Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico’s Jalisco State, is synonymous with sun, sand, and waves rolling in from the mighty Pacific Ocean. Some of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta, which basks between the Sierra Madre mountains and the sea, include whale-watching, beach and mountain excursions, and simply strolling around this lively coastal city, taking in the cheerful local atmosphere.
Of course, learning more about the region’s characteristic culinary traditions is a must, especially if you’re a fan of grilled fish, like pescado zarandeado, different takes on the street taco (tacos asada, barbacoa tacos, shrimp tacos, al pastor shepherd style tacos, and more), or a shot or two of invigorating tequila, made from the blue agave plant.
Here are 11 of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.
Stroll Along the Seaside Malecon Boardwalk
Puerto Vallarta’s original 12-block-long Malecon Boardwalk, running from the Hotel Rosita in the north down toward the open-air Los Arcos Amphitheater in the south, will offer you block after sunny block of bustling entertainment, right next to the ocean.
Just off Malecon, you have Rosita Beach, as well as Playa Camarones slightly to the north, if you want to go for a swim.
But the real attraction here is the boardwalk’s friendly ambiance, from the Los Arcos stone arches, or a sculpture-walking tour letting you take in the numerous outdoor statues here, to the many colorful shops, art stalls, and galleries. In addition, there are plenty of bars and restaurants serving appetizing drinks and fare.
As you amble down the revamped, pedestrian-only promenade, you’ll also have occasion to awe at the Voladores de Papantla, a troupe of aerial artists performing stunts, aerial acrobatics, and even music while suspended from (and swinging around) a very tall pole.
Regardless if you’re into tasting tequila, snacking on tacos, people-watching, or shopping for Mexican art and trinkets, you’ll find plenty to keep you entertained along the Malecon Boardwalk located in Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica.
Stop by the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
One of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta for a taste of Mexican culture is to stop by the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The church is easy to spot, as it’s one of the tallest structures in the city, located in the center of Puerto Vallarta. Work first began on the church in 1903. Over the decades, the building grew in scale and grandeur.
Today, the primarily neoclassical and renaissance-style parish church is a city icon, adorning postcards, paintings, and more. Even if you don’t swing by the church, you’re bound to catch its depiction somewhere. One of the structure’s most distinctive features is its wrought-iron crown, sitting atop the main tower.
The original “crown” was added in 1965 but was destroyed during an earthquake in the 1990s. A new crown, sculpted by Carlos Terrés, replaced the old one in 2009.
Learn How to Cook Authentic Mexican Cuisine
If you want to learn how to cook authentic Mexican cuisine, you’ll find no better place than the lush, mountainous countryside surrounding Puerto Vallarta.
If you book a Mexican culinary experience, you’ll get to explore a rural produce market, where you’ll learn how to select the best and freshest ingredients, which you’ll be using later during your cooking class.
After visiting the lively market, your guide and skilled chef will take you to a rustic restaurant—with lovely woodlands nearby—where you’ll be taught how to whip up a true Mexican meal, which, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy afterward.
The traditional regional cooking methods imparted to you on this scenic culinary excursion should help you bring more genuine Mexican flavor to your gastronomic creations down the road.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to apply some of these skills back home, impressing friends at your next dinner soirée.
Go Whale Watching
If you’ve made your way to Mexico’s warmer coastal waters to escape colder climates, you might be arriving around the same time another smart mammal— the humpback whale—has undertaken a similar journey.
From as early as late November until March, and sometimes even into May, thousands upon thousands of humpback whales migrate several thousand miles from the Arctic to Puerto Vallarta and the shelter of Banderas Bay. They’ve migrated to the region to give birth to their calves.
In season (winter and early spring), you can experience the thrill of seeing these gigantic marine creatures up close—from the safety of a boat on a whale-watching tour—as they breach the ocean waves.
The sight of majestic mama humpbacks, with newborn calves by their sides, is something nature lovers should witness at least once in their lifetime.
Puerto Vallarta also offers dolphin discovery experiences, in case swimming with dolphins is more your style—or if your arrival doesn’t coincide with the humpbacks’ migratory calendar.
Read: Where to Go Whale Watching in Mexico
Enjoy a Horseback Riding Adventure in the Sierra Madre Mountains
While you’ll find plenty of hiking trails in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains, if you’re comfortable in the saddle, one of the best ways to enjoy the green nature here is to sign up for a guided horseback riding tour.
The lower-lying jungle and lush scenery along the Cuale River, below the soaring crests of one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, are the perfect setting for a horseback riding excursion.
You’ll come across several different outfitters in town offering trips into the nearby wilderness. You’ll gain some elevation into the foothills during your ride—but don’t worry, you won’t be “bagging” any peaks on these fairly gentle outings.
Highlights include riding past a tumbling waterfall, the chance to cool off in the Cuale River (with your horse), and the chance to commune with the rainforest, the horse ferrying you about, and other travelers accompanying you during your ride.
Explore Playa Quimixto
The Bay of Banderas, one of the largest bays in the world, certainly doesn’t lack a geographically diverse coastline.
Along the southern cape of the bay, at Cabo Corrientes, you’ll come across the village of Quimixto, its lovely little beach, and a “hidden” rainforest waterfall. Exploring Playa Quimixto and the surrounding area just might be one the best things you could do in Puerto Vallarta.
First off, to reach this southernmost point on Bahía de Banderas, you’ll either have to hike around 11 miles into the sleepy little fishing village or take a “panga” water taxi. Once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded with pristine ocean access, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
You can also hike the riverside jungle trail inland—or opt for a horseback ride if you don’t feel like walking—to the Quimixto waterfall, where you can go for a refreshing dip in a natural pool in La Puerta River, below the delightful cascade.
Read: Best Beaches in Puerto Vallarta
Ride Through the Sierra Madre on an ATV
If you want more high-speed action than a hike or horseback ride offers, it’s hard to beat the thrill of a mountain escapade on a motorized all-terrain vehicle (ATV).
If you have four hours or so to spare during your Puerto Vallarta stay, and you aren’t intimidated by the roar of a four-wheel ATV (you’ll be given ATV riding instructions from expert guides), you can zip along trails winding through a diverse array of topography spread across the lower slopes of the Sierra Madre.
During your ride, you’ll pass by scenic ridges, splash through riverbeds, and motor across a picturesque landscape. A ride through the verdant Sierra Madre on a sturdy ATV will have you and your friends buzzing with adrenalin.
Take a Romantic Sail Across Banderas Bay
Going for a swim or simply relaxing along the stunningly gorgeous Banderas Bay, with precipitous slopes dropping down to the water and some of the most pristine beaches in Mexico, has to number among the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.
But seeing the bay from the water might be even better. If you haven’t had your fill of the bay’s postcard-perfect shores yet, consider booking a sailing adventure across this beautiful stretch of water.
Besides gazing back from an ocean vantage point toward Puerto Vallarta’s Plaza Principal and the iconic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a sailing trip across the bay will let you get up close to the Los Arcos National Marine Park, and the titular Los Arcos.
Los Arcos are granite islands out in the bay, many with arches over the water. The islands are well known for their beauty, and kayaking and snorkeling opportunities, with abundant and protected sea life flitting about below the waves. A wind-powered cruise across Banderas Bay is an outing you’ll cherish for a lifetime.
Read: Best Places in Mexico for Couples
Enjoy Mirador La Cruz del Cerro’s Panoramic Views
If you’re up for a substantial amount of vertical hiking, one of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta is to trek up Cruz Hill to the Mirador el Cerro de la Cruz. From the summit, you’ll get awe-inspiring 360-degree vistas of Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay.
The hike begins right next to the city, but before you set off, you should know that you’ll have to tackle around 1,000 stairs to reach the top and those magnificent views.
You’ll note a large cross at the top of the hill, named Mirador La Cruz del Cerro, which means “The Cross of the Hill Viewpoint”. Remember to pack water and protein bars for an energy boost to make it all the way to the top.
Take a Tequila-Making Tour
For those who enjoy the earthy, citrusy, and peppery taste of good tequila, one of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta, and the best ways to spend your time, is to take part in a tequila-making tour.
If you’re just a casual tequila fan, you can visit one of several tequila distilleries in or near the city for a tour and tasting. Jalisco State, where Puerto Vallarta is located, is where the majority of the agave succulents (succulents are similar to cacti, but have leaves) used to make Mexico’s national drink are grown.
Destinations like Hacienda Doña Engracia offer different types of experiences for true tequila aficionados who’d like to dive deeper into the art of cultivating and distilling this distinctive spirit.
A hacienda tour will give you some insight into how the family running this tequila-producing enterprise—running it for three generations— produces its hand-made, 100% blue agave tequila.
You’ll visit the tasting room, of course, where you can sample the different kinds of tequila that Mexico is known for, like blanco (unaged), reposado (aged about a year), and añejo (aged between one and two years).
During your visit to the hacienda, you could also stop for a tasty Mexican lunch, to go with all of that tequila.
Read: Puerto Vallarta Vs. Cabo: Which Should You Visit?
Visit the Beach Village of Bucerías
Visit the beach and fishing village of Bucerías for a taste of Mexican oceanside life that moves along at a very easygoing, yet exceedingly charming pace.
Bucerías is located north of Puerto Vallarta, on Banderas Bay. This colorful village’s five miles of clean and sandy beachline is a big draw for beachgoers, swimmers, kite surfers, windsurfers, and paddleboarders. You’ll always find a spot to set your towel down here.
The town itself, with its bright, multi-hued buildings and houses, many with large wooden doors, cobblestone streets, and traditional Mexican ambiance is a delight to explore.
While wandering around the village, you’ll find plenty of local bars and restaurants where you can get something to eat—perhaps sampling some lime- or lemon-marinated ceviche seafood, grilled fish, or another local dish—while you soak up Bucerías’ fun, laid-back vibe.
Read: Mexico Travel Tips
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