Puerto Vallarta for less

Charm and bargains in a Mexican beach town ― if you know where to go
Lisa Taggart

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.

 

DAY 2: Island hop

Mexican beginnings are fine. We started the day at Cuates y Cuetes―CC's to the locals―with eggs à la Mexicana (a tasty scramble with hot sauce) and big cups of coffee.

Then, on Los Muertos Pier next to the restaurant, we caught the boat to Yelapa, an isolated town on the south end of Bahía de Banderas. The ride, about a half-hour long, was an adventure. We had pretty views of the jungle climbing up the hills from the sea and saw two dolphins jump out of the water.

Yelapa is a small town of about 2,000 residents on a cove, with two small hotels and a half-dozen restaurants. It's popular with American and Canadian expats and is inaccessible by car. Paths are shared by burros and people. It seemed far removed from the bustle of Puerto Vallarta.

We took a gorgeous half-hour hike up Río Tuito, passing vendors selling hand-carved wood bowls, to a waterfall in a jungle oasis called Cola de Caballo Catarata (Horsetail Falls).

Then we headed back to the beach, for drinks and lunch with homemade tortillas under the palapa at Domingo's. We took a dip in the ocean afterward (on a full stomach too―don't tell our moms) and lay out in the sun. That's when the best thing of all happened: Chelly walked by. Chelly, of Chelly's Pies, strolls the beach selling delicious homemade pies―banana, chocolate, nut, and lime―that she carries on top of her head. You can lie in the tropical sand on a tropical beach watching the waves, and someone will bring you a slice of the most delicious homemade pie you've ever tasted. Talk about paradise.

Unfortunately, we had to catch the boat back that afternoon. Shops are open late in Puerto Vallarta, so on our return we did some evening browsing along the bustling dining district called Restaurant Row, admiring the embroidered pillows at Indigo, the linens at Ponciana, and the tiled mirrors at Lucy's Cucû Cabaña & Zoo.

Up the road, we dined at Mariscos Polo, sharing fresh seafood and limonadas. The man at the table next to us was from our hometown in California but had lived in Puerto Vallarta for 20 years. "You've found the locals' secret," he said about the restaurant. "And you've only been in town two days? That's impressive." I patted Sam on the back.

 

DAY 3: Shops and culture

I got up early for a quick dip in the pool. Then we strolled to tiny Café Catedral, with about 15 tables and a mammoth, gleaming espresso machine. I was looking forward to a real latte, but the huevos con acelgas (eggs with Swiss chard) were so tasty, they upstaged my drink.

We were already moping over our impending departure. We wandered over to the businesses along Río Cuale, browsing the vendors offering ponchos, baskets, T-shirts, and pottery. This region is the spot to practice your bargaining, according to the tourist office.

We kept walking, turning inland and up the steps at Calle Iturbide to Gringo Gulch, named for the number of North Americans who have lived there. The most famous of those, Elizabeth Taylor, owned the Casa Kimberley until 1990; today the B&B is still open to overnight guests. It offers tours of the slightly faded villa buildings with movie trinkets including posters of The Night of the Iguana, the film that put Puerto Vallarta on the map for Americans.

Afterward, Sam wasn't sure that the tour was worth the price. But we liked walking around the hillside neighborhood and stumbled upon a perfect finale for our trip: Esquina de los Caprichos ("Corner of Wishes"), a tiny, blue-shuttered cafe on the hillside with a view of the bay. The chef was there himself and served up a whole range of tapas in a matter of moments: dates, calamari, ham, and a tortilla española. The tiny dining room, inventive food, and cheery blue-and-white interior were delightful.

We had to move along to catch our plane, so we took a final gaze at the cerulean bay and called a taxi. On the ride to the airport, Samantha moaned with regret: "We never got ice cream along the malecón!"

"You'll just have to come back," I said, "and do that with your kids."