Thanks to its mesmerizing sunsets, wide, sandy beaches and a laid-back, colonial centre, Puerto Vallarta is a small city that depends almost entirely on tourism; it attracts a mixed bag of West Coast Americans, Mexican families (particularly residents of Guadalajara), Spring Breakers, North American retirees and gay visitors taking advantage of its emergence as one of the gay centres of Mexico. If you’re looking for traditional Mexico you might find this wholly unappealing, but while it’s true that PV (as it’s known) can be more expensive and certainly more touristy than the average Mexican town, it can also be lots of fun. It is smaller and more relaxed than Cancún and Acapulco, and its location, surrounded by lofty mountains, is spectacular. Behind the beaches there’s a vibrant Mexican city, largely undisturbed by the flow of visitors, which means that the choice of tasty, cheap street food – especially tacos – is some of the best on the coast, and, contrary to what you might expect, PV is liberally peppered with mid-range hotels, especially during the low season (Aug–Nov).
Puerto Vallarta lies in the middle of the 22-kilometre-wide Bahía de Banderas, fringed by endless stretches of sand and backed by the jungle-covered slopes of the Sierra Madre. The town was officially founded in the 1850s (when it was known as Las Peñas – it was renamed in 1918), but there had been a small fishing and smuggling village located where the Río Cuale spills out into the bay for years. Initially developed by the Union en Cuale mining company, it remained a sleepy place until the 1950s, when Mexican airlines started promoting the town as a resort. Their efforts received a shot in the arm in 1963, when John Huston chose Mismaloya, 10km south, as the setting for his film of Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton. The scandal-mongering that surrounded Burton’s romance with Elizabeth Taylor – who was not part of the cast but came along – is often deemed responsible for putting Puerto Vallarta firmly in the international spotlight: “a mixed blessing” according to Huston, who stayed on here until his death in 1987, and whose bronze image stands on the Isla Río Cuale in town. Over the last decade, especially, frantic development has mostly overwhelmed the tropical-village atmosphere, though the historic town centre at least retains its charming cobbled streets and white-walled, terracotta-roofed houses.Read More
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches vary in nature as you move round the bay: those to the north, out near Nuevo Vallarta and the airport, are long, flat stretches of creamy white sand – swimming is usually OK here, but the surf gets heavier to the west, with the best breaks around Punta de Mita. To the south of Puerto Vallarta are a series of steep-sided coves, sheltering tiny, calm enclaves. The town beach, Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead), or “Playa del Sol” as the local tourist office would prefer it known, is south of the river and falls somewhere between the two extremes: not very large, it features coarse, brown sand and reasonably calm surf, despite facing apparently open water. It’s also the most crowded of the city’s beaches – locals, Mexican holiday-makers and foreign tourists are packed in cheek-by-jowl during the high season. With the omnipresent hawkers selling everything from fresh fruit and tacos to handicrafts and fake jade masks, it can be a far from relaxing experience, but it’s always entertaining. Just don’t leave anything of value lying about. The gay section of this beach is at its southern end, opposite the Blue Chairs Resort – look out for the blue chairs.
Trips from Puerto Vallarta
Trips from Puerto Vallarta
For the more peaceful and scenic beaches further south – Playa Las Animas, Quimixto and Yelapa are the most common destinations – a boat trip is the only means of access.
Unfortunately, the once-remote beauty of many of the southern beaches has been tainted by the invasion of PV tour groups. That said, a number are still quite lovely: Quimixto’s crystal waters are home to a colourful profusion of exotic marine life. Las Animas is a larger bay and a base for a variety of watersports, including jet skiing, banana boats and parasailing – this is always the busiest beach.
At the old hippie hangout of Yelapa there’s a small “typical” indigenous village not far from the white-sand beach, and a waterfall a short distance into the jungle. Marketed as an “untouched paradise”, it’s really more of a luxurious, if rustic, retreat with a contrived alternative vibe; they now have electricity, and long-distance phones, and sushi and massages are all on offer. A short hike through the jungle leads to the Cascada Cola de Caballo, a small waterfall where you can swim. If you’ve got the time and money, stay for the night, as the beach empties as the sun sets, becoming the perfect spot for total rest and relaxation.