Once a small fishing community, Puerto Vallarta has emerged as one of Mexico's most popular destinations. With cobblestoned streets that climb straight up to the jungle, the town was largely unknown to the rest of the world until Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor embarked on a love affair while filming "Night of the Iguana" in 1963.
Now, the colonial "old town" is a favorite of history buffs, photographers and bargain hunters, while areas such as Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta attract beachgoers, boaters and those looking for all-inclusive resorts. The southern coastal areas of Mismaloya, Yelapa and Las Animas Quimixto are scenic wonders of coves and gullies, ideal for snorkeling; the latter two are reachable only by boat.
Because of its warm waters, the Bay of Banderas is a breeding ground for hundreds of humpback whales during the winter months (as well as expat Americans and Canadians). Pacific dolphins can be seen year-round, jumping alongside the bow wake of the many cruise ships that call in Puerto Vallarta. Many tour operators offer eco-tours and photo safaris to take advantage of the abundance of marine life in the region; jungle tours, horseback treks and visits to tequila factories are some of the other excursions offered.
But for those who choose to just wander around the city during a day in port, Puerto Vallarta offers a rich, rewarding experience. The downtown area is crowded with shops, restaurants and lots of traffic. The main street along the water, the Malecon, has a seawall walkway that is flat and easily negotiable by wheelchair-bound visitors and those with difficulty walking and is notable for the many sculptures that line the path. The streets a few blocks off of the main throughway, though, are steep and cobblestoned; wear comfortable shoes. And it gets hot and humid in Puerto Vallarta, especially in the summer, so dress accordingly for your day in town.
Ships dock at the Marina Vallarta Maritime Terminal, about three miles north of downtown. The terminal has ATMs, shops, a currency exchange and kiosks for tours.
There are several restaurants and bodegas near where the ships dock for those who want a final margarita before setting sail. You'll also find a small craft market to pick up those last-minute souvenirs. Hotels with bars and restaurants overlook the marina and the water, offering lovely spots to sit and watch the sunset (if your ship leaves after dark) or the sailboats coming back to the marina. Depending on which dock your ship uses, the Plaza Iguana Marina Resort, Flamingo Vallarta, or Vista Club Playa de Oro are all within reasonable walking distance.
For those who just can't get enough of U.S.-style shopping, there are both a Walmart and a Sam's Club directly across the main boulevard from the ship docking areas, about a 10-minute walk away. Tequilas and Kahlua are definitely better priced there than in the duty-free liquor stores in town or near the ships.
As you walk through the streets, some vendors may offer you free tequila tastings if you come inside. Be warned that unless it's an official liquor store, you might be subject to an annoying timeshare presentation in exchange for a few sips. Not worth it.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and line up around the docks as passengers begin coming ashore. They are regulated, but have no meters, and the prices aren't posted. Negotiate before you get in; a trip to town in a taxi from the Marina Vallarta area should cost no more than 80 to 100 pesos (about $7) The yellow taxis, located outside of the port gates, are less expensive than those of the drivers walking around inside; the latter drive Federal Zone cabs, which cost more.
By Bus: Buses in Puerto Vallarta are great fun and very reasonably priced at 7.50 pesos (less than a dollar) for a trip. They can be found on the main road into the city (Av. Francisco Medina Ascencio) and make several stops along the Hotel Zone before arriving in the center of Puerto Vallarta.
By Car: Rental cars are plentiful and quite reasonable, especially the ubiquitous VW Beetles. Be sure to check before you make a rental arrangement whether your insurance will cover you while driving in Mexico. Many companies do not.
The peso is the currency used in Mexico. Almost all shops, vendors and taxis take U.S. dollars, but that can raise the cost of your purchase. ATMs are available everywhere. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
It's important to note that the symbol for pesos is the same as the symbol for dollars ($), so pay close attention to how items are priced.
Spanish is the official language of Mexico, but almost everyone associated with the tourism industry in Puerto Vallarta speaks English.
With an affluent expat population, Puerto Vallarta has emerged as one of Mexico's top foodie cities, with upscale restaurants and famous food stalls alike. Seafood is fresh, as befits its Pacific location, and ceviche is a popular offering in many restaurants. Vendors also sell barbecue shrimp on a stick at the beach; we recommend avoiding these unless you've actually witnessed them grilling the shrimp. Meat lovers should head straight for birria, a regional Jaliscan beef and goat stew served with tortillas, onion and lime, or the ubiquitous carne asada, steak tacos sold at stands with myriad salsas. (Note: For the best food stalls, look for a line of locals.) What's nice about Puerto Vallarta is that ships often depart long after dinner, allowing passengers to enjoy several meals onshore.
For meals with a view, try the River Cafe along the Rio Cuale. The atmosphere turns romantic at night, with candles and live music. (Isla Rio Cuale 4; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
The Sea Monkey is a popular beach spot recommended on the Cruise Critic forums, with free Internet and outstanding fish tacos being the main draws -- along with $1 beers and margaritas. (Aquiles Serdan 174; 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily)
Another Cruise Critic favorite, El Arrayan focuses on traditional Mexican food, such as beef barbacoa, cochinita pibil, shrimp pozole and mole enchiladas. Open for dinner only, the restaurant offers cooking classes during the day. (Allende 344; open5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday to Monday)
Mariscos 8 Tostadas is only open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. because it brings in only enough fresh seafood to last during those hours. A favorite with locals, it's often crowded, but the seafood tostadas and other freshly created specialties are worth the wait. (Quilla y Proa Local 28-29)
Las Palomas Doradas is the place to lunch when you want a romantic, unhurried experience. The restaurant offers local specialties with a French flair. (Inside the Small Boat Marina; open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
If you're looking for an upscale gourmet experience with Puerto Vallarta's version of a celebrity chef, you can't beat La Leche, where Alfonso Cadena is at the helm. Expect Mexican ingredients, such as avocados, pineapple, seafood and chiles, served with modern techniques. (Francisco Medina Ascencio km 2.5.; +52-322-293-0900; open 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily; reservations recommended)
Talavera pottery is distinctive because of its intricate patterns and bright colors. You can purchase single tiles or enough to make a mural, single bowls as gifts, or serving sets for four. There are also less expensive designs that make great gifts and souvenirs -- painted flower pots or fruit bowls, for example -- in most of the pottery shops around the city.
Puerto Vallarta is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which also contains the town of Tequila. So naturally, the spirit is at the heart of all drinks. If you want to sip like a local, avoid the margaritas and order your tequila bandera style, which means three sipping glasses: one with lime juice, one with white tequila and one with sangrita, a sour and spicy drink made from orange juice and tomato juice. Drink them in that order.