Enjoying the food, art and celebrations of Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta

By Evenyl Roemmich
This article appears on page 40 of the December 2015 issue.
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This bronze statue by Sergio Bustamante, titled “In Search of Reason,” is a favorite along Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón. Photo by Rodney Roemmich

For the last several years, my companion, George, and I have vacationed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, sometime between September and December. Early December is now our favorite time. The weather is near perfect, the town is not yet crowded and the attractions are numerous.

So on a rainy morning during the first week of December 2014, we left San Francisco on a direct Alaska Airlines flight. Three-and-a-half hours later we were in 85-degree temperature, and that would remain the high for the next 14 days. 

Loving PV

From a small fishing village on the horseshoe-shaped Bay of Banderas to a vibrant art community and tourist destination with award-winning restaurants, street cafés, restaurants on the beach and casual to elegant nightlife, Puerto Vallarta (PV) has it all! 

Visitors to PV can enjoy horseback riding, sport fishing, water sports, whale-watching (December to March) and tours of tequila factories, silver-mining towns and botanical gardens. There’s an activity for everyone, and we’ve done it all! 

There are many competing tour companies, and they will try to grab you even before you leave the airport. Offering tours — along with timeshare presentations — they are relentless. You need to be firm in saying “No” unless you have a lot of time and money. 

If you’re looking for American-style shopping, there’s a Walmart, Costco, Home Depot and McDonald’s, but once you see the cobblestone streets, catch the aroma of Mexican spices and hear the mariachi music, you’ll know you are in Old Mexico. 

Walk the walk

There are two activities we never miss: a walk along the Malecón, or boardwalk, which runs along the seawall for about 12 blocks and features lots of sculptures, and our favorite event, the “birthday” celebration of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. And, of course, they are both free!

The sculptures on the Malecón include about 15 world-class pieces of art, mostly of bronze or stone. Each has its own story. In December there are also colorful Christmas decorations and sand sculptures. 

The Malecón is the center of public life in PV, as there is an amphitheater for concerts and other free events. From November to mid-April, local gallery owner Gary Thompson offers a free walking tour every Tuesday morning beginning at 9:30. Lasting about two hours, the tour starts at the “Millennium” sculpture next to Hotel Rosita and ends at his Galería Pacífico (phone +322 222 1982, www.galeriapacifico.com). His presentation includes some history of each sculpture and little-known facts about them.

Celebrations

The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a city landmark, and the celebration of Guadalupe’s birthday is a joyous affair that takes place during the first 12 days of December. We experienced parades, music and special events in the plaza in front of the church and saw groups of schoolchildren, workers, the elderly — all dressed in bright colors and many carrying candles — walking in the procession or riding on floats or in cars or pickup trucks.

Everyone took gifts of food, clothing or money to the church to be given to the needy. 

The parades lasted several hours, beginning in late afternoon and continuing late into the night. All communities took part, so many streets were closed. 

At around 6 p.m. the church bells began to ring, bringing patrons to worship. On Dec. 12, the celebrations culminated with a midnight Mass. 

We went every day when we were near the downtown area.

Among the sand sculptures on the Malecón are two live men, covered in sand, playing chess.

In the plaza there were perhaps 100 vendors all competing for the attention of visitors. Food, candies, cakes, jewelry, ceramics, clothes, hand-crafted items, even massage and more, were available. We were disappointed on this visit to not find some of our favorite vendors and were told that local merchants complained that they were taking away their business. 

Most merchants will take dollars but rarely give you a good rate of exchange. It’s best to have pesos.

There was a bandstand in the middle of the plaza where the mariachi played on Sundays. Every mariachi band has its own sound, passion and rhythm. 

In the city

Puerto Vallarta is a mecca for shopping, offering diamonds, gems, silver, original cotton clothing, colorful art tiles, handicrafts and Huichol art, and there are many art studios. Festivals and cultural events are numerous, and food competitions bring world-renowned chefs. 

We have been in PV several times for Day of the Dead celebrations (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), when loved ones are remembered and honored with displays, candles and food. 

Speaking Spanish is helpful but not necessary. 

Accommodations range from rustic to 5-star resorts. We usually spend one week near PV’s downtown and another week up the bay, near Bucerías on the Riviera Nayarit, at Villa del Palmar Flamingos, our timeshare property (though it is a resort open to the public) about 30 minutes from downtown PV. 

On this trip, our first week was spent at Costa Sur Resort & Spa (866/921-0126, costasurpuerto
vallarta.com)
, four miles south of Old Town. It had its own private lagoon and was an easy bus ride away from Old Town (8 pesos, or 50¢), but you’ll need to change buses if you’re going farther north. 

To reach PV’s church or downtown, it’s an 8- or 9-block walk across the bridge, where there is a huge flea market in the middle of the river (Río Cuale), or it’s around four blocks to the beach and the pier. 

Because we do a timeshare exchange, I don’t know the cost for rooms, but the food is good and the morning buffet is about $12 to $15. 

I would rate the property about 3½ stars. 

I know Villa del Palmar offers Internet specials, though all include timeshare presentations — but it may be worth the four hours you might spend for the promised 90-minute presentation. 

People taking gifts for the needy to the Church of Our Lady of Guadelupe.

We never choose an all-inclusive stay. I feel it’s expensive, and I’m always trying to travel “on the cheap.” It’s easy to fix food in your room, and you can eat on the balcony while enjoying a great view. They have an on-site market and deli, and, as owners, we get a 20% discount, but I do the regular weekly shopping at the Mega market or Walmart. 

“Restaurant Row” in Old Town, also called the “Romantic Zone,” is Basilio Badillo. Our favorite places to eat include Margarita Grill (Pino Suárez), where they make salsa and guacamole right at your table using the mortar-and-pestle method. Dinner for four cost around 650 pesos ($40). 

Derby City Burgers (356 Calle Olas Altas) has the best burgers (95 pesos), with fries or a salad. 

The next one is not my favorite, but George loves the bacon and hash browns (80 pesos) at Johnny’s Diner (336 Basilio Badillo). They close at 2 p.m. It’s a small place, with slow service but good coffee and fresh orange juice. 

Taxis are reasonably priced ($5-$6), convenient and fast within your zone, but it can be more expensive to take a taxi to another zone, so we made it a point to figure out the local bus system. For 7 or 8 pesos we could save the $15 or $20 we would have spent on a taxi. We even took the bus to the airport from Villa del Palmar Flamingos (16 pesos per person). The taxi would have cost $26. 

My grandson Rodney and his lady friend joined us for eight days on this trip, spending time with us in both locations. Our first family vacation, it was a journey worth repeating, exploring the charm of Puerto Vallarta.    

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
This bronze statue by Sergio Bustamante, titled “In Search of Reason,” is a favorite along Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón. Photo by Rodney Roemmich

For the last several years, my companion, George, and I have vacationed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, sometime between September and December. Early December is now our favorite time. The weather is near perfect, the town is not yet crowded and the attractions are numerous.

So on a rainy morning during the first week of December 2014, we left San Francisco on a direct Alaska Airlines flight. Three-and-a-half hours later we were in 85-degree temperature, and that would remain the high for the next 14 days. 

Loving PV

From a small fishing village on the horseshoe-shaped Bay of Banderas to a vibrant art community and tourist destination with award-winning restaurants, street cafés, restaurants on the beach and casual to elegant nightlife, Puerto Vallarta (PV) has it all! 

Visitors to PV can enjoy horseback riding, sport fishing, water sports, whale-watching (December to March) and tours of tequila factories, silver-mining towns and botanical gardens. There’s an activity for everyone, and we’ve done it all! 

There are many competing tour companies, and they will try to grab you even before you leave the airport. Offering tours — along with timeshare presentations — they are relentless. You need to be firm in saying “No” unless you have a lot of time and money. 

If you’re looking for American-style shopping, there’s a Walmart, Costco, Home Depot and McDonald’s, but once you see the cobblestone streets, catch the aroma of Mexican spices and hear the mariachi music, you’ll know you are in Old Mexico. 

Walk the walk

There are two activities we never miss: a walk along the Malecón, or boardwalk, which runs along the seawall for about 12 blocks and features lots of sculptures, and our favorite event, the “birthday” celebration of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. And, of course, they are both free!

The sculptures on the Malecón include about 15 world-class pieces of art, mostly of bronze or stone. Each has its own story. In December there are also colorful Christmas decorations and sand sculptures. 

The Malecón is the center of public life in PV, as there is an amphitheater for concerts and other free events. From November to mid-April, local gallery owner Gary Thompson offers a free walking tour every Tuesday morning beginning at 9:30. Lasting about two hours, the tour starts at the “Millennium” sculpture next to Hotel Rosita and ends at his Galería Pacífico (phone +322 222 1982, www.galeriapacifico.com). His presentation includes some history of each sculpture and little-known facts about them.

Celebrations

The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a city landmark, and the celebration of Guadalupe’s birthday is a joyous affair that takes place during the first 12 days of December. We experienced parades, music and special events in the plaza in front of the church and saw groups of schoolchildren, workers, the elderly — all dressed in bright colors and many carrying candles — walking in the procession or riding on floats or in cars or pickup trucks.

Everyone took gifts of food, clothing or money to the church to be given to the needy. 

The parades lasted several hours, beginning in late afternoon and continuing late into the night. All communities took part, so many streets were closed. 

At around 6 p.m. the church bells began to ring, bringing patrons to worship. On Dec. 12, the celebrations culminated with a midnight Mass. 

We went every day when we were near the downtown area.

Among the sand sculptures on the Malecón are two live men, covered in sand, playing chess.

In the plaza there were perhaps 100 vendors all competing for the attention of visitors. Food, candies, cakes, jewelry, ceramics, clothes, hand-crafted items, even massage and more, were available. We were disappointed on this visit to not find some of our favorite vendors and were told that local merchants complained that they were taking away their business. 

Most merchants will take dollars but rarely give you a good rate of exchange. It’s best to have pesos.

There was a bandstand in the middle of the plaza where the mariachi played on Sundays. Every mariachi band has its own sound, passion and rhythm. 

In the city

Puerto Vallarta is a mecca for shopping, offering diamonds, gems, silver, original cotton clothing, colorful art tiles, handicrafts and Huichol art, and there are many art studios. Festivals and cultural events are numerous, and food competitions bring world-renowned chefs. 

We have been in PV several times for Day of the Dead celebrations (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), when loved ones are remembered and honored with displays, candles and food. 

Speaking Spanish is helpful but not necessary. 

Accommodations range from rustic to 5-star resorts. We usually spend one week near PV’s downtown and another week up the bay, near Bucerías on the Riviera Nayarit, at Villa del Palmar Flamingos, our timeshare property (though it is a resort open to the public) about 30 minutes from downtown PV. 

On this trip, our first week was spent at Costa Sur Resort & Spa (866/921-0126, costasurpuerto
vallarta.com)
, four miles south of Old Town. It had its own private lagoon and was an easy bus ride away from Old Town (8 pesos, or 50¢), but you’ll need to change buses if you’re going farther north. 

To reach PV’s church or downtown, it’s an 8- or 9-block walk across the bridge, where there is a huge flea market in the middle of the river (Río Cuale), or it’s around four blocks to the beach and the pier. 

Because we do a timeshare exchange, I don’t know the cost for rooms, but the food is good and the morning buffet is about $12 to $15. 

I would rate the property about 3½ stars. 

I know Villa del Palmar offers Internet specials, though all include timeshare presentations — but it may be worth the four hours you might spend for the promised 90-minute presentation. 

People taking gifts for the needy to the Church of Our Lady of Guadelupe.

We never choose an all-inclusive stay. I feel it’s expensive, and I’m always trying to travel “on the cheap.” It’s easy to fix food in your room, and you can eat on the balcony while enjoying a great view. They have an on-site market and deli, and, as owners, we get a 20% discount, but I do the regular weekly shopping at the Mega market or Walmart. 

“Restaurant Row” in Old Town, also called the “Romantic Zone,” is Basilio Badillo. Our favorite places to eat include Margarita Grill (Pino Suárez), where they make salsa and guacamole right at your table using the mortar-and-pestle method. Dinner for four cost around 650 pesos ($40). 

Derby City Burgers (356 Calle Olas Altas) has the best burgers (95 pesos), with fries or a salad. 

The next one is not my favorite, but George loves the bacon and hash browns (80 pesos) at Johnny’s Diner (336 Basilio Badillo). They close at 2 p.m. It’s a small place, with slow service but good coffee and fresh orange juice. 

Taxis are reasonably priced ($5-$6), convenient and fast within your zone, but it can be more expensive to take a taxi to another zone, so we made it a point to figure out the local bus system. For 7 or 8 pesos we could save the $15 or $20 we would have spent on a taxi. We even took the bus to the airport from Villa del Palmar Flamingos (16 pesos per person). The taxi would have cost $26. 

My grandson Rodney and his lady friend joined us for eight days on this trip, spending time with us in both locations. Our first family vacation, it was a journey worth repeating, exploring the charm of Puerto Vallarta.