by: Darley Newman
For a great escape this spring, we take you off the beaten path in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and beyond, where stunning beaches, thriving mangrove ecosystems, and truly magical towns will enrich your body and soul.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is an increasingly popular spot for budget-conscious travelers to relax on warm, inviting beaches, get hitched, or just party. The second-largest city in the state of Jalisco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast packs in so much more than a beach vacation, including an amazing natural landscape, “Magical Towns,” and much more.
Get Your City On
The 1960’s movie The Night of the Iguana, which was partially filmed in Puerto Vallarta, helped bring this once quiet fishing village to the attention of Americans and the world. Paparazzi followed actor Richard Burton and his soon-to-be-wife Elizabeth Taylor to Puerto Vallarta. Locals still talk about the filming with pride, pointing out that the area’s lush and dramatic surroundings also attracted the film Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger, filmed in the area in the 1980’s. Now a well-known beach escape for Mexicans and travelers from the United States and Canada, Puerto Vallarta offers a diverse beach getaway. Walk the cobblestone streets for old-Mexico charm, head to the beaches, jungles and mangrove estuaries for nature, all the while sipping on smooth tequila.
Take in Puerto Vallarta’s stunning neon sunsets by land or sea. Bring the kids for a walk along the Malecón, a pedestrian-friendly mile-long promenade lined with striking sculptures, eclectic shops, music-pulsing restaurants, and the lapping waves. For great photos, face the water and snap Puerto Vallarta’s iconic Seahorse sculpture at sundown. Walk to the town’s charming main square, called zócalo. With regular festivals and events, you may find locals dancing to a live band. Another photo-worthy location: Look up to see one the city’s most treasured sites, the Church of our Lady of Guadalupe, with its famous crown steeple.
For a little romance, climb up the pedestrian-friendly walkways to the lookout point at Matamoros lighthouse, offering the best panoramic views of the city, including the crown of the church and Banderas Bay. Couples may also enjoy a self-guided gallery tour in the historic center Wednesday evenings during the winter and spring. Take in colorful beaded folk art from the Huichol people, intricately designed woodwork, hand-blown glass, and vibrant tapestries from Mexican artists.
Hop a boat cruise for Rhythms of the Night (vallarta-adventures.com), a dinner and live show on Las Caletas, a beach area that was once the home of Hollywood director John Huston. Set in an outdoor amphitheater located on a private cove, this extravaganza, which reminded me of the popular Cirque du Soleil series, highlights Mexico’s rich cultural heritage through music, dance, colorful costumes, exciting acrobatics, and fire dancing. Lest you think you’ll be tired or bored on the boat ride home, which takes around an hour, the crew entertains with a creative and comical show of their own.
From golden sand beaches to jungle-fringed coves, Puerto Vallarta’s nearly 26 miles of beaches offer diverse options from relaxing, private beaches only accessible by boat, to the entertaining and lively resort area beachfronts. Set sail during whale watching season from December to March. Other popular boat excursions are to the Marietas Islands for bird watching, kayaking, snorkeling, and uninhabited nature.
Year round and right in town, travelers can enjoy a surprising wildlife tour of a mangrove and marsh sanctuary at “El Salado”(esteroelsalado.org). Reminiscent of Louisiana’s Bayou, this protected urban estuary is home to large American crocodiles, boa constrictors, and over 100 types of birds. Families may especially enjoy this wildlife safari by boat, getting a sense of this fragile environment while spotting Boat-billed Heron, Roseate Spoonbill and abundant populations of fiddler and stone crabs. Climb the watchtower for a 360-degree view of the entire natural protected area and the coast.
A world away and less than a half hour drive from downtown Puerto Vallarta, thrill seekers will enjoy hiking and flying over a lush ancient forest with Canopy River (canopyadventurezipline.com), where 12 very long and high lines traverse dramatic canyons with sweeping views of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Ranging from just 13 feet high to over 700, you’ll fly far and fast on this aerial adventure.
Be prepared to get wet on the lowest line, which takes you skimming along the cool Cuale River. The highest zip lines may be nail-biters, but also provide exceptional views of the faraway Pacific Ocean, if you dare to look around. Signs posted along your route focus on the unusual vegetation and wildlife that inhabits this part of Mexico, including jaguar and armadillos. An added plus, this eco-conscious adventure company, which also offers rafting and rappelling, employs people from the local community, helping remote local villagers to continue to live in their traditional homes.
Small Town Side-Trip
Once a thriving mining city with 20,000 inhabitants and today with only 600, historic and remote San Sebastian del Oeste is a peaceful day trip from Puerto Vallarta. Don’t be surprised if you see local cowboys taking a pleasure ride along the scenic cobblestone streets, lined with white adobe Spanish colonial style haciendas. Rent a car or join a tour for the 90-minute winding and beautiful mountain drive to this tiny village at the foot of the spectacular Sierra Madre.
Start the day at a fifth generation coffee farm, La Quinta “Mary,” where Rafael Sánchez Alvarado welcomes travelers to taste test his aromatic, organic coffee. Strolling the grounds of this historic hacienda, where the high altitude and humidity are particularly good for growing coffee, is a step back in time. Buy as much coffee as you can, as this tasty brew roasted in an antique roaster is hard, if not currently impossible to find outside of San Sebastian del Oeste, making it a special gift item.
Stop for lunch at Lupita’s Restaurant for an authentic, home-style culinary experience and some the best Mexican food I’ve ever tasted, including flavorful, tender beef machaca, warm tortillas, and crisp, gooey cheese quesadillas. Stroll through the well-preserved town, taking in mountain views past the main square to the striking Church of San Sebastian to cap off your small town journey.
Travel Tips & Lodging
In Puerto Vallarta hotels and all-inclusive resorts abound from upscale options in Marina Vallarta, just a few minutes from the airport, to small, boutique hotels in the walkable Centro, to resorts in the pretty beach area in the South Zone. A good special occasion pick is Casa Velas, an adult-only, luxury, all-inclusive resort with a welcoming spa, swim-up aqua bar and the occasional, quirky peacock to greet you if you dine outdoors (hotelcasavelas.com).
While you can rent a car, it’s not necessary. Many resorts offer airport pickups, shuttle services, and taxis are inexpensive. If you’re driving out of town to San Sebastian del Oeste, especially during the rainy season when mudslides are a possibility, a guide or organized tour is the more secure option, especially if you combine the drive with tequila tasting at El Parral Restaurant and Distillery (La Estancia de Landeros, 46995 San Sebastián, Jalisco).