, from 8 a.m.). For vegetarian fare, locals love 3 Papaya (Calle Abusolo 169). Tequila's, located across from the Malecon with a view of the water and sculptures, has tables out on a second-floor patio and reasonably priced lunches (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.).
Just for fun try No Name Cafe, (Morelos 460) located at the north end of the Malecon. Acclaimed for having the best ribs in Vallarta, even better, it's air-conditioned.
At the Marina:
Mariscos 8 Tostadas (Quilla y Proa Local 28-29) is only open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. because it only brings in enough fresh seafood to last during those hours. A favorite with locals, it's often crowded, but the seafood tostadas and other freshly created specialties are worth the wait.
Las Palomas Doradas (inside the Small Boat Marina) is the place to lunch when you want a romantic, unhurried experience. Open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., the restaurant offers local specialties with a French flair.
La Ribera, (Paseo de la Marina Norte 585) at the Velas Vallarta Grand Suite Resort, is a beachside terrace restaurant featuring steaks, lobster and traditional Mexican cuisine in a resort setting. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The sunsets, beach and small-boat vistas are stunning.
Staying in Touch
El Kiosko, located at the Marina at Plaza Marisol, offers high-speed Internet service for a very reasonable price, and has international telephones available.
Internet B@r (Plaza Neptuna E-1 at the Marina) serves coffee, breakfast and sandwiches as well as high-speed Internet connections.
NetStop, downtown (Morelos 671), offers both an Internet center and international phone calls, plus fax, printing and scanner services.
Eclipse CyberCafe (several locations in El Centro) has Internet service, color printers and scanners, free coffee, and video games.
Tequila Factory Tours: There is only one place in Mexico where Tequila is made, and that is in and around the city of Tequila, located high in the Sierra Madre mountains (about a mile high, to be precise) and about 80 miles southeast of Puerto Vallarta. Tours here include tastings and discounts on purchases. The tour buses often offer a narrated tour of highlights of Puerto Vallarta on the return, with time for shopping in town. Average cost: $30 to $35 adult, $18 to $22 children.
Sierra Madre Jungle Canopy Tour: Active, fit hardbodies (over eight years old) love "using horizontal traverse cables to travel through the jungle canopy," as one cruiseline's brochure puts it. A series of ropes, pulleys and platforms are used for those who wish to soar through the tops of the rainforest trees. Average cost: $90 to $110 adult, $55 to $70 children.
Swim With the Dolphins: Not available to anyone under 5, this trip features actual playtime with trained dolphins as opposed to the Dolphin Encounter tour, which only allows a second or two of patting the animal on its head. Trained naturalists and animal behaviorists guide the tour. Average cost: $150 to $190 adult, $140 to $170 children.
Sail and Snorkel Tours: Choose from several of these adventures, which take you on a catamaran to Yelapas, Las Caletas or Las Marietas for snorkeling and a pleasant sail around the Bay of Banderas. Average cost: $55 to $75 adult, $30 to $40 children.
For More Information
On the Web: www.puertovallarta.net
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mexican Riviera
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange
--By Jana Jones. San Diego-based Jones, who is the creator and editor of Sleeping-Around.com, the lodging-oriented web site, is one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.