Puerto Vallarta’s incongruities are its charm. It’s a metropolis of almost 400,000 people that’s bordered on one side by a dense jungle in which jaguars run wild and on the other by remote beaches that are unreachable by land. It’s a region with centuries-old indigenous and colonial traditions, and it’s also a cutting-edge culinary destination and a global center of LGBTQ culture.
Vallarta sits smack in the center of the perfect horseshoe that is the Bahía de Banderas (Banderas Bay), 60 miles of sandy shoreline running from Punta Mita in the north to Yelapa in the south. Yet it remained largely unknown until the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana broadcast its allure to the world. As Tennessee Williams wrote in the play that inspired the film: “Let’s go down and swim in the liquid moonlight.”
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Porcupine puffers, “nothing soup,” and a bath with Liz Taylor
I find out the hard way that it’s not a good idea to laugh while snorkeling. But it’s near impossible not to at Los Arcos National Marine Park, where tropical fish, eels, rays, and the occasional octopus, sea turtle, or seahorse perform among the coral reefs—a veritable Cirque du Soleil of sea beasts competing for attention.
A school of king angelfish enters my sight line like a liquid light show, their deep blue bodies streaked with white, ombréing to an iridescent blue at the edges, their neon-yellow tails flapping behind. As they mob a lumbering, oblong fish, it suddenly puffs up, more than doubling in size, like a balloon covered in spikes. I guffaw into my mask and get a mouthful of saltwater–an unexpected defense mechanism of the so-called porcupine pufferfish.
Los Arcos comprises three small granite islands just off Playa Mismaloya that jut abruptly out of the sea in natural arch formations. Despite its popularity as a snorkeling and scuba spot—and its location less than 200 feet from shore—it offers the densest and most colorful marine display in the region, thanks largely to its having been a protected marine reserve since 1984. There may be constant development in the Puerto Vallarta area, but these kinds of unspoiled paradises seem to be everywhere.
My guide is Texas-born, Mexico-raised Jet de la Isla, who’s been in Vallarta since 2016. “I made a quick stop here to check out the snorkeling and decided to stay for a month,” he says. “It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the friendly people, beautiful beaches and marine life, lively streets, and nightlife that never stops. I took a side job as a tour guide and used any excuse to extend my stay—‘Whale season is in two months,’ and then, ‘They say the rainy season is beautiful…’—and decided I needed to keep doing what I loved.” (“I came to visit and ended up staying” is a common refrain among the people I meet in Vallarta, Mexicans and expats alike.) His company, Jet’s Private Boat Tours , now has an eight-guide team specializing in customized excursions, using boats ranging from small pangas for couples to luxury yachts for groups, and even offering the area’s only nude outings. De la Isla also runs a gay youth hostel in the heart of town.
After our excursion, I ask him to drop me on the north side of town, which gives me a scenic survey of the beaches that sit within the city itself. By law, all beaches are public, even those that are part of large resorts. Heading up the coast, the 20-minute boat ride whizzes by playas La Garza Blanca, Palmares, Punta Negra, Las Estacas, Conchas Chinas, Los Muertos, Olas Altas, Rosita, Camarones, and finally Playa Tranquila.
Seeing all those fish made me hungry (although maybe not for the porcupine puffer), so I walk to Lamara, which was recommended by friends from Guadalajara. The restaurant’s menu consists mostly of aguachile (spicy shellfish ceviche) and ceviches of local whitefish or tuna. The effortlessly chic decor and stylish servers remind me of my part-time home of Mexico City, apart from the fact that the fish was caught a few blocks away. I order double-decker tostadas of aguachile Amora (shrimp, cucumber, jicama, peanuts, and hibiscus salsa), and ceviche Flat (sliced tuna with ginger, red onion, and serrano chile on a bed of avocado), washing them down with a Xakúa lager from the neighboring state of Michoacán.
It’s a quick Uber ride to the Plaza de Armas, the oceanfront central square of Old Town Vallarta, a neighborhood that’s a maze of alluring cobblestone streets, peek-a-boo vistas, and crooked staircases lined with citrus trees, pomegranate bushes, and passion fruit vines. On the square stands the Parroquía de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a stately edifice that looks at first glance like many of Mexico’s colonial churches—albeit one bathed in ocean mist. On closer examination of the building, which broke ground in 1903, I find an architectural hodgepodge of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles, topped with an immense, ornate crown that was reconstructed in 2009 by sculptor Carlos Terrés.
Unlike many Mexican beach towns—Ixtapa, Cancún Puerto Vallarta wasn’t developed as a tourist hub. Nor was it the “sleepy little fishing village” that’s become part of its mythology. In the 1800s, it was an important port and administrative center for nearby silver mining towns, and starting in the 1920s it moved toward agriculture and commercial fisheries, with trickles of tourism. It only emerged as an international destination after the filming of The Night of the Iguana and the breathless tabloid coverage of the affair between its star, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor, who flew down to join him during production in 1962, despite both of them being married. Burton put Taylor up at Casa Kimberly, a beautiful colonial villa just across the street from his house in Old Town. He even built a bridge, the Puente del Amor (Bridge of Love), connecting the two homes so they could maintain a glimmer of discretion (he gifted her the home in 1964). Now, the two homes make up a single hotel, and I’m lucky enough to be staying in Taylor’s original master suite—over 2,500 square feet of opulence overlooking the bay.
I head to the hotel’s open-air rooftop restaurant, Iguana, to get my first glance of Vallarta’s famous sunsets. Iguana is a popular spot for Taylor-Burton fans, with views of the Sierra Madre foothills and the bay. There’s a seemingly endless magic hour until the sun dips below the horizon and the sky takes on surprising shades of orange, pink, violet, and lavender, with a halo of the palest lime green to match my margarita.
Once night has fallen, I take a taxi north to the Zona Hotelera, or Hotel Zone. This area is populated mostly with faceless resorts, but it’s also where one of the city’s most exciting restaurants is located. La Leche’s monochromatic interior looks like a milk-colored Louise Nevelson sculpture, a fitting backdrop for what Chef Alfonso “Poncho” Cadena calls cocina irreverente. Cadena is part of a youthful, creative culinary clique whose restaurants stand in welcome contrast to the Señor Frog’s–type party palaces that line the streets near the beaches. I start with parrotfish—one of the more colorful fish I spotted while snorkeling today—paired with an avocado vinaigrette and little pearls of lime tapioca. My second course, the “sopa de nada” (nothing soup), is actually an ethereal cauliflower cream, and I finish with the locally famed roast duck, one of the few dishes that rarely leaves the menu.
Back at Casa Kimberly, in a bathroom that’s twice as big as my apartment, I take a long bath in Taylor’s original, custom-made, heart-shaped pink-marble tub. Due supposedly to a translation mishap, the tub is shaped like an anatomical heart rather than a valentine, and it is all the more elegant for it.
Discovering remote beaches, chasing chachalacas, and drinking tuba
The appeal of waking up in Elizabeth Taylor’s bed can’t be overstated, but I have a long day ahead, so I force myself up and over to the private pool for an invigorating dip. Still, it’s tempting to linger over the view of Old Town, with its roofs of sunworn terra-cotta barrel tiles creating a mottled mosaic that reaches to the sea.
It’s a short walk from the hotel and past the Plaza de Armas to the waterfront Puerto Café, which a friend told me has the best coffee in Vallarta. I’m not disappointed with my dripped-to-order cup and fresh-baked banana bread. Even better, they’re blasting Queen’s bizarre, underrated Flash Gordon soundtrack on an old turntable, while the audiophile barista explains how the placement of the giant vintage speakers interacts with the acoustics of the century-old space and its high, wood-beam ceiling. I get a bottle of coldbrew concentrate to go—fuel for the day.
The 30-minute drive to the Vallarta Botanical Gardens follows the coastline south before cutting inland, into dense jungle. Established in 2004, it’s already one of the largest and most diverse gardens in Mexico, with extensive collections of orchids, bromeliads, agaves, and cacti among thousands of native plant species. My favorite part is the vanilla plantation trail, along which hundreds of vanilla vines spiral up posts and trees, interspersed with cacao trees. (Both chocolate and vanilla are native to Mexico.) I learn that vanilla is the world’s second-most expensive spice, after saffron, largely due to the fact that each vanilla bean ripens at a different rate and must be individually hand-harvested.
I love seeing the plants but am truly seduced by the many birds that seem unfazed by human intrusion. “I can name at least 50 birds that hang out here,” a worker tells me as I shoo away a few butterflies and one pesky hummingbird. I spy parrots and woodpeckers and what I think are vultures and hawks. I consider it a good luck sign to spot a citreoline trogon, a bright-eyed, yellow-bellied stunner closely related to the rare quetzal, a sacred bird in pre-Hispanic culture.
From the botanical garden, it’s only a few minutes by taxi to Boca de Tomatlán, the hub for the so-called South Shore beaches, most of which are reachable only by the water taxis that congregate there. (They pick up on Los Muertos Pier, too.) Instead, I opt for a hike to tiny Playa Colomitos. The walk is brief—about 35 minutes—and not too strenuous, alternating between well-marked trail and concrete steps, with views of the water almost the entire way. At one point I hear a jarring sound, like strained machinery, which I trace to a flock of turkey-like birds munching on fallen guavas. It turns out the sound is the quick-stuttering “song” of the West Mexican chachalaca.
Colomitos is the smallest beach in the area, a sliver of sand hugged by massive rock formations. The water is clear, warm, and shallow, and my swim feels like a spa bath. With no vendors or partiers in sight, it’s a postcard of the sort of Mexican beach that everyone looks for but that has been condoed and hoteled nearly out of existence. There are only four other beachgoers, and two of them invite me to nearby Playa Quimixto, which offers a 30-minute hike (or horseback ride) to waterfalls, but I’m getting hungry, so I grab a water taxi to the Los Muertos Pier.
Although Playa Los Muertos isn’t the most bucolic of Vallarta’s beaches, it’s great for people-watching, and the pier is an easy meeting place. Walking on the malecón, the waterfront promenade, I spot a white-suited man with a giant clay jug being swarmed by bees. He’s serving tuba, a traditional drink of fermented coconut palm sap that’s a remnant of the 250-year galleon trade between western Mexico and the Philippines. It’s slightly fizzy and gently sweet, garnished with chopped apples and pecans—a perfect partner for my leisurely 30-minute stroll along the beach to lunch.
Colonia 5 de Diciembre is a neighborhood full of markets, schools, and tiny taquerías, and it feels a little less touristy than Old Town, especially as you move farther from the sea. Mariscos La Tía is packed—a good sign, even though it means a 20-minute wait for a table—and I catch no English within earshot. It’s another all-seafood restaurant, and I order a steaming cauldron of marlin, shrimp, and octopus in a rich shrimp stock, along with a ceviche tostada topped with cueritos, or pickled pork rinds.
Walking back down the malecón, I see Tierra Huichol, a gallery specializing in the folk art of the Wixárika people, natives of the region who make vivid beaded sculptures and yarn “paintings” that represent shamanistic visions of the universe. I’ve seen these in craft shops elsewhere in Mexico, where there’s no assurance that the artists are being paid fairly or not being pressured to change their practice to fit commercial demand. Tierra Huichol has worked directly with Wixárika artists for years and is committed to compensating them properly and helping sustain the independence of their communities. I buy a beaded eagle, considered the messenger between the gods and man, adorned with images of peyote—which makes a lot of sense, given the kaleidoscopic color scheme.
Just up the beach from here, I’m meeting Erick Fierro, a friend of a friend, for mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio, a branch of a Havana restaurant that’s an oasis from the beachfront tourist traps that surround it. (Pro tip: It’s also where to buy Cuban cigars to bring home.) Fierro is a real estate agent who started a face-mask assembly project during the pandemic as a way to support women who had lost their jobs. By September, he had 12 women making masks, and they had sold more than 6,000 masks (with the money divided equally between the women).
He notes that Vallarta is unique among vacation towns not just for its tight community of full-timers but because expats are both embraced by and eager to support the community. “One day, I needed three sewing machines,” he says, “and an hour later I had five.” As I enjoy my cocktail, I witness Fierro greet countless friends. “Socializing here is old and young and poor and rich and dark and white,” he says. “I’ve lived in many cities and never had this sense of belonging. It’s like a family—you can trash them, but if someone from the outside trashes them, you defend your people.”
I thank Fierro for the drink and head to dinner at Café des Artistes, which, over the course of 30 years, has morphed from modern French cuisine into one of the best Mexican restaurants in the country. Chef-owner Thierry Blouet was born in Puerto Rico to French parents, came to Mexico in 1978, arrived in Vallarta in 1987, and never left. I order cactus aguachile, a cabeza (beef cheek) taco with dandelion greens, risotto with foie gras and Mexican morels, suckling lamb two ways, and one of the most inspired and tasty desserts I’ve had in ages: a whole roast habanero chile draped over passion fruit mousse. Then it’s straight back to Liz’s bed.
The Tail of the Whale, chocolate clams, and sea turtle hatchlings on the Riviera Nayarit
After enjoying a room-service breakfast of coffee and tropical fruit on my terrace, I hit the road, headed northwest to The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort. One of the most breathtaking peninsulas in North America, Punta Mita is surrounded almost entirely by the bay and the ocean (generally speaking, Punta Mita refers to the entire peninsula, and Punta de Mita to a nearby village), with most of the land on it taken up by the St. Regis and Four Seasons resorts, plus the two golf courses they share.
It’s early for the welcome drink I’m offered in the Altamira Lobby, but I can’t resist celebrating when I see the ridiculous panorama of palms and pools cascading down to the ocean. Any number of water activities are on offer, but even I, a non-golfer, have heard of the Punta Mita Golf Club, and I want to check out the fairways for myself.
In effect, the two adjoining courses here (the Pacifico borders the ocean; the more challenging Bahía, the bay) amount to a private national park, with some of the best views of my whole trip. My golf pro, Luis Ituarte, says that some call it “the Pebble Beach of Mexico,” and he notes that it’s entirely sustainable in terms of water use, thanks to treated wastewater and collected rainwater.
The scene-stealer is the hole on the Pacifico course known as the Tail of the Whale, a 181-yard par-3 whose water hazard is, well, the ocean. It’s an optional hole located on a black-rock island, said to be the world’s only natural island green, and it is accessible only at low mid-tide. (You can take your initial tee shot at high tide and return later to steer your cart across the ocean floor and putt it in.) After a few failed drives into the Pacific, I cart over anyway, for a quick scenic round-trip.
I tell myself that my golf failings are because I’m so distracted by the setting, even if I don’t see any actual whale tails out in the ocean. (Their migration won’t bring them here until December.) Anyway, I decide to stow the clubs and explore the coastline. The Riviera Nayarit stretches from the northern part of Puerto Vallarta to the port of San Blas, about 90 miles by car. Each coastal town has a distinct personality, and while I won’t get far today, I’m taking notes for my return trip.
First stop: lunch. The long and winding dirt road to Litíbu Grill, located outside the tiny village of Higuera Blanca, doesn’t instill much confidence, but the reward is well worth it. This hidden seaside gem lets you swim in the ocean or laze in hammocks between courses of giant charcoal-grilled chocolate clams (so named for the color of their shells), fresh caught fish, and octopus with spicy potatoes and olive salsa. Dog lovers take note: The host/mascot is an amiable, human-size Great Dane that adds to the restaurant’s mellow charm.
Although I’m tempted to spend the whole day on the beach, I manage to get myself up the road to the town of San Francisco, aka San Pancho. Considered the cultural capital of the Riviera Nayarit, it’s a colorful pueblo that offers as much inland as it does on the lively white-sand beach. I pop into Entreamigos, a community center that has a library, gallery, eco-design center, and even a children’s circus school. The gallery sells crafts made locally from recycled materials, and I pick up a few wild-eyed stuffed octopuses made from bedsheets.
Fifteen minutes down the road lies the town of Sayulita, where about 2,000 full-timers enjoy the arc-shaped Playa Sayulita and a laid-back vibe that’s equal parts hippie and hipster. It’s a good place for surfers of all skill levels (the waves get bigger as you move north on the beach), with the prime season going from December to April.
I’ve heard that Playa Sayulita is one of the beaches where Olive Ridley sea turtles lay their eggs, and that “turtle releases”—ushering the hatched babies into the sea—are a fun sunset activity. I head over to Campamento Tortuguero Sayulita, a volunteer turtle protection and conservation organization, to learn more. It turns out that not all turtle releases are created equally. To suit tourist demand, some places put turtle eggs in sand-filled “hot boxes” that allow for a faster incubation period, potentially rushing turtles that may not be sufficiently mature to move to the sea. The boxes may also create more females than males, since turtle sex is temperature-dependent (warmer sands produce females), which is a problem, as there’s already a shortage of males, in part due to climate change.
The folks at Campamento Tortuguero Sayulita, meanwhile, relocate nests from all over the beach to protect them from poaching, predators, and unintentional human damage. They incubate the eggs naturally in beach sand until they hatch and the turtles can return to the sea on their own. It’s estimated that the turtles from only about one out of every 1,000 eggs will reach reproductive maturity, making work like this all the more crucial, and I’m thrilled to help usher dozens of these little 3-inch babies to the sea—even knowing the sad fate that awaits most of them.
Walking back to the car, I pick up some souvenir raicilla (a type of mezcal typical of this region) at Sayulita Wine Shop and drive back to the St. Regis for dinner at Carolina, a fine-dining restaurant that attracts local foodies as much as hotel guests. Chef Miguel Soltero Rincón puts a spin on classic Mexican cuisine, sourcing ingredients as close to home as possible, including an extensive list of Mexican wines. I start with a crab-salad tostada topped with oat-crusted soft-shell crab and served in a bowl of tomato broth. Grilled lobster comes with a “taco” of chorizo-stuffed plantain. For dessert, there’s an ice cream of totomoxtle, or burnt corn husk, which has a not-unpleasant flavor of hot dog.
Geomorphologists believe that Banderas Bay is roughly where the southern tip of Baja California broke off the North American Plate over 5 million years ago, creating the Baja California Peninsula and the Gulf of California. Effectively, it means that Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta were once the same place. In our current era of seismic environmental shifts, there’s something reassuring about how Vallarta has preserved its biodiversity and physical beauty even as it has become the most progressive city in Mexico. On my suite’s terrace, I ponder plate tectonics and sip a nightcap of organic Mexican rosé from the Solar Fortún winery while perusing real estate listings online. After all, whale season is soon, and they say the rainy season is beautiful…