Once a small fishing community, Puerto Vallarta has emerged as one of Mexico's most popular destinations. With cobblestoned streets that climb straight up to the jungle, the town was largely unknown to the rest of the world until Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor embarked on a love affair while filming "Night of the Iguana" in 1963.
Now, the colonial "old town" is a favorite of history buffs, photographers and bargain hunters, while areas such as Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta attract beachgoers, boaters and those looking for all-inclusive resorts. 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 (as well as expat Americans and Canadians). Pacific dolphins can be seen year-round, jumping alongside the bow wake of the many cruise ships that call in Puerto Vallarta. 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; wear comfortable shoes. And it gets hot and humid in Puerto Vallarta, especially in the summer, so dress accordingly for your day in town.
There are several restaurants and bodegas near where the ships dock for those who want a final margarita before setting sail. You'll also find a small craft market to pick up those last-minute souvenirs. Hotels with bars and restaurants overlook the marina and the water, offering 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 Marina Resort, Flamingo 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 there than in the duty-free liquor stores in town or near the ships.
The Malecon, the restored walkway that rings the bay -- occasionally waves crash against the rocks so hard that plumes of salt water rain down on passersby -- is known for its sculptures, including a 9-foot-tall 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 Rafael Zamarippa. Two other sculptures of note are the whimsical high-backed chairs ("La Rotunda del Mar") by renowned Guadalajara artist Alejandro Colunga and "In Search of Reason" -- a tall ladder being climbed by two children, reaching down to a mother figure below -- by Sergio Bustamante. Opposite the main square is The Friendship Fountain, featuring three playful dolphins, created by California sculptor James Bottoms.
El Centro, or downtown Puerto Vallarta, is filled with colonial architecture. It also features a main square (Plaza de Armas) near the Malecon that often has bands playing and the Church 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 Maximilian.
Visitors can't go wrong with a little beach bumming, either at Playa de los Muertos in the lively Romantic Zone or at one of the resorts that line the Hotel Zone. Among the nicer options is the Sheraton Buganvilias (the closest resort hotel to town), but all are pleasant, accessible and offer bars and restaurants.
Shopping in Puerto Vallarta is a mixed bag. There are lots of touristy trinket 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 (Hidalgo 113B Centro) for hand-painted, one-of-a-kind cotton fashions, and Sergio Bustamante Galeria (Juarez 275, Centro) for funky sculptures. Other cool finds include Hecho a Mano (Zaragoza 160), which sells beautiful crafty home-oriented merchandise, from candles to wrought-iron sculptures, and Gueros (Morelos and Zaragoza) for pretty cotton fashions.
Rio Cuale Flea Market, a two-story market filled with vendor stalls, is an ideal place to test your bargaining skills. 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. (El Centro, by the river)
Because many ships depart the port late in the evening, you'll have time to enjoy a meal -- or two. Better yet, walk through the city with Vallarta Food Tours. The three-hour day tour takes you to several taco stands, a tortilla factory, a candy factory and a cevicheria.(Av Mexico 1193, 5 de Diciembre; 322 151 4426; open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily)
Adventurous explorers can check out the region's jungles and waterfalls through numerous tour providers, which offer half- and full-day trips. Popular options include zip-lining, ATV tours and horseback riding. If water is more your thing, surfing, jetboarding, scuba, sailing, snorkeling and kayaking are all available. The eco-inclined can go whale watching, visit a turtle camp, try sea kayaking and watch birds via numerous outfitters.
Because ships often stay overnight, several tour providers offer Mexican-style dinner shows. The best known is Rhythms of the Night, offered by Vallarta Adventures on Las Caletas, an uninhabited island. The five-hour tour includes a sunset cruise to the island, a buffet dinner with Mexican food and alcohol beverages and a show that includes performances by Mexican dance troupes. (888-526-2238; $119, ages 6 and older)
Cigar aficionados can hang out in the other-worldly "men's club" of La Casa del Habano, 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. (Aldama 170; +52-322-223-2758; open noon to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Golf lovers have myriad choices in the region. Two golf courses, just minutes away from the Marina Vallarta at Vista Vallarta Golf Club 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. (+52-329-290-0030; facility does not accept U.S. dollars or travelers checks) There are also two highly lauded (and pricey) courses at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, about 45 minutes north along the bay. (+52-329-291-6000; fees apply) Finally, the Marina Vallarta Golf Club, located in the Marina Vallarta area, offers a jungle-like course with spectacular foliage, indigenous birds and iguanas. (52-329- 221-0073; facility does not accept U.S. dollars or travelers checks)
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and line up around the docks as passengers begin coming ashore. 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 80 to 100 pesos (about $7) 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.
By Bus: Buses in Puerto Vallarta are great fun and very reasonably priced at 7.50 pesos (less than a dollar) 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 in the center of Puerto Vallarta.
By Car: Rental cars are plentiful and quite reasonable, especially the ubiquitous VW Beetles. Be sure to check before you make a rental arrangement whether your insurance will cover you while driving in Mexico. Many companies do not.
Best for Resort Lovers: Most hotels and resorts near the Golden Zone close to the port offer day passes for cruise passengers, with extended hours that reflect the longer hours that some ships dock in Puerto Vallarta. Nice options include Casa Velas (9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), an adults-only resort that has an infinity pool, cabanas, breakfast and lunch. There's also Now Amber (9 a.m. to 11 p.m.), an all-inclusive resort that has a kids club, daily activities, three pools, several restaurants and drinks. Both resorts offer beach access.
Best for Active Types: Playa de los Muertos boasts a new pier, along with the city's best people-watching, water activities and beach bars/restaurants. Among our favorite spots on this beach: the Miami-vibed Mantamar Beach Club at the far south end, which has standup paddleboarding, kayaking, Scuba and snorkeling available. There's also a spa on the premises. A day pass for the pool is 900 pesos, which includes 350 pesos worth of food and drink. Lido Club de Playa also offers a range of activities, including flyboarding, paddleboarding and boogie-boarding. Admission for a lounger, table and chairs is 150 pesos, with food and drink a la carte.
Further Afield: Playa Mismaloya, set in a cove south of Puerto Vallarta, was the site of filming for "The Night of the Iguana," although hurricanes and construction have eradicated its "lost in paradise" appeal. Still, it's a nice place for a standard beach day, with seafood restaurants, vendors, hotels with day passes and water activities.
With an affluent expat population, Puerto Vallarta has emerged as one of Mexico's top foodie cities, with upscale restaurants and famous food stalls alike. Seafood is fresh, as befits its Pacific location, and ceviche is a popular offering in many restaurants. Vendors also sell barbecue shrimp on a stick at the beach; we recommend avoiding these unless you've actually witnessed them grilling the shrimp. Meat lovers should head straight for birria, a regional Jaliscan beef and goat stew served with tortillas, onion and lime, or the ubiquitous carne asada, steak tacos sold at stands with myriad salsas. (Note: For the best food stalls, look for a line of locals.) What's nice about Puerto Vallarta is that ships often depart long after dinner, allowing passengers to enjoy several meals onshore.
For meals with a view, try the River Cafe along the Rio Cuale. The atmosphere turns romantic at night, with candles and live music. (Isla Rio Cuale 4; open 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily)
The Sea Monkey is a popular beach spot recommended on the Cruise Critic forums, with free Internet and outstanding fish tacos being the main draws -- along with $1 beers and margaritas. (Aquiles Serdan 174; 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Another Cruise Critic favorite, El Arrayan focuses on traditional Mexican food, such as beef barbacoa, cochinita pibil, shrimp pozole and mole enchiladas. Open for dinner only, the restaurant offers cooking classes during the day. (Allende 344; open5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday to Monday)
Mariscos 8 Tostadas is only open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. because it brings in only 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. (Quilla y Proa Local 28-29)
Las Palomas Doradas is the place to lunch when you want a romantic, unhurried experience. The restaurant offers local specialties with a French flair. (Inside the Small Boat Marina; open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
If you're looking for an upscale gourmet experience with Puerto Vallarta's version of a celebrity chef, you can't beat La Leche, where Alfonso Cadena is at the helm. Expect Mexican ingredients, such as avocados, pineapple, seafood and chiles, served with modern techniques. (Francisco Medina Ascencio km 2.5.; +52-322-293-0900; open 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily; reservations recommended)
Ships dock at the Marina Vallarta Maritime Terminal, about three miles north of downtown. The terminal has ATMs, shops, a currency exchange and kiosks for tours.
As you walk through the streets, some vendors may offer you free tequila tastings if you come inside. Be warned that unless it's an official liquor store, you might be subject to an annoying timeshare presentation in exchange for a few sips. Not worth it.
The peso is the currency used in Mexico. Almost all shops, vendors and taxis take U.S. dollars, but that can raise the cost of your purchase. ATMs are available everywhere. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
It's important to note that the symbol for pesos is the same as the symbol for dollars ($), so pay close attention to how items are priced.
Spanish is the official language of Mexico, but almost everyone associated with the tourism industry in Puerto Vallarta speaks English.
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 flower pots or fruit bowls, for example -- in most of the pottery shops around the city.
Puerto Vallarta is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which also contains the town of Tequila. So naturally, the spirit is at the heart of all drinks. If you want to sip like a local, avoid the margaritas and order your tequila bandera style, which means three sipping glasses: one with lime juice, one with white tequila and one with sangrita, a sour and spicy drink made from orange juice and tomato juice. Drink them in that order.