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North Hills Monthly

Puerto Vallarta Perfect Mix of Touristy and Traditional

Mar 31, 2016 10:24AM ● By Vanessa Orr

The view from the Vista Grill

As I’m watching the snow fall on the first day of spring, I’m thinking back to a year ago at about this time, when I was getting ready to go to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Despite the fact that the city is almost 100 years old, I knew nothing about the area, other than it was often featured as The Love Boat’s final port of call. And while it’s true that the beaches, nestled snugly along the Bay of Banderas, do attract a lot of visitors, the town actually strikes an admirable balance between the touristy and the traditional.

I love art and architecture, so a walk along the Malecon was the perfect way to start my journey. There’s art everywhere the eye can see, from the iconic—such as the Friendship Fountain (Dancing Dolphins) and The Boy on a Seahorse—to a series of contemporary sculptures by artists including Sergio Bustamante, Alejandro Colunga and Ramiz Barquet. My personal favorite was the Vallarta Dancers by local sculptor Jim Demetro; it conveys a sense of passion and movement despite the life-sized figures being cast in bronze.

Just a block away from the zocalo, or town square, is the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, and you need to make this church a must-stop on your visit. Built over a 60-year period, (though the majority was constructed between 1921 and 1952), the church is a well-known and beloved landmark for a good reason. A mix of styles representing the years of its construction and the tastes of different parish priests, it even has its own crown on the main tower outside. And you can’t miss it—it’s the tallest building in the center of town.

Surrounded by such beauty, all set against a backdrop of the shimmering turquoise waters of the bay, it’s hard to not want to take this feeling home. The good news is that you can walk down to the Rio Cuale Artisanal Market to buy handmade crafts; and there is a wealth of impressive art from which to choose. All along the way there are charming outdoor cafes and restaurants, so if you get hungry while you wander, you’ll have no trouble finding authentic Mexican food. I’m a big fan of Gaby’s Restaurant, just up the hill from the church, for a bowl of tortilla soup, or for a slightly more formal lunch, The River Café alongside the Rio Cuale, where you can dine with iguanas and tropical birds for company.

Speaking of wildlife, I have to mention that one of my favorite parts of my stay at Velas Vallarta, other than the fact that I could wake up to bay breezes every morning, was that an afternoon swim was usually accompanied by a pair of iguanas sitting poolside, and the calls of a resident peacock, who enjoyed the tropical garden courtyard that makes up the property as much as I did.

While there’s no shame in just relaxing and unwinding in this mellow setting, (and who would blame you?) if you’re up for activities, there’s a wealth of things to do. If you’ve got kids, you can take a high-sea adventure on a pirate ship that includes sword fighting and acrobatics, as well as a two-hour stop on Majahuites Beach where they can enjoy snorkeling and banana boat rides while you work on your tan. There’s a nighttime adults-only version as well, should you feel the need to channel your inner Jack Sparrow.

There’s also zip lining, golfing, elegant spas, an amazing botanical garden that includes the most-visited public collection of orchids in Mexico, and of course eating…and let me tell you, it’s going to be hard to fit in that bathing suit by the time you leave this town. Whether you want authentic Mexican street food or cutting-edge cuisine (check out La Leche for that), the options are practically endless.

One of my most enjoyable experiences was a visit to Hacienda Dona Engracia, located about 20 minutes outside of the city. Not only did I get to take a river swim with a horse (yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like), but I also watched a truly amazing show that included traditional dancing (with weapons!) and roping demonstrations. The music was wonderful and the dancing was exquisite, and the fact that the location is also home to a tequila factory…well, that just topped off the perfect day.

One other place you should stop, whether for dinner or just drinks and a spectacular view, is the Vista Grill, which is located high above the city. Watching the sun set over the white-washed buildings of Puerto Vallarta from this vantage point is a wonderful way to end the day or start the evening. And if you’re looking for that perfect vacation picture to make all your friends jealous on Facebook—this is the place to take it.

For more information about traveling to Puerto Vallarta, visit or call (52) 322-224-1175. You can also visit:

Gaby’s Restaurant:

The River Café:

Velas Vallarta:

La Leche: 

Hacienda Dona Engracia:

Vista Grill: