Walk the Malecon
Considered the heart of the city, the Malecon is a pedestrian-only esplanade following the shore for about a kilometer from Hotel Rosita in the north to the Los Arcos Amphitheater in the south. By day its most prominent features are its sculptures; “Boy on the Seahorse” being the most iconic. (This one is a replica; the original is further south on Los Muertos Beach). Free walking tours of the sculptures are available Tuesday mornings at 9:30 from November through April. Several shops, galleries, and restaurants line the way. At night, the Malecon lights up with food stalls, buskers, and street performers. Free music and cultural shows are held almost every night at the Los Arcos Amphitheater. Though the official Malecon covers just one kilometer, an extension of the Malecon (the Malecon II), continues along Los Muertos Beach south of the Cuale River through Zona Romantica, with more sculptures, food, nightlife, and the gorgeous Los Muertos Pier lighting the night.
Discover Your New Favorite Foods
Puerto Vallarta is a foodie paradise, thanks to top-notch seafood and produce, the rich culinary traditions of Jalisco, and the hundreds of chefs who have made Vallarta their home. With throngs of restaurants and food stalls to choose from, one of the best ways to get to know the real city is on a food tour. Head off the beaten path into the neighborhoods of the Old Town to experience the variety of foods that make this city so beloved among gourmands. Several companies offer food tours; the best option is the Puerto Vallarta Food Tour of Authentic Local Cuisine (mornings, classic local flavors). The tour lasts around three to three and a half hours with a good deal of walking, so wear comfy shoes and come hungry. Beer is available for purchase at most stops, but if you have a chance, try the raicilla (aka Mexican moonshine) – it never disappoints.
One of the top surfing destinations in the world, Sayulita’s main beach offers consistent surf almost all year round. Just an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, this eclectic little village has been a popular destination for surfers since the 1960s. Waves here are steady but not too wild, making this the ideal spot for beginners. There are several shops for lessons and rentals, but the best is Surf’n Sayulita. David, the owner, is a lifelong surfer and experienced instructor for all ages and abilities. Single lessons or full day trips (with or without lessons) are affordable, and available for individuals or groups. Located on Calle Gaviota, just half a block from the beach. Downtown Sayulita is walkable and filled with casual bars, lively cantinas, and fun local crafts, so plan on spending at least a day here to experience it all.
Explore Marietas Islands
Sometimes called the Mexican Galapagos, Islas Marietas Islands National Park is a small, uninhabited archipelago recognized by UNESCO as a vital breeding and shelter site for marine birds, most notably the blue footed booby. It’s also home to the most diverse population of reef fish in Banderas Bay and a wide variety of coral. But its main draw is the Hidden Beach, located in a manmade crater, the aftermath of military bombing exercises in the early half of the twentieth century. After becoming a national park in the ‘60s, the Marietas Islands and the Hidden Beach became popular camping spots. However, access to the islands was closed after too many careless tourists damaged the coral and started wildfires. The park has only just been re-opened in Spring 2017, with limited numbers of visitors allowed per day. Guests will need to book a tour to gain access to the Hidden Beach. The closest departure point is from Punta de Mita, though many tours operate from Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita. Punta Mita Adventures, Vallarta Adventures, and Sayulita Entourage are the best tour operators in each respective area.
Get Up Close to Crocodiles
El Cora is a fantastic eco-sanctuary for crocodiles and other native animals and plants. Guided tours are led by knowledgeable local biologists and are fully interactive. Guests are invited inside enclosures to handle the baby and adult crocodiles, while learning about their biology and habits. Several wild crocodiles live in the surrounding Quelele Lagoon, and the guides are usually able to call them closer for guests to observe (though visitors are not allowed to touch the wild crocs). The park is open for drop in tours from 11a-6p every day except Wednesday for a suggested donation of 200 pesos (about US$11). Night tours are offered on select dates and include a performance of the Huichol crocodile legend. For long term travelers, El Cora welcomes volunteers who want to assist in their conservation efforts. Located just north of Puerto Vallarta in Bucerías, on a long dirt road behind Flamingos Golf.
Wander the Old Town
For a true taste of Vallarta’s Old Mexico charm, travelers should spend a day exploring Old Town, just inland from the Malecon. This highly walkable downtown features several attractions within just a few minutes of each other. The most striking feature of the city is Guadalupe Church (Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe), a gorgeous colonial brick church with a wrought iron crown. Services are offered three times a day on weekdays and seven times on Sundays, with bilingual masses available at certain hours, for those who want a closer look. Just to the south, travelers will find the Mercado Municipal, the flea market north of the Cuale River, with great local crafts on the main floor and an array of fantastic, cheap restaurants up above. Cross over the wooden swinging bridge to reach Cuale River Island, a tropical island with a secluded feel, offering a small archeology museum, a cultural center with art classes, and several craft vendors and restaurants. Head south across the river into Zona Romantica and duck into the several art galleries on Basilio Badillo and Lázaro Cárdenas streets. Grab a happy hour drink on Olas Atlas Street and watch the sunset from Los Muertos Pier. Walk back north along the Malecon, if you still have energy left.
Cuddle a Baby Lion
Vallarta Zoo (Zoológico de Vallarta) is unlike any other zoo, allowing guests to pet and interact with almost all of the animals. For US$10 entry plus $5 optional for a bag of food, the animals walk right up to the front of their enclosures for a handfed treat. The giraffe and hippos are especially popular for feeding. For an extra charge, visitors are allowed into a special enclosure to hold, cuddle, and play with the baby big cats, which can be lions, tigers, panthers, and/or jaguars (depending on availability), plus monkeys and lemurs. This hands-on experience costs US$85 and is inclusive of entry, a food bag, two drinks, and a souvenir from their shop. This is truly a unique experience and worth every penny. However, be advised that the zoo here is not like a typical, pristine Western zoo. Though the animals are well-fed and cared for, their habitats are smaller than guests may be used to seeing. Located south of Puerto Vallarta in Mismaloya.
Make Your Own Chocolates
Chocolate is one of Mexico’s greatest gifts to the world, with the first and still highest quality cacao beans cultivated here. ChocoMuseo’s Bean to Bar Workshop takes students through the complete process of chocolate making. Beginning with a brief history lesson in chocolate, the class then provides hands on instruction in roasting and grinding the beans followed by mixing and molding the chocolates. Other classes cover truffles and how to cook a traditional Mexican mole. Its 3-story location includes a chocolate shop, café, and a factory open for tours of the process.
Hike through a Jungle Garden
The Vallarta Botanical Gardens cover 64 acres of the Mismaloya jungle to the south of the city. Unlike a typical manicured garden, the landscape here is largely left wild, with several hiking trails winding their way over steep hills and down to the edge of the Los Horcones River (bring a swimsuit and towel if you want to take a dip). Trails vary from moderate to difficult, and a good pair of shoes is necessary to navigate over the uneven paths. Hike early to avoid the heat, then return to the center of the gardens, a flat area with a huge collection of orchids, the largest in Mexico, as well as an aquatic plants pond and a cactus garden. Birds, butterflies, and iguanas are all found here, plus a fresh Mexican restaurant with good food and even better cocktails.
Sunset Cruise in Banderas Bay
Vallarta is known for its colorful orange and purple sunsets and, under the right conditions, the rare “green flash” just as the sun disappears over the horizon. There’s no better spot to see the city’s famous sunsets than from aboard a sailboat, gliding over the calm waters in the Banderas Bay. You’ll have a great vantage point here to see not only an unobstructed view of the horizon, but also dolphins, turtles, manta rays, and in the winter months, maybe a whale or two. Most cruises offer an open bar, hors d’oeuvres, and sweets along the way, and last about three hours. The best sunset sailing tours are offered by Ada Sailing, leaving from Marina Vallarta, and Ally Cat Sailing Adventures, leaving from La Cruz Marina near Bucerías.