Puerto Vallarta was not originally created for modern tourism. Puerto Vallarta enjoys a definite history of its own. The original population, as recent discoveries and archeological studies show, was of various tribes of Aztec Indians. They developed cultural and commercial relations along the Pacific coast. Puerto Vallarta was part of the pre-Columbian indigenous kingdom of Xalisco. The ancient people took advantage of the fertile lands of the Valley of Banderas. The sea was overlooked as the main resource. Even today, Puerto Vallarta is not a bustling shipping port. Puerto Vallarta's port facilities serve only cruise ships and recreational craft.
The Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Banderas) and the Valle de Banderas (Valley of Banderas) were named by the Spanish when Hernan Cortez's nephew was traveling in this area. He encountered several native warriors with banners and outfits made of colorful bird feathers. The Spaniards had flags with the Spanish Herald and the Virgin Mary apparently shone the metal with the sunlight and the reflection drove them off. The town that is now Puerto Vallarta first began when the enterprising Guadalupe Sanchez established a trading post on the banks of Rio Cuale to supply salt to the gold and silver mines in the mountains toward Guadalajara. The ore was loaded into ships waiting in the bay. The three offshore rock formations south of town were navigational landmarks from earlier times. The original name of the early municipality was Puerto de las Peñas, named for the prominent rocks. Puerto Vallarta was named after Don Ignacio Luis Vallarta a well-known governor of the State of Jalisco.
The Spanish expeditions started in the beginning of the 15th Century in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains that surround the Valley of Banderas. They discovered mines that were exploited later in the century. The mineral was moved by mules and donkeys ashore, to be transported to Spain. The town began to grow peacefully; the people started fishing as a way of living. Slowly the area changed from a small ranch to a small very attractive town.
In 1918, a U.S. company, The Montgomery Corporation, was established in the north of Vallarta with a big banana plantation mainly for exportation. The area grew very quickly. The Company produced pre-built houses and a railroad to easily bring the product from the farm to the coast. Punta Mita, the northern point of the Bay, was known for its oysters and pearls found in that area.
Puerto Vallarta has been somewhat isolated by the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains and the lack of bridges over the rivers. There were no direct roads leading to the town until 1966 when the land around was leveled for building an international airport. By 1970 Puerto Vallarta was fully accessible by land, sea and air and Puerto Vallarta began to shape into a leading tourism destination.
Today Vallarta has grown as a modern city with more than 15,000 occupations. It has been modernized but at the same time has kept the old Mexican flavor intact. Natural beauty is well preserved and there are many projects going on to maintain the beauty of the surroundings. Puerto Vallarta has many attractive things to offer. You will find mountains, forests, rivers, and history, but the best thing is the warmth and kindness of the people.
Puerto Vallarta was known as "Puerto Las Peñas" from 1851 until 1918 when it was designated as a municipality and received the official name of "Puerto Vallarta". This was the name chosen in honor of Don Ignacio L. Vallarta, a reputable representative of the State of Jalisco at the time. For 30 years this small village remained a fishing village.
International attention was first drawn to Puerto Vallarta after American director John Houston discovered the natural beauties of the town by reading written descriptions from travelers. This prompted Mr. Houston to visit Puerto Vallarta and the result was the filming of the movie "Night of the Iguana" in nearby Mismaloya. The film featured Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Puerto Vallarta has experienced massive growth in the northern part of town, including the Marina Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta areas. Tennis courts, health clubs, golf courses and a large marina with up-to-date facilities make Puerto Vallarta a truly world class destination.
As Mexico's largest bay, Puerto Vallarta is perfectly positioned in its center and is one of the most beautiful bays in the world. We've certainly come a long way from a sleepy little fishing village. Puerto Vallarta was destined to become a highly desirable international resort with some 3,700,000 tourists visiting last year alone.
1. Visit the Botanical Gardens
Vallarta’s Botanical Gardens may be one of the most underrated attractions of the city. Here you’ll find all of the beauty you can expect in a botanical garden but with lush jungle trails, amazing bird watching and a river to swim in. Admission is $100 pesos ($7 CAD) and the garden is open Tuesday through to Sunday. The gardens are a bit outside of the Old Town but are still accessible by bus (about 40 mins away). You can take the bus from Aquacate and Carranza in Old Town at about $22 pesos each way.
2. Hire a Taxi as a Tour Guide
A taxi driver as a tour guide?! Yes! After all, aren’t they the ones who know a place best? In most touristy cities in Mexico, you’ll find that taxi drivers are happy to offer you an hourly rate. This lets you tour some of the hot spots in the city without having to take multiple buses, taxis or expensive guided tours. It would also be beneficial for someone travelling in a group of 4 (helps split the costs) and is great if you’re pressed for time and want to maximize your day. Our driver took us south along the coast to some beautiful lookout points and we were able to hop off, snap some photos (or buy a fresh coconut!) and then hop back in. We hired a taxi for an hour and it came to $250 pesos (Winter, 2016).
3.Take the Bus to Mismaloya Beach
Mismaloya is essentially what put Vallarta on the map in the first place. If it weren’t for the 1964 film ‘The Night of the Iguana’, Puerto Vallarta just might have remained a sleepy fisherman’s village. The film was mostly set at Mismaloya Beach which is a short bus ride away from the Old Town. Hop on an orange bus headed to Boca de Tomatlan and hold on tight. The ride alone is sure to be entertaining, especially if you’ve never taken a local bus in Mexico before. The beach at Mismaloya is quieter than Playa Los Muertos and you can enjoy some freshly caught fish at one of the beachfront restaurants. Expect (very) basic washroom facilities at the beach and there’s no wifi here either!
4.Tour the Marina
A short bus ride from the Old Town will take you to Marina Vallarta (not to be confused with the loading dock where most tours depart from). Two great points of reference for this part of Vallarta are the giant whale sculpture and the King Neptune statue that are found on the main strip right by Plaza Neptuno. There has been a fair bit of development around the marina in recent years and there are tons of shops, trendy restaurants and great photo ops. Shopping here is not for the budget savvy traveller but there is a great boardwalk and it’s a nice place to enjoy a walk and admire the huge yachts docked at the marina.
5. Walk the Malecon – Day & Night
Don’t miss the chance to walk Vallarta’s iconic Malecon. On one side of the boardwalk you’ve got the beautiful bay and the other side is lined with shops, restaurants and bars spanning nearly 12 blocks! It’s a great area to explore during the day but be sure to come back at night once the streets are lit up, the bars have their music blaring and the street performers are out in full force. Keep your eyes peeled for the nightly fireworks that go off from the Marigalante pirate ship on the water (usually around 9:30-10pm depending on the season).
6. Explore Las Marietas
I hear you already, “Las Marietas tours are so expensive! How could this be on your list of cheap things to do in Puerto Vallarta?!” I swear, it’s possible. By taking a ‘panga’ from Punta de Mita, we were able to save some pesos and our tour of the islands came out to less than $40 CAD each.
For a true tequila tasting experience, it would be ideal to travel straight to the source: Tequila, Jalisco. If you’re not up for the 4+ hour drive, you’ve still got plenty of opportunities to taste tequila in Puerto Vallarta. A budget suggestion? Avoid the tours and visit one of the many tequila shops in town and along the malecon. You’ll get your fair share of samples and inevitably learn a thing or two about how the stuff is made from the chatty salesmen. It’s also cheaper to buy a bottle here to last for all the happy hours of your trip instead of racking up a tab at the bar.
8. Learn About Huichol
Huichol art is unique to the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango. It is very symbolic for the indigenous Huichol people and is commonly expressed through yarn paintings or intricate bead work. You’ll find that some markets, shops or galleries in Vallarta have people demonstrating the art of Huichol so you can take a peak and learn about this important Mexican tradition.
9. Shopping at Rio Cuale
If your budget allows for some shopping, avoid the touristy shops on the malecon and head straight to the market at the River Cuale. Remember that you’re in Mexico and bargaining is expected (something that I still struggle with!). Most market stalls don’t open until about 10am but there are indoor and outdoor stands with everything from tacky souvenirs to authentic tapestries. My favourite part about the River Cuale area is walking across the shaky foot bridge that still makes me nervous!
10.Try Some Mexican Beach Food
Sometimes Playa Los Muertos can get a bit crowded, especially during the high season. But there’s something about the constant music, happy crowds and fun atmosphere that makes the beach so enjoyable. One of the things I love most here is that it’s only a matter of minutes before a vendor comes by with delicious treats to satisfy your cravings. Keep your eyes peeled for the colourful candy cart!
11. Self-Guided Food Tour
Sure, you can pay upwards of $60 CAD for an English guide to take you around to some of the local restaurants in town. But a budget traveller wouldn’t. Brush up on your Spanish and visit these places yourself. Wander the streets and follow your nose. Order something you’ve never heard of. Point at the food when you don’t know what it’s called. Have fun!
12.Visit the Local Fish Market
The fish market in Puerto Vallarta is definitely worth a visit. Especially if you come at the right time and get to see the day’s catch being brought it. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! Even if you’re not able to cook fresh fish at your hotel or hostel, it’s quite an experience to see all the action that goes on. The market is at Col. 5 de Diciembre and there are also fruits and veggies for sale. If you here a squeaky mechanical sound, you’re likely close to a tortilleria where you can see/taste/buy some fresh tortillas.
Some of my favourite budget eats in the old town are: the taco stands outside of the Guadalajara drugstore on Insurgentes, Cenaderia Celia on Lazaro Cardenas or any place that is busy (+ looks clean) and has a sign out front advertising ‘Comida Corrida.’
13. Try Jalisco’s Pozole
You can’t leave Mexico without trying pozole and don’t leave Vallarta without trying the Jalisco version! This traditional Mexican soup is made with hominy and is prepared in many different ways across the country. In Jalisco, red pozole is most common and the soup is cooked with chicken, pork and served with a variety of fresh toppings. SO good.
14.Experience the Nightlife
If you’re eager to experience a night out, Puerto Vallarta has no shortage of bars and clubs for tons of drinking and dancing. Many places along the Malecon have great 2×1 drink specials, happy hour deals and even free drinks for ladies. You can get 1 litre of your favourite mixed drink in a styrofoam cup (follow the locals), swing over the Malecon at La Vaquita or simply enjoy the nightly food stalls lined up by the infamous Los Arcos.
15.FREE Sculpture Walking Tour on the Malecon
Every Tuesday at 9:30 am, a group gathers at the Malecon sculpture called “Millennium” next to the Hotel Rosita. These guided sculpture tours are in English, about 2 hours long and give a very informative tour about the history and importance of the sculptures along the Malecon. The free tour ends with refreshments at the guide’s gallery, Galeria Pacifico. Donations are encouraged.
16.FREE Voladores de Papantla
Each evening, starting from 6pm, catch a free performance on the Malecon of the brave ‘voladores de Papantla’ as they spin around a 50 foot pole and perform a traditional flying ritual.
17. Naval History Museum
It’s easy to miss – the Naval History Museum is hidden in plain sight at the main square near Los Arcos. Here you’ll learn about the origins of the Navy in Mexico and the history of settlement in Puerto Vallarta. Entrance and tours are available to visitors for free and the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday.
EDIT: The Naval History Museum is no longer free. Admission is 45 pesos for adults and 30 pesos for students and seniors with valid ID.
18. FREE Vallarta Art Walk
Wednesdays from 6 to 10pm, several galleries open late for tourists to enjoy the weekly self-guided Art Walk. Many galleries serve snacks or refreshments and it’s nice to enjoy the art when the streets are quieter and the crowds are few.
19.FREE Salsa Lessons
At La Bodeguita del Medio, you can experience a bit of Cuba in Mexico. Every night a live Cuban band plays around 10pm and twice weekly the club hosts free salsa lessons. Those with two left feet can sit back, grab a mojito and enjoy the entertainment at this authentic salsa club.
20. FREE Live Music
Every Thursday and Saturday at around 6pm, the Municipal Band plays live music in the gazebo at the main plaza (near the central church). This is a great time of day to take in the sights and sounds of the city, especially on weekends when crowds gather to be entertained by the comical street performers at the stage near Los Arcos.
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