By Judy Waytiuk

It’s arguably the most popular destination on Mexico’s West Coast – and certainly the largest, with hundreds of miles of dazzling beachfront all-inclusive hotels and high-rise condo developments where older, smaller, locally-owned hotels are squeezed into the spaces between the big developments in Puerto Vallarta proper. Heading north into Marina Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta, and onto the Riviera Nayarit, more massive hotels and resorts are stretched between small, traditional villages, with occasional tiny hotels that provide simple, authentic experiences.

The area offers every conceivable category of vacation travel and every imaginable form of diversion. called it the best Mexican vacation destination in 2010 (watch for a Hilton resort, opening in the second quarter of 2012).

All-inclusives, whether massive or intimate, feature everything consumable the vacationer could want, with a guaranteed price for the budget-minded, and a private beach unencumbered by wandering peddlers or local folks setting up shade tents for a day by the water. For most first-time Mexico vacationers, the all-inclusive is a safe, comfortable, secure (despite media hysteria over occasional security issues) haven complete with palm trees, plenty of sand and surf, and all the margaritas you can drink. Choosing a resort is a simple matter of price point: whatever is affordable will yield a fine vacation for anyone seeking sybaritic escape or carefree family time.

But inevitably, there comes a point where even the most timid will want to dip a toe into the local culture.
And this is the place to go for it. Grab a cab or a local bus and head into downtown’s Centro Historico. Browse the galleries, shops and restaurants crammed cheek-by-jowl onto every street.

Hit The High Spots
Required stops include the classic Spanish colonial bell tower, with ornate benches, a handy ice cream shop nearby, and food peddler with carts of local cuisine. This city may be the only spot in Mexico where a foreigner can eat from a cart and not worry (at least, not too much – inspect the cart for cleanliness) about later major intestinal disturbances; the locals are well-educated regarding the North American tummy.

Spanish colonial bell towerPuerto Vallarta Tourism BoardThe tower’s dead centre in the Centro Historico’s cobblestone streets, and a good way to get your bearings here for later exploration is through the ArtWalk, put together some years ago by snowbirds with time on their hands. It covers more than a dozen local galleries spread out around the Centro Historico, and runs from late October through to the end of May. The bustling, bargain-basement souvenir, food, textile and clothing booths crammed into the two-storey flea market on the Centro’s edge provide an entertaining and fruitful detour: prices here can easily be half what they are in free-standing side street gift shops.

For more art and local immersion, strolls along the raised, wide concrete boardwalk of the seaside malecon offer views of permanent sculptures, as well as the tourist-oriented zocalo, or town square, and the city’s iconic set of arches. A quick cab ride north, a second zocalo, a more locally-oriented square, gets busy Sunday nights, the traditional family outing night in Mexico, with food vendors, toy sellers, street artists, free entertainment and music. In between, check out the playbill at the new Teatro Vallarta, opened in spring 2010 in the city’s centre

Another iconic destination: the famous pink house where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton first entered romantic dalliance, and the over-the-street bridge they used to sneak back and forth. It’s located at the edge of the Rio Cuale, which divides the city in two and is home to a large island filled with – naturally – more shops and restaurants.

Seaside MaleconPuerto Vallarta Tourism BoardOn the south side of the Rio Cuale, less costly, old, locally-owned hotels pepper the beach and interior streets along the older, less-touristy but still fascinating and safe section of PV. Here, the beach is public and makes for great people-watching.

One disadvantage of the all-inclusive in a place like this is that vacationers miss out on local cuisine, and PV boasts a wild assortment of restaurants ranging from the high-end spots along Basillo Badillo (known as the Street of the Restaurants), to charming little open-to-the-beach bars and diners along the seaside south of the Rio Cuale, to secluded, stunning locales like Le Kliff and Chico’s Paradise.

Driving Daytrips & Diving Deep
A great way to explore the area around PV is with a car rental and a map. Bucerias and Sayulita, small beach towns north of Marina Vallarta, sit at the beginning of the zone labelled Riviera Nayarit and offer fun, funky side trips outside the resorts. Further north, charming, unspoiled villages like San Francisco, Lo de Marcos, and La Penita seldom see American and Canadian tourists – but Mexican vacationers know them well. In northeast PV, El Pitillal, once a separate village, retains its local identity with a square featuring its small cathedral and surrounded by real local shops where residents pick up their daily groceries.

South of the city, the villages of Conchas Chinas and Boca de Tomatlan are equally unspoiled and are reachable by car, as is delectable little El Tuito, in the mountains an hour south of the city, and famous for local cheeses and honey.

Not accessible by road is isolated little Yelapa: tour operators offer trips out by boat, or the local water taxi can be used, departing and returning to the beach area south of the Rio Cuale called the Old Pier – where a pier used to be. Be prepared to wade to get to and from the water taxi. And don’t park on the beach, charming and accessible to icy beer though it is – grab a camera and hike up the mountainside into the local village for a picturesque photo journey.  

Dozens of local tour operators serve up hiking, horseback riding, ziplining, snorkelling, ATV touring, kayaking, swimming with dolphins, fishing, sunset cruises, jet-skiing, and whale-watching on everything from huge “party boats” to tiny “pangas” – little, open boats seating perhaps six people where the wildlife-watching’s far more intimate. In the Bay of Banderas, the Marieta Islands, a protected ecological park, is a great snorkelling or scuba diving spot, and the big party boats that head there for whale-watching en route send guides out with parties of snorkellers.

PV AdventurePuerto Vallarta Tourism BoardThoroughly Mexican though it may be, increasing numbers of Canadian snowbirds have made winter homes here, and building managers handle off-season rentals to bargain-seeking travellers who want to live, albeit briefly, as expat retiree locals do (the AARP recently anointed PV as the ideal retirement spot). For an initial immersion into Mexico, Puerto Vallarta’s a comfortable place to start.

And after that, visitors are pretty much hooked on Mexico in general.

Top Secret
Villa KenyaTerra NobleIt’s been perched on a mountain plateau overlooking the city for almost 20 years – a stunning, secluded, almost-unknown romantic spot to stay for around $240 a night for up to four people (longer stays offer negotiable prices). Terra Noble and Villa Kenya, created by Mexican designer Jorge Rubio, offers optional on-site spa, maid and breakfast service, but you will need a car to get to and from the city, up the mountainside. This remarkable, isolated spot, made from hand-crafted adobe and furnished in top-drawer tasteful/rustic, has been featured in Architectural Digest and various international TV travel shows – but few North Americans know about it.