Discovering Puerto Vallarta
By Maggie Downs
It’s dinnertime in Puerto Vallarta. There’s a polished wooden table set in the fragrant herb garden at the Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa. The sun is pastel pink and orange as it sinks into the crashing ocean. And there’s a chef pumping smoke into the boxes that hold the meal’s second course.
When the glass top of the box slides open, the scent is transportive, like a crackling bonfire, almost bewitching in the depth of fragrance. This is the “smell” course in a dinner constructed around the five senses.
The entire experience is an unexpected delight. But of course it is. That’s Puerto Vallarta.
I thought I knew about Puerto Vallarta before I ever visited. After all, I’ve seen every episode of The Love Boat, and the picturesque resort town was one of the cruise ship’s regular ports of call. But I wrote off the destination, thinking it was too touristy or too commercial. I assumed it was just another beautiful beach town with endless souvenir shops along a boardwalk.
It took a visit to Mexico’s Pacific coast for me to truly discover how this destination is a seamless blend of culture, natural beauty, and tradition. It’s a place that dazzles with art, a thriving gastronomy scene, and panoramic mountain views. Plus, it was ranked as one of the world’s friendliest cities by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Here are five can’t-miss stops that will delight — and help deepen your enjoyment of this colorful, wonderful place.
Stroll anywhere in Puerto Vallarta, and you’ll discover local art, from the elegant bronze and stone statues along the Malecón to the splashy, vibrant murals alongside buildings. The public art scene here is impressive, on par with the fine street art in Mexico City, and in some cases featuring some of the very same artists. TikTokers and Instagrammers flock to the rainbow-hued works by Tony Collantez on the exterior of Cafe des Artistes, (also one of the most popular restaurants in the city). I especially fell for the murals painted by Adrian Takano, whose work is known internationally and features Indigenous Mesoamerican themes.
For art you can take home, galleries in the historic center host a weekly art walk from October through May, and are open to the public beyond that. Galerias Colectika and Corsica, both of which feature emerging Mexican artists, are stylish standouts.
Tucked along the heart of Marina Vallarta, you’ll find new and used books in English and Spanish at The Living Room Bookstore & Cafe. It’s a serene place to relax on one of the plush blue chairs and lose yourself in a thriller or romance, or stop for coffee and a light bite. But what truly makes this bookstore a standout is that owner Kelly Casey has cultivated a homey neighborhood spot. This is where people gather, whether they’re longtime Vallarta residents or folks just stepping off a cruise ship, and everyone is treated like family.
Food and Beverage
If you drink alcohol, it’s likely you’ll have some tequila while you’re here. Boost your knowledge of the quintessential Mexican spirit at the Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa, where a certified tequila sommelier leads proper tastings and plans tequila pairings for any occasion. The resort offers more than 180 tequilas by the glass, including their own proprietary brand, so no two tastings are ever the same!
Get acquainted with the flavor of Mexico during one of Marriott’s specialty meals, arranged upon request, like the five-course sensory experience, a six-course “Dine Around Mexico” meal, or the seven-course “Jalisco at Your Table” menu, with recipes inspired by abuelas’ kitchens.
It’s called Mundo de Azulejos (World of Tiles), because walking into this store does feel like entering another world. Discover a dizzying array of colorful tiles and talavera pottery, including dishes, sinks, and custom work. All the goods in this family business are made on site; you can even go upstairs to take a peek at how these gorgeous tiles are painted. Best of all, they ship anywhere, so don’t worry about weighing down your suitcase.
If all that shopping has worked up an appetite, you’re in luck. Some of the best Jalisco-style tacos in all of Vallarta are made at Birria Chanfay, a modest stand just a few steps away.
The 79-acre Vallarta Botanical Garden might be the most gorgeous place within an already beautiful place, so that’s saying a lot. This garden is dedicated to the preservation, propagation, and display of native Mexican plants, and every meandering path leads somewhere wonderful and special. Allow yourself a few hours to enjoy the blooming orchids, lush tropical plants, and hiking trails.
Tip: The on-site cafe is not just a delicious stop, it’s also a peaceful spot to watch the plentiful hummingbirds flit among the dramatic scenery.
Maggie Downs is the author of the travel memoir Braver Than You Think, (Counterpoint Press), an instant Amazon bestseller and finalist for the Ohioana Book Award. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Afar, Atlas Obscura, and McSweeney’s, among others. Excerpts from her memoir have been anthologized in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Lonely Planet’s True Stories From the World’s Best Writers. She is based in Palm Springs, California.