Puerto Vallarta – ultimate romance destination
By David Rottenberg
Searching for a different kind of destination for the next holiday? Think Puerto Vallarta.
Puerto Vallarta is only about 1,200 miles away but it could be another planet for its ability to transport visitors away from daily lives to moments of romance, adventure and pleasure. Perhaps more than any other nearby destination, the city combines the majesty of the old with the grandeur of the new, a fusion of the foreign with the familiar. Cobblestone streets lead into paved roads. Elegant Mexican restaurants operate down the block from McDonalds. Costco and WalMart compete with Mega and other Mexican chains.
The glowing lights of the city of Puerto Vallarta ring the curve of the Bay of Banderas like sparkling diamonds in a royal tiara. Waves gently lap the shore as cool breezes ruffle shirts and dresses of pedestrians on the Malecon, the broad walking pathway that hugs the shoreline through the heart of the downtown area. Strangely shaped statues decorate the pavement, competing with huge sand sculptures on the sand. These figures create a surreal sense, an exciting twist of reality to the moonlit scene.
Brightly colored displays during the day attract shoppers to boutiques, jewelry stores and art galleries. At night, music streams from the clubs where people party until late.
Puerto Vallarta has it all — charming buildings, historic cathedrals, grand hotels, fabulous restaurants, numerous activities and the most important elements of all — sand, sea, and sun. Celebrities love it. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had what was, for their time, a scandalous affair there. The ongoing streams of visitors only underscore — Puerto Vallarta is the place to go.
There is no direct flight from San Diego at this time. Flights from Tijuana are routed through Mexico City and take as much as eight hours. Direct flights from Los Angeles to its gorgeous new international airport take only 2 ½ hours. An American Airlines flight, operated by Mexicana, does not charge for baggage and even serves a meal on board.
Many major American hotel brands have a property there. Marriott, Holiday Inn and Sherton are all represented. There are also a number of “all inclusive” properties that can offer great bargains for savvy travelers. Sol Melia, a brand out of Spain, has a magnificent property close to the airport. Its rooms are large and well furnished with beautiful marble baths, many with stunning ocean views. Its spacious grounds and pool areas are meticulously maintained. Food is available throughout the day at its several buffets and pool bar. Two additional featured restaurants offer special dinners. The large, private beach area is surrounded by two breakwaters to create a calm sea. Good entertainment is offered nightly in the theater. The lobby bar “rocks” till late.
The “kids programs” is so successful that many families return year after year. Some kids seem to blossom there.
As the term “all inclusive” implies, there is no additional charge for entertainment, food or even alcoholic beverages. This creates a relaxing, stress free stay, with no bills to sign and no tips to calculate.
The core of the city is only four blocks deep in some places and hugs the Malecon. Shops and restaurants border the Malecon and residents live off the side streets. Homes come right to the sidewalk but open up to lovely interior courtyards. “Gringo gulch,” where the presence of Elizabeth Taylor’s home attracted other Americans to buy, is higher up the mountain and overlooks the cathedral with a crown on top. Most of the streets are narrow and one-way, making driving challenging but fun. Taxis are numerous and only moderately expensive.
A river runs through the heart of town, the Cuale, emptying into the sea. A downtown bridge spans the river, in a sense dividing the city. The nearby “municipal market,” a kind of flea market, sells shopping bargains for food, clothing, souvenirs and prepared fast food. Restaurants and shops line the walkways beneath the bridge, offering picturesque dining and shopping. In the southwest quadrant of the city, older small hotels, condos, shops and restaurants right off cobblestone streets create romantic settings and sunset views. Playa de los Muertos (the beach of the dead) raises stories of pirates, Indians and possibly buried treasure. This is an older but fascinating section of the city.
This area, near the airport and developed within the last 15 years or so, has numerous hotels, condo and time share developments. Amazing homes are crowded together, large but with little space between them. Many have security walls surrounding them. Marriott and Melia are among the major hotels here. Golf courses and driving ranges support the developments. A long block of side-by-side restaurants, reminiscent of Pireus near Athens, gaze out onto the prows of the many vessels moored in the marina.
North of Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, borders the developments of the Mexican state of Nayarit. Drive a few miles north and cross the bridge that constitutes the border. Then turn off to visit Nuevo Vallarta, a massive new residential and tourist development, with numerous large hotel properties, condominiums and time shares. Homes are similar in design and crowding to those in the Marina. The rate of growth is astounding. Ten years ago, the Mayan Palace Resort in Nuevo Vallarta was surrounded by large tracts of open space. Now, one can hardly find the main entrance, which is surrounded by huge buildings and parking structures.
Further north, one reaches the glamorous Punta Mita area, where Ritz Carlton has built a resort and condo development whose prices deny the economy’s downturn. But its golf course is regarded as one of the best and most challenging in the world.
Sayulita, a little town further north, is a surfer’s heaven, with large waves that promise great rides. The fishing village is perhaps the way Puerto Vallarta used to be many years ago. There are condos and bungalows for rent and a few small hotels. Visitors are attracted by the peace and quiet and the joys of the ocean.
On the way to Nayarit, just before the Home Depot, turn right onto a small road that grows into a narrow highway running up into the mountains until one reaches San Sebastian del Oeste. This fascinating silver mining town was once home to over 20,000 people but the population mostly left when the silver ran out. Only about 600 residents remained and many families intermarried. There is a small local fascinating museum and a beautiful small church. A small coffee plantation nearby is a great place to buy a very unique roast. Wonderful views and sensational village food can be had at Cocina El Arriero, at the edge of town.
South of Puerto Vallarta
The road leading south out of town runs cliffside along the coast. Multimillion dollar homes are cantilevered down the slopes, overlooking the Bay of Banderas and Puerto Vallarta in the distance. Mismaloya is a nearby area with many luxury hotels such at the InterContinental and Dreams. If one drives into the jungle from Mismaloya, one passes the Municipal Zoo and the areas where Governor Schwartzenegger filmed action sequences. Eden, a destination restaurant, has wonderful food (lunches are particularly good), and a waterfall and natural swimming hole in which to cool off.
Drive a bit further south to Boca de Tomatlan to take a water taxi to Yelapa, a gorgeous beach that is accessible only by water. One must jump off and wade to shore to bask in the warm sunshine and enjoy well prepared seafood at the water’s edge. A small hotel offers Spartan accommodations but is a favorite retreat for many US yoga groups.
What more can be said? Puerto Vallarta has lots to see, lots to do, lots to enjoy with a mix of attractions that offer variety and fascination. Go to visitpuertovallarta.com for more information and a very helpful travel planner.
David Rottenberg is the editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants. He is a member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, a member of ASJA and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association.