I have traveled to Puerto Vallarta with my Mexican family for the last 36 years. We have seen the city change and modernize while continuing to be a family friendly travel destination. Unlike other Americanized coastal tourist destinations in Mexico, there continues to be an authentic feel to parts of Puerto Vallarta due to it also being a popular vacation destination for Mexicans themselves.
This area can be broken down to several unique travel destinations depending on your vacation goals.
We have frequented the Puerto Vallarta & downtown area due to its more family friendly amenities. What I love the most is that unlike Cabo and Cancun it’s less party focused here. I mean, you can still have a great time during the day or night in puerto Vallarta if that’s what you are looking for. But it’s less a bachelor party scene if you know what I mean. These are some of the other popular areas we’ve visited:
- Nuevo Vallarta
- newer hotels, most directly on the beach
- great beaches for swimming
- lots of all inclusive places, great if you don’t intend on leaving your hotel
- We’ve stayed at Dreams 6 years ago which was all inclusive for adults and it was phenomenal (hoping it’s still the same)
- this area is great for honeymooning or couples getaway
- several golf courses in the area
- not a lot of areas to venture out and walk around
- more expensive
- 20-30 minute drive from the airport
- 30-40 minute drive to downtown and boardwalk
- minutes from the airport
- a handful of hotels
- no sand beaches, more for boats to access and dock
- 15 minute drive to downtown and boardwalk
- lots of shopping areas nearby, including Walmart
- Puerto Vallarta
- 10-15 minutes from the airport
- Many hotels located on the beach, very little are all inclusive
- Hotels here are very family friendly and there is access to lots of activities/excursions
- Boardwalk which is the Malecon is a famous landmark, great for walking in the evenings, can get busy
- Hotels centrally located to downtown can be more expensive and older, however make it easy to travel everywhere on foot
- A ton of food options everywhere you look
- Playa Los Muertos is a popular sand beach destination for locals, just south of the boardwalk.
- Many AirBnb and other rentals available within walking distance from the beach
- Zona Romatica located just south of the Malecon, is an area of Mexico that is LGBTQ friendly.
- This area has lots of upscale restaurants, bars, and coffee shops that are made with Americans in mind.
- The wine scene out here seems to be important and restaurants offer extensive menus
- Beach side restaurants are great for watching the sunset and having a cold drink.
- Hotels in this zone allow for easy walking and access to food, drink, and fun.
- All of these amenities are also a little more expensive here.
- 45ish minutes south of the airport
- 20+ minutes from downtown
- more exclusive and boutique style hotels built into the cliff sides
- great for honeymooning and couples getaway
- Travel: Most major airlines regularly fly into Puerto Vallarta airport. Rates vary for different parts of the year but are generally inexpensive. We generally purchase winter rates for an average of $400-$450 round table from Northern California. When we see the flights for $350 we snatch them right up. Southwest has inexpensive non stop flights but only on specific days of the week.
- When flying into the Puerto Vallarta airport, it can be overwhelming with the amount of people that try to get your attention as you exit the terminal. Its kind of a mad house. Do NOT stop to talk to anyone. We call it the gauntlet. Head straight out near the exits that go out to curbside where the taxis and pick ups are. If you pre-arrange your transportation to wherever you are going, perfect I am sure they will give you specific instructions on where to wait for them. Otherwise a taxi is the way to go and they be found curbside where the signs are located. There will be airport employees wearing TAXI shirts that will direct you to a line and vehicle. But do not talk to anyone inside that might try to sell you something in exchange for free transportation.
- Travel and lodging rate hikes coincide with religious holidays and other major holidays.
- Busy times of the year here include:
- Dia de Muertos Oct 31-Nov 3
- the first week in December for Virgin Mary celebrations
- Christmas is busy with lots of vacationing families
- winter months bring a lot of Americans and Canadians escaping the cold weather up north
- summer can be busy but keep in mind the heat and humidity along with the rainy season can make the weather just a bit challenging. Also hurricane season is between June-November.
- driest months are February-May
- whale watching season is December-March
- Lodging: There is a variety of accommodations ranging from all inclusive campuses in the north to rental properties in the middle of downtown. Most larger hotels do offer a kids program and activities. We have been loyal to the Sheraton Bouganvilla resort since 2005 which is centrally located within walking distance to downtown. The customer service there is incredible and the workers even remember us by name year after year. They have a few swimming pools which include 2 one foot sections for younger children. As a result of its location we do not rent a car and sometimes take a taxi when we don’t feel like walking.
- Safety: Puerto Vallarta is one of the safest, if not THE safest tourist destination in Mexico. Federal security measures are readily visible thru ought the entire city. The U.S. State Department notes that tourist areas of Jalisco (like Puerto Vallarta) are some of the safest places for foreigners to travel.
- Currency : Most establishments will happily take US dollars (not sure about other international currencies) or Mexican Pesos. A good majority will also take Visa so don’t be afraid to ask. There are ATMs thru ought the city and at lots of hotels. They will dispense money in Mexican Pesos.
- Cost: for a tropical destination, Mexico offers inexpensive vacation alternatives to places like Hawaii or similar. For example, eating out at a seafood restaurant for 8 people, our bill was $124 US dollars. For the same group, we had endless tacos one night for $36. For our family of 3, we probably spent less than $500 over 8 days for (lots of) food and drink.
- Transportation: There are safe and regulated Taxi cabs all over the city with very reasonable rates. Renting a car is not a must, unless you are feeling adventurous and want to explore the coast. Depending on where you stay, a taxi cab might be all you need.
- Excursions & Activities: If you want to participate in the plethora of actives that require purchasing tickets or special equipment, I recommend you purchase your tickets before hand via the Vallarta Adventures website or inquire at your hotel. Whale watching, hidden beach tours, boat tours, snorkeling, diving, ATV rentals, bungee jumping, dolphins, parasailing, the list goes on and on. Chances are you won’t get ripped off if you do your homework and the plans made for you will be trustworthy. There will be tons of people out in town trying to sell you excursion packages, all with varying rates. Also, there will be tons of time share sale pitches, unless you are interested in purchasing a time share, don’t get conned into one of those presentations.
We have quite a list of tried and true spots we visit on every trip, so I thought it only be fair if I share that info. The following lists are based solely off of the opinion of my family and I, none of these businesses compensated me in any way. Enjoy!
- Pepe’s Tacos
- famous for tacos al pastor (marinated pork), also get the marinated grilled onions.
- Open until 6am, great for late night eats.
- sit down restaurant with bathroom facilities
- Spanish and English menus
- #2 on Yelp for tacos
- El Carboncito
- specialty also tacos al pastor
- street food vibe with outdoor seating around the food stall
- open late most nights, until about 2am depending on availability of food
- bathroom facilities available
- Rico Mactaco
- variety of authentic Mexican food
- I recommend carne asada tacos
- open 24 hours a day, great for late night eats
- large, well lit, sit down restaurant
- bathroom facilities available, including baby changing table!
- great customer service
- authentic Mexican food, a favorite for local people
- located directly across from the main church in downtown, the view is beautiful
- famous for the red pozole, a must have!
- sit down restaurant with bathroom facilities
- small, busy, and sometimes there is a wait.
- some English speaking staff
- Cafe de Olla – years ago we ate at this restaurant in the Zona Romantica and although it was pricey, the food and service was fantastic. Must still be good because it seem to always be busy. If you’re into linen table clothes and wine glasses at your table, try this restaurant and those in the surrounding area.
- A few doors down is Fajita Republic.
- Good for a nice sit down dinner
- Very nice ambience
- great for people watching
- food was good (not great, but good)
- Customer service was very good
- Pricier menu
- Restaurant Rio Grande
- located just north of the Malecon
- variety of local, fresh seafood
- great customer service
- sit down restaurant with air conditioning and bathroom facilities
- Mariscos El Jefe
- A long time favorite for shrimp cocktails. Not the kind you get at Red Lobster in the USA. Real shrimp cocktail. Instead its where giant shrimp sit in a broth made using shrimp peels. Its soooo good. You won’t regret it. Im attaching a photo of where this street cart is located and the cross streets.
- If you’re into raw seafood like oysters and clams, check out vendors near the bridge at Playa Los Muertos beach and pier during the day. As the shellfish are pulled out of the water they are brought here to an area with tables set up where you can eat shucked things by the dozen to your hearts content.
- We used to love a restaurant on the beach over on Playa los Muertos called Burro’s Bar and Restaurant but after this last trip we are taking it off our foods list. We were disappointed overall. The food and service is no longer as good as it once was.
- The Mercado located just inland between the Malecon and Zona Romantica is a large indoor shopping market with food court. For the most part all the stalls have the same souvenirs and the food can be good if you are feeling adventurous and find the right stall.
- Restaurant Lolita used to be one of our favorites for authentic Mexican food. It’s where a lot of locals go. But recently the original owners passed away and ever since then the food and customer service has declined. Unfortunately this location has also been taken off our must visit list.
Bars and Nightlife
Cerveceria Union (located on the Malecon) has great ambiance for an evening drink and I love people watching from here. They have a variety of beer as well as an oyster bar.
Nine Ninety is a “sports bar” located at the Sheraton Bouganvilla property. It is part of their brand new renovated addition and I was blown away by it. Its a restaurant and bar with giant screens (largest one was probably over 120″!) that play American sporting events as well as national ones. You don’t have to be a guest at the property to come and enjoy a drink, a snack, or a Sunday football game. The service was outstanding and drink menu extensive.
La Margarita (located in Zona Romantica) is a large and lively outdoor spot on a corner. Foreigners seem to love this place with all the lights and loud music. We enjoyed a drink here a while back and it wasn’t bad.
There are 3 open air clubs on the Malecon that will step over each other to get your attention. The music is incredibly loud when they are open, even if there is no one inside enjoying it. On the weekends they do seem to get busy with both locals and foreigners.
Snacks & Souvenirs
Authorized street food vendors and souvenir sellers are permitted to shirts with embroidered local logo they are required to wear. If you come across a vendor that is not wearing one of these, consider moving along to another.
- Mi Crepa
- family run street cart
- located just on the very south end of the Malecon in the row of vendors
- we have been supporting them since they started in 1990
- Crepes are delicious and have a variety of flavors. Do not go to other crepe vendors. Just this one.
- inexpensive snack
- Ice cream shops
- There are Mexican ice cream shops on almost every corner. I always get the Lime sorbet. It is amazing. It’s unlike any ice cream or sorbet you’ll every have. Try it!
You can find roasted nut vendors just north of the Malecon as you walk towards it. My favorite is the variety of candied nuts. Often times you can see them being made in the giant copper pot over flame. So good.
- convenience store located every couple of blocks, like a 7-11
- open late
- sell snacks and alcohol
- If you need a fix of your Starbucks coffee from back home, don’t worry. There are several of these coffee shops spread thru ought. 2 downtown and 1 in Zona Romantica. Oh and they have WiFi!
Most of what you will find being sold in stores and stands are the same thing over and over and you’ll be surprised to know it is made in China. Nowadays you have to look hard to authentic Mexican souvenirs.
One place that never disappoints for handmade inexpensive pottery and home goods is Alfareria Tlaquepaque (located just north of the Malecon) We come here on every trip to stock on some favorites.
If you are in the market for authentic hand tooled Huarache sandals I recommend Huaracheria Diana (located just north of the Malecon). I bought a pair of beautiful blue flats this last trip and I can’t wait to wear them back home. These genuine leather shoes will last forever, you can even have them resoled!
Tierra Huichol (located on the Malecon) is a place to get handmade collectable pieces and is located on the Malecon. The art varies and every item has a story. The prices do reflect the fact they are handmade and created over hours and hours of work.
Galeria Indigena (located downtown) showcases an incredible collection of handmade Mexican art. I love coming here even if its just to see the amazing pieces. The prices here can be a little bit of a sticker shock but if you can afford a handmade item, I suggest you get yourself something beautiful.
Safari Accents (located in Zona Romantica) is also one of my favorites to shop for unique handmade goods. Rarely do I find anything like these pieces any where else. They even ship oversized pieces internationally!
Most hotels will have their own gift shop with set prices for souvenirs and miscellaneous things, just keep in mind those prices will typically be higher than out in town.
If you’re anything like me me like to check out the craft scene or fabric stores when traveling, you’ll be happy to know there is an enormous fabric store Parisina in downtown just around the corner from the big church. I come here every trip to stock up on some sewing supplies.
If you find yourself on the beach during the day, chances are you will be approached by many vendors selling anything from jewelry to blankets. Get used to saying “no gracias” if you are not interested. Or if you are interested in purchasing something, they will most likely negotiate prices with you.
I hope this insight into how we have done Puerto Vallarta helps you plan your next vacation to Mexico!