Essentially since its conception in pre-Columbian times, the seaside city of Puerto Vallarta has welcomed wash-ashores to its golden beaches, pretty bay, and busy marina. But like the word paparazzi, the sleepy port city has the stormy love of Liz and Dick (that’s Taylor and Burton, if you’re not in the know) to thank for its big break in the vacation zeitgeist. Today’s visitors stroll along the art-studded malecon, a beachfront boardwalk, tasting tequila as they wander.
Breakfast: Café de Olla – This seasonal restaurant — which shares its name with the local style of coffee — serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it gets harder to score a table here as the day progresses. Those outside are the best for people watching. The chiliquiles are a don’t-miss, as is the cinnamon namesake coffee.
Lunch: There are two countries in the world with UNESCO-protected cuisine. One is France; the other (surprise!) is Mexico. And no experience is more authentic or flavorful than hitting up a taco street vendor. A host of taquerias (taco joints) are located in the southern area of the city, along Cardenas and Constitucion, toward Playa Los Muertos. Don’t habla español? Point to what looks good. Just remember: The first rule is to look for a line. It indicates that the food is fresh and delicious.
Dinner: La Palapa – This family-run eatery, which is set on the sands of Los Muertos Beach, has been on the must-do list for half a century. Its open-air, oceanfront setting may be what brings people in, but its sophisticated approach to local favorites is what garners rave reviews. Menu favorites include lobster taquitos, and shrimp with a guanabana and coconut sauce. The romantic dinner at a secluded surfside table is also among the restaurant’s most famous draws.
Dessert: At Yarita Pandaria y Pasteleria in the Old Town, flaky, buttery goodness comes in a variety of sweet and savory offerings that are best enjoyed while strolling the historic streets. That is, of course, if you don’t gobble your sweet bread upon paying.
Tip: Sign on for a Puerto Vallarta culinary tour, which highlights a variety of family-operated purveyors throughout the city.
For Everyone: Don’t miss the chance to see whales from a tiny boat off the Coast of Punta Mita. From the port, hop in an official taxi and negotiate a day rate. (The resort area is about 40 minutes from Puerto Vallarta, so you want to make round-trip arrangements.) It’s an unbelievable thrill to see the giant animals surface and tail-slap from so close — you can often feel the water splash.
For Couples: The best bet for couples who want to drink in the culture of the region is a tequila tour. Hacienda Doña Engracia not only gives you a chance to imbibe in the area’s most infamous spirit, but it also provides a step-by-step look at its creation. The tour includes backgrounders on the agave plant and its cultivation, an explanation of the fermenting process, and tips on delineating the difference in flavors.
For Families:Hit the beach. Yes, it’s the marquee attraction, and with 26 miles of sand stretched along the picturesque Banderas Bay, there’s good reason: You can kick back, build sandcastles, and jump in the surf. Personal watercraft rentals are also available, as well as sailboats and dolphin-spotting opportunities. Best of all, kids will marvel at the flying dancers of Papantla, traditionally clad performers who climb and swing around a towering totem anchored in the sand.
For the Adventurous: On a canopy tour in the Los Veranos ecological preserve, you can soar high above the local flora, a gorge, and some rapids. Consider it your reward for signing up for a guided, backcountry hike, which also affords looks at colorful birds and rare orchid species.
Tip: Silver may get all the fame as Mexico’s most sought-after handicraft, but Talavera pottery is cheaper and, in many cases, authentic. The colorful tiles, dishes, and vases can be found around town, but the best selections are at Mundo de Azulejos and Talavera Etc., both located in the Zona Romantica.
Bargaining is expected throughout Mexico, but there’s an exception to that rule. Many shops at tourist hubs have fixed prices. Such spots will have tags and pricing policies posted, and trying to haggle in these places is considered bad form.