It’s 6:00 am in Puerto Vallarta and I begin to stir in my bed clinging desperately to whatever moments are left before the hillside roosters awaken me. There it is “ra roo ra roo” (warming up their chords) and then “cock-a-doodle-doo” and rooster cries give way to barking dogs and it’s like an entire chorus of animals participate in nature’s alarm clock. It will be another hour and a half before sunrise over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range but the beautiful and tranquil Banderas Bay invites me to its shores and I hurry to dress and experience the Malecón (seafront) crowd free.
As I hit the Malecón, I find a mix of locals and tourists exercising, bicycling, mingling over coffee, walking dogs and chatting about yesterday’s news. Shop and restaurant workers prepare to open for the day readying their businesses by cleaning floors and windows and tidying up merchandise and setting tables. A crowd gathers outside Starbucks as anxious tourists wait for coffee they trust and free Wi-Fi. It may be a holiday for me but it’s prime season for locals where tourism accounts for 50 percent of the city’s business.
Puerto Vallarta, nestled in a bay on the Pacific Coast, is a top tourist destination in Mexico. To borrow the city’s tagline, “Live It To Believe It” only tells half the story. It’s a city where people live modestly, work dutifully and retire blissfully. Although not founded until the 1850s, Puerto Vallarta once acted as a supply point for ships traveling from the Philippines to Spain in the 1500s and 1600s and a hiding spot for smugglers and pirates.
Today, Puerto Vallarta is a top destination for cruise ships and for tourists seeking respite from the chilling temperatures of their homelands. It’s a place to splash in the water, play a game of tennis or a round of golf and absorb the guaranteed 80-85F (26-29C) temperatures. You can lounge by the pool, kick up your heels in the sand, sip margaritas and piña coladas and buy bottles of tequila as souvenirs but considering stepping outside the comfort of your all-inclusive hotel and experience the heart of Puerto Vallarta.
The heart of the real Puerto Vallarta beats in the City Center and the Romantic Zone.
Start by walking the Malecón and observing the tranquility of the bay, stop and admire the architecture of the main plaza easily located by finding Our Lady of Guadalupe Church or simply look for the tower adorned with a decorative crown and containing the bell and clock. It’s visible from a distance. Be sure to note the bronze sculptures and flower beds scattered along the water’s shores and sneak a picture with the city’s icon, the seahorse. From the City Center, walk south along the Malecón toward the Romantic Zone. Here you will find a flurry of activity no matter the time of day. There are beach vendors, restaurants, bars, tourist shops, jewelry stores, art galleries and more. Depending on the time of day, you should grab a drink or bit to eat on the beach, sit for a massage, have your hair braided and banter with the vendors selling everything from wood carved turtles and painted bowels to sunglasses and silver jewelry. The “No Gracias” signs fitted at nearby tables will give you an immediate idea for what you are in for but it’s all part of the fun.
It’s a small world in Puerto Vallarta where generations of families live and work. My parents “Joyce and Michael from Chicago” are locals or snowbirds from November until May when they escape Chicago’s harsh winters for the warmth of the Pacific coastline. I am a beneficiary of my parent’s 2008 whimsical purchase and while I may not understand the allure at times I certainly know the magic of Puerto Vallarta is the people.
My parent’s house manager, Ivon, works three jobs to ensure her boys have the best possible education and countless opportunities. My non-Spanish speaking parents would be absolutely lost without her. Her oldest son recently found out he has been accepted to a university near Manchester, UK and will be leaving Puerto Vallarta at the end of the month. When I asked Ivon if she thought her son would come home, she said with the face of a concerned mother, “I hope not.”
When I asked Ivon if she thought her son would come home, she said with the face of a concerned mother, “I hope not.”
The local people in Puerto Vallarta are my parent’s friends and family. Other than the sunshine, they are the main reason my parents come back year after year. My parents look forward to lunch on the beach to see Mel, the silver vendor, Carmello who sells sunglasses or runs with my dad at the city’s track and Arelligo whose wife makes handmade bowls often of professional sports teams like the Seahawks or the Blackhawks and my favorite team, the Michigan State Spartans. There is Emma and Chico at Daiquiri Dicks restaurant who greet my parents with hugs. I can hear the chatter up and down the beach now, “Michael from Chicago is back in PV.”
I play tennis with Martin at the Sheraton Hotel. His daughter is in year seven of a 10-year program for pediatric medicine. She wins awards all over the country for her work. He is a proud father. He is my friend. We play a little tennis and laugh a lot more. At Yoga Vallarta, I am Joyce’s daughter. Despite my mom’s recent hip surgery, she delights in the classes and the friendships she has made there. Sometimes I am not sure if I take classes for exercise or to hear all the stories I have missed since my last visit.
For me, Puerto Vallarta is a place where I can explore, shop, eat, relax and practice my Spanish. It’s my home away from home but I rarely unpack my bags. There are many organized and worthwhile tours available for tourists. You can hire a water taxi to visit the islands, walk the plank with the pirates, catch a boat to see the whales blasting out of the water and soaring through the air or if adventure is your thing, there are zip lining trips where you can fly through the trees of the Sierras. I prefer to wander the cobblestone streets in desperate need of repair, courageously play hopscotch with the buses and visit with the local shop owners and buy, buy, buy whenever possible. My drawers are filled with silver rings and bracelets from Mel, my kitchen stacked with colorful handmade serving bowls from Arelligo and my dad owns more sunglasses from Carmello than the Sunglass Hut produces in a year (I borrow from his collection).
Puerto Vallarta is a vacation spot, it’s a destination, and it’s a place to mess up your passport and escape for a time. Together, this city of locals, retirees, ex-pats and transplants make up one working, thriving community of people making the most of life.
Book your flights now, Puerto Vallarta beckons and maybe if you are lucky the Love Boat will be making another run…
$1 USD is 17.92 Pesos, the Looney is 12.65 Pesos and 1Euro is 19.58 Pesos. There are direct flights from Chicago, Houston, Newark, Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Edmonton and Calgary. Hurry, snow is in the forecast.
My Favorite Spots in Puerto Vallarta
(Full disclosure: I’ve never had a bad meal in PV just better meals)
Casa Naranjo – Family run. Try the pork chop or the sea bass. Quiet off the beaten path spot
Bistro Teresa’s – Location location location and great food (new spot off the main square). See the view stay for the food
Tapas Barcelona – A view is worth a thousand words and so are the dates wrapped in bacon and the potato salad
Vitea – Great spot to watch the sunset. My personal favorite Mojito and red snapper dish
Trio – Take me back to the days of Humphrey Bogart and the kitchen with Julia Child
Joe Jack’s Fish Shack – Ask for a rooftop table and don’t miss the macaroni and cheese and bucket(s) of shrimp
Daiquiri Dick’s – Stellar service and friendly staff, ideal location, strong drinks. Food is so-so. Make it a beach day
River Cafe – Nestled under palm trees along the river, a nice romantic spot for brunch or dinner. Live music
Lindo Mar Resort – Location further south from Romantic Zone in Conchas Chinas stunning views for a drink or snack
La Dolce Vita – Delicious salads and pizza with a margarita to wash it down the hatch. Off the Malecón
Mercado Isle Cuale and Mercado Municipal Cuale
The Farmer’s Market with crafts and food – Saturday mornings in the Romantic Zone – Main Square (by Daiquiri Dick’s)
River Cafe Jewelry Store
Elements of Design – Home decorating, pillows, rugs, beautiful merchandise
Cassandra Shaw Jewelry – Eclectic and every day jewelry emphasis on bold silver pieces
Galleria Dante – Serves as a pseudo museum as well as a place to buy tasteful pieces of art
Sonia Borrmann Design – Hand made jewelry that resembles works of art and Sonia is a lovely person
No Name Boutique – Linen dress and bathing suits
Myskova – Beachwear several locations
POPOS – Men and women’s Swimwear, clothing and crazy sandals
Yoga Vallarta – Yoga and spinning classes
Sheraton – Tennis lessons or put your name in for a match
Fit Club – Clean, nice equipment – typical gym
Vallarta Adventures – Whale watching, zip lining, visit other islands
Pirate Ship – Children should cruise during the day, the ship comes alive for adults in the evening. Fun show
Art Walk – Hit the galleries and sip some wine. Wednesday’s starting around 6:00 pm.