The Mexico tourist city of Puerto Vallarta: first impressions and highlights
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a popular winter destination for Canadians and Americans. This February I visited for the first time and discovered its appeal. Weather is great. Scenery is beautiful. Food is fantastic. And there is a LOT to do. Still, the city surprised me in a few ways and wasn’t quite what I expected.
The first surprise was the age of the tourists. Although you’ll find people of all ages visiting the city, the baby boomer generation dominates. Many visitors return year after year and spend weeks or months. Some are semi-permanent residents. The other surprise was how busy and touristy the city was. The core area of the city, especially the Romantic Zone and the area around the Malecón, felt like one giant resort. A third surprise was how little Spanish one needs to survive here. Most people dealing with tourists speak English. Menus are often in both Spanish and English. Over the past year, I’ve taken a few Spanish classes. I didn’t really get a chance to find out how useful the little bit I’ve learned and retained might be. However, there were a few times I was happy I understood numbers. A fourth delightful surprise was how safe I felt wherever we walked. People were always friendly and welcoming.
Puerto Vallarta is located along Banderas Bay on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico. It is sometimes referred to simply as Vallarta or P.V. In pre-Hispanic times, the area was home to the Aztatlán culture. The Spanish discovered the bay in the 1500s. The bay was used as a pit stop on long voyages. The bay was also used by smugglers avoiding customs operations at San Blas. It was silver mining in the mountain towns to the east during the mid 1800s that gave birth to the town that eventually became Puerto Vallarta. A small fishing village called Las Peñas had developed along Banderas Bay at the mouth of the Río Cuale. The village became important in supplying items needed for mining operations. Salt was needed to process the metals. Guadalupe Sánchez Torres began importing large quantities of salt from the Marias Islands. People rode mules down the mountain to buy salt from Sanchez. By 1880, Las Peñas had a population of 1,800.
The 1910 revolution and a drop in world silver prices led to the closure of the mines. People moved from the hills to farm the fertile lands just north of Las Peñas. In 1918, Las Peñas was declared a municipality and renamed Puerto Vallarta after former state governor Ignacio Vallarta. Up until the 1940s, the only access to Puerto Vallarta was via sea, air, or mule train. By the 1950s, it had begun to attract American and Mexican artists and writers.
Events occurred in the 1960s and 1970s that shaped Puerto Vallarta’s future as a tourist destination. In 1964, John Huston filmed “Night of the Iguana” starring Richard Burton in Mismaloya, south of Puerto Vallarta. The cast and crew stayed in Puerto Vallarta, which received a great deal of publicity from the coverage of the affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton and Taylor eventually bought homes in Puerto Vallarta. The government developed an international airport and improved highway and utility infrastructure. In 1968, Puerto Vallarta was designated a city. In 1970 it showcased its new image by hosting a meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Mexcian President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. Resort development boomed.
Today, tourism is the major industry with millions of Mexican and international visitors each year. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about things to do in Puerto Vallarta and my experiences there. Right now, I want to give a taste of the city by sharing a jumbled, chaotic mix of impressions and sensations.
First, the views. Views of the water and lush green hillsides dotted with condos and hotels. Brilliant colours of banners decorating streets, handicrafts for sale, and decorative tile work.
Being approached time and again by street vendors offering a variety of products for “almost free” who politely move on after a “no gracias” response. Street entertainers.
Art on the streets and in galleries.
The sounds of the waves, the chirping of the birds, live music, the bangs of fireworks at night. Sand in my toes. Clothes sticking to me in the heat of the afternoon. The refreshing caress of an evening breeze. Pelicans diving for fish.
Strolling the Malecón.
The rough feel of cobblestone streets under my shoes. Navigating hills and stairs. Bouncing inside a suspension-less city bus.
Fish and produce markets. The sweet floury smell that let you know you are nearing a tortilla bakery.
Palm trees, rosy bougainvillea, the yellow blooms of the primavera tree, and the orange blossoms of the tulip tree.
Cooking aromas. Delicious flavours from an overwhelming choice of eateries.
Never miss a story. Sign up for Destinations Detours and Dreams free monthly e-newsletter and receive behind-the-scenes information and sneak peaks ahead.
Tag Along DebMarch 11, 2018 at 9:48 am
Looking forward to your post series, Donna. I will be visiting Mexico for the first time next month for a local’s wedding in Cancun (She’s marrying a Scottish colleague of Steve’s). I was almost surprised that people are actually FROM Cancun because over the years I’ve just heard about all of the Canadian tourists going there. I regarded it as one big resort. After the wedding we’re hitting Mexico City for a few days, which I’m sure will be an entirely different experience.
Donna JankeMarch 12, 2018 at 11:44 am
Deb, I’d love to visit Mexico City. I considered adding it on to this trip but it didn’t work out. I’m sure it is a different experience than Cancun (and Puerto Vallarta).
Ken DowellMarch 11, 2018 at 8:16 pm
Would definitely like to go there. Looks beautiful.
Donna JankeMarch 12, 2018 at 11:45 am
Ken, it is an interesting place that keeps pulling people back.
travelgalcindyMarch 12, 2018 at 11:29 am
Really interesting. I look at some of your pictures and think “Ugh, big and touristy” and then I look at others and think “awesome!” I loved the Yucatan peninsula and would like to get back to Mexico, but all we here in the USA is how dangerous places like Puerto Vallarta are. . . but that certainly doesn’t seem to the reality for most travelers. I’ll be looking forward to more posts from you on your experiences there.
Donna JankeMarch 12, 2018 at 11:47 am
Cindy, it is very touristy in spots, yet also charming. I felt very safe, safer than in some European cities where I had to tightly clutch my purse and belongings because of pickpockets.
ourboomerblogMarch 12, 2018 at 12:11 pm
Thanks for sharing the pictures of this amazing place. Puerto Vallarta has name recognition unlike any other pace in the world. We can’t wait to see your subsequent articles that further detail this beautiful location.
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 10:57 am
Puerto Vallarta does have name recognition. I found so much to write about it took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say and how.
Carolina ColbornMarch 12, 2018 at 12:48 pm
You will be surprised to know that my eldest daughter, 44, is the one who is agog about PV and has gone and returned in the last 2 years. Maybe it’s because of the Romantic Zone! I wonder what is in it? It is near Mazatlan where we will be for 3 months next year, Jan. to March, so we will definitely see PV, finally, then! Thanks for this inviting post.
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 10:58 am
Carol, so many people seem to return again and again to PV. I hope you do get a chance to see it.
Suzanne FluhrMarch 12, 2018 at 2:47 pm
Our son, a digital nomad who has put down roots in Mexico City, visited Puerto Vallarta last month and was completely taken with it—to the point of even considering buying a place there (which his parents would heartily endorse) for when he wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of CDMX (how Mexico City now refers to itself). He previously liked Playa del Carmen, but with the latest US State Department travel advisory for travel to Playa del Carmen, I have a feeling that places like Puerto Vallarta will be gaining in popularity. I’ve pinned your post to my Mexico Pinterest board. Your photos are lovely.
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 11:00 am
Thanks Suzanne. How great it would be if your son did buy a place in PV where you could stay. Mexico City is also a place I’d like to see.
Doreen PendgracsMarch 12, 2018 at 4:38 pm
I rediscovered PV in 2015, Donna, and am so glad I did. It is everything you said it is and more. I absolutely loved the art on the Malecon, and in the galleries.
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 11:01 am
Doreen, the Malecón is certainly a highlight. And I was very impressed with the city’s art scene.
RoseMary GriffithMarch 13, 2018 at 5:53 pm
I remember walking up that set of stairs with the colorful tiles set into the back step. Thank you, Donna, for allowing me to remember a long ago trip to Puerto Vallarta via your pictures and lovely descriptions. Ah, sand in my toes!
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 11:02 am
RoseMary, I’m glad to bring back good memories.
A Taste for TravelMarch 13, 2018 at 7:55 pm
Great observations and photos of Puerto Vallarta! My ex-pat aunt is an artist there – Angeline Kyba if you have a chance to visit her gallery or website. She does incredible paintings infused with the colours and spirit of life in Mexico . I hope you’ll have a chance to explore up the coast as well! You might liek San francisco (san pancho) – it’s much smaller and sees fewer tourists. Looking forward to reading about your travels
Donna JankeMarch 14, 2018 at 11:09 am
Michele, I was impressed with all the great art in Puerto Vallarta. I will certainly check out your aunt’s gallery on a future visit. I did not get a chance to visit San Pancho this time. I only made it as far as Sayulita (and a tour to San Sebastion del Oeste in the mountains). I would like to explore more of the towns up the coast someday.
Lyn aka The Travelling LindfieldsMarch 15, 2018 at 8:05 pm
We are in Mexico right now on our first visit. It is a great place. I have a bit of Spanish but, like Puerto Vallarta, we have found we don’t need it much. When we get stuck Google Translate is brilliant. I look forward to your post for our next visit to Mexico.
Donna JankeMarch 16, 2018 at 9:39 am
Lyn, I also use the SpanishDict app. What part of Mexico are you visiting?
Anita and Richard @ No Particular Place To GoMarch 17, 2018 at 12:03 pm
Such a lovely city, Donna and I can definitely see its appeal after going through your gorgeous photos. I have friends who relocated from Granada, Nicaragua, to Puerto Vallarta and often write us extolling the city’s virtues. After seeing your photos, reading your favorable impressions and thinking about Mexican food, I have to admit I’m tempted. And I kind of like the idea of a lot of baby boomers around, too. It’s probably fairly easy to strike up a conversation whenever you want! Anita
Donna JankeMarch 18, 2018 at 10:18 am
Anita, it is fairly easy to strike up a conversation. Even with all the people, the place is small enough that you can run into people again. I think you’d quickly form friendships here.
Carole Terwilliger MeyersMarch 17, 2018 at 8:45 pm
I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta several times and do love it. What a great shot of the pelicans in the sea! My favorite things there was Elizabeth Taylor’s former home (now a B&B) and visiting Yelapa (loved the pie lady).
Donna JankeMarch 18, 2018 at 10:20 am
Carole, the pelicans were such fun to watch. I took a walking tour of the Gringo Gulch area where Elizabeth Taylor’s home is (I will be doing a post about the area). I didn’t make it to Yelapa, but my sister, who was in PV with us, went there twice. She really liked it.
travelnwriteMarch 18, 2018 at 10:19 am
Our first ‘home away from home’ was in Bucerias, just north of Puerto Vallarta and back in the early 90’s was still a sleepy little fishing village – not an extension of Nuevo Vallarta as it is today. Back then (how old do I sound??) even though PV was a big city and a tourist magnet it had a lovely Mexican village feel to it. We were amazed a few years ago when we returned and saw how large and busy it has become. You brought back some wonderful memories in this post Donna. I share your love of the area.
Donna JankeMarch 18, 2018 at 10:34 am
Jackie, I took the bus one day to Bucerias. It’s not really a sleepy fishing village anymore, although it is quieter than Puerto Vallarta. I loved the beach in Bucerias.