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Rainbow over beach

Story & Images by Vicki Hoefling Andersen
  Puerto Vallerta cobblestone street   Puerto Vallerta Olas Atlas restaurant  
Cobblestone streets that challenge bicycles lead from the nearby hillside right down to the water.

Rambling cobblestone streets wind between buildings that are stuccoed in white and roofed with red tiles, with splashes of bougainvillea overflowing window boxes. I could be in a seaside Mediterranean village. But as I turn to look at palm trees swaying on the golden-sand beach, and at the Bay of Banderas melting into the sunset, I know that I am—most happily—on the Mexican Riviera.

I am charmed by Mexico and its alluring beaches lapped by gentle surf, lush mountains filled with exotic wildlife, fragrant flowers in bloom, and friendly people who welcome their Norte Americano neighbors.

  Puerto Vallerta Playa Camerones   Puerto Vallerta streetlight  
Gentle surf laps the shore, while lamp posts sporting gargoyles
and seahorses light the streets at night.

What enthralls me about Puerto Vallarta is the beguiling way it compacts all my favorites into one locale. Noticeably and refreshingly exotic, it is also pleasantly familiar and recognizeable because so many Americans and Canadians have relocated here.

What frustrates me about PV, as it is commonly and fondly referred to, are the ever-present hawkers of time-share vacation properties and gringo tours; also the fact that I speak only enough Spanish to get myself into trouble because natives assume that I genuinely comprehend Español. But I'm working on that. I've also learned to smile, say "no, nada, gracias" in a decisive tone that leaves no doubt about my interest, and to keep walking.

  Sierra Madre Mountains south of Puerto Vallarta   Puerto Vallarta sunset  
The Sierra Madre Mountains’ lush foliage encroach upon the road south of PV.
Sunset from Zona Romantica, Puerto Vallarta’s “Romantic Zone.”

Tucked against the Sierra Madre mountains on the east and south, and bordered by the fertile Valle de Banderas to the north, PV unfolds along the coastline in a tropical setting where one is never far from sea or jungle. Centered on the shore of Bahía de Banderas, Mexico's largest bay and one of the deepest on the Pacific Ocean, embraces 25 miles of beaches. Sweeping coastal views and spectacular sunsets are abundant.

At the northern end of PV is Nuevo Vallarta, an area of sprawling resorts and residential developments. More than five miles of river canals and estuary wind past the private docks of luxurious villas and enormous estates. North of the international airport, Marina Vallarta's 445 acres and 500-boat capacity make this boat basin the country's largest and most sophisticated, hosting pleasure craft from around the world.

  Puerto Vallarta hotel zone  
Zona Hotelera is a cluster of hotels and accommodations along the Bay of Banderas.

Spread along the divided main highway south of the airport, a cluster of high-rise accommodations defines Zona Hotelera that provides all the amenities one would expect from such resorts. Numerous restaurants, shops, nightclubs and a couple of shopping centers are within easy walking distance, but this development is a bit short on local charm.

The heart of Puerto Vallarta is El Centro, a.k.a. Viejo Vallarta, site of the languid fishing village established in the mid-1800s. Focused around the Plaza and Cathedral of Guadalupe, narrow streets are lined with old-Mexico-style homes boasting tall doors, thick wooden beams, wrought-iron balconies and other Spanish adornments. Many of these house superb restaurants, stylish art galleries and—to my everlasting delight—tiny shops brimming with colorful pottery, embroidered clothing, meticulously-crafted décor, and other folkloric treasures.

  Puerto Rico Malecon   Puerto Vallerta malecon dance sculpture  
While strolling the Malecón, you’ll discover sculptures including “Nostalgia” (above left)
and the “Vallarta Dancers” (above right).

The Malecón, a mile-long boardwalk separating the traffic on Paseo Diaz Ordas from the sands of Rosita Beach all the way to Playa de los Muertos, features permanent art exhibits including a 16-piece ensemble of fantasy sea creatures, food vendors and street performers. Local fisherman offer their catch-of-the-day in an open-air fish market at the north end. Near the Río Cuale, an open-air theater, "Los Arcos," draws folks for gratis Sunday evening performances of mariachis, puppet shows and food vendors.

  Puerto Vallarta cathedral   Puerto Vallarta catheral interior  



Puerto Vallerta Gringo Gulch

In contrast to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe and its altar, a few blocks away
the homes in Gringo Gulch often express the whimsical side of their builder.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the heart of local religious life. Featuring hand-carved columns, ornamental moldings and other rich detailing, the church’s elaborate filigreed crown is said to have been modeled after the one worn by Emperor Maximilian's wife during his brief (1864-67) rule of Mexico. Farther up the hillside is Gringo Gulch, a neighborhood of expatriates who have built some outrageous homes with dazzling views.

  Puerto Vallarta Isla Cuale   Puerto Vallarta Rio Cuale outlet  
A small islet in the middle of a small river originating in the Sierra Madres - Río Cuale - Isla
Cuale is a peaceful respite. A viewing platform graces the spot where the river empties into the Bay.

Below this eccentric neighborhood flows the Río Cuale, separating Old Town and Zona Romantica. In the midst of the small river is the five-acre oasis, Isla Cuale. Easy access from the Malecón or the northbound bridge on Insurgentes Street reveals a small botanical garden, museum, children's park, a variety of eateries, and the Mercado Municipal’s two sprawling levels of shops where spirited bargaining is part of the experience.

  Puerto Vallarta ona Romantica   Puerto Vallarta beach vendor  
Zona Romantica, a.k.a. Los Muertos, is a favorite hangout for many visitors. Condos at Vista del Sol overlook the Malecón and beach vendors trolling for customers. (photo above left by June Hoefling)

An area that personifies the laid-back charm for which PV is famous, Zona Romantica could be considered the soul of Puerto Vallarta. Stretching south from Río Cuale, this lively section of town offers wonderful restaurants with many small and unique shops tucked amongst them. Hotels and condos, seldom topping six stories, line a festive beach where tourists and locals mingle both in the surf and at the many beachfront palapa-roofed restaurants. There can be no finer ending to a day than sitting along this stretch of sand, boat-drink in hand, watching the sunset's vibrant hues shimmer across the Bay.

  Puerto Vallarta Los Arcos   Puerto Vallarta Playa Mismaloya  
Los Arcos and Playa Mismaloya are just a few of the destinations to be explored
south of Puerto Vallarta.

To the south, dense jungle creeps down to the beach, with a few small communities nestled between nature's colliding ecosystems. About 500 yards offshore sits Los Arcos, a sea-sculpted arch surrounded by a Federal underwater park, a favorite destination of snorkelers and divers. Mismaloya found fame as the location for director John Houston's 1963 film, "Night of the Iguana." Star Richard Burton's invitation for his paramour, Elizabeth Taylor, to visit him here, and their subsequent purchase of adjoining homes in Gringo Gulch, spearheaded tourism to Puerto Vallarta.

Spread along the remainder of the Bay's southwestern arm are three tiny fishing villages accessible only by boat. With artists and ex-hippies but no phones or electricity, Yelapa is located in a picturesque cove shaded by palm trees and rimmed by jungle. Beach vendors coax visitors with fabulous coconut pies and a local moonshine called raicilla.

  Puerto Vallarta Bucerias   Puerto Vallarta beach  
North of Puerto Vallarta, Bucerías and Playa Destiladeras are a few of the
small towns and beaches worth exploring.

Along the northern arm of the Bay, Bucerías is known for its fresh oysters and an energetic Sunday market. From El Anclote, a 45-minute boat ride delivers snorkelers and divers to the protected wildlife sanctuary of El Moro and its sister island, Las Marietas.

  Puerto Vallarta parasailing   Puerto Vallarta beachfront dining  
Whether parasailing over or dining adjacent to Playa Los Muertos, the views are incredible.

Adventurous visitors to PV can enjoy championship golf courses, off-road adventures, tequila factory tours, parasailing, water- and jet-skiing, fishing and snorkeling. The diversity of handicrafts and ubiquitous shopping opportunities make this region a shopaholic’s paradise. Specialties range from Huichol Indian beaded masks and yarn paintings to talavera pottery and silver jewelry. Palates can be tempted at more than 500 eateries, considered the best on Mexico's Pacific Coast, or indulged in the endless fresh and abundant seafood. The variety of lodging options is nearly endless, while those devoted enough to arrive in their RVs will find over a half-dozen RV/trailer parks encircling the Bay.

Puerto Vallarta Zona Romantica
Zona Romantica lights up for the evening

A mostly walkable city, PV's vast, frequent and affordable inter-city bus system and plentiful taxis make commuting easy. For a day of exploration out of town, a one- or two-day car rental would be the best solution. With certified safe-to-drink water and one of the lowest crime rates in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is a popular and captivating destination.

  Vicki Andersen has been writing about skiing, snowmobiling, motorcycling and adventure travel for decades. Over 300 stories appearing in more than five dozen local, regional and national outlets bear her byline. Since joining the HighOnAdventure team in 2005, her stories have ranged from Iceland to Alaska, Hawaii to Fiji, across Mexico and Central America, and other intriguing locations. Check out more of her stories at or contact her at   Vicki Andersen