Puerto Vallarta: Beachfront Resort Town Brims With Flavor And Culture

Puerto Vallarta: Beachfront Resort Town Brims With Flavor And Culture

Story And Photos By Niki D’andrea

The resort town of Puerto Vallarta, located on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, is one of the most pleasant places in Mexico. Situated in the state of Jalisco, birthplace of mariachi and tequila, Puerto Vallarta is a fishing village turned tourism mecca, where employment rates are high and crime stats are low.

Puerto Vallarta sits on the bay of Bahia de Banderas, and the beaches are beyond beautiful – smooth, sandy shores kissed by frothy waves from the almost impossibly indigo water. Seeing a sunrise or sunset from the beach in Puerto Vallarta is simply glorious.

But there’s more to Puerto Vallarta than just magnificent beaches. There are also lush rainforest coastlines hiding copious cascading waterfalls and small villages; a rich culture of Mexican food (you’ll find no fresher fish), music and dance; and one-of-a-kind shops and street vendors selling items you’ll find nowhere else.

Velas Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is home to an abundance of resorts, each one offering amenities galore, some of which are located shoreside with the beach at their backs, and many of which are all-inclusive. We stayed at Velas Vallarta (velasvallarta.com), an award-winning, luxuriously landscaped resort sprawling across 10 beachfront acres that’s located a mere 5 minutes from the airport. It’s not uncommon to spot peacocks and iguanas wandering the verdant grounds, which are made eminently strollable by waterfalls and koi ponds adorned with wooden bridges, smooth stone walkways and the shade of palm trees and towering sculptured bushes. (There’s also a preservation program for sea turtle eggs; ask to see the egg farm on a property tour.)

A guest at Velas Vallarta has the best of Mexico at his or her fingertips, and could easily enjoy an extended stay without ever venturing outside the resort (but they should, especially with the resort’s complimentary city tours). In addition to a beautiful stretch of beach just steps from the resort, there are three swimming pools, two of which are connected by a lazy river. The main pool boasts bar and grill service (plus a swim-up bar) and a DJ playing Top 40 and pop remixes, and hosts several activities throughout the day, including water volleyball, aqua aerobics and ping-pong tournaments. Beachside yoga classes take place most mornings.

There’s also a variety of entertainment in the resort lobby each evening, including cocktail bars (a different drink depending on the night – could be daquiris, margaritas, or mojitos), folklorico dancing, circus performances and mariachi.

Velas Vallarta’s salon and spa are modest in size, and the fitness center has but four cardio machines (guests do get access to a full gym at a neighboring property), but the spa offers something truly special: beachside treatments, in tents on a grassy plateau that juts into the ocean. A variety of massages are on the menu, from aromatherapy and therapeutic (a combination of Swedish massage, acupressure, reflexology and polarization) to hot stone massages and deep-tissue sports massages. While being plied under the expert hands of the therapist, the sounds of the ocean waves splashing against the mossy green rocks below add an extra element of peace and relaxation.

The resort’s two restaurants, Andrea and La Ribera, offer distinct dining experiences. La Ribera has an oceanfront patio and serves flavorful fare for lunch like creamy carrot soup, wraps and sandwiches, and bright and citrusy Vallarta-style ceviche (with cooked fish, carrot, onion, cilantro, cucumber and lemon juice). At night, La Ribera’s patio comes alive with the sounds of music (mostly smooth lounge covers of ‘80s pop tunes) and the clinking of silverware and cocktail glasses, as guests enjoy entrees like Portobello mushrooms stuffed with sautéed spinach and melted goat cheese, pork chops marinated in fresh rosemary, and Galician scallops served with Serrrano ham fricassee.

Andrea Restaurant takes guests’ palates around the globe, depending on the day of the week. Mondays are French nights, Tuesday is Asian menu night, Wednesdays bring Tuscan dishes, Thursdays are Mexican nights, Fridays are designated Neopolitan dining nights, Saturdays skew Emilia Romagna, and Sundays belong to Sicilian food. We dined on Mexican night, and gorged on Don Julio Prawns (stuffed with freshwater crab, flambéed in tequila and served in turmeric sauce), and succulent Chemita beef filet (in reduction of beef stock with Baja red wine).

Rooms at Velas Vallarta include studios with kitchenettes; one-, two- and three-bedroom suites; a Master Suite, an Oceanfront Suite and a Presidential Suite. All accommodations are clean and modern, appointed with new kitchen appliances, comfortable, colorful furniture and accompanied by patios or balconies. The family-friendly resort offers all-inclusive packages, which encompass all meals (at the restaurants, poolside, or in-room dining), all items in the room’s mini-bar (which is restocked daily), premium alcoholic beverages throughout the resort, all recreational activities, Wi-Fi, and taxes and gratuities. Packages start at $190 per person per night.

Should you need some hair ties, sunglasses or even a new swimsuit, the shops at Velas Vallarta stock all that and more. To reiterate, it’s not necessary to leave the resort. But it’s well worth a wander on one of the resort’s complimentary city tours.

In the Cities, in the Jungles

Guests at Velas Vallarta can take complimentary tours of the city, and they are highly recommended. The duration of the tours and the stops can vary, but if guests can invest a full day on a city excursion with the company Tani Tours, it’s well worth it.

Our tour started in downtown Puerto Vallarta, along the beachfront boardwalk. One of the stores facing this busy pedestrian thoroughfare is The Opal Mine (theopalmine.com.mx), which is not an actual Mexican fire opal mine (that’s elsewhere in the country), but is one of the most inventive and impressive showrooms for jewelry you’ll ever see. The interior of the store is adorned with drywall sculpted and carved to look like natural rock walls, and the store’s stunning collection of artisanal jewelry is displayed in cases made to look like mine rail cars, illuminated by lamps patterned after miners’ helmet lights. Customers here can sip frozen margaritas while contemplating some of the most pulchritudinous pieces of jewelry in the world. Most are crafted with Mexican fire opals – which come in an array of colors that shine when turned in the light – but The Opal Mine’s craftspeople also make wow-factor wearables with other precious gemstones, like amethyst and sapphire. It’s easy to spend an hour or more in here, gawking at the gems and talking about the geographical history of the stones, which take millions and millions of years to form in the mines.

While downtown, another must-stop is the Parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe (parroquiadeguadalupevallarta.com), an old church with modern traffic, always filled with people in prayer and others perusing the stained glass artwork and religious statues. Just down the steps and across the street from the church is a candy vendor named Aurelio Moran. Now in his 70s, he’s been coming to this church since he was a little boy. On his candy cart, which displays all manner of homemade goodies available for sampling, from mango gummies to exquisite brittle peanut butter cookies, he has a black-and-white photos of him as a boy, seated next to his parents in the parish.

Speaking of candy, a man who calls himself “the Mexican Willy Wonka” sells all manner of sweet treats out of a shop called Dulces Regionales Bardi (dulcesregionalesbardi2011@hotmail.com), across the street from the massive indoor flea market. From delectable delights infused with booze (the coconut tequila candy was our favorite, though the whiskey-kissed confections were also superlative) to novelty liquors and wooden children’s toys, you’ll find everything you need – and more you don’t need – here, if you can find time to shop in-between taking samples from the trays of the team of young girls that follows you everywhere.

Take the city tour that goes to a remote tequila distillery, and you’ll have several unforgettable stops along the way from downtown to the tequila distillery, from flowing waterfalls (including one featured prominently in the first Predator film) to encounters with an iguana named Lucas while overlooking the set of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana starring Richard Burton, to rock islands with natural arches jutting out of crystal blue waters.

The tequila distillery on this tour, Baston del Rey, is tucked inside a remote rainforest village. Here, you will hear how tequila is made from the agave plant, see the stills, and best of all – taste several of the fine, hand-crafted tequilas that are only available here.

Before the tour heads back to the city, there’s a late lunch stop at a remote village, where indigenous people play music for guests eating seafood platters overflowing with flavorful fish while sitting riverside and sipping tequila-boosted juice from pineapples decorated to look like smiley faces.

Back at Velas Vallarta, it’s another day in paradise. Mother Nature puts on a spectacular sunset show, blazing fiery reflections of red and orange across the ocean water while tourists sip margaritas in beachside loungers. Airplanes periodically fly overhead (remember, we’re only 5 minutes from the airport), a nice reminder that this idyllic slice of life is a mere two-and-a-half hour flight from Phoenix.

Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport 

This is an international airport primarily serving tourists and commercial airline traffic. More than 83,000 people flew into the airport on American Airlines from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport last year. After going through customs, be prepared to be greeted at the airport by smiling women with trays of margaritas and a plethora of people pushing various tours and transportation.

Coordinates: 20°40’48″N 105°15’15″W

Flight time from Scottsdale Airport: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Drive time from Scottsdale Airport: 22 hours, 12 minutes