It might be tempting to dismiss Puerto Vallarta as Mexico lite, a Pacific Coast tourist town safe for those with zinc-streaked noses on a steady diet of beach reads and hotel food.
I’ll admit I did so myself, until my sister invited me to share an apartment she’d rented there one winter in the bougainvillea-studded hills that surround the Zona Romantica, the city’s cobble-stoned heart.
Yes, there are cloistered resorts and cruise ships in Puerto Vallarta — this was the final port of call for The Love Boat, after all — but happily I found both stay put far north of the old city center, which sits in the middle of Bahía de Banderas, the city’s beautiful, U-shaped bay.
I also discovered that many of the tourists who do come to Vallarta — no Puerto needed once you’re there, and you should pronounce it “vahY- ARtah” — are Mexicans from surrounding states. Perhaps it is their presence that ensures you don’t really need a guide to eat well.
If you simply wander the mile-long malecon, the boardwalk just off what’s known as Old Town, you find not just beachwear and nightclubs but vendors selling skewers of shrimp and whole fish grilled in bright-orange achiote paste, or a sandy seat under a palm-frond umbrella, yours for the price of a margarita.
Under the malecon, on the other hand, you might stumble on an illicit oyster bar, a folding table where locals crack open oysters served on a paper plate. Most customers dress their raw bivalves with a shot of Huichol, the region’s all-purpose, thick, dried-chile-based hot sauce, named after the indigenous people who still live in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain ranges that separate this area from the rest of Mexico.
Meander the streets east from the waterfront, maybe to the iconic, crown-capped Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Vallarta’s chief landmark) or along the Cuale River (which cuts through town, its banks cluttered with shops), and you’ll be treated to coconuts popped open with a machete for a dollar and change, and trucks of all sizes selling tacos 24 hours a day. (In this part of Mexico — the north-coastal stretch of the state of Jalisco, they’re usually dressed with pink beans, shredded cabbage and purple onions soaked in habanero-citrus dressing.)
Big-wheeled pushcarts go by, selling pours of freshly squeezed orange juice or a cup of tejuino, a traditional beverage in Jalisco made by boiling masa with water and brown sugar. It’s left to lightly ferment, then served with fresh lime juice and a sprinkle of salt: A glass costs less than a dollar, salty, sweet and icy cold.
Restaurants and stalls everywhere advertise mariscos, or seafood, thanks to the area’s ample supply of pompano, shrimp, snapper, mackerel and marlin, to name but a few. One of the most beloved stops for tourists and locals alike is Mariscos El Guero, which grew from a street cart to a proper restaurant on the corner of avenue Francisco Madero. Its best-sellers — which rank among Vallarta’s greatest culinary hits — include smoked-marlin-stuffed green chiles, fried shrimp tacos dressed with shredded cabbage and salsa verde, and tostadas topped with the classic ceviche preparation of the region, meaning white fish ground with carrot, onion and chiles.
But the ocean is only one of Vallarta’s geographical lures. Head out of town in any direction and steep, curving roads lead you almost immediately to dense, green thickets of rain forest, where you’ll see not just waterfalls but avocado trees covered with the striped, pear-shaped local varieties of the fruits and tiny coffee farms like Café de Altura la Quinta Mary in San Sebastián del Oeste. Working on a few acres in the mountain canopy northwest of the city, you can find their organic beans under the “La Quinta Mary” label back in Vallarta.
If you drive south of the city — past Mismaloya, the famous beach town where John Huston filmed his 1964 classic The Night of the Iguana — you’llalso reach tiny Sierra Madre mountain villages like El Tuito, where restaurants sell glasses and bottles of locally made raicilla. It’s an intense agave-based spirit similar to tequila and mescal, still rarely found outside of the southwestern part of Jalisco.
You don’t have to leave the city to feel the force of the Sierra Madres. You need only go a few blocks in any direction from the boardwalk before the bumpy streets rise into narrow stone staircases cutting into sharp inclines. If you’re lucky, you’ll pass by of Vallarta’s small neighborhood markets, where you can stock up on freshly made tortillas, pre-marinated carne asada or sweet small oranges, prickly pears and tiny, flame-colored tree fruits called jocote.
One the way back down to the waterfront, be sure to stop for another of Jalisco’s most famous dishes: birria de chivo, a slow-braised goat stew made with multiple chiles and aromatics like marjoram, clove, cinnamon, bay laurel and cumin. It is nearly as popular in Vallarta with locals as the mariscos, usually sold from tidy trucks where it’s folded into fried corn tortillas with a ladle of sauce. (They typically make a version with beef, too.)
Many of the best, like the Robles cart on a corner of Constitución, are sold out of birria by 2 p.m. But perhaps that’s a good thing — after all, if you’ve come all this way, you should probably spend at least a little time on the beach.
Photo credit: John Taggart
Where to eat and drink
Most tourist guides will point you to the beautiful Café des Artistes, Puerto Vallarta’s best modern fine dining restaurant, or to Joe Jack’s Fish Shack, its always-packed expat headquarters. Both are fantastic, but don’t miss these laid-back local favorites.
Mariscos el Guero
296 Francisco Madero
One of the most beloved stops for tourists and locals alike is Mariscos el Guero, which grew from a street cart to a proper restaurant on the corner of avenue Francisco Madero. Its best-sellers — which rank among Vallarta’s greatest culinary hits — include smoked-marlin-stuffed green chiles; fried shrimp tacos dressed with shredded cabbage and salsa verde; and tostadas topped with the classic ceviche preparation of the region, meaning white fish ground with carrot, onion and chiles.
Robles’ Birria Cart
Corner of Cardenas and Constitución
At this cart specializing in birria, beef or goat is stewed till soft with bay leaf, cinnamon and other spices then shredded and piled atop a taco. You can get it with regular soft corn tortillas (ask for soave), or they’ll also fry two thin tortillas in the birria fat. Top these tacos with purple onion relish, hot sauces and shredded cabbage to your liking, and don’t forget to ask for a cup of the broth on the side. Just go early — both versions are often sold out by mid-afternoon.
252 Calle Mina
Originally Gaby’s was a tiny dinner-only diner serving three-course comida corrida for $6. But workers from a nearby bank begged Gaby to open earlier, and she turned her former apartment into a second floor dining room. You can also eat on the patio, next to a waterfall and live trees. The tortilla soup is beloved as is the “la banda,” aka three shots (tequila, sangrita and lime juice) in the colors of the Mexican flag.
4 Isla Río Cuale
This open-air restaurant offers romantic views of the River Cuale and the occasional iguana, plus a fountain, white tablecloths and fancier Mex-French fare. But the real reason to go is their margaritas: Sold frozen or on the rocks and in many flavors, they’re some of the best in town. If you don’t want to stay for a whole meal, have a molcajete of guacamole and a round at the bar by the walkway up front.
What to do
Puerto Vallarta is largely an outdoor town: There are museums, many art galleries and lovely churches — especially the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Calle Hidalgo off the old town square — but most of the time you’ll want to be outside.
Walk the City
The best way to see most of Puerto Vallarta is on foot: Amble the boardwalk, the food markets, the riverwalk along the Cuale, or follow the streets of the old town up into the hills to “Gringo Gulch,” where you can still the air bridge connecting the houses where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once lived. (Maps are available for free nearly everywhere, or you can check these online maps to the city and its highlights.) June through October it rains nearly every day, so pack an umbrella — or duck into the nearest taqueria.
Vallarta Food Tours
1193-A Avenida Mexico
The “Original Downtown Tour” by Ricardo “Lobo” Lopez offers the real deal: Street carts selling steak tacos, rustic sidewalk stands selling fresh coconut and chiles on little more than a folding table, posole in a backyard garden, a tortilleria by one of the seven rivers that empty into the city’s shore from the green, green jungles up on the Sierra Madres. Other tours offer adventures outside the city or of taco trucks.
13-C Mástil Local
Many come to Puerto Vallarta just for the outdoor activities, and this respected company offers at least two dozen tours to help, like trips to lovely traditional Mexican mountain towns, or whale watching, off-roading, surfing, and a trek to the area’s famous zip lines that cut through the rain forest canopy. If you prefer to sip instead of sweat, there’s also a tour of tequilerias. Most have dedicated guides who give an overview of area culture and history en route.
Where to stay
With tourism a strong focus in Puerto Vallarta, there’s no shortage of places to stay. Note that June through October is the rainy season, and in fall some businesses are closed for vacation until tourists return around Thanksgiving. In the winter, meanwhile, rooms can fill up weeks in advance.
A Private Home
From condos on the boardwalk to villas that require a hike up the hills, many of the best and most special accommodations in Puerto Vallarta are private homes and apartments, especially if you want to stay for a week or a month. There are several sites that serve the area beyond airbnb.com, like flipkey.com, ownerdirect.com and homeway.com.
Hotel Posada de Roger
237 Basilio Badillo
Hotel Posada de Roger is both reasonably priced and right in the middle of town on Puerto Vallarta’s main drag of Basilio Badillo. In addition to a pool, rooftop terrace and a community kitchen for cooking with area produce, the hotel lobby is home to a restaurant called Fredy’s Tucan. It’s Puerto Vallarta’s excellent answer to Denny’s, where local workers and tourists alike gather each morning for pancakes, freshly squeezed juices and chilaquiles.
901 Paseo Díaz Ordaz
One of Puerto Vallarta’s first waterfront tourist hotels, the Rosita was built in 1948 — right at the foot of the boardwalk, or Malecon. Renovated a decade ago, rumor has it this is where the stars and staff stayed during the filming of John Huston’s 1960s flick The Night of the Iguana.
This story was made possible by the Puerto Vallarta tourism board.