i don’t often get to document our time spent on the road (or in the air). creating a series of city guides is always in the back of my mind but with a hectic schedule, meetings, shoots and other miscellaneous excuses of why we can’t do everything, i just don’t often have that opportunity. finally, this christmas, we took a well deserved holiday. i use the term holiday loosely as we still ended up working for a big chunk of the time (because when you see beautiful things you have to). yet we were surrounded with family and things were generally easier, there was no sponsored hotels or flights, we had no obligations to deliver photos on time or write a story of how great our trip was. as a result, every experience we had during our time in puerto vallarta proved to be so amazing that in the end the obligation to share it with you is all mine.
i’d like to preface this post with saying that i was actually not that sold on going back to mexico, we visited cabo two years ago for a shoot and i was less than impressed (ironically that’s the destination everyone seems to be talking about these days… i remain skeptical). i had my sights set on the mayan riviera, if i was going to visit mexico again it was going to be where the water was crystal clear and i could swim with dolphins. puerto vallarta was my mum’s idea. it was a nostalgic trip she took with my dad just months before his passing so it made sense that we were going to spend the first christmas without him in a place that took her back to those memories. we spent what felt like a fortune on our flights, booking them quite late, in october, and finding accommodations for the six of us super last minute at a private condo (icon vallarta). looking back at how much i stressed out about the initial experience of booking this trip, in the end, it was well worth it. i’ve been made a convert once again and puerto vallarta has my heart. there was something so special about the charm of the old town (malecon) with the chaos of taking local buses, taking day trips out of town (sayulita, botanical gardens, islas marietas, san sebastian) and enjoying the vibrant local food scene, anywhere from the cliche of señor frogs to authentic mexican street food and upscale, luxury dining at la leche. there was no shopping apart from a local walmart and souvenirs (just wait till you see the souvenirs!) and i couldn’t have been happier. it was much needed time away from our everyday materialistic existence. oh and did i mention the paragliding? ten days on the beach seems like overkill but it turns out it wasn’t nearly enough. follow along as i take you through some of my favourite things to do and places to see in puerto vallarta:
• where to stay •
this part was researched by my sister-in-law, our late decision to spend christmas in mexico resulted in very few choices but we ended up being quite happy with our final accommodations at icon vallarta, it was life away from, but with the amenities of a resort. beautiful pool, killer views, amazing design, everything was photogenic, the beach was rarely busy, loungers and sultan beds always available and the coconut man in plain sight every morning. in comparison with sayulita, where the beach was so busy you couldn’t find an inch of space to lay down your towel, i would always opt for staying in pv and take daily excursions to explore further. for more photos of the property you can see my instagram and our most recent post ‘resort‘. the price felt a little steep for mexico, at around $6,000 for ten days, for a three bedroom condo that slept six people, but when you do the math that really only ads up to $100 per person per night.
if you have a higher budget there are many beautiful haciendas around pv, one that stood out was hacienda san angel overlooking the bay, and the old town at it’s feet, in the evening the restaurant opens to the public where you can have a romantic dinner with a view.
• where to eat •
there are endless options for great food in puerto vallarta, and at every budget. ever put a lime in a coconut? it was the first time i’ve had a fresh coconut and i quickly became obsessed after having a couple local girls show me how to get the best bang for your buck. you drink the coconut water, then go back to get the coconut cracked… with a machete no less, you can add your choice of salt and lime or red pepper and hot sauce for a delicious, healthy snack… on the beach! enough said. coconuts cost 45 pesos (about $4.5 for the sake of being conservative), the extra toppings are included. you can also splurge on the more expensive, alcoholic pineapple option as well.
we spotted la leche on a bus ride into town, a modern exterior, a cool food truck, all black and white, upon doing a quick google search, it quickly became evident it was THE hotspot to hit. all white interiors (la leche means milk in spanish) make for fantastic photos, the ever changing menu board is rolled around to every table and only comes in spanish but the staff is friendly and willing to practice their english. arrive early to get a good shot of the empty space because the place fills up quick. the prices are american, meaning no cheap food here, in the end it’s all about the experience. at night head upstairs for a contrasting all black la nata (cream) for cocktails and dancing. if you are into street food try their food truck, parked right outside the restaurant. genius! (zona hotelera norte)
for those planning ahead you HAVE to make reservations at ocean grill vallarta. off the beaten path, you have to take a bus (or taxi) out of town to catch a boat that takes you to this spectacular destination. we found out about it too late and never had a chance to go, but from what i saw on google, it’s worth coming back just for the experience.
another hidden gem is the hacienda san angel, a boutique hotel providing it’s guests with ultimate in privacy, it’s like being transported to another world (the price definitely reflects this), starting at 6pm every day their restaurant opens for reservations where you can have a romantic dinner overlooking the old town, with the bell tower of the parroquia de nuestra señora de guadalupe taking centre stage.
the puerto vallarta botanical gardens excursion takes you to one of our favourite restaurants, taste traditional mexican food overlooking a jungle valley and watch exotic birds peck away at the watermelon that the locals leave out for them to enjoy, all just feet below you. solitude at it’s finest. the perfect getaway to catch a moment away from tourist traps and spring breakers.
some other notable spots are the malecon señor frogs for yummy guacamole and virgin mango daiquiri’s and buonissimo for spaghetti ice cream, pancho’s tacos, for the obvious reason (go before they open at 6pm to get in line, it gets packed!), the pv food park in zona hotelera, and anything that serves their food on mexican talavera.
• what to do •
you can literally never be bored in puerto vallarta. there are enough things to see and do to fill up your schedule. i think everyone wants to start their vacation off with a good beach day. the sandy beaches are all along zona hotelera, if you are a tourist you can get away with cutting through one of the hotels (if you are not already staying at one). get a fill of fresh coconuts, pineapples and mango while you are laying out in the sun and even stock up on souvenirs from passing hagglers, be ready to bargain, the first price is never a good deal. while you are on the beach take advantage of paragliding, jet skiing, paddle boarding, horseback riding or catamaraning, it is guaranteed to be a great experience and give you a story to tell when you get home.
along with endless beach activities there are excursion and adventure tours available for those who are ready to explore. i am always weary of buying anything that doesn’t have a store front. vallarta adventures seems to be everywhere and they have a walk in space on the malecon. you can pick from a variety of different activities like zip lining, scuba diving, off roading and whale watching.
there are also a number of excursion tours to chose from, but at american prices it can add up fast. a good compromise is finding out which of them you can do by yourself. puerto vallarta has a reputation for being one of the safest spots in mexico, the locals are friendly and willing to help whenever they can and buses, albeit full of character are more or less really easy to use.
puerto vallarta botanical gardens
you can arrive by catching the bus to el tuito at the corner of carranza and aguacate streets, in the romantic zone. this bus leaves every half hour or so. this bus will also return you to PV. bus fare is 20 pesos each way, know this because the guy collecting fares WILL try to ask you for more and pocket the difference.
while there, make sure to bring bug spray, if you don’t have any you can get some at the entrance to the gardens, cough up the extra pesos because you are now entering jungle territory, insects here will be ruthless and your bites in the way of you having a good time. the good news is that if you are into succulents and palms this will be your sanctuary. use one of many walking paths around the gardens, end your day at the garden restaurant (see above) and walk away with your very own mexican table cloth (among many other souvenirs you can pick up while here), to really brighten up taco nights when you get home. oh yes, and the roaming chicken, pay attention to those colors, i still can’t get over how beautiful he was. visit www.vbgardens.org for more info
the bus ride from puerto vallarta to sayulita costs 30 pesos, buses normally arrive every 20 minutes and the 37 km journey takes approximately 1½ hours. it’s easiest to catch the bus from the airport, cross over the highway using the pedestrian bridge. look for the name “sayulita” written on the windshield of the bus. you won’t be able to miss it. the bus comes every 20 min from 6am to about 9:40pm.
when we were planning our trip everyone we talked to said sayulita is the place to be. while very, very cute i think i preferred taking a day trip to the town rather than staying there the entire time. something about the conveniences and access of a larger town that can’t be beat. the beach at sayulita was a little too crowded for my taste, so we decided to explore instead.
the real reason for our trip to sayulita was evoke the spirit, a local artisan shop run by an american artist brittney borjeson, specializing in creating beautiful and intricate cow skulls, you can choose between the real deal (USD $1,200) or a slightly smaller ceramic version (USD $600), i would have of course taken them all if i could but to make a long story short, my mum was with us, watching every dollar spent. thankfully brittney is working on brining us an online shop in the very near future. just down the street from their retail space is the evoke the spirit workshop, where you can watch locals paint the skulls with yarn (it takes about 3 days to complete one skull) and snatch up freshly finished pieces. evoke the spirit also offers beautifully crafted blankets, ponchos and ceramics.
all the small artisan shops are what make this town so special, together with the famous mexican architecture and coloured walls you can really feel the outpour of creativity and the love for the town from it’s locals. if you are going to puerto vallarta save your spending enthusiasm for when you visit sayulita, you won’t be sorry.
excursions that still remain on our bucket list are islas marieta and san sebastian, i hope to write about these after our next trip to paradise. for more photos from the trip visit my facebook page. xoxo