Beach towns in Mexico tend to lean in one of two directions: gorgeous tropical paradise or somewhat unkempt beach drag. Puerto Vallarta, however, manages to strike a balance between the two, offering a charming, sunny coastal escape that’s somewhat rough around the edges in the best ways possible.
Let’s put it this way: With plenty of resorts and typical tourist-fare but a more local vibe than, say, Cancún, this smaller city of 250,000 sees some 2 million visitors each year. That’s a lot of people moving through a not-quite-streamlined tourism infrastructure.
As a result, you’ll enjoy a charming, vibrant beach vacation with a healthy side of the chaotic character—including nightlife that rages until 5 am—for which Mexico is rather famous. Yet Puerto Vallarta also rewards with its breathtaking, scruffy beauty: Terracotta roofs top white-washed buildings, scattered throughout the hills that rise up from the bay into the misty, mountainous jungle that surrounds the city. It’s a beautiful contrast of clay, white, green, and blue, mixed with the explosive purple jacaranda blossoms that arch over the cobblestone streets.
While travel to Mexico has gone more or less unabated during the pandemic—no proof of vaccination or a negative test is required for entry—that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely without regulations. In Puerto Vallarta’s state of Jalisco, for example, you are currently required to show proof of vaccination for entry into casinos, concerts, indoor bars and clubs, and large events. You’re also usually required to wear a mask indoors and there’s strong social pressure to wear one whenever you happen to be around other people. When you fly back to the US, you’ll also be required to show proof of a negative test. Testing sites are scattered all around Puerto Vallarta, and information about these and the latest COVID regulations can be found here.
- 1 The best time to visit Puerto Vallarta, other than literally any time
- 2 Which Puerto Vallarta neighborhoods to hit (and which to avoid)
- 3 Hop from beach club to art gallery to mountain village
- 4 Hit some of the area’s best beaches
- 5 Devour shrimp burgers, quesadillas al pastor, and late-night tacos
- 6 Keep the party going all night long
- 7 Where to stay when you’re all danced out
The best time to visit Puerto Vallarta, other than literally any time
Puerto Vallarta is in a geographical sweet spot: It’s on the Bay of Banderas (the second-largest bay in the world) and sheltered by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, protecting it from the threat of hurricane season. It’s in the north of Mexico, so temperatures stay mild for the majority of the year, but visit between January and April for the very best weather. You can visit in the summer (when everything is a fraction of the price), but prepare for the sky to open up Shawshank Redemption-style multiple times a day.
New Year’s Eve is a massive party, so avoid it if you want to stay low-key. Same with Easter and Semana Santa (Holy Week, which begins Palm Sunday), when the city will be gridlocked, first by Mexicans on vacation and then by sloppy, loud gringos on spring break. (Of course, if you are a sloppy, loud gringo on spring break, then, by all means, knock yourself out.)
The History of Tailgating
Which Puerto Vallarta neighborhoods to hit (and which to avoid)
Coming from the airport into downtown, you’ll pass the ritzy marina, where the cruise ships and yachts dock. The slips are surrounded by high-end condos, touristy restaurants, overpriced shopping, and tour operators. Keep moving. You’ll then pass the Hotel Zone, which is a strip of all-inclusive resorts along the northern beaches of PV. This area also has a few new-ish shopping malls and a food park. Keeeeeep moving.
Next, you’ll hit Cinco de Diciembre. This neighborhood is a solid blend of locals and newcomers, extending from the beach up the hillsides. It’ll be your first encounter with PV’s red-tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, and purple jacaranda trees.
Then, you’ll come to Centro. This is where the Malecon (boardwalk) begins, and it’s a must-see lined with yummy restaurants, street performers, shopping, and nightlife. It’s also a front-row seat for Puerto Vallarta’s spectacular sunsets, which are followed by a regular fireworks show around 9:15 – 9:30pm every single night. Keep in mind that on weekends and holidays, the Malecon is a bit of a hot mess thanks to the party bars (one of which celebrates Mardi Gras on a weekly basis for no apparent reason).
South of the Río Cuale is the Zona Romántica, PV’s LGBTQ+ district. It’s also the oldest and best-preserved section of the city with beautiful historic streets and buildings. Nightlife here is pulsating, with the highest concentration of bars and restaurants beloved by tourists and the city’s substantial gay population.
Hop from beach club to art gallery to mountain village
Hit up a beach club. There’s the super fancy (like, infinity-pool-on-the-beach fancy) Mantamar Beach Club, which is technically an LGBTQ+ club, but you can be none of those letters and fit in just fine. You’ll pay top-dollar for this adults-only experience (around $80 per person for the day), but you’ll get swanky cabanas, excellent food, impeccable service, and a private section of sand un-pestered by beach vendors hawking luchador masks and pipes. For something a little cheaper and more central, a day of lazing and lunching at Mango’s Beach Club will cost you around $30.
Of course, you absolutely do not have to pay to enjoy the beach in Puerto Vallarta. If you’re staying downtown, you can lay out on public spots like Playa Los Camarones, Playa Los Muertos, or one of any number of beaches just outside town (more on those momentarily).
After you’ve thoroughly baked yourself in the sun, take some time to experience Puerto Vallarta’s art scene. The entire Malecon is lined with a rotating showcase of art and impressive sculptures, and there are several small galleries owned by local artists in the city center. Every Wednesday at 6pm, an art walk will take you through some of the coolest galleries and public works. Foodies can also join Vallarta Food Tours, a solid excuse to go nuts eating all the street food you can handle in some of the city’s more local spots. Or there’s Vallarta Adventures, which offers guided outdoorsy trips for whale-watching, zip-lining, or just exploring the area’s smaller mountain towns.
Hit some of the area’s best beaches
South of town, you’ll find a spectacular beachfront on Playa Mismaloya, Playa Gemelas, and Playa Las Animas. Accessible only by boat, Las Animas is home to a frenetic stretch of beach bars and restaurants, making it a great place to spend the day happily flitting between the sand and a frozen margarita. You can hire a water taxi to take you there, aka one of the many boat operators at Los Muertos Pier in the Zona Romántica. Or DIY: Take the orange line bus from Zona Romántica to Boca de Tomatlan, which will run you about 8 pesos (40 cents) for the 20-minute ride. From there, a water taxi to Playa Las Animas is around 50 pesos ($2.50).
If you’re feeling adventurous or just want to skip the boat, there’s a secret hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas, which passes by several private coves and beaches along the way. It takes an hour and a half, and you’ll hardly see a soul along the route. If you want something even more remote, consider going farther south to Yelapa, a quiet beach community with far fewer beach bars than Las Animas—and waterfall hikes nearby.
To the north of Puerto Vallarta is the state of Nayarit. Here you’ll find bohemian beach towns like Bucerías, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Sayulita, and San Pancho, with a growing stock of boutique hotels, yoga retreats, and galleries. The crowd swings a little more Lululemon these days, but these are still semi-quiet communities with authentic Mexican culture.
Devour shrimp burgers, quesadillas al pastor, and late-night tacos
PV has such a large international community that you’ll find lots of other cuisines that are just as good as the local food. But let’s start with Mexican food, because that’s obviously what you’ll want first. For starters, street food is on almost every corner. Wander around Cinco de Diciembre or the Zona Romántica and you’re sure to find a food truck selling everything from tortas and tacos to shrimp burgers and quesadillas the size of your head. Our personal favorites: El Carboncito and Tacos El Moreno.
If you’d rather have a sit-down meal, you can line up with the rest of the world at Pancho’s Tacos. Yes, the quesadillas al pastor are absolutely worth the wait… but you will be waiting a long, long time, especially late at night when the bars start to close. For killer home-cooked Mexican and a mind-blowing breakfast, go to La Chula, or find the best fish tacos in this seafood-centric coastal city at Joe Jack’s.
Head to Los Muertos Brewing Company to suck down a frosty pils and snack on homemade pizzas. If it’s date night, hit 116 Pulpito, a hole-in-the-wall-sized tapas restaurant with friendly staff and excellent cocktails, or splurge at Tre Piatti, home to fantastic homemade Italian cuisine and Ulises, one of the best cocktail-makers in Puerto Vallarta.
Keep the party going all night long
… Puerto Vallarta heats up. The craft brewery trend has trickled down here—we already mentioned Los Muertos Brewing, which has two locations. If you’re in the mood for something mellow, stick to Centro and hit up Bar Morelos, which draws a local, laid-back crowd. In Cinco de Diciembre, you get late-night DJs at the famous El Solar, an offshoot of the neighboring Barracuda Bar; both serve amazing seafood and are right on the sand. Unless you’re 18 and making bad life choices, avoid Señor Frog’s, as well as Zoo Bar, Mandala, and La Vaquita (there’s a swing there—enough said).
For all-night parties, you’ll want Mr. Flamingo, an open-air spot especially popular with the LGBTQ+ community. At 7 pm it’s a chill, sunset happy-hour bar—but by 7:30 pm it flips into full-on party mode, spilling out into the streets and not losing momentum until around 3 am. Afterward, head next door to Paco’s Ranch, which is as ridiculous and raunchy as it sounds. You’ve been warned.
Puerto Vallarta is a 24-hour city if you know where to look—even in the downtime between 5 am and 9 am, you can always find a spot along the Malecon for breakfast.
Where to stay when you’re all danced out
Come 5 am, you’re going to need somewhere to sleep. Airbnb is alive and well in Puerto Vallarta, so find an apartment if you want to kick it like a local. If you aren’t renting a car, you’ll want to stick to the Zona Romántica, Centro, or Cinco de Diciembre, just to avoid taxi fees.
Or you can go boutique with Rivera del Rio, which is almost camouflaged among the houses near the Río Cuale. The motif here is oddball elegance, with a lobby on an open balcony overlooking the street. Inside, it’s got an air of M.C. Escher, with narrow staircases, secret rooms, and eight unique suites. The best part of the hotel is the pool deck, with a Roman-style hot tub that overlooks the entire Zona Romántica.
If you’re more into traditional all-inclusives, you can certainly take your pick in the Hotel Zone. Try Villa Premiere, a small resort that is both on the beach and within walking distance of downtown. Two other solid but more expensive options are Grand Fiesta Americana and Hotel Mousai, each about 10 minutes in a taxi from downtown.
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Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer living and breathing in NYC. But if you give her a plane ticket today, she will be somewhere else tomorrow. She likes tacos, music, and making lists. But travel is her life. Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, the Daily Beast, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his weird adventures via Instagram or Twitter