A beach resort with a colonial heart and world-class sunsets – an expert guide to Puerto Vallarta

Sally Howard
West-facing Puerto Vallarta offers some of the best sunsets in Mexico - iStock

Why go?

Sandwiched between the jungled slopes of the Sierra Madre and the golden sands of the Bahía de Banderas, it’s little wonder that this Pacific beach resort ignited Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s love affair. These days Puerto Vallarta is home to a cobbled historic quarter, a lively bar and restaurant scene and an art-dotted promenade. It’s a bonus if your cruise ship sticks around for sunset: it’s Mexico’s most mesmerising.

Where do cruise ships dock?

Puerto Vallarta cruise port, which is to the south of Marina Vallarta Maritime Terminal, about three miles north of Puerto Vallarta’s old town centre. 

Can I walk to any places of interest?

It’s possible to walk to the resort beaches of the ‘hotel zone’ (Hilton Puerto Vallarta is the snazziest). The 200 trunk road, which leads from the port to the old town, is beaded with department stores, including the hangarlike and fiercely air-conditioned Liverpool shopping complex.

Getting around

Transport from the port can be confusing. For a taxi into Puerto Vallarta old town walk to the far right end of the pier where shared private taxis cost $4 a head (children below five travel for free, 15 minutes to the old town). Taxi ranks are numerous in the city centre, although you should always fix the price before you get in. Public buses run along the coast and cost around 34p a trip with buses to the old town being marked ‘Centro’.


Playa los Muertos is the main town beach in Puerto Vallarta Credit: iStock

What can I do with half a day?

If you’re happy to tussle with cabs either end, Puerto Vallarta’s atmospheric old town and Zona Romantica are great for solo exploration. Get your taxi to drop you at the north end of the Malecón, the seawall walkway that skirts the length of the old town (and is wheelchair and buggy accessible). This elegant promenade is dotted with sculptures by famous local and international artists, including the surreal Roundabout of the Sea by Alejandro Colunga, plus busking mine artists and musicians.

Walk inland from the Malecón for the Centro Histórico, where cobbled streets lead to the Plaza Principal and its Art Nouveau Templo Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, and the Zona Romantica, which offers chichi boutiques and art galleries (such as the gallery and teaching studio Art Vallarta). South of the plaza in the Zona Romántica, you’ll find Playa de Los Muertos, the main town beach, where the sea is swimmable and the Blue Chairs resort is a favourite of lesbian and gay tourists.

All the cruise lines, meanwhile, offer half-day tours of the city’s tequila factories which typically include tequila tasting, a walking tour of the Centro Historico and lunch. Half-day whale watching tours are another popular option but the season is limited for humpbacks who rear their young in the sheltered coasts of Banderas Bay. December to February offers the best chance to spot them.

Humpback whales come to Puerto Vallarta's waters every winter to reproduce Credit: iStock

What can I do with a full day?

If you’re keen to relax on a golden-sand beach (Los Muertos has granular brown sand), the likes of Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival offer day packages to Bay of Banderas beach resorts from the port, which include beach loungers, access to the resort pools and a peso amount towards food and drink (around £27 for resort excursions, with £20 towards food and drink). 

If adrenaline is your thing, Carnival, Norwegian and Princess offer ziplining tours, which include a speed boat and a nature tour through the jungle canopies. The tours cost around £98 booking through your cruise line, though you can book directly with provider Vallarta Adventures for around £73 for a five-hour tour.

If you’re in Puerto Vallarta for a full day you’ll want to catch that glorious Pacific sunset. Try Langostino’s beachfront restaurant on Los Muertos beach, where you can sip a margarita beneath a private thatched beach cabana as you catch the night-sky action (margaritas around £2.50); or join the well-rated Rhythms of the Night dinner and drinks cruise offered by Carnival and Holland America Line, which drops you at Las Caletas beach for a Cirque du Soleil style dance show and candlelit supper before returning you, more than a little jolly, to your ship (£114 for a five-hour excursion).

Don't miss tacos el pastor for an authentic local dish Credit: iStock

Eat and drink

Look out for typical dishes such as lime mahi mahi ceviche and birria, a slow-braised lamb stew. For an on-the-go snack, try the famous taco stalls that line the Zona Romantica a few blocks east of the Malecón. They serve a range of tasty fillings in fresh floury tortillas from Marisma’s white fish and shrimp tacos to El Carboncito’s pork ‘tacos el pastor’ with eye-wateringly zingy salsa.

Don’t leave the city without...

Hand-blown glassware from Mundo de Cristal; colourful painted talavera pottery and tiles from the Mercado Municipal de Cuale; bottles of tequila at round £25 for a quality bottle.

Need to know

Safety

Puerto Vallarta is well-policed, especially in tourist zones, but theft is common. Beware leaving items unattended on the beach unless you’re parked on (attended) resort loungers. Tourists remain unaffected by local cartel violence.

Best time to go

July to September are hot with high rainfall, so are best avoided. In January to March the weather is at its best, with temperatures in the 20s and cooler nights. Avoid spring break dates (these vary from February to April) when hotels are packed and prices rise.

Closures

Many general goods stores are closed on Sundays, although shops targeting tourists, such as those along the Malecón, open seven days a week. Some galleries close on Mondays: check visitpuertovallarta.com for details for individual businesses.