The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.
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. Currently based in New York City, Zach spent many years living in Mexico with his wife and two sons; he still travels there regularly to cement his insider connections and keep up-to-the-minute on the country’s wide array of coastlines, Colonial cities, wildlife reserves, beach resorts, historic haciendas, rental villas, ancient monuments, award-winning kitchens, and thrilling activities (he’s a big surfer). His 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. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales.
What to See and Do
The actual city and historic center of Puerto Vallarta, including the “zona romantica.” You’ll find great restaurants, boutique galleries, shops, and nightlife with plenty of photogenic charm—think cobblestoned streets, whitewashed adobe walls, and red-tiled roofs that 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 as the sun goes down.
Few non-locals 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 forest, and streams that you can bathe in on a hot day. There’s a great restaurant and an informative visitors center, too. (See also “Prime picnic spot,” below.)
Go to Boca de Tomatlán (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. The best tacos al pastor can be found at Panchos Takos in Zona Romántica—the long line is worth the wait and passes quickly while sipping an ice-cold beer. 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 (a plastic bag that covers each reusable plate).
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 owners, the Morales brothers, who always welcome you with a warm smile and good story—tell them Zach sent you!
Any tour that invites you to have encounters with captured wildlife is not offering a humane animal experience.
Explore the Marietas Islands, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known for their unique hidden beach. The islands are protected and restricts visitor numbers, but Zach can get you access.
How to spend a Sunday
On Sundays in Puerto Vallarta, there is a delightful tradition known as “danzón,” a kind of ballroom dance. This involves old folks (and sometimes people of all ages—feel free to join in!) gathering in a plaza, typically Plaza de Armas, to dance to traditional music.
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 Malecón. The property’s suites and penthouse rooms are center stage for some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Zach can sometimes offer upgrades and other perks, depending on season and occupancy levels.
The private villas in Puerto Vallarta offer some of the best you’ll find in the entire country: The oversupply of rental homes drives down prices. Villas range from two to 12 bedrooms, and while there are a handful of beachfront options, the properties nestled high on the mountainside have breathtaking sunset views over Banderas Bay. Villas here usually come fully staffed, including a butler and chef, which isn’t typical elsewhere in Mexico. It’s crucial to work with a villa specialist like Zach, who has vetted and seen the homes firsthand—not all are as shiny and beautiful as the photos make them appear.
Restaurants the locals love
Located just 15 minutes from Puerto Vallarta’s downtown area and Malecón boardwalk, the Versalles neighborhood is where it’s at these days, with tons of new restaurants opening. Start the day with a creative breakfast at Cha Cocina, try fresh seafood for lunch at Abulón Antojería del Mar or Lamara, and enjoy a wood-fired dinner at Florios or inventive comfort food at Homun. For a nightcap, head to Coco Machete or La Tatema Mezcalería.
Even though it’s an Italian place along the touristy Malecon, La Dolce Vita is remains a top restaurant 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 all divine. Their pizzas are simple, thin-crusted, wood-fired oven delicacies. 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, watch a magical Puerto Vallarta sunset, and dine on mouthwatering seafood? Visit El Barracuda on Camarones Beach, at the north end of town. 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 beautiful beachfront setting. The menu is diverse, specializing in seafood yet also offering ribs and steak.
Dishes to try
Birria, a flavorful meat stew made from goat or beef, which originates in the state of Jalisco. The meat is slow-cooked with a blend of spices until it’s juicy, tender, and delicious, then served with tortillas, chopped onion, and lime.
Huachinango: Order a whole Pacific red snapper 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 here are good too.
If you enjoy a refreshing, spicy kick, try Aguachile. Similiar to ceviche, aguachile is a light and fresh seafood plate, but marinated in a spicy and watery chile sauce. Vallarta’s aguachiles are some of the best in the entire country. Squeeze a fresh lime, sprinkle some cilantro on top, and enjoy!
Prime picnic spot
Head to the south of Banderas Bay to find hidden beach clubs nestled in the jungle that are only accessible by boat. Mixto Beach Club and Casitas Maraika are two great options for a relaxing day.
Other great picnic locales include Vallarta Botanical Gardens, bursting with exotic plants; Plaza de Armas, a shady square in the heart of downtown perfect for people-watching; and along the banks of the Rio Cuale River—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 around 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.
Mid-May 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 Nayarit, 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. Farther 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. Even newer developments are in the works both north and south of Vallarta.
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 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.