The Five-Day Best of Puerto Vallarta

For the most intimate view of Puerto Vallarta, stay in a comfortable hotel within close walking distance of the colorful Old Town sights, cafés, restaurants, and shops. If you opt to stay in the north-end Hotel Zone or the Marina, you can easily hail a taxi ($5-8) or hop a local bus to go where the action is. If it’s your thing, be sure to reserve seats ahead for a Fiesta Mexicana show.

Puerto Vallarta's cathedral
Puerto Vallarta’s cathedral. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Those who want a full dose of urbanity with their beach time should stick to Puerto Vallarta, either downtown or Old Town, since this puts you within easy reach of the city’s best restaurants and nightlife while also keeping you close to the beach and bay. If you’re looking to really chill out, however, you might consider staying up at the north end of the Hotel Zone, or even in Nuevo Vallarta, and cabbing or busing in to “the big city” for day trips or nights on the town. And if a beachfront city isn’t on your agenda except as a pass-through, why not spend a night or two in Vallarta at the beginning or end of your travels and head north to Sayulita or south to Cabo Corrientes for the rest of your trip?

Wherever you stay, be sure and take at least one leisurely promenade down the Puerto Vallarta Malecón at sunset or in the early evening. This is simply a great urban beachfront experience.

Day 1

The majority of flights arrive at the Puerto Vallarta airport in the late afternoon. After customs and transportation to your hotel, that doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing, and who wants to rush out after a long day of travel anyway?

Change out of your travel clothes and into some casual beach attire; grab your camera, your travel companions, and maybe a book; and head down to a beach restaurant and dig your toes into the sand. Order a tropical drink and some fresh guacamole, then people-watch and decompress until you catch your first brilliant Vallarta sunset. Take a dozen pictures to impress your friends. Ahhhh, isn’t that better?

After drinks and chips, you probably won’t be very hungry, so stroll along the Malecón and nibble on crepes, tacos, and fresh fruit from the food stands as the mood strikes. Check out the central Plaza de Armas and watch the concert (or the clowns) at the adjacent shoreline Los Arcos amphitheater.

A view of Puerto Vallarta's cathedral through the Los Arcos Amphitheater
A view of Puerto Vallarta’s cathedral through the Los Arcos Amphitheater. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Things start picking up at the dance clubs around midnight, so head over to Mandala or the Zoo to get your groove on and work off those margaritas.

Day 2

Who can resist the beach on your first full day? Head out and start beach exploring. Start at the seafront park just north of the Río Cuale and stroll south over the river bridge and continue along the seashore andador (walkway) along Playa los Muertos. Walk out on the new pier to see what’s biting, or grab a lounge chair at any of the restaurants and beach clubs. There’s plenty of people to watch, friends to make, and margaritas to drink!

Playa los Muertos
Playa los Muertos. Photo © Justin Henderson.

Still have the urge to explore? Head south by local Mismaloya or Boca bus (from the corner of Constitución and Basilio Badillo). Visit Mismaloya, and then head back into town to watch the sunset at one of many establishments along the famous Malecón. Or, if you prefer, continue south a few miles past Mismaloya to the unmissable Le Kliff Restaurant, overlooking the ocean, on the right.

Later, hit one or more of the nightclubs on the Malecón. Now closed to auto traffic, the Malecón is party central, especially during spring break but pretty much year-round. The old standards—Hilo, the Zoo—still rock, and now a couple of relative newcomers—Mandala, La Vaquita—have totally amped up the Malecón party options.

Day 3

You’ve done the beaches, and now it’s time to hit the water. Take a relaxing day cruise for snorkeling at Los Arcos and a waterfall swim at either Quimixto or idyllic Yelapa on the Bay of Banderas’s jungly southern shore. Don’t miss the pie ladies of Yelapa.

Head back into town for dinner, and then do a little nightclub hopping along the Malecón (or seek out more conversation-friendly entertainment at either Ándale pub or Garbo in the Olas Altas district). Tired of techno and dance music? Hit Club Roxy for some raucous rock and roll.

Day 4

After all of the previous activity, it may be best simply to rest for a day. Or if you prefer, head for an out-of-town adventure at Punta Mita or Sayulita village (an hour by bus north of town). There you can stroll, boogie board, and maybe try your hand at surfing.

If you are taking a break from the sun and surf today, head south and make a stop at the Puerto Vallarta Zoo to cuddle a lion cub and/or the Vallarta Botanical Gardens to view their amazing collection of orchids and the picturesque grounds. Both are excellent for nature photography and bird-watching. Tonight, head north for some killer salsa dancing at J&B.

Day 5

Part of your last day will be spent picking up mementos of your trip and handicrafts for the folks back home. Head down to the Isla Cuale and check out the wares for sale in the many shops and stalls. If you can handle the heat, head into the Mercado Municipal just downhill from the bridge. Grab some Mexican vanilla, organic coffee, or colored glassware for affordable and useful gifts.

For the rest of your day, schedule a special tour such as horseback riding or a whale-, dolphin-, or bird-watching excursion to the Islas Marietas. Don’t miss your last Puerto Vallarta sunset!

If you’ve still got one more night of partying left, spend it like a local at the dive bar La Cantina. Just mind your manners, because things can get pretty rowdy.

Justin Henderson

About the

A native of Los Angeles, Justin Henderson spent much of his childhood and young adulthood surfing the California beaches. After his graduation from California State University, Northridge, his career took him to several locations across the country. He worked as an architectural journalist in New York City, and later moved to Seattle, where he worked as a freelance travel and design writer. It was in Seattle that he took up windsurfing, reviving his long-dormant
surfing skills and his passion for the ocean. But the waters of the Pacific Northwest are cold, so Justin moved with his wife and daughter to Sayulita, 30 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. In his years living there, Justin learned to love Mexico even more than he did as a child when his family would vacation on Lake Chapala every summer.

Justin has written guidebooks on destinations ranging from Costa Rica to Los Angeles, as well as six murder mysteries featuring a travel writer and photographer which are set on Caribbean islands, in Costa Rica, and all over Mexico. Justin has returned to Seattle, where he lives with his family.

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