Much of Vallarta’s popularity stems from its location smack in the middle of beauteous Banderas Bay. This symmetrical, bass clef-shaped bay is one of the largest on the continent. Mountain ridges fade into a blue haze as you gaze south, each extending a bit farther into the Pacific. PV itself heads for the hills just a few blocks beyond the beachfront boardwalk, where locals and visitors congregate day and night to socialize, people watch, and appreciate a dozen gorgeous, plein-air sculptures. The green hills make a lovely backdrop to the town of whitewashed houses. Condos and restaurants less than half mile inland enjoy fabulous views of the bay.
Greater Puerto Vallarta now encompasses villages like Mismaloya (where Night of the Iguana was filmed) and Boca de Tomatlán. But these enclaves maintain their own personalities. Mismaloya’s beach has been irretrievably altered by construction of the highrise La Jolla de Mismaloya hotel, but on the east side of the coast road, the original town still snoozes in the tropical sunshine.
A few miles farther south, Boca de Tomatlán marks the entrance of the Horcones River into the sea.
(“Boca” means river mouth.) Most travelers never stray beyond its few restaurants at the estuary, but across a hanging bridge, the main part of town lies hidden from casual exploration.
Fast skiffs from Boca ferry passengers to Las Animas, Quimixto, Yelapa, and other beachfront villages. Given the beauty of these secluded beaches, it’s surprising that so few visitors make the easy trek, and that those who do rarely venture beyond the beach. A visit to one or more of these sensual scallops of sand south of PV makes for a lovely beach day.
In PV itself, Los Muertos beach is the place to be. The main attraction here is the scene. Vendors, dogs, and pickup artists cruise the sand, and restaurants facing the surf are the perfect escape from the sun. The water is almost secondary here, but there are lifeguards as well as parasailing, banana boat rides, and personal watercraft to rent.
But what sets Vallarta apart from other seaside resorts are the opportunities for excellent dining and shopping. Sparkling little taco stands crank out griddle-fresh shrimp quesadillas, carne asada, and homemade salsa; holes-in-the-wall sling decent vegetarian dishes. Remodeled homes in the hills cater to evening crowds for sunsets and seafood. Restaurant Week in May and the Gourmet Festival in November attract foodies to restaurants of all genres, but any time of year is great for good eats. This is a mighty fattening town.
Nightlife is varied, too. Clubs stay open beyond the official last call at 4 AM, and on the south side of the Cuale River, cross-dressing strip clubs entertain straights as well as gays. Chains like Senor Frog’s, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s, and the Hard Rock Cafe coexist with unique concepts like Hilos, where oversized statues reach for three-story ceilings, and de Santos, a more highbrow restaurant--lounge with an excellent sound system and plenty of chill.
Greater Puerto Vallarta extends far beyond its pretty (if crowded) downtown overlooking the sea. Some of the best beaches are elsewhere. But the soul and heart of PV is here en el centro. Visitors tend to stick to the streets closest to the water, so for a glimpse of the city’s less touristy character, head to the hills. It only takes half a dozen streets---uphill---to rediscover Old Vallarta.