The iconic Mexican destination beckons with food tours, family-friendly attractions,
romantic beaches, and more.
A statue of a small boy riding a seahorse takes pride of place on the Malecon, the oceanfront promenade in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Twice washed out to sea because of storms, “El Caballito” (the seahorse) was recovered both times and has become the symbol for this Pacific Coast beach resort. The statue’s return has inspired the belief that once you visit Puerto Vallarta, you will return.
And you will want to return. There is so much to see and do that you won’t be able to fit it all in on one visit, although we can give you some tips on how to try.
Exploring many culinary options
To get oriented, consider signing up for a culinary walking tour with Vallarta Food Tours. After a couple of hours of strolling through one of the town's colorful neighborhoods, You'll feel like a local. You'll become familiar with some key streets in the Old Town, and be able to step outside your culinary comfort zone with confidence. The company screens the venues for food safety and sanitation, so you can sample without worry.
For great tacos, check out Taco's Neto for arguably the best carnitas (pulled pork) tacos in town. Maybe you're looking for birria (traditional Mexican stew made with goat meat or beef). Try it at Robles, a local landmark since 1986. For local fruit, stop at Ernesto’s Fruit Stand in the heart of the Pitillal neighborhood. Ernesto Ribera sells fruit grown within a 20-mile radius of Puerto Vallarta. Tease your sweet tooth with a stop at the Villasenor Paleteria for a fruit ice on a stick – a local favorite since 1951.
In addition to the out-of-the-way places, You'll find that Puerto Vallarta prides itself on its gastronomic scene. Each November, it celebrates with an International Gourmet Festival, but there are many dining options available throughout the year.
Café des Artistes Bistro Gourmet, the creation of chef Thierry Blouet, has repeatedly been voted the best restaurant not just in Puerto Vallarta, but also in all of Mexico. For 25 years, the chef has wowed locals and visitors with his French cuisine.
Another top-notch gourmet experience is found at La Leche, with its modern, all-white décor setting the scene for upscale cuisine.
The River Café on the Rio Cuale island just minutes from downtown features decor by local artists in a tropical atmosphere, complete with iguanas, exotic birds, and the murmur of the river flowing by.
Gaby’s restaurant started with a small stand with homemade food and has grown into one of the best traditional Mexican restaurants in the city. Three generations provide the family touch, including the 93-year-old grandmother who is often found busy in the kitchen. Don’t miss the tortilla soup.
Fortified by all this delicious food, you're ready to venture in other directions. For some, the beach is the prime attraction, but there is so much more to do. Swim with dolphins, ride horses, go zip lining, or explore nearby villages. There is something to appeal to all ages and interests.
High on my to-do list was a trip to the Marieta Islands and the Hidden Beach. Considered one of the most exotic beaches in the world, Hidden Beach was formed by the collapse of the volcanic rock that forms the island. Gradually, the sea created an opening, providing the only access to the beach.
Visitors take a catamaran cruise across Banderas Bay to the island, then swim from the boat about 75 yards, and float through the opening into the hidden beach area. The beach is accessible only when the sea is calm and the opening is safe to swim through. After the beach excursion, the boat circles the islands so you can see rare blue-footed booby birds.
I enjoyed swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery in Aquaventuras Park. Our group experienced dolphin kisses, to “hand” (flipper) shakes, dorsal tows, and more; everyone had happy grins on their faces the entire time.
Tourists can easily while away hours in the Vallarta Botanical Garden, a green haven about 30 minutes south of Old Town Puerto Vallarta. The beautifully landscaped garden offers walking trails, bird watching, a visitor center, gift shop, and restaurant. It is rated one of the top 10 gardens in North America.
One of the excursions we enjoyed most was Hidden Mexico, offered by Vallarta Adventures. The full day included a stop at Vallarta Botanical Garden, hiking through farm fields to view ancient petroglyphs, a visit to the colonial town of El Tuito, and a stop at a simple roadside bakery with a hand-built wood-fired oven.
Depending on the time of year, nature lovers can go whale watching, help collect turtle eggs, or release baby sea turtles into the ocean.
The sporting crowd can try kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddle boarding, sport fishing, windsurfing, flyboarding, and more.
And there's always shopping. Don’t miss the tiny shops and colorful setting of the Rio Cuale Artisanal Market.
Rhythms of the Night, also offered by Vallarta Adventures, is both an adventure outing and a dining experience. Starting with a sunset catamaran cruise through picturesque Banderas Bay to the secluded beach of Las Caletas, the evening continues with a music and dance performance that combines contemporary effects with pre-Columbian traditions. It concludes with a buffet served seaside by candlelight. On the return boat ride, the moon and stars compete with the lights of Puerto Vallarta for your attention.
Hotels and resorts are plentiful here, but three AAA-rated properties offer luxury and comfort for families, as well as adults.
The posh Hotel Velas Vallarta, part of Velas Resorts, was our home away from home. This 10-acre, all-inclusive property in the Marina Vallarta area offers spectacular views of Banderas Bay. Peacocks and iguanas roam the lush tropical gardens surrounding the three pool areas. It could be tempting to spend an entire vacation without leaving this resort, but it is only a 15-minute drive to Puerto Vallarta with its many attractions.
The Hotel Fiesta Americana, conveniently located in the heart of Puerto Vallarta, is about 10 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from downtown. All the rooms have ocean views and private balconies. The peaceful and serene Nakawe Spa is just what the doctor ordered for total relaxation. We didn't stay at this all-inclusive hotel, but we did tour it for future reference.
Villa Premiere Hotel and is an intimate boutique hotel in downtown Puerto Vallarta within walking distance of the Malecon and Old Town. We spent two nights in this heavenly adults-only (age 16 and older) getaway, feeling pampered and privileged, thanks to its top-notch cuisine, beautiful beach, two heated pools, and personalized service. My treatments at Mind and Soul Spa were money well spent.
Whatever you decide to do while you're in Puerto Vallarta, don’t forget to visit “El Caballito,” and make a wish for a return to this beachfront paradise.
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.
January/February 2016 Issue
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