Mexico's second-most-visited destination after the Cancún/Playa del Carmen area, Puerto Vallarta is touristy. That said, this isn't a spring-break destination. Yes, twentysomethings party all night. But a sense of decorum and civic pride keeps things reasonably restrained. Most tour companies, restaurants, and hotels are run by locals who are happy to have you—tourism is PV's only real industry.
WHEN TO GO
High season (aka dry season) is December through April; the resorts are most crowded and expensive during this time. If you don't mind afternoon showers, temperatures in the 80s and 90s F (high 20s and 30s C), and high humidity, rainy season (late June through October) is a great time to visit. Hotel rates drop by as much as 40%, and there aren't any crowds.
Summer sees the best diving, snorkeling, and surfing conditions. By August the coast and inland forests are green and bursting with blooms. Afternoon rains clean the streets; waterfalls and rivers outside of town spring into action. On the downside, heat and humidity are high, some businesses close shop in the hottest months (August and September), and nightlife slacks off.
Where should I stay? With hundreds of hotels in Puerto Vallarta, it may seem like a daunting question. But fret not—most of the legwork has been done for you. The selections here represent the best this city has to offer—from the best budget digs to the sleekest designer resorts. Scan "Best Bets" on the following pages for top recommendations by price and experience. Or find a review quickly in the listings—search by neighborhood, then alphabetically. Happy hunting!
Need a Reservation?
Hotel reservations are an absolute necessity when planning your trip to Puerto Vallarta—although rooms are easier to come by these days. Competition for clients also means properties undergo frequent improvements, especially late September through mid-November, so when booking ask about any renovations, lest you get a room within earshot of construction, or find your hotel is temporarily without commonplace amenities such as swimming pool or spa.
Overbooking is a common practice, so get confirmation in writing via fax or email.
Most resort hotels have air-conditioning, cable TV, one or more restaurants, room service, and in-room irons and ironing boards. Many have voice mail, coffeemakers, and hair dryers. Ethernet or Wi-Fi Internet service is common in guest rooms; if not, there’s likely a guest computer or three in a common area. Most hotels above the budget or moderate price level have fitness facilities; alternatively, visit a nearby sports club or gym (there are many). Some hotels are entirely smoke-free, meaning even smoking outdoors is frowned upon or prohibited.
Can I Drink the Water?
Most of the fancier hotels have reverse osmosis or other water filtration systems. It's fine for brushing your teeth, but play it safe by drinking bottled water (there might be leaks that let groundwater in). Note that the bottled water might cost extra, although there's usually a notice if it's not free. Buy a few bottles at the corner grocery instead.
Staying with Kids
Puerto Vallarta is a popular destination for both foreign families and nationals, and in general its hotels have adopted a family-friendly attitude. Some properties provide in-room video games, playgrounds, game rooms, children’s swimming pools, and other diversions; others have suites with kitchenettes and fold-out sofa beds to accommodate the family’s needs. Most full-service Puerto Vallarta hotels provide roll-away beds and babysitting, but make arrangements when booking the room, not when you arrive. Beach resorts often have kids’ clubs to allow their parents quality adult time.
Tried-and-true chains may have excellent rates and can be good last-minute options. There are hotels from the Holiday Inn/InterContinental Group, Marriott, Sheraton, and various Starwood chains, including Westin and St. Regis.
Small boutique hotels are another option in Puerto Vallarta, especially in the Zona Romántica and El Centro. Some of these are simple, some luxurious, but they all offer hospitality and comfort on a more intimate scale.
PV's Central Camionera, or Central Bus Station, is 1 km (½ mile) north of the airport, halfway between Nuevo Vallarta and downtown.
First-class Mexican buses (known as primera clase) are generally timely and comfortable, air-conditioned coaches with bathrooms, movies, and reclining seats—sometimes with seat belts. Deluxe (de lujo or ejecutivo) buses offer the same—sometimes with fewer, roomier seats—and usually have refreshments. Second-class (segunda clase) buses are used mainly for travel to smaller, secondary destinations.
A lower-class bus ride can be interesting if you're not in a hurry and want to experience local culture; these buses make frequent stops and keep less strictly to their timetables. Often they will wait until they fill up to leave, regardless of the scheduled time of departure. Fares are up to 15%–30% cheaper than those for first-class buses. The days of pigs and chickens among your bus mates are largely in the past. Unless you're writing a novel or your memoir, there's no reason to ride a second-class bus if a first-class or better is available. Daytime trips are safer.
Bring snacks, socks, and a sweater—the air-conditioning on first-class buses is often set on high—and toilet paper, as restrooms might not have any. Smoking is prohibited on all buses.
Estrella Blanca goes from Mexico City to Manzanillo, Mazatlán, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, and other central, Pacific coast, and northern-border points. ETN has the most luxurious service—with exclusively first-class buses that have roomy, totally reclining seats—to Guadalajara, Mexico City, Barra de Navidad, Chamela, and Manzanillo. Primera Plus connects Mexico City with Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta along with other central and western cities.
TAP serves Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Tepic, and Mazatlán. Basic service, including some buses with marginal or no air-conditioning, is the norm on Transportes Cihuatlán, which connects the Bahía de Banderas and PV with southern Jalisco towns such as Barra de Navidad.
You can buy tickets for first-class or better in advance; this is advisable during peak periods, although the most popular routes have buses on the hour. You can make reservations for many, though not all, of the first-class bus lines, through the Ticketbus central reservations agency. Rates average 35–76 pesos ($2.70–$5.70) per hour of travel, depending on the level of luxury. Plan to pay in pesos, although most of the deluxe bus services accept Visa and MasterCard.
Central Camionera (Bahia Sin Nombre 363, Las Mojoneras, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, 48290. 322/290–1009.)
Estrella Blanca (01800/507–5500 toll-free in Mexico; 322/290–1014 in Puerto Vallarta. www.estrellablanca.com.mx. Carr a Tepic Km 9, Mezcales, Puerto Vallarta, 63735. 329/296–5936. www.estrellablanca.com.mx.).
ETN (Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco. 01800/800–0386 toll-free in Mexico; 322/290–0997 in PV. www.etn.com.mx. Plaza Parabien, Av. Tepic sur 1508, Local 5, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit. 322/297–7552. etn.com.mx.).
Primera Plus (322/290–0716 in PV; 322/187–0492 in NV. primeraplus.com.mx.)
Transporte del Pacifico (TAP) (322/290–0119 in PV. tap.com.mx.)
Vallarta Plus (Palma Real 140, Marina Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, 48339. 322/221–3636 or 322/306–3071. www.vallartaplus.com.)
City buses (6.5 pesos) serve downtown, the Zona Hotelera Norte, and Marina Vallarta. Bus stops—marked by blue-and-white signs—are every two or three long blocks along the highway (Carretera al Aeropuerto) and in downtown Puerto Vallarta. Green buses to Playa Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán (7 pesos) run about every 15 minutes from the corner of Avenida Insurgentes and Basilio Badillo downtown.
Gray ATM buses serving Nuevo Vallarta and Bucerías (20 pesos), Punta Mita (30 pesos), and Sayulita (50 pesos) depart from Plaza las Glorias, in front of the HSBC bank and Wal-Mart, both of which are along Carretera Aeropuerto between downtown and the Zona Hotelera.
It's rare for inspectors to check tickets, but just when you've let yours flutter to the floor, a figure of authority is bound to appear. So hang on to your ticket and hat: PV bus drivers race from one stoplight to the next in jerky bursts of speed.
There's no problem with theft on city buses aside from perhaps an occasional pickpocket, which could be said of anywhere in the world.
PV taxis aren't metered and instead charge by zones. Most of the larger hotels have rate sheets, and taxi drivers should produce them upon request. Tipping isn't necessary unless the driver helps you with your bags, in which case a few pesos are appropriate.
The minimum fare is 40 pesos (about $3), but if you don't ask, you'll probably be overcharged. Negotiate a price in advance for out-of-town and hourly services as well; many drivers will start by asking how much you want to pay or how much others have charged you to get a sense of your street-smarts. The usual hourly rate at this writing was 300 pesos per hour. In all cases, if you are unsure of what a fare should be, ask your hotel's front-desk personnel.
The ride from downtown to the airport or to Marina Vallarta costs about $10; it’s $20 to Nuevo Vallarta and $25 to Bucerías. From downtown south to Mismaloya it's about $5 to Conchas Chinas, $10–$12 to the hotels of the Zona Hotelera, $12 to Mismaloya, and $15 to Boca de Tomatlán. You can easily hail a cab on the street. Taxi Tel Flamingos and others provide 24-hour service.
Taxi Tel Flamingos (322/225–0716.)
Sitio Bucerías (329/298–0714.)
Sitio Valle Dorado (322/297–5407.)
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Upon entering Mexico, you'll be given a baggage declaration form and asked to itemize what you're bringing into the country. You are allowed to bring in 3 liters of spirits or wine for personal use; 400 cigarettes, 25 cigars, or 200 grams of tobacco; a reasonable amount of perfume for personal use; one video camera and one regular camera and 12 rolls of film for each; and gift items not to exceed a total of $300. If driving across the U.S. border, gift items shouldn’t exceed $75, although foreigners aren’t usually hassled about this. Although the much-publicized border violence doesn’t affect travelers, it is real. To be safe don’t linger long at the border.
You aren't allowed to bring firearms, ammunition, meat, vegetables, plants, fruit, or flowers into the country. You can bring in one of each of the following items without paying taxes: a cell phone, a camera, a DVD player, a CD player, a musical instrument, a laptop computer, and a portable copier or printer. Compact discs and/or audio cassettes are limited to 20 total and DVDs to 5.
Mexico also allows you to bring a cat or dog, if you have two things: (1) a pet health certificate signed by a registered veterinarian in the United States and issued not more than 72 hours before the animal enters Mexico; and (2) a pet vaccination certificate showing that the animal has been treated (as applicable) for rabies, hepatitis, distemper, and leptospirosis.
For more information or information on bringing other animals, contact the Mexican consulate, which has branches in many major American cities as well as border towns. To find the consulate nearest you, check the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (go to the "Servicios Consulares" option).
Information in Mexico
Mexican Embassy (202/728–1600. embamex.sre.gob.mx/eua.)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.sre.gob.mx/en.)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (877/227–5511. www.cbp.gov.)
If you get into a scrape with the law, you can call your nearest consulate; U.S. citizens can also call the Overseas Citizens Services Center in the United States.
Consulate and Embassy
United States Consul (Centro Comercial Paradise Plaza, Paseo de Cocoteros 85 Sur, 2nd fl., Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit, 63732. 322/222–0069; 33/3268–2145 24-hour emergency number. Mon.–Thurs. 8:30 am–12:30 pm.)
U.S. Embassy (Paseo de la Reforma 305, Col. Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Quintana Roo, 06500. 55/5080–2000. mexico.usembassy.gov.)
General Emergency Contacts
General Emergency (Police, Transit, Fire) (066.)
U.S. Overseas Citizens Services Center (888/407–4747 or 202/501–4444. www.travel.state.gov.)
HOURS OF OPERATION
Banks are generally open weekdays 9 to 3. In Puerto Vallarta most are open until 4, and some of the larger banks keep a few branches open Saturday from 9 or 10 to 1 or 2:30; however, the extended hours are often for deposits or check cashing only. HSBC is the one chain that stays open for longer hours; on weekdays it is open 8 to 7 and on Saturday from 8 to 3. Government offices are usually open to the public weekdays 9 to 3; along with banks and most private offices, they're closed on national holidays.
Some gas stations, like those near major thoroughfares, are open 24 hours a day. Those that are not are normally open 6 am–10 pm daily.
Stores are generally open weekdays and Saturday from 9 or 10 to 5 or 7; in resort areas, those stores geared to tourists may stay open until 9 or 10 at night and all day on Saturday; some are open on Sunday as well, but it's good to call ahead before making a special trip. Some more traditional shops close for a two-hour lunch break, roughly 2–4. Airport shops are open seven days a week.
Banks and government offices close on January 1, February 5 (Constitution Day), March 21 (Benito Juárez's birthday), May 1 (Labor Day), September 16 (Independence Day), November 20 (Revolution Day), and December 25 (Christmas). They may also close on unofficial holidays, such as Day of the Dead (November 1–2), Virgin of Guadalupe Day (December 12), and during Holy Week (the days leading to Easter Sunday). Government offices usually have reduced hours and staff from Christmas through New Year's Day.
Prices in this book are quoted most often in U.S. dollars. Some services in Mexico quote prices in dollars, others in pesos. Because of the current fluctuation in the dollar/peso market, prices may be different from those listed here, but we’ve done our best to give accurate rates.
A stay in one of Puerto Vallarta's top hotels can cost more than $350, but if you aren't wedded to standard creature comforts, you can spend as little as $40 a day on room, board, and local transportation. Lodgings are less expensive in the charming but unsophisticated mountain towns like San Sebastián del Oeste.
You can get away with a tab of $50 for two at a wonderful restaurant (although it's also easy to pay more). The good news is that there are hotels and eateries for every budget, and inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean bargain basement. This guide recommends some excellent places to stay, eat, and play for extremely reasonable prices.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
ATMs (cajeros automáticos) are widely available, with Star, Cirrus, and Plus the most frequently found networks. Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. You'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM, however, than you will at a currency-exchange office or at a teller window. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
Many Mexican ATMs cannot accept PINs with more than four digits. If yours is longer, change your PIN to four digits before you leave home. If your PIN is fine yet your transaction still can't be completed, chances are that the computer lines are busy or that the machine has run out of money or is being serviced. Don't give up.
For cash advances, plan to use Visa or MasterCard, as many Mexican ATMs don't accept American Express. Cash advances are allowed at most local ATMs, however it’s the most expensive way to get your money. It may be better to leave cash advances just for emergencies. Large banks with reliable ATMs include Banamex, HSBC, BBVA Bancomer, Santander, Banorte, and Scotiabank Inverlat. Some banks no longer exchange traveler’s checks; if you carry these, make sure they are in smaller denominations ($20s or $50s) to make it more likely that hotels or shops will accept them if need be. Travelers must have their passport or other official identification in order to change traveler's checks.
Banamex (Calle Juárez, at Calle Zaragoza, El Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, 48300. 322/226–6110. www.banamex.com. Plaza Peninsula, Av. Francisco Medina Ascensio 2485, Zona Hotelera, 48300. 322/226–6103. Plaza Caracol L-31, Av. Francisco Medina Ascencio s/n, Zona Hotelera, 48310. 322/224–8710.)
Banorte (Paseo Díaz Ordáz 690 at Calle Josefa Ortiz. de Domínguez, El Centro, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, 48300. 322/222–3210. www.banorte.com. Plaza Lago Real, Calle Tepic 430 Ote, Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit, 63738. 322/223–7796. Bd. Francisco M. Ascencio 500, Zona Hotelera, 48330. 01800/226–6783.)
Credit cards are accepted in Puerto Vallarta and at major hotels and restaurants in outlying areas. Smaller, less expensive restaurants and shops tend to take only cash. In general, credit cards aren't accepted in small towns and villages, except in some hotels. The most widely accepted cards are MasterCard and Visa.
When shopping, you can often get better prices if you pay with cash, particularly in small shops. But you'll receive wholesale exchange rates when you make purchases with credit cards. These exchange rates are usually better than those that banks give you for changing money. U.S. banks charge their customers a foreign transaction fee for using their credit card abroad. The decision to pay cash or to use a credit card might depend on whether the establishment in which you are making a purchase finds bargaining for prices acceptable, and whether you want the safety net of your card's purchase protection. To avoid fraud or errors, it's wise to make sure that "pesos" is clearly marked on all credit-card receipts.
Before you leave for Mexico, contact your credit-card company to alert them to your travel plans and to get lost-card phone numbers that work in Mexico; the standard toll-free numbers often don't work abroad. Carry these numbers separately from your wallet so you'll have them if you need to call to report lost or stolen cards. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa note the international number for card-replacement calls on the back of their cards.
Currency and Exchange
Mexican currency comes in denominations of 20-, 50-, 100-, 200-, and 500-peso bills. Coins come in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 pesos and 20 and 50 centavos. (Twenty-centavo coins are only rarely seen.) Many of the coins are very similar, so check carefully; bills, however, are different colors and easily distinguished.
U.S. dollar bills (but not coins) are widely accepted in tourist-oriented shops and restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. Pay in pesos where possible, however, for better prices. Although in larger hotels U.S. dollars are welcome as tips, it's generally better to tip in pesos so that service personnel don’t have to go to the bank to exchange currency.
At this writing, the exchange rate was 13.43 pesos to the U.S. dollar. ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, but ATM exchange rates are the best because they're based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. Most ATMs allow a maximum withdrawal of $300 to $400 per transaction. Banks and casas de cambio (money-exchange bureaus) have the second-best exchange rates. The difference from one place to another is usually only a few pesos.
Some banks change money on weekdays only until 1 or 3 pm (though they stay open until 4 or 5, or later). Casas de cambio generally stay open until 6 or later and often operate on weekends; they usually have competitive rates and much shorter lines. By law, no more than $300 can be exchanged per person per day, so plan in advance. Some hotels exchange money, but they give a poor exchange rate.
You can do well at most airport exchange booths, though not as well as at the ATMs. You'll do even worse at bus stations, in hotels, in restaurants, or in stores.
When changing money, count your bills before leaving the window of the bank or casa de cambio, and don't accept any partially torn or taped-together notes: You won't be able to use them anywhere. Also, many shop and restaurant owners are unable to make change for large bills. Enough of these encounters may compel you to request billetes chicos (small bills) when you exchange money. It's wise to have a cache of smaller bills and coins to use at these more humble establishments to avoid having to wait around while the merchant runs off to seek change.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
U.S. citizens reentering the United States by land or sea are required to have documents that comply with WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative), most commonly a U.S. passport, a passport card, a trusted traveler card (such as NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST), or an enhanced driver's license. The U.S. passport card is smaller than a traditional passport (think wallet size), cheaper, and valid for just as long, but you can’t use it for travel by air.
Upon entering Mexico, all visitors must get a tourist card. If you're arriving by plane from the United States or Canada, the standard tourist card will be given to you on the plane. They're also available through travel agents and Mexican consulates and at the border if you're entering by land.
You're given a portion of the tourist card form upon entering Mexico. Keep track of this documentation throughout your trip; you will need it when you depart. You'll be asked to hand it, your ticket, and your passport to airline representatives at the gate when boarding for departure.
If you lose your tourist card, plan to spend some time (and about $30) sorting it out with Mexican officials at the airport on departure.
A tourist card costs about $20. The fee is generally tacked on to the price of your airline ticket; if you enter by land or boat you'll have to pay the fee separately. You're exempt from the fee if you enter by sea and stay less than 72 hours, or by land and do not stray past the 26- to 30-km (16- to 18-mile) checkpoint into the country's interior.
Tourist cards and visas are valid from 15 to 180 days, at the discretion of the immigration officer at your point of entry (90 days for Australians). Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, and the British may request up to 180 days for a tourist card or visa extension. The extension fee is about $20, and the process can be time-consuming. There's no guarantee that you'll get the extension you're requesting. If you're planning an extended stay, plead with the immigration official for the maximum allowed days at the time of entry. It will save you time and money later.
Mexico has some of the strictest policies about children entering the country. Minors traveling with one parent need notarized permission from the absent parent. And all children, including infants, must have proof of citizenship (the same as adults; above) for travel to Mexico.
If you're a single parent traveling with children up to age 18, you must have a notarized letter from the other parent stating that the child has his or her permission to leave the country. The child must be carrying the original letter—not a facsimile or scanned copy—as well as proof of the parent/child relationship (usually a birth certificate or court document), and an original custody decree, if applicable. If the other parent is deceased or the child has only one legal parent, a notarized statement saying so must be obtained as proof. In addition, you must fill out a tourist card for each child over the age of 10 traveling with you.
Mexican Embassy (202/728–1600. embamex.sre.gob.mx/eua/.)
U.S. Passport Information
U.S. Department of State (877/487–2778. travel.state.gov.)
Horror stories about drug-cartel killings and border violence are making big news these days, but Puerto Vallarta is many hundreds of miles away. Imagine not going to visit the Florida Keys because of reports of violence in a bad section of New York City. Still, Puerto Vallarta is no longer the innocent of years gone by; pickpocketing and the occasional mugging can be a concern, and precaution is in order here as elsewhere. Store only enough money in your wallet or bag to cover the day's spending. And don't flash big wads of money or leave valuables like cameras unattended. Leave your passport and other valuables you don't need in your hotel's safe.
Bear in mind that reporting a crime to the police is often a frustrating experience unless you speak good Spanish and have a great deal of patience. If you're victimized, contact your local consulate or your embassy in Mexico City.
One of the most serious threats to your safety is local drivers. Although pedestrians have the right-of-way, drivers disregard this law. And more often than not, drivers who hit pedestrians drive away as fast as they can without stopping, to avoid jail. Many Mexican drivers don't carry auto insurance, so you'll have to shoulder your own medical expenses. Pedestrians should be extremely cautious of all traffic, especially city bus drivers, who often drive with truly reckless abandon.
If you're on your own, consider using only your first initial and last name when registering at your hotel. Solo travelers, or women traveling with other women rather than men, may be subjected to piropos (flirtatious compliments). Piropos are one thing, but more aggressive harassment is another. In the rare event that the situation seems to be getting out of hand, don't hesitate to ask someone for help. If you express outrage, you should find no shortage of willing defenders.