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Cruise Port Review
Tropical Ports of Call

Puerto Vallarta

From Pretty Hideaway to Tropical Resort

Port City:
  • Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
    Population:
  • 150,000 in the city and 100,000 additional in the surrounding countryside.
    Language:
  • Spanish is the official language, but most locals speak at least some English.
    Climate:
  • During the high season of December through April, the average temperatures are in the 70s and 80s with the water temperature in the 60s and 70s.
    Currency:
  • The Mexican peso. U.S. dollars are widely accepted.

    PuertoVallarta, nestled between the verdant peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains and the placid waters of the Bahˇa de Banderas, is a picture-book city of colorful tiled roofs and quaint narrow streets. Sparkling beaches, elegant shops and fine restaurants, plus a warm year-round climate, make this spot in the heart of the Mexican Riviera ideal for vacationers.

    History

    The history of Puerto Vallarta is different from that of many Mexican cities which have a past dating back thousands of years to the Olmecs, Toltecs and Maya. The region now including Puerto Vallarta was discovered only a few centuries ago, in 1541, by Don Pedro de Alvarado. The port was practically forgotten for the next 300 years.

    In 1851, one Guadalupe Sanchez and his family settled along the mouth of the Rio Cuale to farm. During this time, the area was known as Puerto Las Penas. By 1918, it was designated a municipality and received the name "Puerto Vallarta" in honor of Don Ignacio Luis Vallarta, a prominent Mexican statesman. Puerto Vallarta remained a quiet fishing village for the next 30 years. In the 1950s, the possibilities of turning the area into a weekend resort for nearby Guadalajara stirred some interest. A few travel writers described the natural beauty and serenity of the town, and the American director John Huston visited the area.

    International attention was first drawn to Puerto Vallarta by the scandal surrounding Huston's film Night of the Iguana, which was filmed at nearby Mismaloya. The star, Richard Burton, was accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor, who was still married to Eddie Fisher. The reporters who had come to cover the story were enthralled by the unspoiled, quaint area, and when they returned home, the word was out.

    Recently, Puerto Vallarta has experienced astronomical growth in the northern hotel zone along the beach. Several five-star hotel and condominium complexes have been completed, and more are being constructed. They offer luxurious amenities such as tennis and squash courts, health clubs and pools; there's also an 18-hole golf course and a marina with a capacity of 300 boats. Today, this part of Puerto Vallarta is truly a world-class resort community.

    Sightseeing & Beaches

    Downtown Puerto Vallarta

    The seaside promenade, or malecon, is the center of activity in downtown Puerto Vallarta. Lined with shops, restaurants and bars, it is especially lively at night, when both visitors and locals stroll under the streetlights. Sunday nights, when nearly everyone in town shows up to socialize and watch the street artists and listen to bands, are the most festive of all. At the southern end of the malecon is the Plaza de Armas, the town's main square. And just west of the square is the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, the local cathedral. Topped with a crown supported by angels, its bell tower is the town's most recognizable landmark.

    On the hill above the cathedral is Gringo Gulch, a neighborhood built by the expatriate and vacationing Americans who were among the first to recognize Puerto Vallarta's potential as a tropical retreat. Narrow streets keep cars out, making this area safe for pedestrians. There are several interesting homes here, including one once owned by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which now operates as a charming bed and breakfast. Known as Casa Kimberly, the property is actually two villas linked by a pink bridge, making it one of the more distinctive structures in Puerto Vallarta. From this vantage point, there are fantastic views of the surrounding area.

    From mid-November through mid-April, the International Friendship Club conducts tours through Casa Kimberly and other Puerto Vallarta residences, ranging from charming bungalows to stately beachfront villas. The tours are offered Thursday through Saturday and depart at 11:00 AM from the pavilion on the plaza; itineraries vary from day to day. No reservations are necessary, but be sure to arrive half an hour early to sign up. The club asks for donations, which are distributed among local charities.

    The Isla Rio Cuale, reached by the stairs that lead down from either bridge over the river, is a haven of quietude and greenery in the middle of the busiest part of town. Although the upstream end has a few restaurants, this is mostly a landscaped park with gardens, grassy lawns and wide, uncrowded walkways. Along the tree-shaded walk between the two bridges are several stands offering art, souvenirs, crafts and other goods for sale. The downstream tip of the island is the site of the Museo del Cuale, a tiny building housing pre-Columbian artifacts and works by local artists.

    South of the Rio Cuale are the hotel and shopping areas surrounding Playa de los Muertos and Playa Las Amapas. The neighborhoods that overlook the Amapas area are built on the face of steep cliffs; the attractive homes and condominiums are perched over the beach.

    South of Town

    Highway 200 clings to verdant cliffs south of Puerto Vallarta, winding between the homes and resorts that overlook the bay. Take advantage of the occasional wide shoulder to pull off, park and walk down to one of the many beaches below the cliffs.

    About six miles south of town the road makes its closest approach to Los Arcos, the three rocky islets that are the area's best-known sight. Dotted with caves, the islets are a favorite locale for diving and snorkeling.

    Just past Los Arcos is the cove that made Puerto Vallarta famous: Mismaloya. The setting for Night of the Iguana has become one of the most popular beaches in the area. This once-secluded cove now has resort hotels, thatched-roof restaurants on the beach and a full selection of water sports.

    You can, however, still get a feeling for what Mismaloya was like when John Huston's cast and crew arrived to make Night of The Iguana. On the south side of the cove, at the top of the palm-covered hill, stand the ruins of the movie set. Although much of the set has been removed or destroyed, the walls and floors of the main hotel building, the central location of the movie, are still there. If you've seen the film, you'll recognize the hotel's main room and the patio where so many important scenes took place. And whether you've seen it or not, your climb up to the set will be rewarded with magnificent views of Mismaloya, Los Arcos and the bay beyond. The climb is a strenuous one in the tropical heat, so be sure to bring some liquid refreshments along.

    Across the highway from the entrance to Mismaloya is a dirt road that leads into the mountains. The right, or downhill, branch leads deep into the jungle to the Eden Restaurant, where for a small fee you can explore one of the sets of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Predator. The access road is eroded and extremely rocky, better suited to four-wheel drives than cars. Once you finally reach the restaurant, though, you may be more interested in swimming in the clear pools of the jungle river than exploring the rather minimal set.

    Beyond Mismaloya there are fewer hotels, and the road provides wonderful views of tropical forests overhanging rocky beaches and sandy coves. Boca de Tomatlan is a fishing village located at the mouth of the Rio Tomatlan, which tumbles down a narrow, boulder-strewn valley from the mountains above into a sheltered cove. This is a pleasant place to stop to take a swim, have a snack or just enjoy the view. If you wish to stop here, look for the cobblestone street that leads downhill toward the water just after the "Boca de Tomatlan" sign. Here the highway turns away from the bay and climbs up one side of the Rio Tomatlan valley into the mountains. The road is steep and curves sharply and frequently, but it is well maintained and the striking views of the mountains and tropical forests are definitely worth the drive. To the right the river is visible as it cascades over granite outcroppings on its way to the bay. There are a few narrow shoulders that allow you to stop, get out of the car and take in the vista.

    The road crosses the river at the village of Las Juntas Verrano, the location of a restaurant called Chico's Paradise. You can hire horses for a guided ride upstream to a jungle waterfall, and there are wooden bridges to the rock formations that overlook the swiftly flowing river. It's wise to turn around here, as the highway often has no shoulder beyond this point.

    North of Town

    Following Highway 200 north of the airport, you leave the bustling resort area behind and enter the countryside that lies at the foot of the Sierra Volcanica Transversal. As you cross the muddy Rio Ameca, you are leaving the state of Jalisco and entering Nayarit. One of the first signs you'll see is for Nuevo Vallarta, a new development containing homes, condominiums and resorts. The second entrance road, 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) past the airport, leads directly to the resort area, where Jack Tar Village and other resorts allow public access to some peaceful beaches. The Museo Regional de Bahia de Banderas, located next to Jack Tar's beachside restaurant, is an interesting museum containing pre-Columbian artifacts found in the area.

    Back on Highway 200, your drive continues through the village of Mezcales and past the Los Flamingos golf club to the town of Bucerias, 18.3 kilometers (11.5 miles) north of the airport. Just as in Puerto Vallarta, the liveliest night here is Sunday, when the locals gather to promenade through the street market that centers on the church square. The town also boasts a long, clean beach and several seaside restaurants serving fresh seafood.

    North of Bucerias, the highway climbs into the foothills near the town of Huanacaxtle, providing views of the bay and of the lush greenery on the mountains. Soon after this, at a point about 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) north of the airport, the highway splits. Turn left off Highway 200 and take the Punta de Mita road, which follows the shore of the Bahia de Banderas. This road is in poor condition in some sections, so drive slowly and carefully. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a good idea, because sections of road are filled with potholes and there are occasional dirt tracks that lead down to hidden beaches.

    Almost immediately the road begins to provide expansive views of the bay and the mountains in the distance. Just after the village of Cruz de Huanacaxtle, at the top of a hill marked with streetlights, you will pass the entrance road for the restaurant at Playa Piedra Blanca. The entrance is about 26.4 kilometers (16.4 miles) beyond the airport.

    From here on you will see small signs along the road for restaurants, usually with arrows pointing down narrow access roads toward the bay. These palm-thatched establishments are often located on unspoiled beaches; with luck, you may find a stretch of sand with no others in sight. If you prefer a beach with more action, pull off at the gray stone arch that marks Destiladeras, located 31 kilometers (19 miles) beyond the airport. Popular with locals, this wide, sandy beach has rocky cliffs, great views of the bay and a few more of the ubiquitous restaurants.

    Beyond Destiladeras the road conditions worsen, but the views are beautiful and the beaches are uncrowded. If you really want to get away from it all and don't mind roughing it a bit, this final 10 miles of road can be one of the high points of your trip. Signs continue to invite you to venture down to little-known beaches, and the road plunges into tropical greenery and farmland. But keep in mind that the road is unlit and little traveled; don't stay after dark, because getting help this far from town might be difficult, if not impossible.

    Those who follow the road to its end are rewarded with the dramatic scenery of Punta de Mita, a remote fishing village at the northernmost point of the bay, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. To the southwest are the Tres Marietas Islands, a bird sanctuary and the site of the finest open-ocean diving to be found near Puerto Vallarta. The village itself, built almost entirely of palm fronds and wood, has some rustic restaurants and even sporting-equipment rentals for visitors.

    Sightseeing Tours

    One of the most popular ways to see the sights around Puerto Vallarta is to take a tour. Many visitors prefer bay cruises, most of which pass by the resort area, downtown, Los Arcos and Mismaloya on their way to Quimixto or Yelapa, two isolated villages that offer seaside restaurants, trails to tropical waterfalls, snorkeling, horseback riding and, of course, sunbathing.

    There are also catamarans which sail to smaller, more secluded beaches. Prices for these cruises vary according to the amenities available on board, the size of the boat and the amount of liquor and food included in the fare.

    On land, there are jungle tours, horseback riding excursions and introductory minibus tours of the city and the surrounding area.

    There are several tour operators available in town, and most hotel desks will provide assistance in arranging these trips. Cruises may also be arranged at the ticket offices in the shopping center next to the municipal marina.

    Sports

    You are in for a surprise if you think the number one sport in Puerto Vallarta is sunbathing; a myriad of exciting sports are available for you to enjoy. Landlubbers will find tennis, horseback riding and golf. And with its vast coastline, the city offers you unlimited possibilities to indulge in your favorite water sport.

    Diving & Snorkeling

    Scuba diving and snorkeling trips can be arranged with a local dive operator or with your hotel concierge. The most-visited site is the National Marine Sanctuary at Los Arcos, just offshore from Mismaloya and Playa Los Arcos. The islands here are known for their large sea caves, many of which are big enough to accommodate several divers at once. In fact, one is so immense that some dive boats can pass through.

    At a depth of 25-30 feet, the waters around the islands make a good diving spot for beginners; this is where most novices are taken for their first ocean dives. Colorful tropical fish and other marine creatures live among the rocks and caves. Snorkelers, too, can find plenty to see in the shallower water nearest the islands.

    The Tres Marietas Islands, far out in the bay near Punta de Mita, are just the place for the adventurous, experienced diver. The waters around the islands offer caves, tunnels and walls, and are inhabited by dolphins and manta rays and sometimes visited by whales. A two-tank dive in the Marietas is a full-day excursion.

    Only a few of the beaches in the Puerto Vallarta area have water that is consistently clear and calm enough for snorkeling. The sheltered, shallow water at Punta de Mita is home to dozens of species of small tropical fish. Snorkeling among the rocks is an enjoyable part of a visit to this secluded, rustic spot. You can also snorkel among the rocks below the old movie set at Mismaloya.

    Fishing

    Deep-sea fishing is perhaps the favorite sport in Puerto Vallarta. Sailfish may be caught at any time of the year, and smaller game fish run seasonally. You can arrange a charter at the Fishermen's Cooperative at the north end of the malecon. Trips leave from the municipal marina at the north end of town.

    Ranging from 29 to 40 feet in length, the boats have room for two to four people to fish at any one time. If you want to bring friends along, be sure to ask how many people the boat can accommodate. Bait and gear are provided, but you pay extra for drinks and must bring your own lunch. A daily fishing license, which is available at the marina, is required for each person who intends to fish.

    Other Water Sports

    In addition to fishing charters, sailing and yachting excursions can be arranged at the marina or through your hotel's concierge.

    For an exhilarating zip across the water, try renting a jet ski and riding the surf. Water-sports operators on nearly every major beach rent these machines. The operators also offer tiny one-person outboard runabouts and rides on "banana rafts," large yellow tubes with handles and seats that are pulled by speedboats.

    Golf

    There are two 18-hole golf courses in the Puerto Vallarta area, the Marina Vallarta course and the Los Flamingos Golf Club. Only certain hotels have access rights to the Marina Vallarta course. Check with your hotel information desk to find out more about either of these facilities.

    Horseback Riding

    Local ranches offer horseback tours of the nearby countryside and excursions into the jungle. Trails pass through groves of tropical fruit trees and into the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Experienced guides take groups out for three-hour rides in the morning and afternoon; half-day outings and overnight camping trips are also available. Ask your hotel concierge for information and reservations. You can also find horses on the more popular beaches, including Playa Norte the resort area north of downtown and Playa de Los Muertos. One of the best times for a beach ride is early evening, when the air is cool, the crowds are gone and the sun is setting over the bay.

    Hot-Air Ballooning

    Puerto Vallarta's gentle breezes and panoramic beauty are rapidly making it a favorite ballooning location. Whether you choose a sunset or sunrise flight, each journey is unforgettable; you'll drift serenely in a colorful balloon above lush plantations, with the ocean sparkling in the distance. Be sure to bring a camera and plenty of film.

    Tennis

    Several resorts in Puerto Vallarta have tennis courts for their guests, some of which are open to the public. The John Newcombe Tennis Club, located at the Continental Plaza, is the largest tennis club in the area. It has four outdoor courts and four covered courts and is open from early morning until late at night. The center has equipment rentals and changing rooms with showers. After a tough match, you can get a massage. Private lessons, group lessons and personal trainers are available as well.

    Several other area hotels have tennis facilities that are available to the public.

    Transportation

    Getting around in Puerto Vallarta couldn't be easier. Transportation is readily available, usually at a moment's notice. Traveling to more distant sites and beaches requires a bit more planning; your hotel or cruise ship information desk can help you with rental information and tour arrangements.

    Car Rentals

    Several agencies rent small sedans, four-wheel-drive vehicles and open Volkswagens. While cars are fine for driving around town and getting to most beaches, a four-wheel drive is a wise investment if you plan to explore the remote beaches and rough jungle roads outside Puerto Vallarta. Rentals are available at the airport and some hotels, and most hotels can help with the necessary arrangements.

    There are three convenient gas stations in Puerto Vallarta: one just south of the airport on Highway 200; another at the corner of Avenida Mexico (the primary southbound route through downtown) and Avenida Honduras, and a third at the corner of Avenida Insurgentes and Calle Pilitas at the south end of town.

    Taxis & Minibuses

    Taxis are plentiful in Puerto Vallarta. They can be hailed nearly anywhere in town, and all the major hotels have a taxi rank just outside the front door. Most cab drivers do not speak English. Standard fares in pesos have been set, and all drivers are required to adhere to these rates. However, it's a good idea to confirm the cab fare to your destination with the driver before you depart. It's also recommended that you carry exact change, because drivers often don't have small bills. Tips are included in the fare.

    Minibuses, or combis, which are less expensive than taxis, are also available. The blue-and-white Sisteocozome buses run on numbered routes; the number is marked clearly on the front of each bus. The yellow Transporte Terrestre vans with the airplane painted on the side run mainly from the airport to the resort areas.


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