Two years ago we moved to the rainy west side of the Rockies. While we revelled in the easy-access to spectacular winter recreation, we found the gloomy weather in the valley difficult to swallow. By March, we needed a getaway.
With only a week to spare, we needed something quick, and while the major tourist destinations of Mexico have never had a big appeal to me, we decided that between time and budget constraints, Puerto Vallarta was the best candidate for helping us get back our sunny dispositions.
For people in western U.S. and Canada, Puerto Vallarta is one of the most affordable destinations for a winter getaway. It has been a popular destination since the 1960s and has a wide array of hotels and tourist amenities to suit any budget. Most people think of PV as an all-inclusive resort kind of place, but there are plenty of cute, affordable hotels in town.
Puerto Vallarta is a bit of a haven of safety in Mexico. The violent crime that plagues some parts of Mexico has yet to reach PV. The locals are friendly and often happy to chat. While you still have to be careful of scams, asking for directions or advice usually results in honest answers. Locals like to brag that your chances of getting robbed are pretty low in their town, and I didn’t see any evidence to the contrary.
This is no shortage of things to do in PV. The ocean offers snorkelling, scuba diving, wildlife watching, parasailing, fishing, sailing, stand up paddleboarding. If you’re on a budget, swimming and wildlife watching from the beach are a good way to while away your time for free.
On land, ziplining, ATVing, horseback riding, hiking, botanical gardens, history tours, food tours, and much more are on offer. Exploring Old Town and the Malecon (a boardwalk teeming with stores, restaurants, street performers and pelicans) are also musts.
In the evenings, a pirate ship will take guests out for a sail and dinner entertainment. Rhythms of the Night gives a Cirque de Soleil-like performance with an exquisite dinner set in within an other-worldly ambiance. There are also plenty of night clubs and restaurants in PV.
For the more budget-minded (that’s us) the local bus service provides cheap transportation between the resorts, old town, and the surrounding communities. Many of the tours on offer can be done cheaply without a guide by bus and/or boat.
Key Highlights for Me
Botanical Delights at the Vallarta Botanical Gardens
I’m a big plant nerd, so the first thing I did when we decided on Puerto Vallarta was Google “Puerto Vallarta plant tours.” Up came Botanical Delights at the Vallarta Botanical Garden. This was a bit of a splurge for us, but very much worth it. Our guide was truly knowledgeable and passionate about getting people connected with nature. She flawlessly wove Mexico’s history and culture into her extensive plant knowledge. We also got to sample many of the edible plants (the gardens don’t otherwise allow people to touch the plants), including wild gum, cacao, cinnamon, coffee beans, and coffee tree nuts. The tour ended with an amazing lunch featuring some of the plants we’d just sampled.
Monkey Mountain Sunset Hike
An hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta is the hip little surf town of Sayulita. It’s also home of Mexitreks – the other hit I got when searching for tours for nature nerds. Monkey Mountain is an intermediate hike about a twenty-minute drive south of Sayulita. There is information out there on hiking it sans guide, but there are also plenty of stories of people getting lost. In fact, we met a lost couple on our way back down. The real benefit of going with Mexitreks, though, was getting filled in on the natural history of the area. On the dark trek back down, our guide pointed out many cool creepy crawlies that we would have otherwise missed. Mexitreks has several other tours, all led by trained naturalists and for surprisingly good prices.
Suyalita is known for a few things, but surfing and Norovirus top the list, and I got to experience them both! It’s possible that I acquired one while doing the other as the sewage situation is reportedly not great. Despite the evening of misery that followed, I loved the surfing. For $40 each, we got a private lesson and an hour of surfboard use after. The waves were perfect for newbies like us. Rentals are also available for those that know what they are doing, and there are bigger waves further down the beach.
Palo Maria Waterfall
You might see this advertised on tour websites as a “secret” waterfall. It’s not really a secret (though it’s not particularly crowded), nor does it require a tour. The Palo Maria River is just a 15-minute bus ride south of town (catch the bus to Mismaloya/Boca de Tomatlán). From the bus stop, it’s a mile and a half of walk upriver to the first waterfall. The waterfall itself isn’t particularly impressive, but the pool below it is. The clear green pool enclosed by tall cliffs makes for a refreshing swim. There were about twenty other people there, but most of them cleared out soon after we arrived. There is a rope set up to climb the waterfall and explore several waterfalls beyond. It was our intention to go further, but I had spent the night before dealing with the aforementioned Norovirus and was content to lounge by the clear green pool of the first waterfall. This makes a good half-day excursion and could easily be combined with other adventures along the bus route.
Blue Footed Boobies
I’m a bit of a bird watcher, so when I found out that the PV has some of the few nesting colonies outside of the Galapagos, I was on board. After a morning at Palo Maria we headed to Mismaloya (about another five-minute bus ride down the road) and hired ourselves a panga (a fishing boat) for $40 to take us to Los Arcos Marine Park. There are tours from PV, but beware of the cheap ones that advertise a cruise on a catamaran. You may find yourself spending most of your day sitting around (and possibly seasick) on a crowded boat.
For us, it was a five-minute boat ride out to Los Arcos. We saw the blue and brown footed boobies and the bird nerd inside me was delighted. The $40 dollars got us an hour of boat time plus snorkel equipment, so we hopped into the water for some of PVs best snorkelling. Unfortunately, it was pretty choppy with afternoon wind. The viability wasn’t very good and the swimming was a bit sketchy. Clay (also recovering from Norovirus) immediately started feeling sick. After a wave nearly raked me over a sharp outcrop of coral, we decided to call it quits. Our driver told us that the water is generally much calmer in the morning. I was just happy to see my birds.
Playa Colomites Hike
About a half-hour bus ride from PV is the little town of Boca de Tomatlán and the start of the hike to Playa Colomites and Playa Las Ánimas. After wading across a river, we followed the path as it weaved its way through subtropical forest and along paths carved into the shoreline. After about thirty minutes we reached Colomites. It is a well-known destination, so we were surprised by how small it was – just a sliver of white sand in a bay of green water. It was pretty, but a bit crowded (it’s also a stop for the water taxis), so we took a quick break and continued on our way. We were debating whether to continue to Las Animas when we came across a nearly-empty beach (there are several small, lesser-known beaches along the hike), so of course, we plopped ourselves down to have a picnic. Las Ánimas, while a favourite destination, is also reportedly crowded with pricey restaurants and an abundance of hawkers. If we had more time, we would have continued on, but we were content to relax on the empty beach. Water taxis leave Boca, Colomitos, and Las Animas regularly, so if you want to skip the hike, or just go one way, you can.
Rhythms of the Night
Rhythms of the Night is not one of Puerto Vallarta’s budget activities. We got our tickets for next to nothing by sitting through a painful timeshare pitch (more on that later). We were told to expect something like Cirque du Soleil, and we weren’t disappointed. What we didn’t expect was the ambiance set before and after the show. Costumed dancers, acrobats, and musicians wandered through the crowd, performing amongst the whimsical decor. After the show, we were treated to a tasty dinner and got to spend some time soaking in the atmosphere! Given the number of people attending the performance, the attendants did a masterful job of getting everyone on and off the boats, fed, and seated in the arena. If you are going to fork out some money for a night out, Rhythms of the Night is definitely worth your while.
Some Things to Be Aware of:
If possible, try to find a resort or hotel that is locally owned. The locals don’t seem to mind all the tourists, but as more foreign hotels take over the beaches and ship money out of the country, this might change.
All these resorts with their lavish buffets, toilets, and swimming pools mean significant pressures on the environment. PV struggles to keep up with sewage demands, and swimming pools take an awful lot of resources to maintain. Excess food means lots of wasted food in a country where 53 million people struggle to get three meals a day (World Bank, 2018). Check out the website of potential resorts to see how they are minimizing their footprint.
If you’ve travelled a fair amount, you might enjoy a bit of a break from scammers in PV. The taxi drivers take you where you want to go and have set rates. Most tour hawkers will deliver what they promise. However, there are still scammers around, so it still pays to shop around, check reviews and be cautious with paying third parties upfront. Be careful when leaving things on the beach when you go for a dip.
Have you heard the term “Montezuma’s Revenge”? Rumour has it that it is a curse carried out by the last Aztec leader, Montezuma. The stomach troubles experienced by many tourists is revenge for the downfall of the Aztec Empire. Clay and I both fell to what we suspect was Norovirus. Clay is a very cautious eater when travelling and he was the first to succumb to it. While your standard traveller’s diarrhea can be prevented with a dose of Dukerol before leaving, and be cured with some readily available antibiotics, Norovirus cannot. It comes on fast and will likely incapacitate you for a day. Even if you are like Clay and safe about your raw veggies, street food, and water, you can get hit. That being said, be wary of ice, always ask for filtered or bottled water, avoid street food and pre-cut fresh fruit and veggies. We brought our own water treatment drops so we didn’t have to rely on bottled water and used our treated water to wash fruit we bought at the market.
It wouldn’t be a Puerto Vallarta experience without at least one timeshare proposition. If you are on a budget, it could be a good opportunity to get some free excursions. We managed to swing heavily discounted tickets to Rhythms of the Night plus a free bottle of tequila. The trouble is that the presentations are filled with high-pressure sales tactics and always last longer than promised. They start nice and get increasingly more aggressive with their sales pitches. In our case, they resorted to calling us stupid for not taking the “amazing opportunity”. After losing a morning of exploring, we were left questioning whether it was worth it. In most cases, they will deliver what they promised. We were promised a “free flight” which came with so many stipulations that it was unusable. We knew this from the get-go, though so it wasn’t a big deal. Know that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Some of the cheap snorkelling tours were tempting until we read the reviews. Reports of long boat rides, short snorkelling time, loud music and drunken entertainment turned us off. Some people loved it, but it wasn’t for us. Check out the reviews before you sign up for something, and if what you read doesn’t sound appealing, consider paying extra for a more intimate tour or taking a DIY approach.
For folks in western North America, flights to Puerto Vallarta are likely among the cheapest you will find and you can likely find a deal on a resort/flight package. Depending on your tastes, this might be cheaper than staying in town.
The hotels we stayed at on both PV and Sayulita were in the $30-40 USD range and were clean, friendly, and had quiet pool areas and a good deal of personality.
There is a hospital in Puerto Vallarta. Pharmacies can sell antibiotics, and the pharmacists are well versed in tourist stomach problems. Sayulita has an urgent care clinic and a hospital thirty minutes away in Punta Mita.
Local busses run between the hotel zone, old town, and Boca de Tomatlán and cost under fifty cents. Taxis and Ubers are also fairly priced.
ATMs and banks were easy to find. Most hotels and large restaurants take credit cards, but smaller shops and restaurants may not. American dollars are also widely accepted, but you will still want to get some pesos.
WiFi is available at most hotels and tourist restaurants. We found that several hotel and tour operators used WhatsApp to communicate with us, so it’s worth downloading before you go. We got by just fine without data on our phones, but I’ve been told that it’s easy to get prepaid SIM cards.
PV offers a huge variety of restaurants to suit every taste and budget. It’s probably not a surprise that the most expensive places are along the beach. You will find a wide variety of cuisines represented in PV, from Mexican (obviously) to sushi to Thai.
If you find that you forgot something, there is a Sam’s Club and Walmart in the hotel district. Grocery stores, pharmacies, souvenir stalls, and convenience stores are scattered throughout the city. Be sure to haggle a bit at the souvenir stall.
Some Final Thoughts
Whether you stay at a resort or a hotel in Old Town, or crashing in a dorm at a hostel, Puerto Vallarta has a lot to offer. While it’s a great place to go to lounge at the pool with a margarita, it also has a few adventures to offer and shouldn’t be overlooked by those who don’t want a resort vacation. Whether you prefer sunbathing, leisurely walks, or extreme sports, Puerto Vallarta is a great place to escape the winter blues.