Looking out from the balcony of our quirky little condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we can see the Pacific Ocean across a sea of rooftops. It’s not far away physically, down a very steep roadway, a lane really, heavily cobbled and far easier to descend than puff our way back up. Physically close, perhaps only five minutes, but another world away metaphorically. From our hilltop aerie to the north is the town centre, the cathedral with its strange Moorish dome, west is the vast Bahía de Banderas, claimed to be but not actually the largest bay in Mexico. We can see the northern prominence in the misty distance. Modern condos and hotels push up through the quaint old Spanish influenced buildings, pushing aside the terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls like weeds. If the town centre is mostly old, the Hotel Zone, Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta to the north are another matter entirely, with high-rise American style all-inclusives dominating. For those who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing they like. Diane comments that PV has doubled since she last visited 15 years ago. I have never been here before, so my view is uncoloured by past experiences, but apart from a couple of side trips, we stay away from the new areas.
We have our condo for two weeks, kindly lent by neighbours in Toronto. To say the least it is different. Up several steep flights of stairs, that will have our buns and legs ThighMaster taut in days, the two-storey space is entirely palm thatched, like a tree house perched cheekily on top of a building designed by someone entirely different. The bedroom is up a narrow spiral staircase, that I dare not head down forwards, but back down carefully like the companionway on a boat. Not for everyone, but it suits us well as a sunny getaway from snowy Canada.
It seems a peaceful enough scene, as I said, but just as we are enjoying a quiet breakfast on the balcony, loud music starts to play from the plaza we can just make out a few blocks away. Really loud. It’s a morning exercise class. By the time class is over, the buses are thundering down another street, horns blaring, diesel smoke spewing. An hour later, the streets are packed with tourists, poking into the dozens of shops selling the same tacky souvenirs and cheap T-shirts. Left and right construction workers gear up and start hammering and sawing. It’s people friendly alright, but quiet it ain’t.
Time to descend from our loft and discover the real world of Puerto Vallarta. We are staying in the old part of the old town, recently renamed Zona Romantica. I suppose that’s better than Playa de Muertos, Death Beach, its former name. Apart from the souvenir stalls and surprisingly good jewellery shops, the streets are packed with bars, cafés and restaurants, literally hundreds of them. I read somewhere that there are thousand restaurants in PV. I would say that’s a high estimate, but we think we will try a new one for every meal. I’ll write about the ones we like.
Here’s the odd thing about popular restaurants. Nobody really knows what makes them successful. I can’t tell, and that’s why I would never go into the hospitality business. One spot is packed. The next one is totally empty. Some magic, some strange alchemy at work here. The same is true on the streets of PV. One place has patrons lining up in the street. The next has waiters with menus desperately begging for your custom.
A manicured promenade runs the length of the waterfront in the town centre. The Malecón has become entirely a pedestrian precinct since Diane’s last visit and is wide, well lit and crime-free. Of course, there are hustlers and sellers of everything, but a raised palm and a shake of the head sends them on their way. Best not to make eye contact, someone advises me, and it seems to work. The Malecón too is lined with bars and souvenir shops, and a few quite good clothing shops too, where Diane finds the lightweight cotton tops and pants she likes to wear. Some imported from India, some made locally, but nevertheless pretty and not available at home. Just the things for a hot climate. I’ve confined my wardrobe to shorts and polo shirts. No one dresses up down here.
The bars and restaurants fall into two categories: the ones open all day that close at 11 pm or so; the ones that open at 11 pm and waft very loud disco music our way until 4 am every night. You can tell which is which at a glance. The latter are all gilt and glitter and velvet that look tawdry in daylight. Perhaps they look better at night, but I’m not awake long enough to find out. There is a relatively new bridge over the Rio Cuale, creating an extension of the Malecón into our neighbourhood, where there are more bars and restaurants, less rowdy but very popular with the sunset watching crowd.
I’m told there are 300 hotels in PV. Including the Hotel Zone, there are 30,000 hotel rooms here. This doesn’t include the hundreds of condos for rent by absent owners or through agents. It’s clearly not hard to find the accommodation you want in PV, so I won’t dwell on it.
The airport is an interesting experience in itself. Exiting customs is a hall of hustlers. They want you to check out their condo development, hotel, whatever. They offer free taxis, free whale watching, their grandmother, if only you will come to a little presentation. Oh yeah? My advice is to push straight through with a smile on your face and steely determination in your heart. Next you will find the taxi booths. Pre-paying for your ride into town here will make things easier outside. Ask for a private taxi or you might end up in a shared hotel shuttle bus. The driver will be uniformed and the cab air-conditioned.
Taxis in town are plentiful and we decide not to rent a car on this trip. The fares are cheap and the taxi drivers’ union has agreed to a pricing scheme that most follow. But still it’s wise to check the fare first and if you don’t like the price, move on to the next one. The fares are for the whole cab and by zone, so it makes no difference how many passengers there are. They usually don’t expect a tip, although if they offer extra services such as helping with your bags, one is always welcome.
There’s no longer a supermarket in the old town south of Rio Cuale, but there’s a morning farmers’ market for veggies and fruit, easily found, stores selling jug milk and snacks on every corner, liquor stores and pharmacies everywhere. On Saturday’s there’s a street market selling artisanal products and we buy excellent banana bread, home-made yoghurt, strawberries and blackberries bursting with ripe juices, flowers, and a hand-made blouse for Diane. We take a taxi to the Mega market for staples only once as we don’t plan to cook much in the condo. The best pottery and souvenirs are concentrated in a very good indoor market along the north bank of the river between the two bridges.
Watching the sun set is a big sport among visitors to Puerto Vallarta and most evenings we find a bar on the beach or along the Malecón to watch the show. The pier in the old town is a new and exotic piece of art and has an excellent viewpoint as the sun slips slowly below the horizon, just kissing the southernmost point of the bay. Most nights it’s a perfect 10 performance and gets a round of applause from the crowd that has gathered for happy hour.
Later, we walk up a street named Basilio Badillio, which the locals call La calle de los cafés. It is wall to wall restaurants catering to every taste. We try a few and quickly have our favourites, which I will list in a future blog.
We enjoy our two weeks in PV and all too soon the break is over. But for the first time in our travels, we believe we might have found the place to return for a longer winter getaway next year. We didn’t do very much, we didn’t feel the need to get out-of-town (although I’ll rent a car on our next trip for some more exploring), we only made one touristy outing. We simply enjoyed our days by the pool or on the beach, strolling among the crowds, looking at people looking at us, watching the sun set and meeting new people. We made friends, volunteered at an orphanage, spoke to some talented artists, got cheap paperbacks from the book exchange, bought some beautiful silver and amber jewellery, discovered a perfect mojito and ate in a dozen restaurants.
On our last morning, bags packed, I’m sitting on the balcony looking over the ocean, when close inshore I see two jets of spume rising from the water. Two huge humpback whales make their stately progress along the beach and out of sight behind some palms.
What’s not to like?
This article was originally published on February 18, 2013.