Sitting at the base of central Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, where the River Cuale empties into Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta is nothing like Mexico’s government-planned resort destinations, such as Cancún. Here, international influences mix freely with Mexican culture in a maze of colorful cobblestone streets that abut 26 miles of Pacific coastline—beaches either pristine or boisterous, depending on where you land.
Settled by Spaniards in the 16th century, Puerto Vallarta remained a relatively quiet pueblo with a population of just a few thousand until the 1960s, when Hollywood director John Huston decided it would be the ideal location for filming The Night of the Iguana. The production brought Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Tennessee Williams, and other celebrities to Banderas Bay; many ended up buying or building villas in Puerto Vallarta. A tourist industry was quickly born.
Today, visitors looking for tranquility can opt for the walled-in, all-inclusive offerings between the Marina and Nuevo Vallarta, but culture seekers will want to post up in Puerto Vallarta’s Romantic Zone. (Yes, that’s what it’s called.) The lively and walkable mix of restaurants, taco stands, shops, and markets feels like a bustling village—albeit a super-progressive, open village, thronged with gay couples and globetrotting adventurers of all ages. Thatch-roof bars line the palm tree–flanked Malecón, an oceanfront esplanade, spilling margaritas and ceviche by day and everything from jazz to salsa to rock by night. Playa de los Muertos, the city’s main stretch of beach, is a festive scene: you’ll find kids building sandcastles, beach volleyball, and plenty of scantily clad conviviality at Blue Chairs, the city’s always-packed, always-swinging gay hotel and resort.
After Mexicana halted its direct flights to Guadalajara and Mexico City in 2008, Portland lacked a direct connection to Mexico until 2014. Alaska Airlines launched its seasonal service to Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos that November—bringing the Seattle-based airline, which uses Portland as its secondary hub, to a total of 34 weekly flights to Puerto Vallarta from the West Coast.
Tucked away on the banks of the River Cuale, Rivera del Rio is a luxuriously ornate Mexican villa housing eight quirky, elegant rooms with marble fireplaces and clawfoot tubs. A stylish rooftop pool, made-to-order Mexican breakfast, and an in-house masseuse seal the deal. Rivera’s brand-new sister property, Garlands del Rio, offers much of the same charm a few blocks closer to the ocean, with eight rooms surrounding a deep-blue pool. From $69
In Puerto Vallarta’s mellow South Zone, Quinta Maria Cortez is a lush, romantic beachfront villa decorated with antique Mexican furniture and classic columns, with sizable suites opening directly onto the beach. From $150
If you’re after an all-inclusive experience, Buenaventura Grand Hotel & Spa provides the pampering you desire while keeping you close to the Romantic Zone. Four restaurants and three bars serve the beachfront hotel’s 234 rooms, while a private beach with lounges, umbrellas, and palapas (shaded huts) make for relaxing days. From $110
For what just may be the world’s greatest fish taco, head to Marisma, a stand on a quiet corner in the Romantic Zone. The ladies of Marisma make every taco from scratch, dredging and frying fresh fillets of dorado and pressing corn tortillas.
Set on the Isla Cuale, where Puerto Vallarta’s river forks just before the Pacific, theRiver Café serves upscale cuisine from Peruvian ceviche to seafood pasta in a warmly lit space with trickling water features. Live jazz and blues set the vibe.
Hidden on a quiet road on the fringe of the Romantic Zone, Red Cabbage serves traditional Mexican recipes like chiles en nogada and mole poblano. Colorful art decks the walls, Mexican folk music fills the air, and a seriously attentive staff tends to your every need.
Even if you’re not a “tour” person, Vallarta Food Tours’ three-hour, taco-themed tour of Pitillal, a small Mexican ranching community just 10 minutes from town, will introduce you to a range of traditional cooking styles from tamales to mariscos to birria. For the ideal day in the sun, head to Mantamar, a beach club and bar on Playa de los Muertos with beachside lounge chairs and a saltwater infinity pool. When you’re ready for adventure, plan a day trip to Yelapa, a tranquil fishing village to the south. A single road connects the two cities, but water taxis leave regularly from the Los Muertos Pier, and Vallarta Adventures offers a day trip on a catamaran—with an open bar—that stops in the reefs of Majahuitas for some snorkeling and kayaking.
Flight time: 4.5 hrs
Average Price: $260
Aircraft: Boeing 737
This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Portland Monthly.