The Best Things to Do in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is a beach getaway on Mexico's Pacific coast offering plenty to keep you busy beyond the sand | © Elijah Lovkoff / Alamy Stock Photo
On Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is heaven on earth for anyone into scuba diving, snorkeling, yachting and discovering hidden, white-sand beaches. It’s no surprise that seafood is at the top of the menu, too.
Tucked into Pacific Mexico’s Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta is a beach getaway that’s more relaxed than the well-trodden resort towns of Los Cabos or Cancún, but it doesn’t skimp on amenities. A day in the life of Puerto Vallarta means taking a yacht out to sea, scuba diving from the shore or venturing to a hidden beach on a deserted island. And there’s plenty of culture to soak up, too, from the churches and mariachi bands to the fresh seafood cuisine that all make Puerto Vallarta special. Read on for our top picks of things to do in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Sunbathe on Los Muertos Beach
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Soak up some vitamin D at Deadman’s Beach, which according to legend gets its name from the discovery of centuries-old tombs here when residents first started building homes on the coastline. The beach’s dock, shaped like a spiraling conch shell, stands out on the shoreline, and sand sculptors frequently flock here to make intricate designs along the water’s banks. Stop by one of the local vendors to buy fresh-caught shrimp and ice-cold drinks – or for a sit-down cocktail and snack, pop into one of the palapa-lined bars or restaurants along the beach.
Scuba dive at Los Arcos
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Los Arcos, or “The Arches”, may be some of the most iconic rock formations this side of Mexico. The islands can be seen from downtown Puerto Vallarta, but to truly witness their beauty, you need to get up close and personal. The islands are part of a marine national park and are home to coral reefs, manta rays and the occasional turtle or two. There are regular boat departures to get there, from which you can gear up for a scuba dive through the arches to see the wildlife for yourself.
Stroll through Plaza de Armas
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The Plaza de Armas main square has the second set of arches that Puerto Vallarta is famous for, on the pier and looking out at the ocean. This is where the boardwalk meets the main plaza, making the spot perfect for people-watching, with both locals and tourists from all over the world strolling by. Just off the square, Puerto Vallarta’s Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe church stands out among the plaza’s uniformly cream-colored buildings.
Visit the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
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Puerto Vallarta’s Catholic parish, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is the plaza’s crown jewel. The cathedral dominates the city skyline, with a ring of angels topping the bell tower that soars towards the blue sky. And the building’s interior is equally impressive, intricately decorated with painted wooden icons, a marble altar and stained glass windows. Visit Puerto Vallarta in December and you may catch the annual celebrations dedicated to the Virgin Mary, complete with parades and street parties.
Go on a luxury yacht tour of the bay
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What better way to seize the day than out at sea, sailing on a luxury yacht? The food and drink just keeps coming as you spend the afternoon at your own pace, lounging at the boat’s bow and jumping off the stern to cool off. Guides can point out some of Banderas Bay’s most iconic spots, including Los Arcos, and you’ll be back on dry land before you know it.
Eat tostadas at Maria Baja
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You can’t go to Puerto Vallarta without trying the seafood (unless you’re a vegetarian, of course), and there’s nowhere fresher to do so than at Maria Baja, a few blocks back from the shore. We love the soft seafood tacos and the tuna-mango, rock shrimp and ceviche tostadas. For a taste of tradition, the green and black aguachiles – shrimp marinated in lime juice with chiles and cilantro – are a must.
Discover the Marietas Islands
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Off the coast of Puerto Vallarta’s Banderas Bay, a pair of islands can be seen in the distance. These are the uninhabited Marietas Islands, home to one of the area’s not-so-secret hidden beaches. The beach itself, sometimes known as Lover’s Beach, was formed in the rim of a volcanic basin, and is only accessible by boat. A few trundle there each day from Punta Mita, north of Puerto Vallarta, and spaces are limited, so be sure to get there early.
Watch the Voladores de Papantla
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¡Ay Papantla, tus hijos vuelan! So iconic are these flying pole performers that their catchphrase is commonly used across Mexico to express surprise or excitement. You’ll understand why when you see these so-called “bird men” performing risky stunts while hanging from a pole that’s several stories tall. The centuries-old tradition was once a religious ritual that originated in the small town of Papantla, in Veracruz. Now, performers dazzle audiences all over the country.
Visit the Jardin Magico butterfly house
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Puerto Vallarta’s mariposario, or butterfly sanctuary, provides a safe habitat for some native butterfly species whose populations are threatened. It’s a short drive from downtown, but it feels like stepping into another world. The butterfly house is surrounded by trees, the perfect environment for sheltering the insects from tiny caterpillars until the moment they’re ready to spread their wings. If you’re lucky, you might be allowed to help release newly arrived butterflies with the help of the sanctuary’s expert staff.
These recommendations were updated on August 8, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.