Thanks to the pristine waters and party scene of Cancun, Mexico has earnt itself a reputation as honeymoon central. But with 9 million visitors set to descend on Cancun by 2025, is the tourist trap losing its charm? I travelled to the country’s lesser known Pacific coast to discover the magic of Puerto Vallarta, a hidden treasure trove to avoid the crowds and still get a red-hot taste of Mexico.
To paint you a picture, the Sierra Madre Mountains frame the town, in the state of Jalisco, with 192 miles of crystalline waters down below. Culturally, the region very much adheres to traditional Mexican customs, with strong family values and a relaxed pace of life. On the streets, no one appears to be in a rush and the pedestrian zones are wide and spacious, a welcome change to the congested city I’m used to.
Historically, Puerto Vallarta was merely a fishing village up until the mid-twentieth century. It was in 1964 that the town’s reputation changed overnight when a film crew turned up to shoot a movie. ‘Night of the Iguana’ was a John Huston masterpiece starring Richard Burton, who would bring his then wife-to-be Elizabeth Taylor over to Mexico, sparking one of the greatest, and most controversial, love stories of all time. As the world leaned in and paparazzi flocked to expose the pair’s adulterous affair, the publicity helped Puerto Vallarta get off the ground as a coveted tourist destination.
Nowadays, perhaps what Puerto Vallarta is most known for is its liberal social scene. There is a thriving LGBT community in the town and a vibrant nightlife including gay bars, clubs and a ‘world famous gay beach’, Playa de los Muertos. The colourful Gay Pride carnival also takes place every year in May. Locals tell me it’s an 8-day artistic extravaganza of concerts, beach parties and a parade that closes down the entire city.
Puerto Vallarta also leads the charge when it comes to protecting the environment in Mexico. From Aeromexico offering to carbon offset the journey with their Fly Green project, to the whole range of eco-activities on offer to promote the region’s conservation. From whale watching in Banderas Bay to snorkelling in secret coves, the diverse marine life is strictly protected and a wonder to behold. Plus, at the end of a long hard day in the place with 330 days of uninterrupted sunshine a year, there’s always a bracing glass of Raicilla (Puerto Vallarta’s version of tequila) to enjoy as the sun goes down.
Where to stay in Puerto Vallarta?
Grand Miramar All Luxury Suites & Residences
I stayed in Puerto Vallarta for a grand total of 7 days, on a trip with the Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit tourist board, to experience a life of luxury at the Grand Miramar Hotel.
The hotel’s location is ideal for panoramic views, up high, just above Playa Conchas Chinas. Throughout my week-long stay, I would open the doors onto my private terrace just as the sun was coming up each morning and drink in the expanse of the Pacific Ocean before me. The phrase, ‘views for days’ comes to mind as a perfect summation of that feeling of never-ending coastline.
Afternoons were spent lounging in the rooftop infinity pool with a margarita in hand (plenty of salt around the side, mind) and fresh quesadillas served poolside for a late snack. The only downside was the amount of plastic bottles I encountered in the hotel, a fresh one waiting in my room for me every evening. But overall, the whole place was an oasis of peace and privacy to escape to for some me-time. When I wanted something a little more indulgent, I headed to the View Spa to relax in a flotation pod, a process in which you float on water in a bed-sized container devoid of light and sound, to soothe aches and pains and fully switch off.
Practically every evening, we would dine at one of the three restaurants on offer, where the food was consistently fresh, tasty and locally sourced. The culinary highlight, however, was the vegan breakfast on our last morning, of enchiladas with mashed potato and onion, black beans with fried corn and an almond milk, chia seed and berry jam compote for dessert.
The room itself was luxurious to say the least, with marble floors, hardwood furnishing and a king-sized bed. What’s more, my en-suite bathroom had little cards on the wall to remind guests they need not wash their towels every day, to be kinder to the environment.
What to do in Puerto Vallarta?
First and foremost, you must exhaust the mile-long Malecon Boardwalk, browse the markets in the Old Town and walk all the way along Playa de los Muertos at sunset for rich orange skies and romantic views. But there are three more activities particularly worth sharing, as you might not find them on the regular tourism sites.
Jardín Botánico de Vallarta
These are no ordinary gardens, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens span 64 acres of land and contain a jungle of diverse Mexican plant species, hiking trails and vanilla plantations. You feel totally off-grid hiking through the lush forests and plant conservatories, with birds singing in the leaves above and coffee trees giving off powerful aromas.
There are butterflies, delicate hummingbirds and an array of tropical flowers, including the most visited public collection of orchids in Mexico. Garden tours are reasonably priced and you can even opt for the culinary option with a meal to finish you off featuring, yet again, more Raicilla, made in-house from the sweet agave plant.
From a sustainable perspective, the botanical gardens are key to preserving ecosystems in the area, currently protecting 47 types of endangered orchid and housing parrots who live up to 80 years old. It’s the perfect place to relax in nature, but be careful not to bump into a forty-foot cactus, as I did, and leave with an arm resembling a pin cushion.
Admission tickets start at just €10 or €68 for a tasting tour including lunch.
Luxury yacht and snorkel tour
A yacht tour around Banderas Bay will be a high point of your trip, no doubt.The day is spent sunbathing on a French-made catamaran, being served unlimited drinks and snacks, as you are taken on a sightseeing expedition around the bay, dipping in and out of the sea as you go.
We went in the late morning and even got to see dolphins jumping alongside the boat.
Once in the water, we could really grasp the beauty of the marine life up close, swimming with tropical fish in the Majahuitas Cove. We then docked up at the sandy bay for some sunbathing, where I was sure to get a good ‘jumping in mid-air photo’ to bring home as a souvenir.
A Mexican cooking class at Restaurant Gaby’s, with chef Julio
The guacamole in Puerto Vallarta is the best, I would wager, in Mexico - and the best bit is, I’m going to tell you how to make it, Puerto Vallarta style. Gaby’s restaurant is a charming family run establishment serving locally sourced, seasonal food, with a rooftop terrace kitted out for cooking classes.
From the class, I learnt the key to mouth-watering guacamole is to use a sizeable bunch of coriander, along with three fresh avocados, a diced tomato, half a white onion, 1 lime and plenty of salt.
Welcomed in by chef Julio, we made salsa ranchera, ceviche in lime juice, tortilla soup and the crème de la crème, mole poblano. Mole poblano is a complex Mexican recipe combining the heat of chilli peppers with the sweetness of cloves, cinnamon sticks and raisins, resulting in a dark, chocolatey sauce served with chicken. All the while, the views over Puerto Vallarta were unbeatable.