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From sleepy fishing village to one of Mexico’s top resort destinations, Puerto Vallarta is a place of many moods. Located on the Pacific coast of Jalisco, the city and nearby towns are oriented around the Bay of Banderas, where migrating whales and dolphins play. Newer communities wrap around the bay’s north end, toward Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita, where gated enclaves attract celebrities with sprawling golf courses and increasingly luxurious amenities. The laid-back beach towns to the north draw surfers and RVers, while the older part of Puerto Vallarta proper is home to American and Canadian snowbirds and retirees, many of whom eventually make their vacations permanent.
Restaurants, markets, art galleries, and taco stands line the cobblestone streets, and open-air beachfront palapas house dozens of restaurants where you can dine with your toes in the sand. While strolling past the iconic cathedral and down the seaside malecon (a pedestrian promenade studded with palm trees and contemporary sculptures), it’s easy to see what made the Hollywood set fall so in love with the place in the 1960s.
The moment you exit the customs area at Vallarta’s Díaz Ordaz International Airport (PVR), you’ll be greeted by an endless parade of cab- and tour-company reps vying for your attention. Make your way outside to the official taxi line to get where you need to go. (Rideshare apps work in Vallarta but only for airport dropoffs, not pickups.) If you plan on staying in town or spending most of your time at your rental, you can probably get by with cabs and rideshare apps, but if you plan on exploring farther afield, rental agencies near the airport will get you sorted.
The weather is best in Vallarta from November to April — that’s when most of the town’s part-time residents arrive, escaping their frigid northern homes for the winter. It also happens to coincide with whale-watching season, which runs roughly from December to March. Tourism is especially high around Christmas and Easter. The annual Virgin of Guadalupe pilgrimage, which takes place over the first 12 days in December, is one of the year’s most anticipated events, complete with parade floats, festive costumes, and a night market where vendors sell tamales, pies, and crafts. The weather turns hot and muggy around May, and by July the summer rains come steadily, keeping crowds at bay until around October. Temperature-wise, the Pacific Ocean is swimmable all year round, but it’s wise to stay out of the water for a few days after a heavy storm.
Every Wednesday evening during high season (late October to late May), Puerto Vallarta’s downtown galleries host a kind of communal open house, keeping their doors open late as art lovers mill about drinking wine and checking out the latest exhibitions from the region’s renowned contemporary painters, sculptors, and photographers. Notable stops include Galería Uno, the city’s oldest gallery, and Galería Pacifico.
Founded in 1605, this silver-mining town in the Sierra Madre mountains offers a glimpse at what colonial life was like in Jalisco, and makes a great day-trip from the city (it’s about a 90-minute scenic drive from downtown). Visit its historic churches and haciendas, and for those interested in spirits, check out the regional drink raicilla — a type of piney mezcal distilled from cooked agave.
Colorful papel picado flutters above the cobblestone streets of the picture-postcard pueblo mágico (magical town) of Sayulita, in the state of Nayarit, about a 45-minute drive from the airport. Shop for jewelry and crafts in the pastel-colored boutiques, take a surf lesson, or join a yoga retreat. Up the road in San Pancho, you’ll find laid-back village vibes and art made by the local Huichol community.