I know Puerto Vallarta is one of top tourist destinations for North Americans, but even though both Rick and I have been to several different places in Mexico in the past, this was our first visit to Puerto Vallarta. We were fortunate to be invited by friends of ours (or more accurately, friends of Aliya’s as this was the family of Aliya’s best friend from school) to join them in Mexico over spring break. We could not pass on this great opportunity, and as they have been going to Puerto Vallarta for almost 30 years, they really know the area, and have been the most amazing hosts and tour guides to us. So, here come the recommendations on things to do from people who really do know what to do in and around Puerto Vallarta.
1. Rent a Beachfront Condo
In the past, we always stayed in all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, but after experiencing having our own place, I don’t think we will ever go back to all-inclusive resorts. Our friends have done this for years, and they definitely prefer this option, as it is less expensive, but also, it provides you with a whole new perspective on what it might be like to stay/live in Mexico. We had a beautiful, spacious place in a building that was right on the beach, but the building also had its own pool, deck chairs, and plenty of shade under breezy palm trees. When you cook your own meals, you are more likely to venture to local farmer’s markets, grocery stores, and even local restaurants, which is an experience in itself. When in an all-inclusive resort, there is really no reason to do any of this, and most people always eat and stay within their resort.
We could run down to the beach any time, go back to the condo any time, and could also have the children with one adult at the pool, while the rest of us either went shopping, made dinner, or did something completely different – like went for a bike ride.
2. Watch the Sunset and Dine at La Palapa
This is truly an amazing restaurant, and if I ever came to Puerto Vallarta again, this restaurant would be on my must-do list. It is a fine dining experience – in a beautiful restaurant, and a beautiful setting. While the parents could enjoy the sunset and a chat with a margarita or a glass of wine, the kids could run around freely and build sand castles on the beach. After dark, we purchased glow-in-the-dark parachutes for all the kids, and the fun continued. And it is guaranteed the whole family will enjoy anything you pick on the menu here – whether it be coconut shrimp, lobster taquitos, or the fish of the day. The food is delicious!
3. Swim to the Hidden Beach at Marietas Islands
Marietas Islands are a group of small volcanic islands located a short boat ride from Nuevo Vallarta, in Banderas Bay. In early 1900s, Mexican government supposedly used the islands as a military target because the islands were and still are uninhabited. At least one of the islands was hit during the bombings, and as a result, a perfectly round hole in the rock formation uncovered a beautiful and private white-sand beach underneath. Jacques Cousteau fought for the protection of the islands in the late 1960s as the islands are a home to a number of animal species, one of them being particularly unique – the blue-footed booby (a seabird with bright turquoise feet). The islands were designated a National Park in 2005, and Hidden Beach, the sandy beach inside the rock, is one of Vallarta’s main tourist attractions.
The beach is accessible only through a cave passage that has, according to some sources, been created over time by the sea, and once dropped off from a boat, you need to swim through the cave passage to get to the beach. This is a very unique experience, and we ventured on it with one of the best known Vallarta’s tour operators – Vallarta Adventures. This beach is one of those unique places that populate top 10 travel lists, and if you have an opportunity to go to Puerto Vallarta, we recommend you visit the islands. If you decide to do so, we also suggest that you wear a long-sleeve T-shirt in the water as the islands seem to be surrounded by hundreds of bright blue jellyfish, and one of our girls got badly stung. On the way to Marietas Islands, it is also guaranteed you will see some majestic whales and dolphins – splashing and roaming freely in their natural habitat – just the way these things should be.
The trip to and from Marietas is a one big party, and we got to meet many of the people that were on the boat with us. The team from Dream Trips was, coincidentally, on the same boat, and we got to meet them, learn all about Dream Trips and the company’s great concept, and they also lent us their “You Should Be Here” sign – as we obviously loved it. These people really know how to travel on a shoestring budget and have fun. Check out their website to see all the places their signs have visited!
4. Shop at the Sunday Farmer’s Market in La Cruz (de Huanacaxtle)
The variety and amount of fresh fish you will see here is simply spectacular. Go for the fish, but also enjoy the walk in the marina, the hustle and bustle of locals and foreigners browsing through fresh food or arts and crafts stands. I owed all the children prizes for a challenge they completed the previous day, so they had to search for a prize for themselves, and they took this task very seriously. They inspected each stand with great patience and attention. We also had freshly squeezed orange and papaya juice, and danced to the live music at the market. It was a perfect way to spend a Sunday morning.
5. Explore Art Galleries in Bucerias
Bucerias is a lovely little town just north of Nuevo Vallarta. It has grown into an eclectic mix of locals, Canadians, Americans, and the diversity in interests and backgrounds here is reflected in the wide variety of stores, art galleries and restaurants sprinkled all over this little beach community. This is a great place to shop: you will find a great variety and high quality of product anywhere you turn – at the market jewellery or leather stores, the town’s character-packed galleries, and high-end furniture stores. Come for a visit, and never stop walking because if you do, you will surely miss something special around the corner.
If you are staying at Nuevo Vallarta, one of the best and most fun ways to reach Bucerias is by bike. The bike path is safe, shady and beautiful, and you can find great bikes for rent at Bici Bucerias (a bike store owned and run by a Canadian fellow).
6. Sneak into St. Regis Punta Mita Resort
Punta Mita is a private resort on an entire peninsula accessible only to the visitors staying at one of the hotels or residences within the resort. Our friends had stayed there in the past and as they got to know the Director of St. Regis, we were invited to visit and spend a day at the resort. Punta Mita Resort feels and very much is an exclusive world of lush greenery, beautiful white-sand beaches, golf courts, and tastefully designed hotels, homes, and beach clubs, separated from the rest of the everyday and common landscapes by a private gate attended by an inquisitive security guard, and then a maze of paths through the resort. One of the ways to see the Punta Mita Resort and St. Regis is to book a lunch at the St. Regis Sea Breeze Restaurant & Bar. We greatly enjoyed the lunch, and were looking forward to spending the day at the beach, but it rained so hard that day, that we decided to stay inside. It was still a great adventure – seeing this beautiful resort, St. Regis hotel, and spending the time at the Beach Club. A rainy day well spent.
One of the things I discovered at the St. Regis marketing office is that the Punta Mita Resort is also home to a restaurant called Sufi Beach Club. I thought that was quite interesting, and I had to look into it as soon as I got home. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with their description of sufism (despite the fact that the English translation needs some editing: “A Sufi is one who is aware that life is not necessarily what one perceives, or what one is told life is. But life is lived beyond the level of physical experience, level of thinking, and feeling, and above all, at a higher level of consciousness, where self is no longer the barrier between reality and illusion.” Next time, we will need to check it out.
7. Learn to Boogie Board
This was my first time boogie boarding ever, and it very quickly became one of the most fun things I had ever done! Aliya’s friends are serious boogie boarders, Aliya is close behind them, and Kenan and I tested it, got hooked on it, and perfected the skill, all at the same time. It takes a bit of practice to know how to time the perfect take-off in order to catch a rolling wave, but when you nail it once and go with a wave that can push you all the way to the beach, boogie boarding becomes an addiction! It was a great experience to have all eight of us playing in the waves on the last day of our stay, and this was definitely my most memorable experience – one of those all-sensory imprints that stays with you forever.
One thing you need to watch for when playing in the waves are sting rays. Baby sting rays also love boogie boarding waves, and if you step on them or run into them, they can unintentionally hurt you.
8. Save Baby Turtles
Finding baby turtles in the bushes on the beach is a common occurrence, and once they are found, their release needs to be carefully timed. They are sent back into the ocean at sunset as that is the time when they face less risk being eaten by birds or other bigger animals. One of the maintenance workers at our building found dozens of baby turtles in one of the bushes by the beach, and he was very happy to show them to us, let us hold them and observe them. The baby turtles were released into the ocean that same evening. They are such cuties!
We are now back at home, in rainy Vancouver, but the heat, sun and fun we have soaked up in Mexico are still with us, and will keep us energized until the sun makes its reappearance.