By Debi Lander

Puerto Vallarta puts Mexico in a different headspace. I’d visited the resorts of Cancun and Riviera Maya and was expecting Puerto Vallarta to show a similar face. But, I was wrong: Vallarta, as the locals call it, brings tourists something different  — authentic Mexico with a friendly flair.

My first surprise came after landing, something that got my notice. The airport handlers greeted each passenger with a sincere, “Welcome to Puerto Vallarta.” Later, I learned that the city promotes this attitude through a Sensitivity to Tourism campaign. Since the economy depends on tourists, one local explained, “Friendliness is ingrained in our culture. We understand the value of being a welcoming place.”

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I couldn’t help but marvel at the Sierra Madre Mountains rolling down to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Their scenic beauty creates a dramatic landscape around the natural harbor, Banderas Bay: gorgeous palms and green hills juxtaposed against crystal clear water.

Puerto Vallarta attracts many cruise ships and a mammoth new cruise terminal is now under construction. Opening in 2018, it will include working artist galleries, interactive experiences and small museums.

You can easily spend a day cruising around the harbor on a water taxi, fishing boat, ferry or chartered vessel. Splurge for a luxury catamaran tour that stops at the iconic rock formation, Los Arcos, for diving and snorkeling. The boat will likely sail on to hidden coves and stop at a beachside café for fresh-caught seafood. If you visit from December through April, you may catch sight of the humpback whales and June to November visitors may see a turtle release.

A walk into the historic 100-year-old city brings cobblestone streets and stucco houses. They line the narrow streets and their windows are covered by bougainvillea. Don’t miss the landmark cathedral, topped by a regal crown. If you’re there on a Sunday, take a late afternoon stroll around the church and watch the multi-generational family exchanges between residents.

The Malecon (boardwalk) showcases Puerto Vallarta’s vibrant art scene. Shoppers find handcrafted folk art, jewelry, art galleries and boutiques and a fabulous selection of tequila, the national drink.

Lodging choices range from posh five-star resorts to basic apartment rentals. Choose from high-rise hotels directly on the beach, villas scattered in the mountains or condos bordering golf courses.

Many restaurants and bars serve affordable Mexican specialties like fresh ceviche and tacos. Stand at a roadside taqueria and fill your stomach with a frosty cold beer and crab enchiladas. You’ll likely have enough money left for a shot of agave Mescal to wash it down. Late night dining and music continues on the Malecon, in nightclubs, casinos and on a pirate ship.

So, why choose Puerto Vallarta for a vacation? Easy: Mexico is inexpensive compared to other Caribbean islands and airline flights are numerous. A slew of fun activities await like fishing, ziplining and water sports, in addition to the famous wide beaches. Best of all, you can mingle with Mexicans and expats who live and work downtown, shop in the Mom and Pop groceries, eat in non-chain restaurants and participate in local events.

Visit to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Mountains meet the ocean in Puerto Vallarta.


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