Bienvenidos a Puerto Vallarta, a laid-back alternative to Cancun on Mexico‘s Pacific Coast. Offering an elegant blend of authentic Mexican hospitality, luxury, and postcard-worthy jungle vistas, Puerto Vallarta is an often-overlooked destination tucked away just south of the Gulf of California.
On the shore of the Bay of Banderas, it’s not unusual to spot whales breaching offshore in the winter, whereas summer trips call for sunset catamaran cruises. Though the town is certainly not undeveloped, it doesn’t draw nearly the crowds of more well-known tourist destinations like Cozumel, Cancun, and Cabos San Lucas, making it an appealing getaway for US-based travellers just starting to branch back into international travel. And the fact that it’s a mere three-hour direct flight from Los Angeles doesn’t hurt, either.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself with a weekend to spend in Puerto Vallarta, here are the best places to stay, eat, and explore to ensure you maximise your time in this tropical retreat.
The Packing Edit
An adults-only property, Casa Velas takes the best parts of a luxurious all-inclusive and mixes them with the feel of a small boutique hotel. All rooms are suites – most have private plunge pools or Jacuzzis – and on-site offerings range from D.I.Y. botanical cocktail-making classes to a guacamole bar and a luxury handbag rental program for elegant evenings out. The resort has a large pool and swim-up bar, a highly regarded spa currently focused on avocado-based treatments, and a complimentary on-demand shuttle service to downtown P.V. and the posh Tau Beach Club. Rates start at $228 USD per night.
If your holiday is focused more on health, wellness, or perhaps on a bit of post-COVID-19 “me time,” consider staying at Xinalani Retreat. The beachside eco-lodge is built into the cliffs on the southern end of the Bay of Banderas. In addition to five outdoor yoga shalas, the resort has outdoor dining, a pool and private beach, and more than a mile of hand-built walkways and paths winding through the jungle property. Rooms range from open-air cottages (with mosquito nets, of course) to luxury air-conditioned villas, complete with ocean-view plunge pools. Treat yourself to at least one massage in the rustic ocean-view spa. Rates start at $295 USD and include all meals, yoga, and daily activities.
The architecturally stunning Casa Kimberly was once actress Elizabeth Taylor’s Mexican getaway, gifted to her by her then-lover, actor Richard Burton. In fact, Burton even built a second-floor bridge from Casa Kimberly to his home to freely carry on their trysts away from the watchful eye of the paparazzi. Now, the sprawling property is one of Mexico’s most elegant hotels. The common areas and suites feature crystal chandeliers, marble accents, and Mexican accents like deep brown wood and wrought-iron railings. It’s in the Gringo Gulch neighboirhood, an extremely walkable area near Old Puerto Vallarta. Rates start at $295 USD.
Bellview Boutique Hotel
The Bellview Boutique Hotel has just four rooms and sits steps from Puerto Vallarta’s “Malacon” (boardwalk.) The hotel has a more traditional feel than Casa Velas or Xinialani, with open-air landings, painted tiling, and claw-foot bathtubs. It was built in the 1950s, well before the now-iconic Guadalupe Cathedral was finished, though rooms now have an exceptionally lovely view of the cathedral and sea beyond (hence the hotel’s name). The hotel is in a very desirable downtown location, and the hotel’s La Capella restaurant is one of the highest-rated in the city. Rates start at $125 USD per night.
EAT + DRINK
For an excellent dinner that offers no shortage of dishes made with Jalisco’s famous mole, walk just a few blocks away from the Malecon to Casa Tradicional (Calle Zaragoza 245.) The menu is inspired by high-end, Pacific-Coast cooking, with options ranging from chipotle octopus tostadas to grilled meats with Oaxacan mole. The shrimp-stuffed huitlacoche crepe makes an especially nice start for the table, and various tequila and mezcal education classes are offered throughout the month.
Even if you’re not staying at the Bellview Hotel, you’ll want to have dinner at La Capella (Calle Miramar 363 B), an Italian restaurant with enviable ocean views through the restaurant’s domed arches. Make your reservation around sunset and you’ll have live music through your meal. It’s a very romantic choice for an evening for two, though it serves just as well for a girls’ night on the town, especially thanks to the extensive hand-made cocktail menu.
Le Kliff’s (Carretera a Barra de Navidad Mismaloya) cliffside location rivals any of the world’s most famous restaurants in places like the Amalfi Coast or northern California. But fortunately, it doesn’t rely on the location alone for its five-star ratings. The open-air restaurant feels decidedly tropical, with thatched roofs and small clusters of tables cascading down the multi-level cliff band. The chefs focus on molecular cuisine, using techniques borrowed from science labs to create dishes with creative textures and presentations. The small-but-unique menu is primarily seafood-based, and cocktails like the “Bambu” (with Espadin mezcal and ancho chilli liqueur) and the “Mariposa” (with mezcal, cardamom, and chipotle syrup) pay homage to the region’s traditional spirits. Consider coming here for lunch, rather than dinner, to fully enjoy the coastal views.
Though it looks deceptively simple from the outside, with a plain white facade and a few tables scattered near the entrance, Barrio Bistro is one of Puerto Vallarta’s best restaurants – and actually offers a beautiful outdoor dining space behind the restaurant. Chef Memo Wulff is one of the city’s most celebrated chefs and Barrio Bistro is where he tests and tweaks new recipes. The menu changes each Monday, based on what local ingredients are freshest that week. In fact, the “menu” is simply scribbled on a chalkboard near the entrance. For the full Barrio Bistro experience, you can’t go wrong with the tasting menu, which could include anything from steak parmesan to salmon ceviche and spiced lime shrimp. Of course, you could always just stop in for a cocktail and an order of Wulff’s well-loved churros. Barrio Bistro is cash only and reservations aren’t accepted; come early or late.
Islas Marietas National Park
For an active, nature-filled afternoon on the water, make plans to spend at least half a day at Islas Marietas National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is relatively small but offers plenty to do on its protected waters.
The highlight of Islas Marietas is Lover’s Beach (also called Hidden Beach), a stunning location you’d never believe was real if you weren’t standing on it. Many beaches near Puerto Vallarta back directly onto cliffs, but in the case of Playa Escondida, the jungle-covered cliff actually extends out over the surf. Over the eons, the movement of the water carves away at the cliff, eventually forming a circle-shaped beach surrounded by jungle on all sides. How the massive skylight to the beach opened is more of a mystery, though some historians suspect the military blasted it open during military bomb tests in the 1960s.
It’s worth spending at least an hour or two lounging at Lover’s Beach, but more active adventures await if you’re willing. Re-apply the reef-safe sunscreen and head out on a paddle-board to explore the rugged shoreline and caves along Playa la Nopalera, or snorkel just off the sand. It’s common to see dolphins and whales, though the islands’ remote and protected location also creates an ideal home for other large animals like sea turtles and giant manta rays.
Because the park is far into the Bay of Banderas, the best way to see it is to take a guided trip. Local guiding company Vallarta Adventures runs daily trips to the island that include transportation, lunch, and drinks, as well as your activity of choice.
Go Whale Watching (December – March)
The Bay of Banderas is a winter breeding ground for humpback whales who raise their young in the safety of the shallow water before migrating north again in March or April. That makes Puerto Vallarta’s marina the ideal jumping-off point for a whale-watching trip to see these graceful creatures in the wild. While whale sightings are never guaranteed, they might as well be, considering how packed the bay is with cetaceans in the winter.
Whale watching tours can be as relaxing or as adventurous as you’d like. If you’re keen on a higher-energy ride, head out on a zodiac tour. The small, inflatable powerboats zoom quickly through the waves and can get closer to the whales without disturbing their natural behaviour. You should prepare to get wet; it’s a bumpy, adventurous ride.
If you prefer to watch for whales with a fresh-fruit cocktail in hand, opt for a more luxurious ship. You can set sail from Puerto Vallarta on either a breezy catamaran or a small yacht, both of which offer a more stable and comfortable ride. Tours with Canuwa including a high-end open bar on one of two luxe catamarans, and many companies have the option of sailing with a naturalist who can answer questions about the animals you see along the way.
Day Trip To A Huichol Village
If you’re interested in the arts and culture of Mexico’s Central Pacific coast, visit a Huichol village. The Huichol people have lived in the Jalisco region since at least the 1500’s, and probably earlier. Beading and yarn painting are two of the tribe’s most well-known artistic expressions, and while you can browse Huichol shops in Puerto Vallarta, it’s worth taking a trip to a village for a more well-rounded experience.
The closest Huichol village is Kawitu Village, about an hour south of Puerto Vallarta. Indigenous and local guides lead trips from P.V. to Kawitu, which is partially set up to welcome guests. A few local restaurants serve Huichol cuisine, craft studios are open to the public (but with minimal pressure to buy), and you’ll find opportunities to participate in traditional activities like axe-throwing, gardening, and sacred ceremonies. While tourism is an economic driver for Kawitu, it’s not the only one, so the village is still reasonably similar to how it’s been for centuries. Don’t expect to find Wi-Fi, ATMs, or air conditioning anywhere in town.
Ask your hotel to recommend a local guide or transportation company if you’re interested in visiting. If you’re staying at Casa Velas, a local Huichol guide leads complimentary trips for guests twice a week.
Explore Puero Vallarta’s Street Art
Puerto Vallarta is an art-lover’s dream, with massive public art installations and murals scattered through town. Add in that colourful stores, outdoor squares and parks, and live street performances, and it’s clear you need to spend at least a few hours wandering along the Malecon and beyond. You can also take one of several free walking tours offered each week from the Department of Tourism – stop by their office across from the Guadaloupe Cathedreal to check the current tour schedule.
On the waterfront are 14 sculptures ranging from the interactive In Search of Reason by Sergio Bustamante to The Boy on the Seahorse by sculptor Rafael Zamarripa; the latter has become a beloved symbol of the city. As you wander the flowered blocks of Old Puerto Vallarta, you’ll find more than two dozen commissioned murals celebrating everything from Mexican wildlife to Frieda Kahlo – and that’s only the government-sanctioned murals. Many artists have taken it upon themselves to decorate everything from walls to doors to recycling bins and benches.
Learn Puero Vallarta’s Food And Drink
Puerto Vallarta has more restaurants per capita than nearly anywhere else in Mexico, and as you might expect from a place so close to the town of Tequila, most ingredients are fresh and locally grown.
If you’re keen to learn more about the art of blending and tasting tequila, attend an hour-long tasting class at Blanca Blue restaurant. You’ll learn how distillers make the versatile spirit, as well as how to blend and pair different types of tequila, depending on whether it’s a white, reposado, or añejo.
CF Top Tip
Opt for an añejo if you’re planning on sipping rather than mixing.
Of course, mezcal is also made from the agave plant and is quickly becoming the spirit du jour among travellers with an adventurous palate. Ninety-minute mezcal tastings and classes are available at Casa Tradicional or the Agave Room in downtown Puerto Vallarta.
Of course, one must pair the proper dish with one’s cocktail, and fortunately, food experiences abound in the town. Vallarta Food Tours offers everything from an evening taco-tasting tour on foot to a high-end culinary tour through PV’s trendy Versailles barrio. You could also take a cooking class through Rosie’s Cooking. Classes are led by Rosie herself, who will take you shopping at her favourite market before bringing you back to her own home, where you’ll learn to cook traditional Jalisco recipes from scratch in her kitchen.