Popular Puerto Vallarta Shore Excursions
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 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; 322-222-6117; 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; $139, 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)
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.