A former mining town in the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags), Puerto Vallarta today is a booming resort city with a cosmopolitan crowd.
Foreign visitors first arrived with the advent of commercial air travel in the 1940s, and these artists and writers settled at the “Gringo Gulch” quarter.
Mass tourism took off in the 1980s, delivering a sleek marina and high-rise condos, while over the last 20 years Puerto Vallarta has established itself as the Latin American escape of choice for the LGBT community.
A holiday in Puerto Vallarta will be a joyous blur of beaches, tasty cuisine and bars.
You can take trips into the Sierra Madre mountains or out onto the bay, which has protected islands with caves, reefs and tunnels.
Humpback whales come down to the bay at the same time as the tourist hordes, and are not to be missed on a spotting expeditions.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta:
Beginning in the north at Hotel Rosita the Malecón is a 12-block, 870-metre oceanfront esplanade leading down to the Zona Romántica.
Nearly all of the palm-edged Malecón is free of road traffic and is constantly being furnished with new public art, plants and benches.
The vistas of the Bahía de Banderas a joy, not least when the sun is going down behind the bay in the evening.
All day the promenade buzzes with life, and it can take some time to wander from one end to the other as you’ll linger to watch street performers and papantla flyers.
Restaurants line the way, and there are also plentiful stands stocking aguas frescas, ice cream or Jaliscan tejuino, a cold regional drink made from fermented corn.
Get a snap of Los Arcos, a set of four arches framing the view of the bay.
2. Zona Romántica
Since the early 2000s the Zona Romántica, south of the Río Cuale, has become one of Latin America’s biggest LGBT escapes.
A curious thing about this remarkably green pocket of the city is that even though it’s newer than Puerto Vallarta’s downtown, the Zona Romántica feels more like a traditional Mexican pueblo.
On its latticework of cobblestone streets are quaint bakeries, cafes, scores of restaurants, a helping of art galleries and an easy-going atmosphere in high season.
Also from November to May there’s a weekend farmers’ market at Lázaro Cárdenas Park where you can pick up artisan chocolate, organic fruit and vegetables, hand-pressed tortillas, cheese, soap, ceramics and jewellery direct from the producers.
3. Isla Cuale
In 1926 the Río Cuale swelled and forked into two branches, leaving a new island in the middle.
This was completely separated from the rest of the city in the 70s when the riverbed was dredged.
In the intervening years the Isla Cuale only has been sparsely built up and is a lush sanctuary at the boundary between the Zona Romántica and the downtown.
There are a few places to eat, and a continuous line of open-air stalls selling souvenirs.
The island is linked to the city by a series of crossings, the most recent of which was completed in 2012, joining the Centro Cultural on the east side with the Gringo Gulch quarter (named for its foreign inhabitants in the 50s) on the river’s right bank.
The bridge slopes sharply down to the island, and the upper section is a good vantage point for the Zona Romántica.
4. Vallarta Botanical Gardens
Some distance from Puerto Vallarta, these botanical gardens are a whole day out.
Founded in the early 2000s, the attraction is in 26 hectares, a tapestry of native forest and manicured gardens planted with species from the Puerto Vallarta region and tropical zones around the world.
One of its main aims is to conserve orchids, and these mesmerising flowers show up across the gardens and are grown in a dedicated orchid house.
There are also sensational palm, agave, cactus, oak and bromeliad collections, all accompanied with in-depth information.
Wear a swimsuit under your clothes as you’re allowed to bathe in the emerald Río Horcones.
5. Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Although you wouldn’t tell to see it, this landmark in the middle of the Zona Romántica is less than a century old.
Construction took place in a tempestuous period and had to be stopped during the Cristero War that engulfed central-western Mexican states in the late-1920s.
The church has also been affected by natural events, and the iconic crown atop the main tower had to be replaced after a storm in the 2000s.
Within, check out the images of saints painted on wood panels, the carved confessionals, marble altar and image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
She is venerated 12 days at the start of December, culminating with Guadalupe Day on the 12th, marking the supposed apparition of a the Virgin Mary to a native Mexican named Juan Diego in 1531.
6. Los Muertos Pier
A new monument for Puerto Vallarta’s oceanfront, Los Muertos Pier is on the beach of the same name, which we’ll talk about below.
This can be seen for miles for its tall sail-shaped frame, and is photo-worthy at night when bathed in blue light.
The pier is also the embarkation point for water taxis shuttling off to other parts of the city and the beaches in the south.
Come in the evening to see the sun go down on the Bahía de Banderas, but be sure to get there early to find a seat.
7. Whale Watching
During the winter in the northern hemisphere humpback whales migrate down Mexico’s pacific coast to give birth to calves.
This species is here from December to February, spending a few weeks in these warmer climes before making the journey back up to Alaska.
A whole directory of businesses in the resort arranges whale-spotting tours: Some trips are led by oceanographers and marine biologists who will share interesting titbits and will know how to conduct an expedition in a humane way.
Many cruises also have microphones picking up whale song, which you can hear on the boat, while the sight of a whale breaching or a newborn calf with its mother is something you won’t soon forget.
8. Los Arcos National Marine Park
Go south around the Bahía de Banderas and before too long this group of three small islands hoves into view only 50 metres from the shore.
Los Arcos are best visited by boat, kayak or paddleboard, and will appeal to snorkelers, divers and just regular boat-going sightseers who would rather stay dry.
People swim under the main arch, in water that drops away suddenly from the shore, to a depth of more 400 metres in places.
The rocks a perforated with little caves and shelter sea turtles, rays, puffer fish and a wealth of other marine life.
These granite islands are called “Los Arcos” for their natural arches, and are visible from the centre of Puerto Vallarta.
You can also drive down to a viewpoint on land.
9. Mercado Municipal Rio Cuale
The municipal market on Isla Cuale opened in 1979 and is a shopping destination to be reckoned with.
The building has almost 160 stands over two floors, and many of its stands are oriented towards tourists.
You can browse silver jewellery, leather items, wooden toys and all sorts of souvenirs on the ground floor.
But the market really comes into its own on the level above, which is totally given over to food.
Among the many delights sold at the fondas (food stalls) are endless varieties of tacos, baked onions, chicken and rice with mole, shrimp broth, and delicious aguas frescas to go with them.
10. Plaza de Armas
Sometimes called the Zócalo, the Plaza de Armas is the main square in El Centro and is framed by the town hall and the Malecón to the west, while the parish church of our Lady of Guadalupe is only half a block away.
The bandstand in the centre of the square rarely sits idle: The municipal band plays here from 18:00 on Thursday and Sunday evenings and on other days there’s danzón-style dancing.
On the square there’s a monument to Ignacio Vallarta (whom the city is named after). He was governor of Jalisco in the 1870s and before that had been an ally of president Benito Juárez, and was forced into exile in the USA during the French intervention in the mid-1860s.
11. Playa los Muertos
At the southern end of the Malecón is the most frequented beach in Puerto Vallarta.
Being in the Zona Romántica, Playa los Muertos is one of Mexico’s top LGBT beaches, but is also where Puerto Vallarta’s residents and people from neighbouring states come for sea and sand.
Weekends are very busy, which can be a good thing if you’re on the hunt for local colour and an upbeat ambience.
The light waves are manageable non-swimmers and the beach is patrolled by vendors selling cold drinks and snacks, while people float by on paddleboards a few metres out.
If you’re up for a sit-down meal there are boundless choices in front of the high-rise condo blocks lining the beach.
12. Marina Vallarta
A planned neighbourhood on 22 hectares, the marina was begun in 1986 following a surge in tourism to Puerto Vallarta.
It lies around 10 minutes from the downtown, and on arrival you’ll be met by a monumental sculpture of a mother whale and its calf.
A lot of the boat excursion companies are located in the marina, and they share the space with boutiques, upscale restaurants and yacht dealers.
On the water are 450 berths, many filled by plush luxury yachts, while rising behind the storefronts are condos.
You can soak up this rarefied scene wandering along the promenade, where there’s a farmers’ market on Thursday evenings from November to April.
For a round of golf you can book a tee-off time at the 18-hole championship Marina Valllarta course ($139 USD at peak times).
The Bahía de Banderas is a qualified diver’s playground with technical sites dotted around the bay.
In humpback season you could discover the drop-offs at El Chimno, south of Puerto Vallarta and see these whales and their calves from a safe distance.
El Morro is even more challenging and involves a descent into a cave, sighting manta rays and moray eels as you dive.
Los Arcos and Las Marietas have caves, tunnels and reefs to venture through.
The currents in the bay are light, so if you’re new to diving, Puerto Vallarta is a good place to come for open water tuition if you have a few days to spare.
14. Islas Marietas National Park
At the entrance to the bay is a pair of protected islands only visitable by boat.
The Islas Marietas National Park was set up in the late 1960s to look after their rich.
Before coming to Puerto Vallarta it’s worth finding out whether trips are allowed, as they’re often banned for months or years at a time to ensure the health of the islands and their reefs.
Above the water you should get to see brown boobies, egrets, pelicans, frigate birds and the Galápagos blue-footed booby.
If you’re snorkelling, giant damselfish, panamic sergeant majors, rainbow wrasses and Moorish idols are just some of a kaleidoscope of fish to observe.
Access to the islands themselves is very limited, but at low tide you may be able to bathe at the “Hidden Beach”, a spectacular collapsed sea cave.
15. Outdoor Adventure
Adventure sport isn’t limited to the ocean in the Puerto Vallarta, and a number of companies provide trips into the Sierra Madre for a range of action-packed pursuits.
These could be riding zip-lines through rainforest over a gorge in the Orquideas River, rappelling down waterfalls or powering up the Cuale Riverbed on an ATV. You could combine these trips with a bit of culture, taking a jeep up to remote Sierra Madre villages, touring farms and visiting a distillery making raicilla, a typical Jaliscan spirit produced from the agave plant.