In the third of a series of articles on travel to Mexico, Fodor's editor Eric Wechter heads to Puerto Vallarta and discovers Mexico's safest bet.
If I were to avoid a trip to Las Vegas this winter because I was concerned about gang violence in Los Angeles, you'd probably think me a bit geographically challenged. Yet many people are making similar miscalculations about the distances between safe and dangerous areas of Mexico. It's been a slow road to recovery for Mexico's tourism, but hopefully reports of pleasurable experiences, like my colleague's recent visit to Mexico City, are helping to allay people's fears.
After you separate fact from fiction and discover that Mexico would make a wonderful getaway this winter (and with the U.S. dollar currently worth about 13 pesos, a particularly economical one), you may decide that a metropolis as sprawling as Mexico City is not for you. For some, domestic cities can be daunting, let alone vast foreign ones. If Mexico City's urban immensity deters you, look about 300 mi southwest (roughly the same distance between Las Vegas and Los Angeles) to beautiful Puerto Vallarta.
Breezy and friendly, Puerto Vallarta is an enchanting city with the soul of Mexico and the verve of the Mediterranean—all under the aegis of one of the tightest local tourism industries in the business. Consider PV to be Mexico 101 for travel south of the border—Mexico's easiest destination to master. Indeed, Puerto Vallarta is so easy that your most pressing concern may be offending the rigid sensibilities of those who would say that you are not experiencing the "real Mexico." But how wrong they'd be! Puerto Vallarta can certainly pamper and coddle with all the trappings of a premium resort destination. But there are plenty of authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences, lodgings, and adventures available here as well.
Tourist (affectionately) or Purist (loosely)
Tourist or purist—proudly be either, both, or somewhere in between. In Puerto Vallarta (hereafter PV) you challenge your comfort zone as much as you want. The only wrong decision is ruling out this vibrant Mexican city.
Below are a few highlights from my recent trip to PV with a couple additional recommendations. However, I've only scratched the surface. Choices for the tourist and purist abound, and with a bit of research you can discover which Puerto Vallarta experiences are right for you.
Where to Eat
Dining in Puerto Vallarta compares favorably to top restaurant destinations in the U.S. Star chefs come here and bring their A-game. If a restaurant isn't consistently creative, it doesn't last long in PV. And though this is a gourmet town, there are plenty of simple eateries and locals joints that have remained competitive by serving down-home, traditional Mexican fare.
One of my favorite meals was at La Leche (322/293–0900; www.lalecherestaurant.com) in Zona Hotelera Norte. Unique from the outside and in, this concept restaurant caught my eye and delighted my palate. Black filigree scrolls spread across the building's smooth white façade, and inside it's a giant all-white loft, shelved floor-to-ceiling with white paint (actually milk) cans. The white backdrop is offset by the pageantry on the plates, as courses of colorful soups, sauces, and entrees are delivered from the kitchen. Gourmet restaurants are everywhere in PV, but downtown Vallarta and the Zona Romantica are the hot spots for fine dining.
Ask a local, and he or she will point you to a favorite street stand. Don't be put off, many are as hygienic as hotel restaurants. Or head to a popular spot such as Mariscos 8 Tostados, which despite its Marina Vallarta address, attracts mostly locals. A short walk from the malecón, you'll find Comedor de Sra Heladia (Calle Aldama, at Matamoros, 322/223–9612). Be prepared to order in Spanish—there's no menu—and you'll be rewarded with a classic Mexican dish accompanied by homemade salsa and hot tortillas.
Where to Stay
Some Puerto Vallarta lodging options are off the charts, literally: The government can give a gran tourismo rating to special properties here that are beyond 5 stars. Whether you're looking for a simple cottage, boutique hotel, or luminary resort, P.V. has it all. Distinctive neighborhoods offer different experiences and price ranges.
I stayed at the Westin in Marina Vallarta, a high-rise resort community close to golf and large-retail shopping. Choose this area if your looking for a dependably comfortable environment with hotel personnel well-versed in the art of hospitality. At the Westin I relaxed as only a fully-serviced vacationer can—sipping cocktails poolside, strolling the delightful courtyard, and gazing at the Pacific from my spacious balcony.
Those looking to get off the tourist track a bit will find cozier accommodations and less-crowded beaches north of Puerto Vallarta. The town of Rincon Guayabitos is where Mexican families flock for vacation. And although the entire area north of Banderas Bay is developing, much of it retains a local flavor. Right on beautiful Guayabitos beach is Villas Buena Vida, a simple, spacious property that offers a great value.
During my visit, I experienced two very different day trips, by land and by sea. Both trips were ably led by Vallarta Adventures, one of the most highly regarded outfitters in Puerto Vallarta.
My first excursion was to Caletas Beach, as part of Vallarta Adventures' "Caletas By Day" cruise. You board a double-deck, midsize boat for the roughly 45-minute ride to a private cove owned by V.A. Be advised that the water journey, both ways, is a booze-cruise, with V.A. staff doing an admirable job of singing, dancing, and emceeing a rollicking ride. It's a hoot if you're in the right mindset, but quite a jolt if you're not expecting your peaceful excursion to commence with Guns N Roses and rum. Once you arrive, you and your 80-or-so new friends have free range of a splendid beach with plenty of amenities. The always-attentive V.A. staff tones it down here, and you can opt for snorkeling, hiking, spa treatments, or just lounging on the beach. Cool drinks are always on hand, and an extensive buffet lunch is served.
For my next excursion I traveled with a group of 7 by van about 50 mi into rural Mexico to the sleepy town of San Sebastian. Our V.A. guide rode shotgun and fired off a fusillade of facts for the entire journey. He was a lively fount of historical and geographical information, and his passion and boundless knowledge of Mexican folklore kept us engaged for the entire ride.
Our first stop was Cafe de Altura (322/297–2845), a small coffee plantation/market just outside the main village. Watching, and smelling, the hand-picked coffee beans grind through 4th-generation owner Rafael Sanchez Alvarado's antique machinery was aromatic and intoxicating. A more exquisite cup of coffee, I have yet to drink.
Next was the homemade kitchen of Fonda de Dona Lupita (322/297–2803). Here we enjoyed a bounteous meal of delicious country dishes—pozoles, tamales, tortillas—that pretty much sent everyone into a prandial swoon. Besotted from Dona Lupita's enchilada alchemy, we walked off lunch by wandering the cobblestone streets of San Sebastian's town center, basking in the unhurried rhythms of a mountain town untouched by development.
Photos courtesy of Eric Wechter