See This, Skip That: Puerto Vallarta

Skip the all inclusive and dine out instead.

ByGABE SAGLIE, Senior Editor Travelzoo
November 21, 2015, 12:12 AM
PHOTO:A view of Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is seen in this undated file photo.
A view of Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is seen in this undated file photo.
Getty Images

— -- Puerto Vallarta has long been a haven for travelers seeking an authentic taste of Mexico. This is a rustic fishing village at its core. But this coastal gem also draws crowds year-round with its many miles of glistening beaches, its eco-adventures and its margarita-friendly vibe.

When Travelzoo put together its 2016 Wow Deal Destinations -– an annual list of places that we predict will be value hot spots in the new year for American travelers –- Puerto Vallarta was a perfect fit. Consider the strength of the U.S. dollar for one; its 10-year highs against the Mexican peso are putting greater pressure on Puerto Vallarta to compete against popular alternatives like Cabo and Cancun. And then there’s the extra inventory; with 5 new hotels having opened in 2015, and two more slated to launch in 2016, more rooms will mean more bargains.

So, while you’re finalizing plans to go, here are a few unique things to do when you arrive.

Flex the Dollar, But Don’t Skip the Peso

You’ll find that the U.S. dollar, especially with the muscle it’s flexing these days, is readily accepted here. American cash, along with your favorite travel credit card, may well be all the currency you need, especially if you like staying put at your resort. But frequent visitors will tell you – it’s not unusual to be charged more if you’re paying with dollars. It’s also a good idea to have a few Mexican pesos on hand for incidentals, like tipping. And yes, you’ll need a passport to fly in, though you won’t need a visa for stays less than 180 days.

Come to the Malecon for the Vibe, Stay for the Art

Even if you want to avoid doing something touristy, it would be a shame not to stroll the Malecon. “You go past such cool places, and you can easily take a whole day to walk the whole thing,” says my colleague Linda Rohrer, a San Diego-based senior sales manager for Travelzoo who’s been traveling to Puerto Vallarta for 20 years. “You feel very safe, and it’s just lovely.” The Malecon is a waterfront boardwalk that stretches some 15 blocks along downtown PV, with numerous popular restaurants, boutiques and galleries along the way.

Look for live entertainment at the Los Arcos Amphitheater, near the south end, and the open fishermen’s market to the north. But to gain a real appreciation for the beautiful original artwork you’ll pass along the way, check out the Malecon Sculpture Tour offered by the Galeria Pacifico. Led by some of the artists behind several of these works, this walking tour tells the stories behind pieces like the dramatic “Millennium,” the landmark “La Nostalgia” and several pieces by the late master, Ramiz Barquet. The tour is free and takes place Tuesday mornings from mid-November through mid-April.

Skip the Beachfront Resort, Join the ClubSome of the best properties here are not right on the water; many upscale but wallet-friendly resorts, in fact, like the Matlali Hotel, are tucked into the lush hillsides nearby and are known, instead, for their sweeping views. Staying here doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the water with ease, though. “Almost any hotel – if it doesn’t have its own beach – will contract out for a beach club and get you free service to it,” says Rohrer. VIP beach clubs are actually open to anyone, and at affordable rates. A day pass for pampering on the sand at the Mantamar Beach Club, for example, will cost you about $20 and comes with credits toward food and drinks.

Skip the All-Inclusive, Eat Out

For someone who loves to eat, I love the convenience and all-access of a great all-inclusive resort. There are several here, especially in the newer resort zone of Nuevo Vallarta, about 45 to 60 minutes north of downtown PV. But with 300-plus restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, including several with cult followings, an awesome culinary discovery awaits at pretty much every corner. For some hidden foodie-friendly spots, I tapped Jason Ungar, a celebrated personal chef and caterer based in Nyack, New York, who travels to Puerto Vallarta often. “I love the PV food scene because it offers a great range of dining experiences, from the higher-end, more polished restaurants to the more low-key, casual spots that focus on the authenticity of Mexican cuisine,” he tells me. “You can find more haute Mexican accented food in a gorgeous tropical setting at Cafe de Artistes, or feel like you're eating in your abuela's house in the casually delicious, off-the-beaten-path Red Cabbage.

My favorite spot is a one-of-a-kind seafood burrito place called Tacon de Marlin. Smoked Marlin is a treat of Mexico's west coast, and I've found nowhere better highlights that than this place. It’s conveniently located at a cab stand just across the street from the airport, so it's popularly a must stop for those just getting in or about to head out."

Skip the Sit-Down, Take a Walk

If you need a little more guidance when it comes to food, then a themed food tour might be for you, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. Vallarta Food Tours gets high marks for its variety of tours, like the Evening Taco Adventure, which whisks guests through the town’s night street food scene, and the Mex-Ology Tour, which focuses on cocktails and small bites. This can be a great introduction to culinary hot spots that you can revisit later, at your leisure. Tours run three hours and cost $49. Cookin’ Vallarta runs food tours, too, and, for those hoping to take some skills back home, also offers cooking classes.

Skip the Kids, Go Adults-Only

I know: it all hinges on whether Grandma is up to the task. But if you can travel here without the kids, keep in mind that there are a handful of adults-only resorts here. Secrets and Casa Velas get high marks, and Casa Cupula is known as one of the top gay-friendly resorts. One of the very best grown-ups-only hotels is the new Hotel Mousai, a AAA 5-Diamond property about 15 minutes outside downtown that features gold-tiled jetted plunge pools in each guest room. “The views of Banderas Bay from the 18th floor infinity pool are awesome,” Rohrer tells me. “And it’s really close to its sister property, the more family-friendly Garza Blanca, where guests can access even more restaurants.” The Mousai, which you can book either as room-only or as an all-inclusive stay, opened in December of 2014.

Skip the Downtown Beach, Head South

There are a variety of beautiful sandy stretches right in downtown Puerto Vallarta, like the busy Los Muertos and the quieter, more locals-friendly Playa Camarones. But regular visitors know that some of the best and most remote PV beaches are located south of downtown. Mismoloya, about 25 minutes away and surrounded by jungle, is where the film “Night of the Iguana” was filmed and where several small eateries dole out fabulous seafood. From nearby Boca de Tomatlan, you can nab a water taxi and head even further south, where the beaches are even more desolate and tucked away. The small town of Yelapa, which recently built a new pier, is “cute and in the middle of nowhere,” Rohrer tells me, and is a great spot for snorkeling, parasailing and hiking waterfalls.

Skip the Beach, Get Cultural

Okay, a library may be the last thing on your mind during a Mexican vacation. But the Biblioteca Los Mangos, which was established more than 20 years ago as an educational epicenter for PV residents, can offer a neat break from playing tourist. It has a Cine Club, which screens a variety of artsy movies throughout each month, and they host various speakers on myriad cultural topics (granted, primarily in Spanish). Check out their online calendar of events when you’re planning your stay. The library also houses more than 30,000 books, in both Spanish and English.

Skip the Bar, Visit a Distillery

A variety of ranches in the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta offer half-day or full-day adventures that include music performances, meals and activities like horseback riding. And to whet the palate, they are great places to discover high-end homemade tequila. Hacienda Dona Engracia, about 20 minutes outside PV, runs a distillery that produces a variety of tequilas; take the tour to learn about the process, from the cultivation of agave plants to distillation to aging. At Hacienda el Divisadero, walking tours take you through agave plantations and by petroglyphs that date back 1,200 years; to quench your thirst, sip the home-distilled raicilla, considered Puerto Vallarta’s original sipper.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features Puerto Vallarta and the other Top 5 Wow Deal Destinations for 2016.