Puerto Vallarta is the best of both worlds—this coastal favorite has golden beaches and tropical jungles, quiet cocktail bars and steamy nightclubs, cobblestone streets and quaint white-washed houses with orange-tiled roofs. On top of all that, it has the same latitude as Hawaii, providing it with year-round balmy temperatures and superabundant sunshine. Whether you’re a city slicker or nature-lover, Puerto Vallarta has something for you. So, amp up your español, dust off your passport, and lighten your luggage. From Bar La Playa to Los Arcos, we’re laying out the top five places that you need to visit in Puerto Vallarta.
Bar La Playa
Nestled between beachwear and souvenir shops, Bar La Playa is a hidden gem that’ll make you sad when it’s last call. With a ten-seat wooden bar inside and five tables on its sidewalk, it might be tiny, but it fits the party-happy vibe of Vallarta. Even if you don’t visit during happy hour—when margaritas are $1.50 and Mexican beers are 76¢—the bar is packed with regulars that’ll share side-splitting stories and travel tips. “Alex the owner is a master mixologist,” says Mikee Bridges from Ventura, California. His Jell-O shots are served in hollowed out strawberries and watermelon rinds. His cocktails are handmade with fresh ingredients like fruits, herbs, juices, and spices, most of which have comical names like It’s All About the Lavender, Green Peace, and Release the Kraken.
Vallarta Botanical Garden
Just 30 minutes from downtown Puerto Vallarta, you’ll find a landscape of unrivaled natural beauty where you can escape into pockets of still-pristine coastal wilderness. Opening in 2005, the Vallarta Botanical Garden (VBG) is primarily dedicated to preserving native Mexican plants such as strangler figs, prickly pear cactus, wild vanilla, and blue agaves. “There are currently around 200 species of orchids of the more than 1,200 that exist in Mexico,” says Jesús Reyes, the co-founder and general director of the VBG. “Many of the orchids you see here were grown in our in vitro propagation lab.”
You could spend your entire visit learning about the more than eight thousand plant species, but there’s so much more to do here. You can hike through swaths of rainforest on the Jaguar Trail, where squawking groups of Lilac-Crowned Amazon parrots wheel through the sky. Then cool off in the Horcones River. It has pools that are separated by house-sized granite boulders. At the Hacienda de Oro, you can tuck into shrimp stuffed avocados or beer-battered fish tacos while enjoying a gorgeous view of the Sierra Madres. You can also watch 13 species of hummingbirds sip nectar from feeders on the terrace.
Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
When Vallarta’s skyline ignites into a myriad of colors, just like a brightly colored Mexican serape, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s crown can be seen miles away. A powerful symbol of Mexican identity and faith, its bells ring 15 and 30 minutes before every mass. Their sound becomes especially inviting during the Feast of Guadalupe that’s held every year from December 1st to the 12th. According to tradition, on December 12, 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared as a dark-skinned woman who spoke Nahuatl. She asked an Indian peasant named Juan Diego to gather Castilian roses from a hillside and then arranged them in his cloak. When he presented it to his local bishop, the flowers tumbled out, and they discovered a life-size image of the Virgin Mary.
“Our Lady retains her appeal without specifically being anchored in religious tradition,” says John Moran Gonzalez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “ She’s seen as the champion of the underdog, of the Indian, of all those who lack power in society.” That’s why tens of thousands of tourists come from around the world to enjoy this annual festival. They leave Milagros to ask her for healing, protection, and good luck. Fireworks decorate and light up the skies. Aztec warriors dance in the streets, and traditional parades entertain the crowds. The central plaza is also filled to the brim with street vendors selling Mexican folk art, Christmas ornaments, and foodstuffs.
Isla Río Cuale
Isla Río Cuale will make you feel like you have one foot in the jungle and the other in the city. Formed by a huge flood caused by a tornado in October of 1926, it’s densely forested by bamboo, Madras Thorns, Caro Caros, and rubber trees. Locally dubbed the Isla de Gatos, roughly 150 feral cats roam the island. “It’s been a dumping ground for the past 20 or 30 years, and people abandon their cats,” says Jill Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Pause 4 Paws, a Minneapolis-based animal charity. You’ll also see orange-fronted parakeets darting around tree crowns, iguanas sunbathing in trees, and otters smashing clams with rocks.
Reached by swinging bridges, its main attractions are its rustic brick-paved streets surrounded by charming thatched bungalows. It also boasts one of the best two-story flea markets in the world. You’ll find everything from sarapes (blankets with a head opening, worn as a cloak) and huaraches (woven leather sandals) to paper machè figures and blown glass. Venture upstairs for authentic Mexican food like coconut ice cream and chicken tamales. Or view a small collection of Pre-Colombian pottery, tombs, and artifacts with English-translated panels at the Cuale Archaeological Museum. Movie buff? There’s a statue of John Huston, who directed The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.
Los Arcos and El Malecón
“If you come to Vallarta and don’t come to the Malecón, you haven’t been to Vallarta,” says Alberto Garcia, who rounds up visitors for time-share presentations. It’s the heart of Puerto Vallarta and its version of a seaside boardwalk: minus the boards. Stretching from the Hotel Rosita to the Río Cuale, it’s a popular meeting point, featuring dancers and musicians playing traditional Mexican folk music. From “The Seahorse” to local sand art, it’s like walking through a beach-side sculpture garden.
If you’re looking for a showstopper, watch the Voladores of Papantla: four men dressed in Totonac costumes rotate around a 65-foot pole to summon the four directions of the universe. Dig into grilled corn coated with cheese. Or down a tejuino, a fermented drink that’s made from the same corn dough as tortillas. Then head to Los Arcos. A symbol of the Puerto Vallarta, it’s used during weekends and holidays as an open-air theater for food tastings, sporting events, cultural performances, and festivals.