The merging of ocean-side bay and mountains give the city of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s west coast a unique sensibility – part beachfront town and part cosmopolitan city with a welcoming spirit and amazing cuisine. For families looking for a tropical holiday, it’s also surprisingly accessible (our flight out of Chicago was just under four hours). And the city embraces the festive spirit with spruced-up storefronts and town squares sporting oversized Christmas ornaments.
You could easily spend the day winding in and around the streets that feed into Malecon, the boardwalk between the downtown and the golden beaches. Little shops and eateries abound and sculptures speckle the walk, including iconic arches (Los Arcos) and a striking seahorse (Caballito de Mar).
Just off the Malecon, mariachi bands play in the main square. Towering above is the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, where I bought a handmade doll on the church’s steps before heading down Juárez Street to a sprawling candy store, Dulceria con Orgullo Azteca, where we sampled handmade caramels and rolled coconut sweets.
The Malecon becomes even busier at sunset. Lights radiate from restaurants spilling over onto the boardwalk where Puerto Vallarta’s iconic steel pier twists up from the water. It’s easy to navigate the bright streets.
Zip lines and pirates
Beyond the city, have an adventure in the mountains or on the water. We signed up for the Canopy River zip line. A bus picked us up from our hotel for an hour-long trek. Outfitted with helmets and harnesses, our guides explained how to navigate the lines while sharing history. We learned that several families started the business to let visitors explore the mountains while preserving it from development. Our breathtaking excursion, which included 11 zip lines, ended with a mule ride back to the lodge ($80/adults, $51/kids ages 6-plus).
If you’d rather spend your day on the ocean, try the Pirate Ship Marigalante. Onboard, pirates swing from the masts, stage sword fights and battle each other as the ship makes its way through the bay to a private beach. Docked for two hours at the beach you can snorkel, kayak or just soak in the sun. For kids, the staff holds activities including a treasure hunt. Breakfast, lunch and drinks are included in the price of the seven-hour excursion ($90/adults, $48/kids).
Optimize your stay
Puerto Vallarta also offers swimming with dolphins, crocodile watching and lots more. We found the best way to plan was to check with the hotel concierge, who had suggestions and made arrangements. Hotels dot the city, but all-inclusive resorts right on the water offer the best deal. Ours, the Velas Vallarta, had its own beach access and several pools. At night, it has family entertainment.
The city also has one of the best culinary scenes in Mexico. Restaurants serve hefty portions at affordable prices. I’d recommend at least a few meals from street taco stands. Unlike U.S. shops, each tends to specialize in one type, like pork (al pastor), steak (carne asada) or chicken (pollo). We stumbled on one serving pulpo tacos with a spicy chile tomato sauce. After savoring the tender meat, we asked what it was. Octopus!
Tips for Mexican travel
Going aboard takes extra planning, especially with kids. Here’s some advice.
Changing money. Wait to change dollars into pesos until you get to your hotel (many of the large ones do it at better rates!). Carry both forms of currency; some places accept either.
Using your smartphone. To avoid extra charges, I kept my phone on airplane mode. Many places, including hotels, offer free WiFi.
Drinking water. Like any foreign country, it’s best to stick with bottled water vs. tap. Avoid ice from street-side vendors, but the ice in many restaurants is from filtered water. If you’re not sure, ask.
Wear good walking shoes. Save flip-flops for the beach and pool. The cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks require sturdy shoes.
Getting around. Public transportation is widely available too. Don’t want to navigate the bus system? Grab a cab.
Warm up in Puerto Vallarta. Plan your adventure at visitpuertovallarta.com.