Mexico’s Pacific coast, and especially its northern stretches, has long been the playground of American tourists: now, thanks to new weekly flights to Puerto Vallarta from Gatwick and Manchester with Thomson, we Britons can join them in the sand pit. Puerto Vallarta itself may not be quite on the scale of Cancún or Acapulco, but it’s a big resort nonetheless – around it, though, is some of the least-touched coastline in Mexico. Cove after isolated cove around the town is backed by forested mountains, while to the south along the Costalegre, the “Happy Coast”, spread more expansive, silky sands. Jungly lagoons and torpid villages, their beaches scattered with makeshift bars and studded with palms, are completed by heart-melting sunsets and a rich array of freshly caught seafood. The ocean, too, offers something for almost everyone, from radical surf breaks to sheltered swimming holes, island escapes to party cruises.
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Puerto Vallarta: the town
With its party ambiance and unbridled commercialism, Puerto Vallarta is certainly a resort, but it’s one on a human scale, with an old town at its heart, where cobbled streets fan out from a colonial plaza overlooking the oceanfront boulevard. All around there’s been frantic development, so if you’re looking for traditional Mexico this may not be it, but get into the mood and it can be a lot of fun.
In common with many Mexican resorts, it has a dual character: in the chi-chi “Zona Romantica” you’ll find some exceptional art galleries and upmarket boutiques among the souvenir shops; further from the beaches, there’s a vibrant city barely troubled by the visitors, with street food as tasty as you’ll find anywhere in Mexico.
By day, if not on the beach – most people stay to the north of town, among the grand modern hotels and white-sand beaches of Nuevo Vallarta, where activities include jungle zip-wires, whale-watching (winter only), island snorkeling trips and the inevitable booze cruises. In town, things are quieter, with a sprinkling of small museums and an unexpected haven, the Isla Río Cuale, a lush, garden-like, pedestrian-only space on an island in the middle of the river that splits Puerto Vallarta in two. At night, crowds spill from the candle-lit downtown bars to a series of clubs along the waterfront, where seemingly every taste from mariachi to metal, salsa to electronica, is catered for.
Puerto Vallarta: the beaches
Even if you’re staying a couple of weeks, there’s a beach for every day and every mood in and around Puerto Vallarta. Downtown at the Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead), and in the hotel zones to the north, you’ll find plenty of people and plenty going on. Elsewhere around the Bahía de Banderas, the bay at whose centre Puerto Vallarta sits, alternatives abound. They include Mismaloya, where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor carried on the scandalous romance credited with first putting Puerto Vallarta on the map, and many more white-sand getaways that can be accessed only by boat or an arduous jungle hike, such as the old hippy hangout of Yelapa, hemmed in by tropical hills and coconut palms.
Better still, 30 minutes’ offshore lie the Marieta Islands, at the heart of a huge marine national park characterized by extraordinary natural rock arches and tunnels. If you want to escape the crowds, there are dozens of tiny hidden beaches and lonely swimming and snorkeling spots here.
North of Puerto Vallarta: Bucerías, Punta Mita and Sayulita
Bucerías and Punta Mita, with their very different characters, mark the northern extent of the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Banderas). At laid-back, shabby Bucerías, seafront restaurants offer tremendous views back over Puerto Vallarta, and there’s entertaining shopping at a series of flea-market style stalls. Punta de Mita is altogether glossier, with a magnificent coral-sand beach that’s been exploited by ritzy resort hotels. Languorous Sayulita, farther north, is somewhere between the two, attracting a gringo surfer crowd to an enchanting, jungle-fringed beach. It’s a particularly good place to learn to surf.
South of Puerto Vallarta, the Costalegre
The Costalegre stretches south of Puerto Vallarta for more than 125 miles, including some of the wildest, most undeveloped stretches of Mexico’s Pacific coast. The jungle-smothered mountains, lonely beaches and isolated villages seem incredibly tempting, but before attempting the journey you’d be well advised to seek some local advice: many of the choicest spots have been closed off thanks to disputes over land ownership.
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At the southern end of the coast, the twin resort towns of Barra de Navidad and Melaque definitely are accessible. A striking contrast to Puerto Vallarta, they’re almost entirely Mexican resorts, little commercialized but crowded at weekends with families and revelers from Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Barra and Melaque are joined by a five-mile arc of golden sand, the focus and highlight of a visit to either.
Highlights elsewhere on the Costalegre include the Costa Careyes (“Turtle Coast”), a series of fine beaches ringed by glamorous villas, where endangered Olive Ridley turtles lay their eggs. There’s a conservation programme you can visit, and though some of the beaches are gated, the guards will let you through to visit the beach. Nearby Bahía Chamela offers another sweeping arc of superb beaches, only now starting to be developed – there’s fabulous snorkelling and diving around a series of small offshore islands.