How to experience the very best of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Forget what you think you know about Puerto Vallarta*, this is no brash, faceless purpose-built resort. The story of this holiday favourite on Mexico's Pacific coast* was being written long before tourism swept in.

How to experience the very best of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
How to experience the very best of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico © Elenathewise -

Yet even its tourism has heritage. Most famously, in 1963 when it hit the headlines thanks to Hollywood stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The intensity and passion of their affair seared both through the filming of The Night of the Iguana and what was then a relatively small, fairly traditional community.

Since then, tourism has boomed but Puerto Vallarta has retained both its tropical beauty and its soul; indeed, it has been called the 'Friendliest City in the World' and it certainly stakes a claim to being the friendliest in Mexico*.

Getting to Puerto Vallarta: see the latest deals on holidays to Mexico's west coast with TUI*.

Hit the beach

With temperatures reaching 30°C most days, you'll want to hit the beach and there is certainly plenty of choice in a place that both offers sandy strips and boat trips to quieter beaches.

The most celebrated beach is Playa Los Muertos. The sands here are lined with welcoming cafés, bars and restaurants; it's also welcoming to all with Puerto Vallarta popular with LGBTQ travellers as well as families.

Playa Cabello, a short boat ride from Puerto Vallarta
Playa Cabello, a short boat ride from Puerto Vallarta © Carlos Mora - Puerto Vallarta Tourism

Looking to escape the buzz? Just hop on a water taxi, or boat trip, in search of your own stretch of sand from Playa de Los Muertos' pier.

Surrender to street food

Whether you know you love Mexican food already or not, your tastebuds are going to be tingled, juggled with and then sent to gastronomic heaven in Puerto Vallarta.

Street food is a huge draw, from sweetcorn simply grilled by the roadside, to fresh tacos served from a little shack and the famous seafood skewers of Malecon at sunset. Maybe fried bananas to follow? Local fishy wonder mahi-mahi is delicious served grilled and topped with hot sauce and a squeeze of lime.

Taking things up a culinary notch, Basilio Badillo Street is also known as Restaurant Row for good reason: you'll eat well here. In fact, you'll eat very well all over Puerto Vallarta.

Fall in love with the Romantic Zone

The Zona Romantica is an oasis made for strolling, and yes, it is romantic. Wander around taking in the relaxed vibe and checking out the wee artisan shops and galleries.

Food stalls along the Malecon as night falls
Food stalls along the Malecon as night falls © Carlos Mora - Puerto Vallarta Tourism

It's not as slick and polished as the modern resort areas. They like a party here too with myriad bars to savour. A chill on the beach, cracking food from a street stall and then an evening out on the tiles in the Zona Romantica is an easy win.

Catch the culture

This is a resort with an impressive cultural backbone and we're not talking stuffy galleries and over worthy cultural institutions. Here the culture bursts out onto the streets and you get to interact with it.

Mexican skeleton art
Mexican skeleton art © William - Adobe Stock Image

Take a walk around the Zona Ra and drink in the creative pulse in the galleries and art stores. As the sun slips down head for the waterfront pedestrian Malecon boulevard and spot the arresting bronze street sculptures.

Look out for free guided walking tours of eye-catching public art while down on the beach, less formal art comes in the shape of sand sculptures.

The unmissable church

Puerto Vallarta offers a decent collection of more traditional architecture alongside its modern developments. Soaring above it all is the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Built between 1930 and 1940 it casts an unmistakable pastel-pink crown-topped presence over downtown. Forged in neo-baroque style, the belltower is its iconic feature, though the interior is charming too, with regular services in English. Far more than 'just' a catholic church, the grand dame has become a symbol of the city.

Go green in Vallarta

The local landscapes may be famously lush, but the flora takes on another level at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens, which opened in 2005.

Highlights include one of Mexico's most extensive orchid collections and the chirping of the brightly coloured birds that call this bountiful oasis home. Stroll around its paths, enjoy lunch in its Hacienda del Oro Restaurant away from the buzz of the town and even dip your toes in the river that ripples through this green lung.

Rufous hummingbird feeding in Vallarta Botanical Gardens
Rufous hummingbird feeding in Vallarta Botanical Gardens - photo courtesy of

The stand-out of its excellent tours is the 'Botanical Delights Tour & Culinary Adventure', where you learn all about the garden's diversity and the importance of its conservation before lunch in the restaurant, featuring fresh, sustainable produce from the garden.

Get seriously active

Puerto Vallarta is an adrenaline junkie's paradise. How about taking on the challenge of the 'Superman', one of Mexico's longest and fastest zip lines? Flying over the verdant forest canopy at high speed is an exhilarating experience.

It's also a popular surf destination with surf schools and shops operating in and around the resort. If you're surfing pro, battle through the breaks at El Faro, La Lancha and Punta Burros.

For hikers, a wild and wildly beautiful experience is trekking from Boca de Tomatlan to the south of Vallarta, along a coastal trail that flanks the jungle and is punctuated by thatched huts serving fresh seafood on the beach. Being Puerto Vallarta, your active efforts are always rewarded with great food.

Escape to Islas Marietas

One of the joys of Puerto Vallarta is that you can so easily take off on a boat trip to discover another brilliant destination. And they don't come much more brilliant than Islas Marietas.

Playa del Amor, the famous Love Beach on Islas Marietas
Playa del Amor, the famous Love Beach on Islas Marietas © Gabriel O - Adobe Stock Image

This protected marine reserve and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, may be uninhabited by man but marine life flourishes in the balmy waters. Expect to see the likes of all manner of shimmering fish and dolphins, through to hulking rays and graceful turtles.

Keep an eye out for humpback whales, who migrate by the islands during the winter months. You can snorkel, scuba or kayak to really enter into this vibrant underwater world.

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Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish travel writer, author and broadcaster. He has visited over 100 countries and regularly writes about Scotland and the Canary Islands. As well as frequently contributing to, Robin writes for publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and Wanderlust, and has authored more than 30 guidebooks.

Article updated on Thursday 16th February 2023 in: Beach Central America Excursions Nature North America Winter sun

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