Un-resort vacationing in Puerto Vallarta

By Tom Carter
December 9, 2006

MISMALOYA, Mexico — When my outdoorsy daughter, who goes snowboarding, rock climbing and rowing for recreation, heard we were considering Puerto Vallarta for vacation, she groaned with disappointment. “That’s a resort,” she said dismissively.

But after a morning of snorkeling in the crystal blue waters off Los Arcos islands among thousands of brilliantly colored tropical fish, followed by an afternoon of serious hiking from the fishing village of nearby Boca de Tomatlan through the jungle to a hidden white-sand beach where she watched a lizard snatch a butterfly from the air, she was hooked.

“This is better than I thought it was going to be,” she said before slipping into a deep, contented sleep.

Lining the beaches of Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta is rightly famous for its spectacular resorts — where thousands of visitors flock and are cocooned in luxurious tropical surroundings; where sumptuous meals are standard; and the only decisions to be made are whether to play a round of golf, go to the spa, order a margarita or take a dip in the pool.

For a price, Puerto Vallarta has Jet Skis to rent, parasailing, swimming with dolphins, and jungle zip lines. As with any resort, T-shirt and trinket stores line the streets, and there are dozens of bars and nightclubs where Jalisco tequila and Pacifico beer with a wedge of lime flow freely and cheaply.

For the adventurous, there are other sides to Puerto Vallarta.It has become an artists’ colony and collectors’ destination, with dozens of galleries on the old cobblestone streets featuring a surprising variety of mediums and styles.

On the weekly Art Walk linking 17 galleries, I found the traditional pottery of Mata Ortiz arresting, but a friend with a critical eye who buys art for a living was particularly impressed with the Omar Alonso Gallery, across the street from the Cafe des Artists restaurant.

“There were several world-class artists there that even a novice art collector would appreciate,” she said.

Puerto Vallarta is also a fast-growing retirement destination for Canadian and U.S. citizens, who live in gleaming waterfront condominiums at about one-third of the cost of living in the United States.

It also is home to an astonishing array of restaurants — from street stalls selling tacos and enchiladas to the River Cafe, where I had the best fried calamari I have ever tasted.

The Cafe des Artists has a menu that would not be out of place alongside the best in New York or San Francisco. Le Cliff, overlooking the bay, is about a 20-minute drive from downtown and is one of the most beautifully situated restaurants in the area — perfect for a marriage proposal such as the one the entire restaurant witnessed while we were there.

She said,”Yes.”

For those willing, Puerto Vallarta is a great starting point for excellent surfing.

We made our base the Casa Iguana, a family hotel in Mismaloya, about 15 minutes from old-town Puerto Vallarta and 150 yards from the beach that John Huston, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put on the map when filming the “Night of the Iguana” in 1964.

Before “Iguana,” Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy fishing village.

The Casa Iguana is a comfortable but simple hotel with 43 two- and three-bedroom suites, each with a kitchenette and dining area. The cost is about $100 a night, depending on the season.

We reserved a car for airport pickup for $20 a day. Driving was surprisingly easy. Puerto Vallarta drivers were unfailingly polite, readily yielding right of way, and rarely went above 35 mph.

Just outside the airport, we bought groceries at Wal-Mart. Then, after poking along Puerto Vallarta’s oceanfront Malecon, or promenade, and then along the winding coastal highway, we arrived in Mismaloya.

Most tourists at the downtown resorts pay $45 for boat transportation, equipment rental and an hour of snorkeling off Los Arcos, but we walked the cobblestone street from our hotel, past the sunning iguanas and taco stands to the Mismaloya beach, where Mexican families were swimming. At least a dozen local boat operators offer snorkeling gear and transportation to Los Arcos for $15 to $20 a person.

Roberto and his son, Dante Aron, took us out early to avoid the tourist rush. A 10-minute boat ride, a splash in the warm, clear water, and we were amid thousands of yellow, blue, black and green tropical fish. By the time the cattle boats — those loaded with resort snorkelers crowded onboard — arrived from Puerto Vallarta an hour later, we were tired and returned to the beach, where for 80 cents each, we lunched on tacos made from shrimp and marlin, drenched in lime and spicy salsa.

The next day, we decided to drive back around the bay, past the airport to Sayulita, where we had heard there were waves, plus surfboards available for rent.

Sayulita is about 20 miles north of Puerto Vallarta. At Bucherias, the road goes over a mountain and through a Sierra Madre forest to reach the Pacific Ocean. On some stretches of the two-lane highway, the road was covered by a canopy of trees, and hundreds — maybe thousands — of white and yellow butterflies danced above the road, reminding us of a magical snowfall or the cherry blossoms falling from the trees at the Tidal Basin.

Sayulita beach has a half-dozen surf shops, each renting surfboards for $20 a day and offering private lessons for $40 a hour. Depending on tide, wind and Pacific storms, the break can go left or right, over sand or coral reef. Beware of the sea urchins’ spines.

Sayulita has a perfect beginner’s wave, small enough that it is not intimidating but large enough to give a thrill. For better surfers, about three miles north is San Francisco — known locally as San Pancho — where a near perfect 5-foot barrel breaks when it is firing.

At Sayulita, when the tide and wind conspired to give the break some power, depth and shape, dozens of local surfers — including several retired gringos — suddenly appeared on large and small boards and put on a dazzling display of surfing skills. And what surfing community would be complete without a surfing dog?

My wife and I sunned on the beach, drinking strong Mexican espressos, eating grilled shrimp with lime (five shrimp for $2) or chili-and-cheese enchiladas and occasionally walking out to bob in the warm Pacific surf.

We also took a short walk, past Villa Amour, a waterfront luxury hotel featured recently in Conde Nast Traveler, over the hill and through the local cemetery to a secluded cove and deserted white-sand beach right out of “Robinson Crusoe” — but with icy Corona beer within a 10-minute walk.

By the end of the second day, we were worn out, but my children had gotten the hang of surfing after having caught and ridden their first waves. My daughter already was plotting to return with her friends to attend the all-girls surf camp next year.

Exhausted from a week of physically demanding activity, we decided to spend a day in Puerto Vallarta, doing what tourists do: buying bracelets, trinkets and a bottle of 100 percent agave sipping tequila.

We passed on the T-shirts but met a friendly American retiree who, after ranting about U.S. politics and Iraq, pointed us to Viejo Vallarta and what he described as the best Mexican food for the best price in Puerto Vallarta.

We were skeptical, as it was located in the heart of the tourists’ Puerto Vallarta. I don’t know if it actually was the best, but the seafood soup, fresh red snapper and the flan for dessert were excellent, and the service, as in every place we ate in Puerto Vallarta, was friendly and attentive, all for about $15 per person.

The view from the third-floor restaurant, watching the sun set over the water, the nightly fireworks and then a tropical downpour, was priceless.

Back home, I ran into a friend who went to Puerto Vallarta last winter on his honeymoon. He said that though it was nice, and perfect for a honeymoon, he didn’t think he would return.

Too bad. He might have enjoyed it more had he vacationed outside the resort box.

We’re going back in a month or so — and we’re going to stay longer.

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