Often when travelers begin planning a trip to the culturally exuberant, Latin American country of Mexico, they seek out its world-renowned beaches and all-inclusive resorts. With worldwide popularity, Mexico’s Riviera Maya is often the destination selected by travelers from around the globe. While there is great reason to visit this remarkable, Caribbean paradise, Mexico’s Pacific coast has some of its own treasures to offer visitors. One such gem is that of Puerto Vallarta.
So, where is Puerto Vallarta you ask? Previously a former mining town in the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags), Puerto Vallarta is located on Mexico’s west coast in the state of Jalisco. This once tiny town has transformed in recent decades into a booming resort city with enticing beauty, culture, and cuisine. After mass tourism took off in the 1980s – in large part due to being home to some of the top beaches in Mexico – this west coast Mexican city established itself as one of the country’s most sought-after destinations. With pristine beaches, thrilling nature excursions, and lively bars, this hot spot offers an unforgettable experience to people of all ages and backgrounds.
Whether you wish to escape to the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains, or explore the many islands, reefs, and rock formations within its bay shores, Puerto Vallarta is a place you don’t want to miss. With an array of options available to visitors, planning your visit may seem daunting. To help you get started, below you will find six essential things you must see when visiting this miraculous destination.
1. El Malecon
When visiting the stunning, coastal town of Puerto Vallarta one thing is for certain – you will want to spend just as much time exploring the town itself (if not more) as you will want to spend on the beach. With exciting excursions, historic streets, and a vibrant culture, there is simply too much to see and do to remain in one place. After unpacking your bags and settling in, you are sure to hit the streets for your first glimpse the city’s stunning views. It won’t be long before you find yourself wandering down one of the towns main gathering spots – El Malecon.
Starting in the north at Hotel Rosita, this 12-block, 2,854-foot (870-meter), palm-tree lined, oceanfront boardwalk offers visitors a variety of restaurants, bars, shops, food vendors, and street performances. Extending all the way south to Zona Romantica, it may take some time to work your way down this miraculous avenue. Free of road traffic and continuously showing off public art, visitors are sure to quickly fall in love with its local charm. Did I mention the views? With the Bahia de Banderas situated on its west side, visitors are sure to be drawn in not only by the area’s buzzing streets and rich culture, but by its truly astonishing views. Perfect for the morning or evening stroll, this one-of-a-kind avenue is sure to have you falling in love.
Don’t forget to visit the famous Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe) located at the heart of the city’s downtown area. A city icon, it dominates Vallarta’s downtown skyline and is one of the most recognized symbols and landmarks of the city. Not to mention, it is the single most important city monument and spiritual center for local Catholics. If you forget to visit, you are sure to be reminded by its beautifully chiming church bells that ring by the sextants 30 and 15 minutes prior to each service.
2. Isla Rio Cuale
Isla Río Cuale is no more than a fairytale to many first-time Puerto Vallarta travelers. Located near the heart of the city, one would think that this mysterious island would be known by all who walk its bustling streets. However, it has remained a local secret for years. Set upon an inlet of the Banderas Bay, visitors only need to walk south from El Malecon until they reach a bridge that spans the river – here they will discover the hidden treasure of Isla Rio Cuale.
Formed in 1926 as the Rio Cuale (Cuale River) swelled and forked into two branches, and thus creating a new island, Isla Rio Cuale has transformed into a vibrant local with an inviting ambiance. Equipped with a few decent food options and a continuous, open-air market, the island has become a local attraction for both residents and visitors alike.
If you are looking to escape the crowds, this remarkable island is a great spot for an afternoon or early evening stroll. Snack on delicious street food and browse stunning local art as you make your way through its maze of vendors. Be sure to visit the impressive Mercado Municipal – a building located on the island with nearly 160 stands spanning two floors. Opening in 1979, the market offers visitors the option to buy souvenirs such as silver jewelry, leather items, wooden toys, and an assortment of additional trinkets and clothing items.
When hungry, stop at one of the market’s many fondas (food stands), which sell food items such as tacos, chicken mole with rice, shrimp, and refreshing aguas frescas (fresh water drinks). This lush sanctuary located at the boundary between the Zona Romantica and downtown Puerto Vallarta is sure to leave you feeling submerged in local culture. Don’t miss out on this unique Puerto Vallarta island excursion.
3. Playa Los Muertos
As cliché as it might sound, you simply cannot visit Mexico without witnessing the sensational beauty of its many beaches. While the Riviera Maya tends to receive the majority of attention from outside visitors, Mexico’s west coast is home to equally stunning views and tropical waters. One particularly prominent location is that of Puerto Vallarta’s Playa los Muertos (Dead Man’s Beach).
Situated at the southern end of Puerto Vallarta’s attractive boardwalk, known as El Malecón, Playa los Muertos is the city’s most frequented shoreline. With its name deriving from the supposed sacred cemetery that once sat on its shores, this local secret has become one for the books.
Popular among families, locals, and visitors alike, this lively destination is perfect for those searching for some fun in the sun. With exciting beach and water sports, nearby bars and restaurants, and plenty of beach chairs and palapas to provide shade, this breathtaking bay is sure to impress individuals of all types and backgrounds. Drink a cold beer at the edge of the shore, or paddle board on the bay’s calm, warm waters – either way, you will be taking in the beauty of one of Mexico’s most beloved national treasures.
When you need a break from the crowd, take a stroll through the nearby, charming neighborhood known as Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone). This laid back beach village serves the more easy-going and less resort-conscious travelers, offering up beautiful architecture, calm side streets, numerous restaurants, cafes, shops, and bars. Also known as “Old Town” or “Old Vallarta”, this south-side Puerto Vallarta neighborhood is a must see.
Simply put, you cannot visit the remarkable west coast city of Puerto Vallarta without spending at least one full day at Playa los Muertos. Home to some of the city’s most exciting beach sports, tropical waters, and picturesque neighborhoods, this local gem is one that you don’t want to miss.
4. Los Arcos National Marine Park
With vibrant marine and wildlife accompanied by draw-dropping landscapes, it’s no wonder how Mexico became one of the world’s top destinations for thrill seeking travelers. With adrenaline pumping excursions offered above and below the surface, Puerto Vallarta is every adventurer’s dream. One distinct destination has garnered quite the praise – Los Arcos National Marine Park.
Just south of Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags) visitors will find three small, granite islands located just a short 164 feet (50 meters) from shore. Best visited by boat, these islands in the form or arcs offer snorkelers, divers, beach-goers, and sightseers a unique and exciting experience.
Protected as a National Marine Park since 1984, Los Arcos National Marine Park is situated between two beaches, Mismaloya Beach and Las Gemelas Beach (Twins Beach), where visitors are exposed to deep caves, underground tunnels, striking rock formations, and a lively coral reef.
With depths ranging between 30 and 1,600 feet (9 to 480 meters), this is a prime location for underwater activities such as snorkeling and diving. Participants are sure to capture a glimpse of the region’s considerable marine life, including tropical fish, manta rays, sea turtles, and more.
If swimming among the sea creatures doesn’t fit your style, boat tours are another option – which according to visitors is one of the top excursions in Puerto Vallarta. So get on board and set sail to this one-of-a-kind offshore destination.
5. Islas Marietas
Some of Puerto Vallarta’s greatest treasures are indeed hidden! While you can’t see them from its stunning shores, the water’s surround Puerta Vallarta are home to a UNESCO protected biosphere reserve known as the Islas Marietas (Marietas Islands).
Created by underwater volcanoes, the Marietas Islands are located just 21 miles (35 kilometers) northwest of Puerto Vallarta. An archipelago consisting of four landmasses: two islets and two islands, this hidden natural wonder has been attracting large crowds for years, with opportunities to swim, scuba dive, snorkel, or simply take in the surrounding landscape’s innate beauty.
As one of the region’s most famous iconic views, the Islas Marietas are home to popular natural attractions such as Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach), which is home to the blue-footed booby and vibrant marine life, as well as La Nopalera Beach (The Bridge) and La Cueva (The Cave).
Whether you wish to dive and explore its diverse marine life, soak up the sun on its hidden beaches, or simply enjoy the view aboard one of the many boat tours, the Islas Marietas are a must see when visiting the lovely Puerto Vallarta.
6. Whale Watching
For those visitors arriving to this lovely Mexican paradise during the months of December through the end of March, a truly miraculous surprise awaits. Home to some of the Pacific Ocean’s most attractive beaches and calm, warm waters, Puerto Vallarta attracts marine life small and large – very large. Starting in the month of December, visitors have the opportunity to witness the mesmerizing sight of Banderas Bay’s Humpback Whales.
Migrating from the Arctic to breed and rear their young in the warm, sheltered waters of Banderas Bay, these mighty mammals get astonishingly close to the bay’s many shores. With numerous tours leaving from Puerto Vallarta and neighboring towns, take striking photos from a unique, sea level vantage point – a truly remarkable experience that few are able to experience.
If you find yourself if Puerto Vallarta during other months of the year – don’t fret! The bay’s vibrant marine life is constantly abuzz. With opportunities to dive, snorkel, and explore the surrounding islands and nature parks, capturing a glimpse of the region’s dazzling wildlife is guaranteed. The Humpback Whale excursion, however, is most definitely one of the best day trips from Puerto Vallarta – so be sure to consider these end and beginning of the year dates when planning your trip. You won’t regret it!
There you have it – six essential things to do and see when visiting Mexico’s lovely Puerto Vallarta. Quit following the crowds and start following your instincts, which are sure to be telling you to plan your next family vacation to this ever-more-famous Mexican paradise. With thrilling and relaxing activities near some of the world’s most impressive landscapes and views, Puerto Vallarta is the perfect destination for anyone looking to escape the grind of everyday life and have a little fun. This is one destination you won’t want to miss.