Experience Puerto Vallarta
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
Once a year, go someplace you've never gone before. --Delai Lama
I've always had this thing about traveling. Since a child and our family trips, my first international trip to London, England, at 18 years old, and my years of leaving abroad, travel has given me a sense of enlightenment, adventure, and intelligence that only experiences can. Puerto Vallarta came to mind after missing a girls trip in 2021 as I'd booked a trip to Tampa, FL, to hang with an acquaintance I'd met in Mexico early during the year.
Honestly, I'd never heard of it although having been to Los Cabos, which is also on the western coast of Mexico. So, when I decided to visit, I took time to get my bearings by doing extensive research. I originally invited my significant other to accompany me, but he was unable to join, a common misfortune when people plan vacations. So, having a love for solo travel and appreciating my alone time, I decided to make this another solo adventure full of fun, rest, and renewal.
When planning a solo trip, safety is one of my primary concerns. I leave nothing to chance. First, I sit down and plan out my entire itinerary by researching the destination and doing a Google search for the top things to do in the city. I write down hour by hour my agenda, map out the area to be informed, and plan my entire wardrobe. Second, I book transportation and activities, and make hotel and restaurant reservations.
For the past three years, I have used Gray Line Transportation to get me to and from the airports in Mexico. I love the ease of walking off the plane and out the door in a foreign country to be greeted by someone holding my name and escorting me to my private car. The great thing about this company is that the service is not expensive and the security of knowing someone is there and waiting helps me navigate getting to my hotel and back to the airport on time.
During the day to day travel, I usually take taxis or Uber. In Puerto Vallarta, taxi service was easy, convenient, and inexpensive. I actually made a comparison of the taxi cost to the Uber cost for one trip and found the taxi was much less expensive. In fact, when calling a taxi, the hotels write down the taxi number in case you leave something behind and the price of the trip. They said this keeps guests from being overcharged, something that Tulum could definitely implement. So, my mode of transportation around the city was by taxi unless my booked tour provided hotel pick up and drop off. We'll get to that a little later.
I prefer to use Viator to book activities. I especially like this site because it offers an itinerary, photos, and prices up front to help me budget my expenses. Once I select my activities, I have direct contact with the tour guides and they keep me posted on times to be ready and all of my needs for the activity. This has been the case for trips inside and outside of the United States.
Where to Stay
Puerto Vallarta is actually made up of two states and cities. There's the city of Puerto Vallarta and then there's Nuevo Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta is closer to the mountain ranges and is more of the city vibe. Nuevo Vallarta is quieter and more residential. For my trip, I chose to stay in Nuevo Vallarta, in an area called Vidanta, a newer area away from downtown. As a solo traveler, I prefered to be outside of the fast past. I visited the city during the day but stayed in Nuevo Vallarta at night.
My hotel of choice was Ocean Breeze, which is known as Sea Garden by the locals. From the time of arrival, I was greeted with a glass of wine and bellmen who were the light of my mornings and afternoons. These guys greeted me every morning and evening, kept me accommodated when I was looking to head out, and when it was time to get my Covid test, they drove me over to the resort and back. I have nothing but positive words for this hotel and staff. The check in and out process was super easy and the staff was simply superb. I really could not have asked for a better, nicer group of people to service me.
My room was on the fourth floor and was a nice size with an ocean view. The halls were open to sky views and the lobby below.
The rooms were well-insulated as I didn't hear noise unless I opened the doors to listen to the ocean waves. Housekeeping came in every morning and afternoon as my bed was made and turned back in the evenings.
There are two main dining areas with direct access to the beach. I only ate at one during my stay for lunch because I was out in the morning and evenings.
The hotel is part of the Vidanta community, which gives you access to several hotel resorts and restaurants in the area. As I have stated before, I am not a fan of large, all-inclusive resorts when traveling abroad. I feel as though you lose the essence of the culture of the country, which is part of the experience for me.
Sea Garden is nice enough to give you some of the luxuries of a resort, but small enough to stay true to the culture that is Nuevo Vallarta.
Having an opportunity to converse daily with taxi drivers, they echoed my thinking. As one noted, "We are grateful for the resorts because they give us jobs, but they are not representative of the culture. It's just not our culture. It is it's own community."
A beautiful waterfall welcomes you into the hotel lobby that also ushers you out to the pool and beach area.
The entrance of Sea Garden Ocean Breeze and the pool area are picture perfect.
After a night out, I enjoyed a stroll out by the pool.
Where to Eat
As I have stated, I am an avid planner. I actually do a Google Map search of the city before I leave and zone in on all the restaurants near the hotel. I click on those that seem to appeal to me, view their pictures, and their menu. I decided on the following restaurants because they were not only picturesque, but because they had great reviews, were close to my hotel, would provide me with a variety in food choices, and provided the ambiance I wanted for my dinners.
Porto Bello Bistro & Lounge
Located in Nuevo Vallarta and walking distance from the Grand Mayan Resort, this Italian restaurant offers great food and beautiful views. It is not on the resort but rather off the highway.
Located on the Grand Mayan Resort, La Cantina offers a nice setting for a night out and serves authentic Mexican comfort food. Unlike Porta Bella, this restaurant does not take reservations and is first come first served. When I arrived there was a line, but I was able to be seated at the bar instead choosing to wait for a table outside. FYI -- The drinks are exceptional.
Santuario Bar & Lounge
This beautiful lounge offers live entertainment throughout the night. No reservations are needed but with a purchase of two cocktails, you are able to get reserved seating. For dinner, I chose to go with a light meal of Makis (sushi).
The entertainment here is varied from a jazz pianist, to a band, to these Mexican dancers all in the same evening.
Quinto Charcoal Cuisine
Quinto Charcoal is located in the Sky Lounge at the top of the Grand Luxxe. The location is absolutely stunning and offers views of the city. The staff was extremely polite and helpful when I was deciding what I should order to eat and drink. Of all the fantastic meals and drinks I was served, I would say this restaurant was second to none. The food and drinks were nothing less than amazing. Reservations are needed for this restaurant unless you are willing to sit at the bar.
Things to Do
There are a plethora of activities to be done in Puerto Vallarta. You can go to the many beach clubs, whale watch, rent yachts, and even take tours of neighboring islands. However, if you would like to engulf yourself into the culture and learn more about the city, opt for a city tour.
Using Viator, I booked the City Highlights Tour. This is a 6 hour tour, so plan for it. The van picked me up from my hotel around 9 a.m. and took me to meet the other participants, 9 other people. The first stop on tour was the Puerto Vallarta Malecon (Boardwalk). Here you really get to experience Puerto Vallarta, see the many statues along the boardwalk, view the large sand castles, and get to visit the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is also where you will find the large Puerto Vallarta sign.
Malecon is a vibrant area that is full of life and culture. As I walked the boardwalk, I was able to shop at the local stores, visit the church, and interact with the locals.
My tour guide shared historical facts about the area, including where Puerto Vallarta got its name and that the statues along the boardwalk were relocated after a hurricane.
You should be aware that no cars are allowed on the boardwalk. So, if this is a place you'd like to visit and are driving, know that you will need to find parking along the side streets.
In this area, you can expect to experience locals attempting to sell you all types of tourism items. Although this was the only place I experienced it, it was not overbearing. A simple decline was all it took to get them to back off. I did visit some of the local shops because some of my favorite hats have come by way of Mexico.
After enjoying the boardwalk, our van met us to take us up the mountain to a village for coffee tasting. Along the way, you see a series of luxury hotels. You also see some of the most exclusive communities and the mansion of the wealthiest family in Puerto Vallarta. Honestly, I was unimpressed at the location of the hotels. This area is right at the foot of the mountains. The hotels actually sit at the bottom of the mountain and the beaches are under a cliff. The road the hotels sit on is extremely narrow and the area is congested, full of construction, and louder than Nuevo Vallarta. It really is a preference of what you like on vacation. The location does offer you access to the shopping areas and you are within the city limits. So, if you'd prefer to be in the mix of the city, want to enjoy the nightlife, which Puerto Vallarta is known for, and the boutique shops, this is the location to choose.
When we arrived in the village in Boca de Tomatlan, we first visited Cafe Hacienda Maria Bonita, a nice coffee shop right next door to the Baston Del Rey tequila distillery. Upon entering the shop, we were greeted with a frappuccino...I should tell you that I am not a big coffee drinker. Wait! Who am I kidding? I'm not a coffee drinker AT ALL, so this stop was not something I chose. It just happened to be a stop along the tour. With that clarified...I was greeted with a frappuccino, and I was quite impressed. It was absolutely delicious! Had I not tasted any of the other coffee, I'd might consider myself a new coffee drinker.
At this stop, we learned an array of things about coffee beans, how they are made, that the beans came from villages higher up the mountain, and which coffee has more caffeine and why. I actually tried various coffee, but because I don't like coffee, I did not leave convinced to become a coffee drinker. However, the tour was actually interesting.
While there and being the educator I am, I spotted an elementary school across the street. The tour guide graciously showed us both the elementary and middle schools in the village, which were modest facilities with very little advancements. It made you really understand the advantages we have in even some of our poorest schools in the United States. However, like most students I have had the pleasure of teaching from Mexico, the students were mannerable, attentive, and engaged.
I also had the opportunity to enjoy a horse ride from a local in the village. He was such a pleasure to interact with and he added a little something to the stop I had not anticipated as this was not part of the tour.
After our coffee stop, we loaded the van and headed up the mountain to another village where we had a tequila tasting and lunch at Rancho Los Veranos. Lunch was included in my tour purchase, but it was a limited offering. So, for a few more dollars, I was able to have more options and purchase a margarita. After placing our lunch order, we walked over to the other side to partake in the tequila tasting as lunch was being prepared.
I actually learned a lot about tequila, why the tequila we drink burns, why it is clear, and used in mixed drinks. I learned to recognize the better tequila, why the better tequila is smooth (doesn't burn) and where it gets its brown color. After taking EIGHT shots of tequila on an empty stomach, I did cognizantly purchase two bottles. One of the smoothest, most aged tequilas to sip with the fellow and the other for its flavor.
At the end of the tequila tasting, lunch was ready. I enjoyed a great meal and live music from a Guatemalan father and son.
If you are looking for a little excitement and adventure, you might opt for riding ATVs through the mountains. There are several companies that offer ATV rides. One even allows you to drive the ATV across a swinging bridge. I'm fairly brave, but I just couldn't convince myself to choose that one. I chose to go with Estigo Tours. They have a large number of reviews and their rating was near perfect.
With this tour, you have an option of taking a morning or afternoon tour. I chose the morning tour. Either tour is 4 hours long. Unlike the city tour, they do not pick you up or drop you off at your hotel, so you'll need to catch a taxi or Uber. I simply caught a taxi.
To ride, you need to bring your current driver's license. Once your driver's license is recorded, you will go through a safety protocol, which consisted of watching a video and then a brief review of the ATVs.
Our ride began with a drive through the old city. Then, we began the trek up the mountain. This was not the same route taken on the city tour. Along this route, we road through actual towns and saw businesses and homes along the mountain. When we got higher up, we saw free moving cattle along the road...just chilling looking at us. A little higher up, the paved road changed to dirt and then the dusty fun began.
This trip was such a thrilling experience. The crew that guided us along were funny, personable, and really pushed you to have fun. If you like outside and don't mind getting really dirty, I definitely recommend.
The tour guides are avid about helping others in the villages. So, expect other stops. For this tour, that was a stop at a family tequila distillery high in the mountains where we were served lunch, margaritas, and participated in another (unexpected) tequila tasting. Of course, because we were driving, they were mindful of how much tequila they were serving.
Like all the food I had on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, the food was exceptional. Fact is I eat and drink very well whenever I visit Mexico. Not just authentic Mexican food, but whatever cuisine I choose always taste superb.
Now, let's chat about the tequila. I really liked two tequila flavors I tried, but because I'd already bought two bottles the previous day, I chose to pass on purchasing those. I thought about it hard but recognized that there was no way I would be able to pack all those bottles into my suitcase, but the two tequilas I am showing you in the picture were something serious! One was used for cooking and grilling and the other was just a nice vanilla flavor.
If I go back, I will keep this family in mind and try to get back to purchase. The tequilas are not sold in the stores, so I will either have to make my way back up to them or I can contact my tour company and request they send the bottles to them and I can pick it up in the city.
Imagine flying between cliffs, over springs, and rivers. That's the experience you get when you book ziplining. I chose this combination tour that included the ATV and ziplining experiences. How it worked was that we rode our ATVs up the mountain to the other tour service. Those who did not book the ziplining, hung out at the restaurant while we spent time ziplining through the mountains. This was also a fun experience. My only complaint was that I had no idea how much hiking I'd do. I mean it was some extreme inclining to reach the next zipline. I was utterly exhausted as I reached the next spot as were everyone else as we climbed. So, be prepared.
On this course, you will find lines that cause you to move at various speeds. Some lines are known to take you across in high speeds, while others are much slower. I managed to get across most lines quickly while enjoying the hidden secrets within the mountain.
But then there was this one slow line that I didn't. Your weight plays a factor in how fast you move. The children participating typically had to "be saved" on most lines. The adults usually made it across and needed to slow themselves as they approached the safety guides. But this line was slow. I am no lighty and still couldn't get across.
I cannot reiterate how beautiful the views were, but keep in mind that as high up I am, I had to walk to get there. Be prepared for some heavy breathing, perspiring, and thirst (they provide water at some lines). While waiting at some lines, you also get a history lesson. I learned that the trail I was walking was once walked by Aztecs trying to hide from the invading Spaniards. There is something surreal about walking a trail so rich in history from the culture's ancestors of the past. It was humbling and spiritual.
If you prefer to enjoy some of the popular hotels that you don't necessary want to stay, try a day pass. I looked into several, but some of the vibes and known customers were not my crowd. When I came across Hotel Riu, I thought it'd be the perfect choice for me. This massive hotel is a vibrant, all inclusive resort in Nuevo Vallarta. It is considered the most luxurious hotel in the area. I considered booking there, but knowing my attitude about resorts and culture, I chose to keep my reservation at Ocean Breeze and I am glad I did. The hotel is exquisite, regal in a sense, but also crowded. However, the time spent there was enjoyable.
Unlike many places in the United States, all beaches in Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta are public. Hotels cannot block people's access. So, you can visit the beach without getting a day pass, if you'd prefer.
The beach area at Hotel Riu was nice, but it wasn't any nicer than the beach at my hotel. In fact, I'd say that I preferred the beach at my hotel because it's not as crowded.
I didn't come to Hotel Riu because of the beach. I actually chose to come here to enjoy the massive pool and ambiance that comes along with it.
While the beach didn't offer a uniqueness from my hotel, the pool area definitely did. There were more activities occurring around the pool. At the time I was there, pool aerobics was the activity. I liked how the pool was so massive, that I was still able to get in without being near those participating in aerobics.
Getting a day pass is not easy on crowded days. In fact, when I arrived, they didn't want to sell me a pass because they said the hotel was full. As you see, I managed to get through, but call before you head out to visit.
There is so much more to do in Puerto Vallarta and it is definitely a city I will visit again. The character, culture, and customer service sold me on making this another place in Mexico to have on my quick getaway list. For this vacation, it was everything I needed and one I won't soon forget.
For more stories about my vacation adventures, places to visit, and tips from a novice solo traveler and how I manage, click other posts and like me on Instagram.