Known for its gorgeous beaches and azure waters, Puerto Vallarta isn’t just a sit-on-the-beach type of resort town, but a well-rounded travel attraction—a Mexican culture hub and a nature preserve. Once a sleepy fishing village, Puerto Vallarta rose to its stardom in the decadent 1960s when the American film crews arrived to shoot the now classic The Night of the Iguana. The Hollywood infusion quickly turned the quiet little town into a hot tourist destination. And yet, through their native Indian traditions of fishing, farming and foraging, the residents kept their ties to nature, retained their cuisine and preserved their art forms. The result of this ancient and modern mix is a vibrant multifaceted city with a cobblestone downtown, artisanal markets, fine restaurants and a variety of adventures for nature lovers, assuring that even the most demanding traveler will never get bored.
In Spanish, Malecón refers to an esplanade along a waterfront, which for us translates to boardwalk. Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón is the essence of this beautiful welcoming city. Locals and tourists alike stroll along the shore, admiring the ocean views and the landmark art sculptures, including the humpback whale, the dancing couple and the city’s symbol—the seahorse. Dotted with cafes and restaurants, the boardwalk is the best place for a morning coffee, an afternoon cocktail or a sunset drink. If you want to slow down to that relaxed island pace of life, this is the place to be. Find a chair, grab a drink, listen to the rolling of the ocean and watch Puerto Vallarta stroll by.
2. Casa Kimberly
Smack in the middle of Puerto Vallarta’s downtown, Casa Kimberly is a living memory of the Hollywood love story that made the city what it is today. When two movie stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, came here for a shoot, they enjoyed a passionate love affair while still married to other people. Unlike everywhere else in the world, the locals pretty much left the couple alone, so Taylor and Burton built their love nest. On her 34th birthday, Burton gave Taylor a white stucco villa, then bought another property across the street and connected the two by a snow-white bridge, a replica of the Venice Bridge of Sighs. Today that stucco villa is Casa Kimberly—a boutique hotel featuring only a few rooms, beautifully decorated and furnished. Taylor’s heart-shaped (human heart, that is) pink marble Jacuzzi is still there, and so is Burton’s original blue-tiled pool.
3. Puerto Vallarta’s Municipal Market
Located on the North Side of the Cuale River, which separates “the old town” from the city center, Puerto Vallarta’s Municipal Market is a shopaholic’s dream. It is where local artisans come to sell Mexican hats, Indian masks, handmade dolls and silver jewelry—and for very affordable prices. Bargaining is expected, so if you’re buying several pieces, it’s worth trying to get a better price. Be sure to have pesos handy, and brush up on your Spanish—at least the numbers.
4. Emiliano Zapata Market
Spanning an entire city block, this covered farmers market is for the foodies. This is where all Puerto Vallarta residents, from grandmothers to award-winning chefs, come for produce, meat and cheese. You can eat yourself full by trying a little bit of everything, from ripened fruit picked on farms hours ago to fresh eggs laid by hens in the mountain villages. Don’t be spooked by unusual or ugly-looking fruit; everything that grows here is delicious, as every seller will tell you. The best part is that it’s all local and seasonal. When you can eat no more, street vendors will happily pour you a glass of tejuino—a velvety drink made from fermented corn.
Plan a dinner at Maia, a restaurant recently opened by Puerto Vallarta’s award-winning chef, Hugo Ahumada. Maia, which is part of the Villa Mercedes Petit Hotel, serves Nuevo Mexican cuisine; traditional ingredients are used to create sophisticated dishes elegantly served against the backdrop of modern Indian-inspired décor. Ahumada, who used to work in a French restaurant where he won several national awards, went back to cooking Mexican after spending some time with the local Indian tribes and drawing inspiration from the old traditions.
6. Turtle Release
If you’re in town any time between June and December, take part in the baby turtle release parties, hosted by hotels with large beachfront properties such as Velas Vallarta and Casa Magna Marriott. Puerto Vallarta natives have always felt strongly connected to the sea, so when Mexican olive ridley turtles became threatened during the last decade, several hotels instituted a preservation program. When turtles lay eggs on the hotels’ beaches, preservation crews transfer the eggs to safe nurseries, away from predators and poachers. When the babies hatch, guests and visitors set them off to sea. The programs are immensely popular with children, but adults love them just as much. The release parties are usually hosted around sunset, when the birds of prey return to their nests.
7. Mike’s Fishing Boat
Mike’s Fishing Boat, a two-deck cruiser, can quickly whisk you away to a beautiful remote beach reachable only by sea. In fact, for a long time, most of Puerto Vallarta’s coastline was accessible only by boat, so even today, a lot of its gorgeous grottos, overgrown jungle forests and secluded harbors remain that way. The golden beaches serve as little islands of civilization where boats can dock and locals serve food and drinks underneath thatched huts. Your margaritas will be ice cold, despite the heat and the sun, and your grilled sea bass, caught only hours ago, will be the freshest ever.
8. Los Arcos Marine Park
Named for the two arch-like rocks towering above of the water, Los Arcos Marine Park is a marine sanctuary about an hour away from Puerto Vallarta by boat. Brimming with all kinds of fish species that like to nest and feed around the rocks, Los Arcos is one of the best snorkeling and scuba diving places on the Mexican Pacific coast. Whether by way of swim, snorkel or kayak, passing underneath the cavernous rocks will give you the chills as you marvel at the world’s wonders.
Puerto Vallarta’s coastline is beautiful throughout, but it is particularly charming and dreamy in the Marina Vallarta. No matter which way you look, the beach is endless with the ocean waves softly rolling onshore. Many posh boutique hotels have their beachfronts here, so as you stroll along the water, make sure to wander into one of the beach huts to savor a refreshing drink. And if you’re feeling romantic, this is the place to watch the sun sink slowly into the ocean while sipping a frozen margarita, toes buried in the sand.
Lina Zeldovich is a New York-based travel writer who has sang with drunken bards in a Russian Woodstock, danced with Kyoto geishas and drank a potion made from a venomous snake in Peru—and always lives to tell the story.