The insider advice on this page is from two of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor and Brady Binstadt of Journey Mexico.
Mexico is filled with secret white-sand beaches, charming boutique hotels, award-winning cuisine (and cocktails), delightful colonial towns, world-class cultural opportunities, and much more that most travelers don’t seem to realize is there. An elite guide in Mexico for more than two decades, Zach learned everything about what sophisticated travelers really want there but can’t easily find, then founded his own travel firm to deliver exactly that. With offices in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, and Cancun, Zach and trusted deputy Brady Binstadt keep up-to-the-minute on the country’s dramatic array of coastlines, resorts (including intimate all-inclusives and historic haciendas), rental villas, wildlife reserves, ancient monuments, inventive kitchens, and thrilling activities (Zach’s a big surfer). Their deep relationships with local hoteliers, communities, and fixers of all kinds translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. Zach and Brady pride themselves on finding exciting new ways to visit even the most overtouristed locales and sneaking a bit of cultural appreciation into family-friendly beach getaways (both have well-traveled young kids).
What to See and Do
The actual city and historic center of Puerto Vallarta, including the “zona romantica.” You’ll find great restaurants, galleries, shops, and nightlife with plenty of photogenic charm—cobblestoned streets, whitewashed adobe walls, and red-tiled roofs harken back to Vallarta’s Spanish Colonial past.
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 Puerto Vallarta’s downtown). 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 the La Aurora neighborhood; 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 habanero chilies!
For some perfect chill-out time, head to El Solar beach bar for an ice-cold Mexican craft beer (or one of their famous Mezcalitos) while you watch a famous Vallarta sunset from the deck or a beach chair. Be sure to say “hola” to the owner, Jorge Morales, who is also an anthropologist and loves to talk about local archeological discoveries; tell him I sent you.
Where to Stay and Eat
Garza Blanca Preserve Resort and Spa is a luxurious, optional all-inclusive property set in a beautiful, sandy cove overlooking Banderas Bay, with the jungle-shrouded Sierra Madre Mountains as a backdrop. It’s on a tranquil stretch of coast, yet also close to downtown Puerto Vallarta, where you can enjoy shopping, dining, or a walk along the seaside Malecon. The property’s suites and penthouse rooms are center stage for some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Ask me about upgrades and special amenities, which I can sometimes offer depending on season and occupancy levels.
Restaurants the locals love
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.
Want to dig your feet in the sand and watch an incredible Puerto Vallarta sunset while you eat a delicious meal sound? If so, visit El Barracuda restaurant on Playa Camarones, in the north end of “el centro” (Vallarta’s downtown). Popular with locals and in-the-know travelers, this casual place has a deck above the beach, as well as tables in the sand. It’s great for lunch, when you can mix food and drinks with a dip in the ocean, or for dinner in a cool setting. The menu is diverse, specializing in seafood yet also offering ribs and steak.
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.
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.
Huichol art—local crafts made with yarn or beads—are the most destination-appropriate. Shop at Galería Indigena for a wide array of these and other high-quality handicrafts from across Mexico.