The insider advice on this page is from Wendy Perrin’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.
A guide in Latin America for more than two decades, Zach founded Journey Mexico in 2003. The New York City native lives in Puerto Vallarta and spends about a quarter of the year traveling around Mexico—from its well-known resort locales to its hidden corners—testing out the country’s wide array of hotels, activities, restaurants, and sites. His deep relationships with local guides, communities, and hoteliers often translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales. Zach was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Hacienda San Angel, a cluster of exquisitely restored villas in the hills above the historic center of Puerto Vallarta. After the triple hit of the economic crisis, swine flu, and the narco-media blitz, rooms are only a fraction of their 2008 prices. The San Jose, Vista de Santos, and Angel’s View Suites have even better views of downtown and the Pacific Ocean than do the more expensive Royal Suites. We can typically offer upgrades and special amenities, depending on season and occupancy.
Restaurants the locals love
Mariscos 8 Tostadas is an institution in Puerto Vallarta and the locals’ choice for a delicious and reasonable seafood lunch. Order the tuna sashimi, shrimp tacos, crab empanadas, or delicious seafood cocktails with an ice-cold beer.
Even though it’s an Italian place along the touristy Malecon, La Dolce Vita is definitely one of the top-five restaurants in town. It’s founded, owned, and operated by three Italians who fell in love with Vallarta more than 20 years ago. The line (typically full of locals) stretches out the door. The tagliata steak with arugula and Parmesan cheese; octopus and shrimp carpaccios; and fresh-made seafood pasta are only a few of my favorites. Their pizzas are simple, thin-crusted, wood-fired oven delicacies (and I’m a New York pizza snob!). There’s now a second location in Nuevo Vallarta, and both have impeccable service and a varied and value-oriented wine list.
Get the whole Pacific red snapper (huachinango) at Joe Jack’s Fish Shack. It’s a typical dish from the region, served with all the local fixings: roasted chilies, garlic, lime, tortillas, beans, and rice. The mojitos and margaritas are good here too.
Prime picnic spot
The Plaza de Armas, or Zocalo, of Puerto Vallarta is a shady square that’s great for picnicking. Pack a lunch and relax under the trees while you people-watch. Another great spot is along the banks of the Rio Cuale; after a short hike up the river valley, there are many places to sit and eat in the cool shade of the tropical jungle.
What to See and Do
The actual city and historic center of Puerto Vallarta, including the “zona romantic.” You’ll find great restaurants, galleries, shops, and nightlife in the city, and plenty of photogenic charm—cobblestoned streets, whitewashed adobe walls. The Malecon, Vallarta’s oceanfront promenade, offers a great look at how local Vallartenses spend their evenings, strolling along with their children, grandparents, and friends.
Few nonlocals ever visit the Vallarta Botanical Gardens (30 minutes from the center of Puerto Vallarta). Operated by a nonprofit organization, it has hundreds of native plants, miles of hiking trails through native forests, and streams that you can bathe in on a hot day. There’s a great restaurant and an informative visitors center, too.
Go to Boca de Tomatlan (30 minutes south of Vallarta Centro) by taxi or local bus and take a local water taxi (Lancha Cooperativa) to one of the pristine beaches on the south side of the bay. Yelapa, Las Animas, Quimixto, or Majahuitas all offer beautiful sand; clear, calm water for snorkeling and swimming; and local restaurants that serve cheap, fresh seafood.
Eat tacos at one of the numerous delicious stands that cater to locals in El Pitillal, a gritty, colorful part of town, or elsewhere off the beaten track. (How to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge? Go to a stand that’s busy, and if they don’t have running water, make sure they’re using plate liners and disposable cutlery.) My favorite taco stand, Mar y Tierra, is in the Zona Hotelera Norte, across from the HSBC Bank. A taco costs $1 to $2, with horchata or Jamaica (hibiscus) water to wash it down. Careful with the chili habanero!
Here’s a local secret: Head to Boca de Tomatlan and catch a water taxi or make the 40-minute hike to the Ocean Grill for an excellent lunch atop a cliff overlooking the bay. There is a beautiful sandy beach where you can swim or snorkel and a valley with a small stream that you can walk to. Service is relaxed, but you’ll be happy not to be rushed through your meal. Reservations are required, they only accept cash (pesos or dollars), and kids under 14 aren’t allowed.
Late October to mid-December. The rainy season is over, the landscapes are still ultra-tropical green, and the ocean is bathtub-warm (80s), with exceptional clarity for scuba diving and snorkeling. Moreover, you avoid the peak-season rates that kick in on December 18.
The period beginning two weeks after Easter (once the Mexican Easter break is over) and ending in May affords the same rate benefits but without the green backdrop, as you’re now in the driest months of the year; ocean temps are cooler but still in the low to mid 70s. Hotels, restaurants, and attractions are much less busy during both of these shoulder seasons.
Mid-August to mid-October: It’s the peak of the rainy season, you’re likely to encounter tropical disturbances and hurricanes, and you won’t see much sun.
April to mid-August: It’s hot, hot, hot, with near 100 percent humidity. You’ll also encounter Mexican families on vacation from mid-July to mid-August, when rates climb and everything is chaotically busy.
Don’t get fooled into accepting a ride, tour, or other services from the time-share hawkers inside the airport. Upon leaving immigration and customs, arriving guests are herded into a no-man’s land of well-dressed, seemingly official service providers who attempt to fool unsuspecting travelers into accepting discounted or complimentary services, the most common and compelling of which is transportation to their hotel. The catch (often disclosed after it’s too late to decline) is mandatory attendance at a high-pressure time-share presentation that eats away at your precious holiday time. Ignore these slick salespeople and head straight outside, where you’ll find the official taxi stand, or your driver if you’ve prearranged a transfer.
Puerto Vallarta’s tourist boom has spread into several neighboring locales. Heading north along the coast, you first hit Nuevo Vallarta, which is full of all-inclusive hotels, high-end condos, and golf courses but lacks local flavor. At the tip of the Bay of Banderas—an ideal location for whale watching and other water-based activities—is Punta de Mita, with its top-of-the-line luxury homes and hotels. Farthest north is Sayulita, a bohemian, once-sleepy fishing village that saw a real estate boom when surfers discovered the great reef break off the coast in the early 2000s.
Tips are customary in tourist destinations of Mexico like Puerto Vallarta, and percentages are similar to the U.S.
Pay close attention to departure times and gates, which are subject to frequent and unannounced changes (as is true throughout Mexico).
Dry bags or zip-top bags for your water-based adventures. It’s always smart to have your phone, money, camera, and any other valuables protected when you’re out on the water.