A young girl dressed as the Virgin of Guadalupe stands piously in the back of a pickup truck. The horns of a marching band join a candlelit procession of Aztec dancers, religious-themed floats, motorcycle riders and pedestrians. Food sellers and trinket vendors are out en masse. Across the street in the plaza, dozens of dessert sellers set up tables covered with colorful cakes.
In Puerto Vallarta, it’s hard to tell a religious celebration from a massive party.
The Guadalupe processions — held for 12 nights each December — are just one event that draws tourists from other parts of Mexico, the United States and the rest of the world. This Pacific coast city of 220,000 offers an intriguing mix of tourism and local life, resorts and religion, nature and culture. And it’s a reliably warm and cheerful place to spend a long winter weekend.
Downtown vs. Resort
As a tourist, your first major decision is whether to stay downtown or at an all-inclusive resort. Most of the resorts are located north of Puerto Vallarta. They cater to people who want quiet beaches, luxury, fun on-site activities, good restaurants and minimal hassles. Downtown offers many affordable hotels and more interaction with local culture. It’s a potentially livelier experience and also much louder — expect church bells early in the morning. Downtown is pedestrian-friendly, while resort stays require taxis or Ubers to get downtown, if you want to leave the resort at all.
It really comes down to personal preference. If you’re looking for quiet relaxation in the sun, choose a resort. Those looking for culture will find downtown more interesting.
Exercise and adventure
Even those who come for relaxation will want to stroll the Malecon — Puerto Vallarta’s mile-long seaside boardwalk. Sculptures dot the sidewalk, which is full of tourists, local couples on dates, families, performers and vendors selling everything from fruit wedges to silver earrings. It’s a one-stop place for exercise, food, drink, swimming and people-watching. Walk over the footbridge to shop for folk art on the little island in the Cuale River, where you also might spot iguanas bathing in the river or climbing trees. The Malecon ends up at Los Muertos beach, which is a riot of activity on weekends as a bazillion local kids splash in the water and Zumba music pours from every beach blanket.
For a sweatier, more rugged walk, follow sporadic signage up the hill above Puerto Vallarta to Mirador de la Cruz, a viewpoint marked by an old iron cross. This is a chance to get close to the locals and practice your Spanish as you miss or misinterpret signs and wind up on crumbling stairways and in people’s backyards. But persevere — the view of the town and coastline from atop the hill is well worth it.
More organized adventures include zip lining, surfing lessons, scuba diving, kitesurfing and biking. Water sport enthusiasts kiteboard in nearby Bucerias, which boasts an uncrowded five-mile stretch of white sand beach. Others hoping to escape the crowds travel 20 miles south and hire a boat to Yelapa, a quiet fishing village and the starting point for a pleasant waterfall hike.
Yoga Vallarta offers English-language classes with excellent teachers. Terry Connell, a Boston native who’s also an acupuncturist, found a much slower pace when he moved to Puerto Vallarta about six years ago. “There’s a different mindset when you’re here,” says the yoga teacher, who sometimes brings his dogs to class with him.
Since Puerto Vallarta is a coastal city, tourists eat and drink their fill of seafood, tamales and tequila. But health-minded diners won’t go hungry, either, as the city has a long vegetarian tradition. Salud Super Food is the spot for kale and soyrizo quesadillas, green juices and superfood smoothies. Planeta Vegetariano, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets within its bright yellow walls, opened in 1995. Restaurant Vegetariano Mary has a similar buffet setup, with a different culinary theme every day.
The resorts employ top chefs. The Casa Velas adults-only resort is especially notable for having a separate vegetarian/vegan menu, an organic garden, a pillow menu (you can choose one of five to sleep on) and new-age wellness amenities such as a vitamin C sprinkler in the shower and pillows and mattresses with magnetic technology.
If You Go
Winter is high season for Puerto Vallarta, but you can still get reasonable deals. Delta and American offer convenient vacation packages that include flights plus hotels. Downtown hotels are often less expensive, but many resorts include dining and some activities. Consider timing your visit with an interesting local event, such as the Gourmet Festival in late November or the Virgin of Guadalupe pilgrimage in early December.