If you are considering your first trip to Puerto Vallarta, whether it’s for a week or just for the day while on a cruise, there are some important things you should know about before making the plunge. Even those who’ve been to several similar-sounding resort areas might find some of these things to be a bit surprising, so if this is your first trip it’s worth at least scanning down the list to see which ones interest you.
It’s nothing like a border town and there is no drug violence
Unfortunately for the fine folks involved in the Mexican tourism industry, many of us have had our first experiences in the country in “border towns” like Tijuana or Laredo. This can give the misimpression that the country is dirty and totally filled with beggars and hyper-aggressive merchants selling dodgy souvenirs.
Puerto Vallarta, just like almost the entire rest of the country, is really nothing like this. You can walk the streets for an entire day without seeing someone begging for change or selling ceramic skulls. Some of the beach resorts have had minor troubles like this in the past, but new gentrification and developments have improved conditions in these areas to the point that it’s hard to believe parts of the country are still like that.
There is great and authentic nightlife in the city
Along the Hotel Zone you’ll find various bars and discos and nightclubs, which are mostly aimed squarely at the foreign tourists who fill most of the rooms from November through March. This provides an excellent option for those who prefer to party with people from their hometowns, even while in another country. But Puerto Vallarta also has an excellent nightlife scene in the city center, and this attracts a blend of locals, Mexican national tourists, and adventurous international visitors.
There’s a flashy Senor Frogs location in the city center (as well as a couple gift shops for those who can’t leave without a t-shirt), but in addition to a few touristy places there is a great and fertile mix of bars, nightclubs, live music venues, karaoke places, and even all-night dance spots. It feels like you are in Barcelona or Athens or Miami instead of in a tourists-only enclave in a resort. Much of the music is in the Spanish language, which can feel exotic or frustrating, depending on your own tastes. Even if you are tempted to party in the club next to your beach hotel for the whole week, you’ll thank yourself if you venture out at least one night into the active mix in the city center. Prices are reasonable and the people are fashionable, although there are casual places mixed in as well.
The beaches are uneven, so pay attention where you bookPuerto Vallarta is undoubtedly a “beach resort,” but its relationship to the sea isn’t what everyone would expect. There are wonderful sandy beaches along the Hotel Zone and in front of most of the larger hotels to the north and south of the city center, but you won’t find too many people splashing around in the waves. The water tends to be on the cold side all year round, so most people seem to prefer to lie by the pools that sit between the sand and the hotel towers, rather than on the beach itself.
If you are intent on spending a good chunk of time on the beach or by the pool you’ve got nearly limitless options, but it pays to be aware that most of the central city area doesn’t have a real beach at all, which isn’t obvious when just looking at a map. There are some affordable and interesting hotels near the central city zone, and they’d make great choices for many visitors, but not for those whose main focus is tanning on the sand.
Tequila is like wine here
If you haven’t been to this part of Mexico before, or you haven’t watched enough travel shows on television, you’d be forgiven for not realizing the significance of Tequila in this country, and particularly in this region. For many of us, tequila is nothing more than the summertime party version of vodka, and our drinking experience of it consists of drowning it in margarita mix, or shooting it quickly and then tasting some lime and salt to help take the grimace off our faces more quickly. But once you get past the mass-produced bottom end of the market, tequila is much more like wine than like vodka.
The actual city of Tequila is not far from Puerto Vallarta, and they take the arts of tequila making and tequila tasting very seriously here. There are distilleries throughout the area, and you can enter them free for a quick explanation and tasting, although it’s reported that some of these places are actually fronts for timeshare operations, so be careful if you notice any of those clues.
There are many different types of “pure tequila,” which is made from 100% agave plant. You might start with a young tequila that hasn’t built up much character, and then progress to different varieties that have been aged in oak caskets for varying lengths of time. The richest of these have an unmistakable smoky flavor, and taste very different from anything you’ve ever sipped before. Most places also sell flavored varieties that have plenty of fans of their own. All of them will taste much better than Cuervo Gold, which is made from 51% agave and 49% sugar, and really takes a beating from the experts during the tasting sessions.
Adventure sports like zip-line tours are available
An interesting aspect to this part of Mexico is that Puerto Vallarta has lovely beaches and this great bay at its center, but you can go for a short drive or taxi ride inland and be in a forest that is dense enough for real zip-line adventures and canopy tours. There are many different companies in different locations that offer these things, and the prices tend to be similar, with adults costing around US$65 for 4 hours, and children 8 and up costing around US$45.
You can book these tours on cruise ships or just in the dock area, but you can also book from a number of shops in the city center and in the Hotel Zone, so you shouldn’t have to walk more than 4 or 5 blocks without coming across an opportunity. During slow times of the year you can sometimes bargain them down, especially for a group of people, so don’t just accept the first price they quote.
All budgets are welcome and possible
One of the more interesting features of the Puerto Vallarta tourism scene is that you’ll almost certainly be able to find a hotel in your price range, regardless of what that price range is. This is a resort area, so of course they have 5-star luxury and all-inclusive places where you’ll pay US$500 per night for amazing accommodations and it’ll still feel like a bargain. But if your budget is stretched thin at around US$100 or US$150 per night, you’ll have plenty of great choices along the beach as well.
But unlike many resort areas that have those categories well covered, Puerto Vallarta also has quite a few simple hotels either across the main street from the beach, or mixed in the city center or Romantic Zone, and room prices at these places can start at US$20 per night, or sometimes even lower when there is a special promotion. Try finding a $20 room near Miami Beach or San Diego and see what happens. Here you can still be a short walk from everything, and pay what you are comfortable with.
You get what you pay for when booking hotelsThis point goes along with the point just above about all budgets are possible. Actually, in many cases you’ll get more than what you pay for here, since hotel prices here are significantly lower for the same quality when compared to most resort areas. A US$100 per night room here will almost always be much nicer than one at the same price in Ft. Lauderdale, for example.
But when comparing one place with another here, it’s helpful to know that the prices tend to be relative to each other in a fair way. In other words, if two hotels are next door to one another, and one charges US$80 per room while the other charges US$150, you can bet that the more expensive one is going to be way nicer. If you book in large chain hotels in the US or Europe you might find out that the person in the room next to yours paid half what you did, or double what you did, but here prices tend to be standard, and fair from place to place.
This is most important to remember when booking the extremes. If you are considering a hotel that goes for US$300 per night, you know for sure that it’s going to be extremely nice and the service will be great. And if you book a hotel for US$30 per night, you know for sure that it’s going to be basic, probably a bit worn out, and the service will be adequate at best. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of booking a hotel, and helps you get your expectations in order too.
Puerto Vallarta is a middle class city with an active expat community
Again referring to the “border town” stereotype mentioned above, if you come with that perception you’ll likely be very surprised when you get here and have a look around. The Marina District is quite fancy and upscale, the Hotel Zone look like most beach cities in the United States, and the city center area is full of old world charm and not a bit of poverty or danger.
There are also fairly large expat communities of Americans, Canadians, and even quite a few Europeans. So all year round you’ll notice crowds of middle class locals mixed in with the tourists and expats, all patronizing nice shops and restaurants in the pleasant city center area.
You might have been to other resort areas where there is an impressive strip of beach hotels with slums housing the workers just a block away, like in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for example. But PV isn’t like that, so you don’t have to deal with soul-crushing poverty while going from place to place. Housing costs just outside the city center seem reasonable, so while there are definitely under-privileged people in the area, it’s nothing like Rio de Janeiro or Los Angeles, where you are constantly reminded of it.
Shopping is low-key
Countless people who travel to resort areas, particularly in what are considered poor countries, come home with a similar refrain: “The place was excellent, but every 5 seconds I was being accosted by someone trying to sell me sunglasses, a fake Rolex, or cheap jewelry.” Fortunately, Puerto Vallarta isn’t like that at all.
There are some beach vendors near the big hotels, and plenty of gift shops in the center of town, but the worst that tends to happen is you’ll be called “amigo” every once in a while. If anything, the vendors and merchants are so low-key that you might start worrying that they think you are too poor to afford their goods. Even those who do approach you will be polite and are easily discouraged if you ignore them or say no, so this is NOT one of those places where shopping opportunities follow you around to the point of ruining your trip.
You can pay in US dollars, but paying in pesos will always save you moneyThis is true of most touristy parts of Mexico, but still worth noting. Most businesses here will accept US dollars without batting an eye, but you’ll almost always suffer greatly in the exchange rate. Since huge cruise ships send passengers on tours if the city almost every day, it makes sense that these businesses are set up for folks who don’t want to exchange money at a bank or pull it out of an ATM. But if you are going to spend more than a few hours in the city, or if you are planning on buying something worth more than US$50 or so, you should really think about paying in pesos.
There are many ATMs in the city center as well as in shopping districts, and when pulling money from one of these you’ll usually pay around US$3 in fees to your bank, but you get the exact exchange rate of the day in the process. Most tourist shops and even higher-end retailers will take your dollars and give you perhaps 80-90% of what they are really worth. The same is true in most bars and restaurants, so by the time you spend US$100 you’ve probably overpaid by $10 to $20 or even more. Hotels tend to be priced in US dollars no matter what, but everything else should provide a nice local discount if you use pesos instead of dollars.
The “Romantic Zone” is not particularly romantic
If you are reading hotel listings for the city you’ll probably come across a number of places in what is now being called Zona Romantica (the Romantic Zone). This, we are told, is a recently-adapted name for what used to be called Old Town, and in spite of the lovely name it may be more wishful thinking than anything else. Honestly, the whole city is quite romantic, and with the exception of a few family-friendly hotels, anywhere you stay should be wonderful in that regard.
The “Romantic Zone” is the small section of the city center just south of the River Cuale, and much of it appears more worn than the neighborhoods to the north. There are plentiful gift shops, bars and restaurants on or near the beach, and small hotels, but really nothing special that would make it more romantic than the rest of the city. In fact, there are many modestly priced hotels and restaurants, so this might be a great choice for budget travelers rather than honeymoon couples. There are also some gay-friendly hotels in this area, but nothing that should make anyone else at all uncomfortable.