litibuPhotos Vallarta Nayarit

By Judy Waytiuk

Pressing the provided snorkel mask snugly to my face, I flopped into the water, joined the group of swimmers and guides from our big catamaran, and headed towards the rocks edging the island in the middle of the Bay of Banderas. We swam, one at a time, through a small, almost entirely underwater natural cave, into a cove where a tiny, hidden beach waited, bathed in sunlight.

You would have thought we were the first people to discover the spot; it was that pristine. More hidden caves edging the wee beach beckon for exploration; some people poke around in them, others keep snorkelling, chasing little fish through the clear shallows.

It’s perfect. Just what a vacation-hungry person needed to chill out and relax completely.

el pueblo

But easily a dozen or more groups of tourists swim in daily, all playing “let’s pretend no one else has ever been here”, to their hearts’ content. That’s not surprising; the locals have the tourist thing aced here. They take remarkably good care of the millions of tired, pale North Americans who arrive every winter in search of sun and surf and a little slice of tranquillity. Want a holiday brimful of exquisite all-inclusive food and drink, or a pied-a-terre hotel from which you can head out on daily happy wanderings? 

You want it, you got it. It’s the Vallarta Nayarit experience: Puerto Vallarta (voted the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Destination for 2013) and, stretching north along hundreds of kilometers of golden sand, Marina Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta and Nayarit.


Banderas Bay Bling

Most travellers wash blissfully ashore at one of the glittery resorts along the beaches of Banderas Bay, where the area’s signature activities are steps away: boat tours to see humpback whales in mating and calving season, snorkeling trips to the Los Arcos rock formations, catamarans to the islands in the bay, or daytrips to small towns like Yelapa in the mountains, or north or south along the bay.

All-inclusives are perfect when you want to know exactly what your vacation’s going to cost, though you do get what you pay for with these resorts. There are plenty of options in Puerto Vallarta’s older, charming Olas Altas section along with plenty of delightful restaurants in the area and a whole lot of charmingly busy beach where peddlers hawk everything from shrimp on a skewer to serapes. The high-end Hard Rock Hotel in Nayarit is gorgeous, the food fabulous, the beach a slice of heaven on earth. Larger properties like Secrets and the Occidental Grand routinely offer activities like snorkeling, kayaking, boogie boarding, beach volleyball, soccer, golf, aqua-aerobics, and yoga. Older hotels on smaller land footprints, like the popular-with-Canadians recently-renovated Buenaventura, offer few sports options but more economical all-round package pricing. Hundreds of glossy all-inclusives bask along the beachfront starting just north of Puerto Vallarta’s old town centre, stretching north to Bucerias and beyond into the neighbouring state of Nayarit.


The all-inclusive downside, though, is that there is so much to see, do, explore, and taste outside the resorts that it’s a shame not to explore everything the region offers. The Hacienda and Samba Vallarta are two smaller resorts where meal plans are optional, the Tropicana and off-the-beach Villas Vallarta can provide breakfast-only plans, and some hotels, like the Villa Premiere, offer optional all-inclusive booking. While first-timers here may choose all-inclusive as a comfort zone thing, repeat visitors will have seen first-hand what they missed by staying inside the resorts – and will branch out to explore more thoroughly. 

Dancing In The Streets

Puerto Vallarta’s wide, raised malecon (boardwalk) in the city centre, as well as its zocalos (town squares) are hotbeds of activity; peddlers galore sell everything from jewelry to sandals and all manner of tchotchkes, spray paint artists, snack carts (safe to eat), sand sculpture artists, and a whole bunch of other tourists wander happily. There’s almost always free entertainment by street performers playing for tips, but it all revs up on Sunday evenings, the traditional day for family time in Mexico when these areas get packed with happy people, plenty of them locals.

Restaurants, art galleries and shops are everywhere, almost all ranging from very good to excellent. Mariachi bands wander in and out of dining spots, and will sing their hearts out for a dining couple at the drop of a 50-peso bill (though in some cases it may be worth 50 pesos to ask them to go away, and they will, smiling the whole time).

The Rio Cuale and its small island separate busy Puerto Vallarta from its older suburb of Olas Altas, dubbed the Romantic Zone by the local tourism folks. On the island itself, an eclectic assortment of cruise-ship passenger-worthy shops and restaurants competes against the giant, three-storey, more authentically-traditional old flea market building edging the river on the city side. South of the Rio Cuale, the Olas Altas area offers less bustle and a more genuine Mexican flavour, as well as a thriving gay/lesbian friendly hotel beach strip at the southern end of its long beach. All along the way from the Rio Cuale south, sand-in-your-shoes beachside restaurants are perfect places to sip happy hour cocktails and watch for the famous but eerily-elusive sunset “green flash”, an optical phenomenon that sometimes occur at the exact moment before the sun fully sets. When it does happen, it’s always greeted by enthusiastic applause.

Further Afield & Awash

Tour packagers like Vallarta Adventures and Nayarit Adventures offer the Vallarta must-dos, as well as less well-known tours that have been added in recent years to spice up possibilities: visits to traditional Huichol villages, forest canopy ziplining, horseback riding, dolphin adventures, daytrips to smaller, outlying tourist towns to the north like Rincon de Guayabitos, Bucerias, and Sayulita or traditional inland Mexican villages like El Tuito, the old marketplace centre of a now-large El Pitillal, or tucked-in-the-mountains wannabe UNESCO World Historic Site San Sebastian del Oueste.

Reachable only by boat are Las Animas Beach, Playa Quimixto, and the combined population of retro-hippie North Americans and locals in funky little Yelapa. There’s a long list of smaller operators as well, offering similar packages in smaller-sized groups.

North of the developed stretch, beachside towns pepper the ocean shoreline, all of them once fishing villages, all of them now joyfully embracing tourists. The Nayarit coastline winds north, up to about 50 kilometres west of inland Tepic, the Nayarit state capital. Beyond that lie San Blas and La Tovara National Park’s dense, pristine mangrove forests, with a network of canals used by tour boats to show visitors wildlife like herons, turtles, and crocodiles. Towns, villages and protected park areas here make perfect adventure escapes, photo safaris, or inexpensive souvenir hunts, on a daytrip or two.

Bucerias and Sayulita, the best-known towns just north of Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta, have small-town flavour, local restaurants, flea or straw market areas, and a little nightlife. Many North Americans keep winter homes here, or have moved right in year-round, so there’s a comfortably-familiar cultural ambience below the colourful Mexican surface. Sayulita’s funky beachfront is especially entertaining, with plenty of chairs-sinking-into-the-sand outdoor fresh fish restaurants. Here, fish on the menu is often listed simply as pescado – fish. Varietal issues don’t count when lunch was caught a few hundred metres away just before breakfast that morning (there are still plenty of fishermen in these towns).

North of Sayulita, in San Francisco, aka San Pancho, visitors can see a traditional village as it’s been for generations – although there is a polo club, La Patrona, open sporadically with competitions and a restaurant where local wealthy folks hang out. 

Another middle-of-nowhere town en route to more northerly Guayabito, Lo de Marcos offers a small assortment of bargain to luxe hotels where nightlife options are described by one hotel site (Suites Margarita) as “walks on the beach, watch the stars, the moon and sun sets”. But perhaps the most secluded and unknown of them all is Chacala (which looks now like Lo De Marcos did 20 years ago). Just south of San Blas, this village of 300 people finally got a paved road recently, replacing a broken-down dirt road. A few tiny, rustic hotels dot the beach, fleshed out by a handful of vacation homes (casas) or B&B rentals, and half-a-dozen restaurants.

It’s A Wrap

Either way you choose – all-inclusive or independent explorer, Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit offer one extra free bonus: a huge, highly-visible ex-pat population of Canadians and Americans who keep winter condos or timeshares here, and whose presence around town has inspired an incomparably-vibrant dining scene and adds comforting familiarity to a traditional Mexican vacation destination that already has everything a winter escapee could want. No wonder the place is doing so well – secret beaches and all.