Puerto Vallarta is runner-up to Cancun as Mexico’s most popular resort, and its Banderas Bay is just the third largest in all of Mexico, but for a heady mix of old world Mexico and new world eco-travel, PV can’t be beat.
The one-time fishing village today offers tourists of all tastes and desires their time in the sun.
If it’s the good life you crave, there’s Marina Vallarta and its high-end hotels, world famous luxury yacht marina and 18-hole championship golf course.
This is the place to hook up with a fishing charter to drag a few lines around Banderas Bay, one of the world’s premier big game sport fishing locations.
More modest digs can be found in the Vallarta’s Hotel Zone, though many of its hotels and resorts are still of very high international standard. Beaches are sandy and plentiful here, and not surprisingly, water sports of all kind are available all along the Hotel Zone.
If it’s cobblestones, not sand, you like between your toes, Viejo Vallarta is the place to stroll amongst authentic Mexican architecture and along narrow laneways filled with interesting shops and restaurants. Eclectic inns and small resorts are the norm here in Old Town, and if you’re a shopper, the flea market is not to be missed. Even the non-shopper will enjoy strolling through the colourful and fragrant outdoor marketplace; though if you’re not in a bartering mood, keep those feet moving.
And for those who seek out a true smell of authenticity in favour of wafting suntan lotion and taco stands, there’s a day trip to the almost-forgotten town of San Sebastin, a 90-minute drive from Puerto Vallarta that takes you from the tropical beaches of the Pacific through lush jungle and up into the Sierra Madres Mountains, where at 1,370 metres you’ll find the one-time mining town.
And if you do the trip with PV-based Vallarta Adventures, you’ll do it in a comfortable and air-conditioned minivan and have a guided tour of San Sebastin’s history.
And what a history it is. Settled in 1605 – a decade and a half before the Mayflower made Plymouth Rock – San Sebastin would see its population swell to 20,000 at the height of mining activity in the Sierra Madres.
Mining continued here into the 20th century, but today the 600 or so who call the village home earn their living farming cattle, corn, coffee and agave.
Tourism is also part of the local economy; however, there are few visible acknowledgements of this fact, which of course is the very reason to visit a place like San Sebastin in the first place. Highlights include the Temple of San Sebastian (built in 1608), numerous rock and adobe structures sprinkled along winding dirt roads, and some remarkable ruins of the gold and silver foundries that serviced the 25 mines in the area.
Walking the cobblestone plaza with the lush Sierra Madres never far from sight, it’s not difficult to understand why the village is on the tentative list for World Heritage Site certification.
The length of the Vallarta Adventures day trip to San Sebastin is seven hours, and at just $80 US per person that works out to a pretty fair hourly price for an amazing trip into Mexico’s past. Other historic places to visit on a daytrip or overnight from PV include, Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, Tequila, the birthplace of Mexico’s national liqueur, and Talpe de Allende, an important pilgrimage site for the country’s Christians.
If it’s the future, or more specifically, the planet’s future you’re more interested in, there are plenty of tours and adventures in and around Puerto Vallarta with decidedly eco-friendly themes.
But there’s a caveat, amigo. Just as with the words “organic” and “green,” not all eco-adventures come as advertised. Ziplining through a pristine eco- system or bobbing around with dolphins are not what I consider eco-friendly activities. And isn’t it interesting how age-old “hikes” have become “eco- treks”?
Still, there are plenty of bona-fide natural-world wonders on display in this part of Mexico, and there are no shortage of PV-based tour companies offering all manner of adventure, from the sedate such as bird watching and hiking, to the more active such as mountain biking, kayaking and horseback riding.
One of the more unusual adventures, and one that will delight all ages, is the evening sea turtle camp and crocodile adventure offered by Ecotours de Mexico.
Working in conjunction with a team of Mexican biologists on two distinct conservation projects in Banderas Bay, the tour company has unparalleled access to two of the area’s more remarkable creatures – the American crocodile and the Olive Ridley sea turtle.
The tour begins at 5 p.m. at Marina Vallarta, where a guide leads to the Sea Life Water Park and into a restricted marshy lagoon called El Quelele, used by the crocodile conservation program. See the animals up close and learn about their desperate fight for survival due to ever-shrinking habitats.
Then it’s on to the beach to watch one of nature’s greatest opening acts — the hatching under moonlight of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sea turtles, and their subsequent scramble over sand to the ocean for survival.
For a few months each year – typically August through December – Olive Ridley sea turtles arrive en masse to Banderas Bay to lay eggs, and last year some 210,000 babies made it into the ocean.
Whale watching is also a popular activity in Puerto Vallarta, with humpbacks spending the winter months just off shore before heading north past Vancouver Island en route for Alaska.
And just south of town there is El Zoologico de Vallarta, the 64-hectare zoo opened in 2005 and home to some 70 species, including Mexican wolves and white tigers.
So while it is true Puerto Vallarta has that vibrant nightlife so many sun seekers crave when on a winter vacation, there’s also a wild side to the place for those who like to go to bed a little earlier.
A number of airlines and carriers service Puerto Vallarta from most major Canadian airports, including AirTransat, Air Canada, Alaska Airways, American Airways, US Airways and WestJet.
Like most Mexican resorts, PV offers numerous choices in accommodations, from five-star luxury all-inclusive resorts, to modest hotels to small inns and B&Bs.
The best place to start is at www.visitpuertovallarta.com, an exhaustive Tourism Mexico website providing information and contacts required to plan your trip. And be sure to search out some discounts, as what is bad for the global economy seems good for the traveller’s wallet at the moment.
SanSebastian day trip
In addition to Vallarta Adventures (www.vallartaadventures.com), a number of tour operators offer day trips to San Sebastian via minivan. And if you’re really looking for a day trip to remember, check out the handful of operators that fly into San Sebastin’s airstrip each day.
Sea Turtle camp
Operated August through December by Ecotourism de Mexico (www. ecotoursvallarta.com), this evening adventure includes a visit to a crocodile habitat followed by a visit to the beach and the remarkable birth of hundreds of sea turtles.