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The beachside town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, has been a top vacation spot since the mid-1960s, when movie director John Huston put the city on the international tourist map by filming The Night of the Iguana in the area. Since then, the once sleepy town has had no problem attracting a steady stream of tourists. Yet with its white sandy beaches, forest-clad mountains and pretty cobblestone streets, the location has undoubtedly held on to its original charm. We’ve sketched out a four-day itinerary that enables you to see the area’s main attractions, while also allowing enough time for lounging by the beach.
To make the most of your time in Puerto Vallarta, opt to stay within walking distance of the Old Town sights, bars and restaurants. From there, you can easily explore further afield.
Once you’ve dropped off your luggage at the hotel, it’s time to head out. Your first destination should be the Plaza de Armas, the city’s main plaza and the beating heart of the city. Here you’ll find souvenir hawkers, shaded park benches and free Wi-Fi. A few steps from the plaza is Puerto Vallarta’s most famous church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Squint your eyes and look up at the wrought-iron crown that tops the building. Towards the sea are Los Arcos, four grand stone arches that form the background to the city’s open-air theater. As well as being one of Puerto Vallarta’s most iconic monuments, free concerts and cultural events are held here throughout the year.
Los Muertos and Olas Altas are the two closest beaches to the city center. The former is the most popular, and has a magnificent 200-foot pier from which you can stare out to sea. It is thought that the beach was named Los Muertos (Deadman’s Beach) because it was once the site of a sacred burial ground. There are more beautiful and secluded beaches in the area, but this is a lively and iconic spot that every visitor should experience.
The Malecón (boardwalk) stretches a mile along the coast and is the perfect place to stroll in the evening. Here you can breathe in the fresh sea air, admire an impressive collection of sculptures and catch your first Puerto Vallarta sunset.
For gourmet Mexican cuisine, dine at Los Xitomates de Xalisco, an innovative and elegant restaurant owned and run by the award-winning chef Luis Fitch. With its focus on “high Mexican cuisine,” the restaurant takes traditional dishes and fuses them with Mediterranean, Caribbean or Asian influences.
A must for nature lovers, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens are 30 minutes drive from the historic center. Tucked into the Sierra Madre hills, this stunning ecological park has winding mountain walkways that showcase splendid orchids, butterflies and hummingbirds. To reach the gardens, you can arrange for a minivan to pick you up from your hotel. Another option is the orange “El Tuito” bus, which leaves from the corner of Carranza and Aguacate. Bring mosquito repellent and water.
Spend the afternoon in the nearby Playa las Gemelas, a gorgeous beach approximately 25 minutes north of the Botanical Gardens. Stretch out on the sand and enjoy a fresh coconut or fruit salad. Take a dip in the warm, crystal clear waters and look out at the Arcos de Mismaloya, a series of rocky islands that have been designated a national park.
Your minivan will take you back to your hotel or you can head back to the city center by waving down El Tuito bus from outside the Gemelas condominiums.
Back in Puerto Vallarta, tuck into a delicious seafood dinner at La Palapa Restaurant. This beachfront spot has great food and cocktails with tables that offer spectacular views of the sea. Try the mouth-watering lobster and shrimp tacos as appetizers, and the seared tuna as your main dish. Walking back to your hotel you will see numerous bustling bars and nightclubs. Stop by at Bar La Playa, a fun little bar offering great cocktails and cheap beer.
The Isla Cuale in the center of Puerto Vallarta’s Cuale River is a great place to wander and is home to a cultural center and several relaxing restaurants. Shaded by a dense thicket of trees, the island is also a cool and refreshing break from the beach. Be sure to visit the Museo del Cuale, a small island museum which showcases an impressive collection of pre-Columbian ceramics.
Spend the afternoon browsing Cuale Island Flea Market for gifts and souvenirs. The bustling market does a roaring trade in jewelry, pottery, leather goods and clothing. Much of what’s on offer is typical tourist fare, but there are some artists offering unique items. If you speak enough Spanish, this is a great place to have a shot at haggling.
Steer clear of the tourist trap clubs on the Malecón and head to Bar Morelos, which has a much more local feel. This stylish joint has great service, a solid menu and a sizeable drinks collection. Sample tequila’s smoky cousin, raicilla, or order a delicious chocolate martini. After a hard day’s sightseeing, you deserve it.
Bar Morelos, Morelos 589, Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico +521 322 222 2550
Take a water taxi from Los Muertos beach to the tiny village of Yelapa. Located thirty minutes away, in the southernmost cove of the Bahía de Banderas, this tiny fishing village has a gorgeous, secluded bay and is still relatively untouched by tourism. The businesses in town are all locally run, and you’ll still see locals fishing from the pier. Grab your towel, and take to the sand to top up your tan.
Surprisingly, Yelapa’s local delicacy is not its seafood, but pie. There are several so-called pie ladies in town, who walk the beach with Tupperware containers filled with their baked produce. The original and best pies are made by Chelly Rodriguez, who has been baking them in Yelapa for more than two decades. Rodriguez makes 10 different varieties of pie: lemon, apple, pumpkin, cheesecake, chocolate, coconut, chocolate and coconut, banana cream, pineapple and nut. Simply delicious.
Back in Puerto Vallarta, cap off your trip with a dinner at Cafe Des Artistes, the celebrated Mexican and French fusion restaurant. You’ll find some truly unique offers on the menu, including a delicious starter combining chilaquiles (a traditional Mexican dish of fried corn tortillas and tomato sauce) with lobster. Choose between a table in the stylish modern interior or the beautiful, candle-lit garden and toast to an excellent vacation.