My travel buddy Samantha is thinking about becoming a mom, so we planned a final girls' getaway before parenting makes trips more complicated. We hear kids aren't cheap, and they stay that way, so she didn't want to spend a lot. But we did want a fabulous destination to mark a milestone decision.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was the perfect choice. The tropical party town has lively restaurants and pretty beaches. And it offers lots of good deals: We went in late spring, when hotels start to discount prices. The favorable exchange rate also worked in our favor; for a quick bargain vacation for Westerners, Mexico can't be beat.
We contained costs―and had a better time to boot―by avoiding tourist-heavy destinations and seeking out the locals' favorite eateries and activities. Sam was a big help here; she spent a chunk of her childhood in the area, knows lots of residents―expats and natives―and speaks fluent Spanish. For her, our trip was a chance to revisit her childhood. Everyone should have a travel pal like Sam.
DAY 1: Explore town
We got a great deal at Playa Los Arcos Worldclass Beach Resort. Our room was small and situated next to the hotel pool. But it had carved wood bureaus and Mexican tile, and the hotel is on the beach.
We were in the older section of the city, called El Centro; Sam had advised that this was the most picturesque part, and it offered moderate rates. Newer luxury condominiums and resorts can be found to the north in Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta, but they don't have the same historic charm.
We also liked the old Mexico romance of the rooms and gardens at Molino de Agua Hotel. And the rooms at Hotel Rosita were large, with nice views, and also had a colonial-era style.
I was thrilled by the palms towering along the beach, the steep dry sides of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and the whitewashed buildings. After checking in, we climbed the hill to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, an ornate, 54-year-old structure in the center of town. Inside, worshippers were lighting candles in front of colored statues of saints.
Down at the Plaza Principal, we found a more lively, modern scene: Tourists and locals gathered in the square, street musicians crooned over their guitars, and ladies were selling jewelry at folding tables.
"We have to eat an ice cream and walk along the malecón," Sam said. "It's the best memory I have from childhood visits."
The esplanade above the beachfront, called the malecón, runs 10 short blocks from Hotel Rosita to the Plaza Principal. A stroll here offers the best glimpse into Puerto Vallarta life, as families, tourists, couples, and just about everyone else walks its length in the evenings.
We really were hungry for dinner, not ice cream, though, so after admiring the bronze statues along the waterfront walk, we hiked to Restaurante Barcelona Tapas, highly recommended by Sam's local friend for its Spanish small plates and its stupendous view of the city and bay (the Bahía de Banderas). It was a climb on this steamy evening up the hill and four flights of stairs, so when we finally made it to the dining deck the waiter offered us napkins to blot our sweaty faces. Hardly the elegant entrance we wanted to make into Puerto Vallarta nightlife.
Our vanity was forgotten, however, as soon as the waiter brought a calamari dish, followed by serrano ham on toast, grilled mushrooms in saffron cream, and paella. We feasted. It was an outstanding meal, accompanied by a sunset that languidly evolved from pale pink to orange to scarlet.
We seemed to float back down to the beach―it might have been the sangría, or maybe it was the excitement of being in a different, beautiful city. We wandered down the malecón again, too full from our meal for an ice cream. We weren't ready to call it a night, so we headed to Daiquiri Dick's for a nightcap. Though popular with tourists, the beachside restaurant is in a great spot. We sipped tropical drinks and watched the moonlit water.