Discovering Puerto Vallarta:
Mexico’s Prettiest Tropical Resort Town
By Linda Kissam ‘Food, Wine & Shopping Diva’
Some things just need to be experienced to understand the value it presents. Enter Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Grab your bathing suit, spa shoes and a few pesos to enjoy a destination where sipping margaritas is generally considered a national sport.
Mexico’s prettiest tropical resort town has a lot to offer like affordable prices, numerous flights and welcoming locals. It is quite diverse in its offerings. Think quirky and high end shopping opportunities, tequila tastings, botanical gardens, a burgeoning art scene, trendy restaurants and picturesque winding cobblestone streets. Miles of sandy beaches, unique art installations in public places and lively nightclubs surprise and delight the newest visitor and guarantee seasoned visitors return again and again.
Before you go. Top Six Questions about Puerto Vallarta:
Do I have to speak Spanish to enjoy my time there? Most everyone, including shopkeepers are used to dealing with gringos; most speak English.
Can I drink the water? Puerto Vallarta has the cleanest water in Mexico. The water is treated and purified, but the distribution system is not so perfect. In most hotels and restaurants, you will get purified water, so feel free to have ice blended drinks and brush your teeth with tap water. When in doubt – you can ask, “Auga purificada?” It may still not be a good idea to drink the water from a private home or condo, unless you know there is a purification system installed, and working. Overall, especially if you have a sensitive tummy, buy bottled water.
What can I use as proof of citizenship to enter Mexico? Upon arrival, you will need to have the following documentation ready: Passport, Visitor’s permit provided by the airline or at the local port of entry, and a Customs Declaration Form. An immigration official will inspect your documents, write the number of days on the FMM permit (a leave of stay equaling 180 days is given as standard), stamp your FMM and Passport, return a copy of the FMM to you and ask you to proceed to customs. My experience with customs was great. The staff is kind, courteous and glad to see you. If you do not have your FMM (Visitor’s Permit) with you when you leave, you will undergo some Mexican Immigration red-tape and have to re-apply to get a replacement at one the country’s immigration offices or at the airport. The fee to replace the permit is about US$50, A lost permit, especially if you only notice at the airport when you are ready to leave, will delay your exit and may cause you to miss your scheduled flight.
Do I need a special adaptor to plug in my curling iron, hair dryer and plug-in computers in México? No, if you are from the U.S. or Canada. México uses the same voltage as the United States. If you are coming from Europe, or any country that uses 220 volts, you will need the proper adapters.
Is it safe to walk around the town at night? Yes. You will feel much safer in most parts of Puerto Vallarta than in some parts of the US or Europe. There appears to be very little crime here. I did not see roaming teenagers, beggars, children selling items on the street or in shops, or shopkeepers yelling at me to come into their store. The tourist police are friendly, visible and very helpful. Just use common sense, and be careful. After dark, stay on the main streets, do not wander on the beaches. Never flash large amounts of money or wear expensive jewelry.
What supplies should I bring? You can purchase pesos at any ATM or your hotel or use your credit card. You will get your best prices on cabs and souvenirs by using pesos. Puerto Vallarta is a tropical paradise. Sun and bugs come with the territory. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, bug repellant (very important), anti-itch cream (for bug bites), Imodium, and a tummy soother if you do get a stomach upset.
Where to Stay and Play in Puerto Vallarta
Lodging: There are numerous gorgeous large resorts and unique boutique hotels to stay at. The occupancy rate is near capacity during the high season, so book early. Where you stay depends on your mind set. For this trip, I was looking for a resort with easy beach and downtown access that also included breakfast. I can highly recommend CasaMagna Marriott. Ranked as one of the top 10 Pacific Riviera hotels by Condé Nast Traveler, CasaMagna Marriott offers nicely appointed rooms, free Internet, direct beach access, a spa, outstanding breakfasts and great restaurants. Easy access to the downtown area, public transportation and boating opportunities.
Try a Raicilla tasting at the hotel. Raicilla is a distilled spirit from the fermented juices of a maguey plant or agave. There are more than 200 species of these plants. Tequila can only use the blue agave, but Raicilla uses two: the so called, lechuguilla agaves, “pata de mula” (mule foot), or “agaves raicilleros” of the species. The taste depends on where the agave has been grown and ranges from smooth and sophisticated to moonshine like offerings. Pick up a bottle of the good stuff in the hotel shop – about $40 US.
Dinner: Café des Artistes is just a few minutes from the hotel. It’s one of those special places that represents the new cuisine trends of the area. Led by magnetic chef Thierry Blouet, the unique style is something to enjoy through all senses.
Lunch: Try the Vallarta Botanical Gardens for a dynamic “2-fer.” Get one of the best lunches in the area featuring traditional dishes and beverages along with an easy walking tour of the gardens. The facility is about a 30 minute bus ride from downtown PV. See native birds, plants and animals in a secluded wildlife area. The 20-acre facility features tranquil paths where you can walk amongst native oak trees, orchids and bromeliads. It’s fun to see what plants vanilla and tequila are made from. Depending on the time of the year, you’ll be able to spot local birds. These gardens are a beautiful spot dedicated to preserving Mexico’s natural environment.
Bay of Banderas Tour: Walkable from the hotel, take a water based tour of the beautiful bay. Try booking with Canuwa tour group. They offer a 62′ Luxury catamaran with 120 passengers capacity and a crew of 6 sailors and a captain. You’ll enjoy seeing the bay, delicious snacks, music, food, drinks and snorkeling in warm waters near caves. Or book to snorkel in Los Arcos/Colomitos followed by a delicious Mexican beach lunch at the Beach Club at Las Ánimas. Either is a true immersion experience.
Agave Tasting: Think tequila, but with a proprietary name. Rancho El Verano is a small distillery just outside of Puerto Vallarta. The Don Chendo products are 100% Blue Agave. The product is hand made with pure blue agave, but because they make it in small batches and do not distribute internationally, they are not allowed to call it tequila, so they resort to “Liquor de Agave.” The tour, led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable host has guests tasting samples and learning quirky toasts. We were treated to five types: white, Reposado, Anejo, and two sweetened spirits, almondo and a coffee style (Licor de Café) that includes chocolate and vanilla flavors. They were all good. I happily walked out with the Reposado and Licor de Café.
Street Taco Tour: Organized by Vallarta Food Tours, this 3 to 3 ½ hour walking/ bus tour of street taco stands was the highlight of my trip. It features ten places showcasing the intoxicating regional flavors of PV. The samples come from carefully selected family-owned restaurants and stands. Stops include Vallarta’s best mole enchiladas, traditional ceviche tostadas, a tortilla factory, tacos from an authentic taco stand, traditional drinks, savory soups, regional candies and more. All food tastings are included in the ticket price of about $50 US.
Festivals: PV has memorable non-stop festivals going on. Try attending one. Notable for sense of place and taste are: The Gourmet Festival, Ceviche and Aguachile Festival, Raicilla and Coffee Festival and the Vallarta Wine Fest.