Don't Miss in Puerto Vallarta
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: 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.
Rhythms of the Night: Because ships often stay overnight, several tour providers offer Mexican-style dinner shows. The most popular is Rhythms of the Night, offered by Vallarta Adventures (bookable through your cruise line) 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; \$139, ages 6 and older)
Rio Cuale Flea Market: This 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)
Vallarta Food Tours: As 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. (Avenue Mexico 1193, 5 de Diciembre; 322-222-6117)
Further Afield (or Jungle): 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 ziplining, 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.
La Casa del Habano: 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., closed Sundays )
Golf: Lovers of the game 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.
There are also two highly lauded (and pricey) courses at the Four Seasons Resort in Punta Mita, about 45 minutes north along the bay. Finally, the Marina Vallarta Golf Club, located in the Marina Vallarta area, offers a jungle-like course with spectacular foliage, indigenous birds and iguanas. A note that many of the above facilities do not accept U.S. dollars.