Trip Report: 12 Perfect Days in Puerto Vallarta!

Old Nov 12th, 2007, 08:09 PM
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Trip Report: 12 Perfect Days in Puerto Vallarta!

My husband and I just returned from 12 fabulous days in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and wanted to thank everyone on Fodor’s Talk for their generous and helpful advice! We used it all and wanted to validate our favorite recommendations for other first-time Mexico/PV travelers. We also want to thank all the lovely people we met throughout the Puerto Vallarta area and encourage others to go to this magical city.

PLANNING: The best advice came free from other travelers on this board. We also bought several books: Fodor’s, Moon’s, and several others, but—believe it or not—the most helpful book was the free AAA guide! I just ordered it on a whim and we wound up using it the most. It was up to date, had all the basic info you’d ever want and more, and the simple phrases in the back were perfect to brush up on our Spanish in preparation.

TRAVEL: We used frequent flyer miles to go United from Washington, DC/Dulles through Denver to Puerto Vallarta. Wasn’t a bad trip, but would prefer nonstop next time.

HOTELS: We made our reservations for the entire stay through Mexico Boutique Hotels (http://www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com/). Our first five nights were spent at the spectacular Hacienda San Angel in the historic district of Puerto Vallarta. We didn’t believe it could live up to the many reviews on Fodor’s and TripAdvisor, but it actually surpassed them. We stayed in the Celestial Suite and had a palapa-roofed patio off our bedroom that framed a perfect view of the entire Bay of Banderas and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The cathedral is “crowned” by a, well, a crown! It’s become the symbol of Puerto Vallarta. Just down the steps from our room was another patio with a dipping pool overlooking the city.

The Hacienda was a Valentine’s Day gift from Richard Burton to his wife Susan and was once called the Villa Bursus. An American acquired it and some of the surrounding villas as well and has created a fabulous retreat. We were greeted at the door by friendly staff (and five resident dogs), served a cool drink, and made to feel welcome immediately. Every thought was given to our comfort. If they made a dinner reservation for us, a driver would show up a few minutes beforehand to whisk us away without even asking (the streets are steep in the area—we usually walked home, but it was nice to be driven to dinner in order to get where we were going on time!). A nice breakfast of coffee, fresh juice and fruit, yogurt, and rolls is provided each morning, free of charge (you can order eggs and other dishes, but this was plenty for us). We just called room service when we woke up and they delivered it. There is a full-service restaurant as well and we ordered room service on our patio one night and it was wonderful! Each afternoon, we ordered fresh guacamole and chips and had a beer on our patio. A mariachi band calls guests downstairs for complimentary drinks and appetizers each night at 7:00 pm.

The owner’s latest project is creating a fabulous wedding chapel with bridal suites across the street. It has an even more amazing view of the Cathedral and the Bay, gilt, antiques, frescoes, marble, etc. She was kind enough to give us a construction tour and we got to view her Romanian painter up on scaffolding painting an amazing scene on the ceiling, a la Michelangelo. Talk about a luxury destination-wedding site!

We hated to leave and thought our next hotel couldn’t possibly live up to the Hacienda, but were happy to find that the next seven nights proved us so wrong. The Casa de Mita (formerly Casa las Brisas) is the nicest place we can ever imagine staying. From the rooms, to the beach, to the food and drinks, it was absolute perfection. Best of all, was the incredible staff who made us feel so welcome and anticipated our every need. We felt as though they were our family by the time we left. The owner is an American architect who has created a haven that draws his guests back year after year.

When our driver turned off the highway onto an unmarked, badly rutted, dirt road, we were initially concerned—we needn’t have been. After a tooth-jarring mile or so, we stopped at a gate and rang the bell. Inside the gate was an exquisitely designed garden and boutique hotel overlooking a semi-private beach and cove. We were greeted by the staff and the two resident dogs, Osita and Allegra. They showed us up the steps to the spacious junior penthouse, which has a palapa roof and the highest bed we’ve ever seen. We had our own private sundeck and a television (which we never used) as well.

Unbelievable as it may sound, all meals, snacks, and alcohol (and we mean good wines and call brands) are included. Even the minibar in our room was stocked for free. The only additional charge we incurred all week was for my husband’s Cuban cigars ($12 each), which he chose from a well-stocked humidor each night. The food was excellent. Breakfast was served from 7:30-10:00 am or so (fresh fruit, juices, coffee, breads, waffles, French toast, eggs, bacon, sausage—you name it, they’d do it); lunch was served from 12 noon-3:00 pm and was usually some Mexican fabulousness, like empanadas or fish tacos or grilled chicken and rice, fresh guacamole and chips, and lots of it; dinner was served from 7:00-10:00 pm and offered an appetizer, a choice of soup or salad, a choice of four entrees (fish, beef, chicken, or vegetarian), and dessert. If you couldn’t make up your mind on an entrée for dinner, the staff would bring you two! Guests from the nearby Four Seasons resort sometimes came in for dinner and we met some really interesting people that way.

As we mentioned, the staff was incredibly attentive, but not intrusive. We left 20 percent as gratuity upon checkout and the owner divides it up according to his own formula—we trust him implicitly, he has to be a great employer to recruit and keep such a gifted staff.

We met fascinating people from across the U.S. and Mexico. You had the choice to join each other for meals or not, whatever you felt like. We read books, my husband ran on the beach (I walked), and just completely relaxed for perhaps the first vacation in the five years we’ve been married. We did drive into Bucerias once(the Casa will even loan you a car!) to get more books at this fun little gringo bookstore where everyone trades their paperbacks in. Even a week back in the office hasn’t diminished my good mood yet.

TOURS: The only organized tour we did was release baby turtles into the ocean—it was my absolute favorite experience of the trip. We happened upon the office of EcoTours (http://www.ecotoursvallarta.com/) and for $50 per person, they took us to a crocodile farm where a marine biologist briefed six of us on the plight of the turtles. Apparently, only one in 100 baby turtles survive in the wild and many of the nesting grounds are located on the beaches for the luxury resorts around Puerto Vallarta, so the government and the tourist industry created a hatchery to help them get off to a good start. Staff and volunteers find the nests, move the eggs to the hatchery, and when they hatch, carry them to the beach at twilight when most birds and people have left. We learned so much, but best of all, we actually got to see them up close, to hold them, and to help carry about 150 of them in buckets to the ocean’s edge to watch them totter toward the surf. The biologist told us that the females who survive would return to this same beach in about three years to lay their eggs and the males would return in about 80 years to die. This tour would be a great experience for families with children around age 8 and up—smaller kids would get bored with the educational part. The turtles are so adorable, you’ll fall in love immediately. Definitely do this if you go to PV.

RESTAURANTS: Our favorites in PV were Red Cabbage and Xitomates; we also like the Agave Grille (don’t be put off by the sign—the food and service were excellent) where they made our salsa tableside and also served us a shot of tequila with cream and an ice cube for “dessert” –sounds weird, but it works! We did not care for El Arrayan, despite the hype. And, of course, our very favorite restaurants were the Hacienda San Angel and the Casa de Mita!

SHOPPING/ETC.: Lots of fun stores and stalls to explore. We particularly loved the store called Banderas Bay, which also has an interesting annex around the corner with more fun finds. The owner of Hacienda San Angel sent us there. We bought huge hammered copper candlesticks for our patio back home; a molcajete (mortar and pestle) shaped like a pig for our brother-in-law who loves to cook Mexican food; a Mexican folk art “tree of life” which actually has skeleton heads all over it (sounds horrible, but is very cool)—perfect for our 14-year-old nephew; blown glass heart ornaments in all colors; silver charm bracelets and charms for our three niecelets; and pewter serving dishes for my sister. It was so hot and all the women had on these fabulous, cool looking white cotton outfits, so I couldn’t resist. Bought an adorable embroidered white on white cotton skirt and top for less than 400 pesos, or about $36 US. If you pay cash (pesos), particularly in the silver shops, you will get a 10-30 percent discount, no joke. We went to the ATM and saved a couple thousand pesos/couple hundred dollars. Plan for this—you definitely need cash in PV (the exchange rate was about 10.9 pesos to the dollar when we were there). Cabs were cheap, for 50 pesos/less than five dollars, they would take you anywhere in town. Our cab ride to the airport was the equivalent of $15-$20.

REAL ESTATE: We toured real estate in Puerto Vallarta from the South, up to San Pancho in the North. It's very clear that Americans are moving there in droves. Prices are still lower than in the states and they are waiting to see how the housing/mortgage market in the US may affect them. We saw a number of good properties that had been on the market for months and had lowered their prices. Because we're still figuring out where we want to retire, we didn't make a purchase, but we did find several very nice houses in our price range, so that was heartening. You have a choice of living in a Mexican community or in a gated, all US/Canadian community--whatever you are comfortable with. I personally liked the properties we saw in the city better than the villages to the North, but my husband loved the houses in the villages. The laws are very different there and keep in mind that foreigners can't actually own anything within 50 kilometers of the coast, so you have to establish a trust to buy anything. This is very safe, but know that realtors are not regulated as they are in the states and these transactions can be very tricky with regard to title (title insurance is new there), so buyer beware.

PEOPLE: The Mexican people were among the kindest, warmest, most helpful people we’ve ever met. Even their airport personnel were fabulous. When we were checking in for our return flight, the security staff hand searched and weighed my bag, realized it was five pounds over (that darn molcajete weighted about 20 pounds!), and carried it to a table to help me repack to get me under the 50 pound limit! He absolutely insisted. The people in line behind us had traveled to PV a lot and said that was why they go there—they love the people. Then the ticket agent upgraded both of us, but only charged us for one upgrade.


Again, thanks for all the wonderful advice--you made our first trip to Mexico a joyous occasion and we can't wait to go back!
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Old Nov 13th, 2007, 07:02 AM
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And DH asked me to add two things:

WATER: Good advice from other Fodorites: Do not drink the water. Even though both hotels had onsite purification systems, they provided bottled water for drinking and warned us not to drink the water. We even used bottled water for brushing our teeth. Despite that, both of us had a touch of the tummy troubles--nothing debilitating, but just kind of queasy--and are sure it was from food we ate somewhere.

SHOES: More good advice from Fodorites: take flats only, preferably something with tread that will conform to your foot. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks are treacherous even with flats, flip flops, walking shoes, or athletic shoes! Many streets are very steep--which provides those lovely views of the bay--and even have steps cut into them. Despite this advice ahead of time, I insisted on stuffing two cute pairs of shoes into DH's bag at the last minute. He got to say he told me so every night when I donned flip flops for dinner.
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Old Nov 13th, 2007, 08:08 AM
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Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful and detailed report. Much appreciated and so glad you enjoyed PV as I do. The friendly local people, their warm welcome, and of course the beautiful scenery and fantastic food... what Vallarta is all about!

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Old Nov 13th, 2007, 09:31 AM
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Suze, thank you for all your wonderful suggestions! You helped us map out our neighborhoods and gave us such great ideas and insights to the area. It was all you promised and more. We thought of you often and, as promised, had a margarita (or two!) in your honor!
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Old Nov 13th, 2007, 12:31 PM
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The pleasure is mine... and thanks for the drinks! They were delicious
;-)
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Old Dec 5th, 2007, 05:14 PM
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Agave Grill! was great! really friendly staff and great food! highly recommend it!
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