Puerto Vallarta is a charming seaside city on the Pacific side of central Mexico. With cobblestone streets, parks filled with colorful mosaic artwork and the surrounding Sierra Madre hills, Puerto Vallarta certainly has its allure. Additionally, from a hopping restaurant scene to hiking through local towns to stunning hidden beaches, the options of what to do in Puerto Vallarta seem endless.
From getting lost in the colorful artwork of Zona Romantica to hiking off-the-beaten-path through small picturesque fishing villages to the best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, our guide on what to do in Puerto Vallarta will cover it all. Here is our guide on what to do to in the Puerto Vallarta, Mexico area.
Note: This post is written based on a trip taken in early April. We took this trip with our 8 month old daughter. For tips on traveling with a baby, please see our How to Hike with a Baby and Flying with a Baby posts.
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What to Do in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas Beach Hike
2.25 mile one-way hike, 705 feet of elevation gain
This hike takes you along stunning coastline and through green jungle to several beautiful secluded beaches south of Puerto Vallarta. This hike starts in the quaint and colorful local fishing village of Boca de Tomatlan and leads you to the lively Las Animas beach. This adventure was our favorite thing we did while visiting the Puerto Vallarta area of Mexico!
Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas Beach Hike Specifics
This hike took us about 2 hours one-way, longer than we expected, because we had to be more careful with our footing than we anticipated. The trail is very peaceful and makes the extra effort worth it though.
To start your journey from the town, you cross a makeshift boardwalk over the water to get on the trail on the southern side of Boca de Tomatlan. If you are having trouble finding it, ask a local (in Spanish ideally) where it is and they should be able to show you the way.
We only saw a handful of other people on the path, and it was easy enough to follow. When in doubt, hug the coastline and cross the several beaches you encounter, paralleling the water, to get back to the trail. Beware that there is barbed wire fence on parts of the trail. It is usually simple to avoid but be mindful of where it is (especially if hiking with a baby who likes to touch everything and put everything in her mouth).
Las Animas Beach
When you reach Las Animas, stop and relax at one of the beachfront restaurants for food/drink before taking a water taxi back to Boca de Tomatlan. Alternatively, you can hike back the same route if you are feeling refreshed after a relaxing stop.
The restaurants on Las Animas all have nice beach atmospheres and are very accommodating for you to step up camp for the afternoon. We particularly recommend eating on the beach at Mariscos Tinos. We had not only a table on the beach to sit at while dining but also lounge chairs for us to relax on in front of our table (use of both included with dining). The staff at this restaurant further provided very attentive service. We had a fun afternoon here with our daughter.
After grabbing a bite on Las Animas, you can take a water taxi back to Boca for 100 pesos per person. Our waiter helped us coordinate by calling the boat but can also coordinate yourself from the main pier on the beach. Alternatively, you could hike back to Boca de Tomatlan as stated above.
How to get to Boca de Tomatlan
To get to Boca de Tomatlan, you can easily take a local bus from downtown PV to this southern fishing village. It takes about 30 minutes. The ride is bumpy, due to speed bumps, but goes by quickly as you hug the scenic coastline. The bus costs 15 pesos per person each way. Alternatively, you can take a cab, but it will be over 10x the price and takes the same amount of time as there is only one two-lane road that connects the two areas. We rode the local bus several times during our trip and found it to be both a local and cultural experience. We figured out where to catch the bus through asking locals and recommend doing the same. The people who regularly use the bus are the ones who know it best.
Walk Along the Malecon
The Malecon is a pedestrian-only boardwalk that parallels the beach in downtown Puerto Vallarta. This boardwalk is lined with shops, restaurants and bars as well as many different sculptures for your viewing pleasure.
Tip: Visit the Malecon at different times of day
In the evenings, vendors set up along the shoreline selling food, drinks, desserts and crafts and the boardwalk is booming with people. However, our favorite time of the day to walk (or run) on it was in the early mornings just after sunrise. At this time, it was very peaceful and pedestrians were sparse, a contrast to the lively nightly scene.
Explore City Center and Zona Romantica
Lazaro Cardenas Park
Lazaro Cardenas Park in Zona Romantica is full of colorful detailed mosaic artwork. This spot reminded us of Park Guell in Barcelona. See our Visiting Barcelona, Spain on a Budget guide for more details on that trip. We enjoyed walking through this pretty park several times – observing different mosaics each time.
Isla Cuale is a cute island in the middle of Zona Romantica. It is bordered by the Cuale river and ample greenery. To access this island, you cross a cute wooden suspension bridge from the south or you can walk down the colorful puente iguana stairs from the north. When we visited Puerto Vallarta, few people were on this island. It was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the Malecon during the day.
Our Lady Guadalupe Church
This picturesque church is located in the heart of the city center and is very colorful inside. The interior of the church reminded us of Almudena Cathedral in Madrid (see Visiting Madrid, Spain on a Budget). The tower of the church is topped with a crown which is thought to be a replica of the crown worn by an Empress of Mexico in the 1800s
Los Muertos Pier/ Playa Los Muertos
Playa Los Muertos means Beach of the Dead and the name originates from legend that a pirate battle took place here. There are many restaurants along the beach that you may want to check out. This is a fairly busy beach so we did not spend a lot of time here but rather spent more time at the more hidden and secluded beaches south of Puerto Vallarta that we encountered on the La Animas hike (see above).
Basilio Badillo Street
This street is filled with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars where you are sure to find something to tickle your fancy.
Vallarta Botanical Gardens
Vallarta Botanical Gardens is located in the Sierra Madre hills south of Puerto Vallarta. These gardens are tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city center of Puerto Vallarta. There are numerous trails and greenhouses here that showcase the flora and fauna of the area. We loved seeing all the different flowers and several types of unique birds here.
Trails at Vallarta Botanical Gardens
You can easily walk all the trails at Vallarta Botanical Gardens in a morning or afternoon (a couple miles of trails at most) to see all the different areas of the gardens. We recommend hiking all the trails here but if you only have time for one, hike the Jaguar Trail that leads you through the jungle to a river swimming spot (the water was really cold when we visited so we did not go for a dip).
Eat at Hacienda del Oro Restaurant
Be sure to eat at the restaurant Hacienda del Oro on site at Vallarta Botanical Gardens. Good food and beautiful views. You can visit the gardens from 9 AM-6 PM. During the busy season (winter), consider booking tickets online beforehand. You can book admission with or without a tour. We visited without a tour because we wanted more flexibility having our baby, but you may want to do it if you want to learn more details about the different flora and fauna you will see.
How to get to Vallarta Gardens
Vallarta Botanical Gardens is located south of PV. You can take a local bus or uber/cab here. We took the bus and it cost 30 pesos (less than 2 US dollars) per person each way. You can take an uber or taxis as well but it will cost about 10x as much and will certainly not be the same local experience. We met many friendly locals on the several bus rides we took and found this to be a great way to get some local insight on what to do in Puerto Vallarta.
Gringo Gulch Neighborhood
The Gringo Gulch neighborhood is a very picturesque area. You get a taste of authentic Puerto Vallarta strolling through here. We walked from our Airbnb through this neighborhood to get to the Cerro De La Cruz lookout.
Cerro De La Cruz Lookout Hike
Steep short (0.5 mile) climb up a tower that affords you 360 panoramic views of the entire bay, the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains and the rustic rooftops of downtown
Where to Eat Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Elizabeth Taylor Mansion
The restaurant at this mansion is architecturally beautiful. It also has very pretty views of Puerto Vallarta from the dining area and elsewhere in the mansion. There is further really cool history to this mansion. You can walk on the bridge (Puente de Amor) that Elizabeth Taylor had built to connect her house (Casa Kimberley) to Richard Burton’s (her lover’s) house. We got drinks here (the best drinks we had in Puerto Vallarta) and you can also get dinner here. It would be a great place to celebrate a special occasion on your trip. We recommend at least getting drinks so you can explore around the beautiful and historic mansion.
We recommended visiting El Brujo to try traditional Mexican Molcajete. Molcajete is a sizzling black pot of steak/shrimp/chicken, grilled green onions and soft white cheese in a homemade sauce of dried red peppers that is served with guacamole, refried beans and homemade tortillas. This dish reminded us of fajitas but with a flavorful sauce.
This restaurant had the best food we ate in Puerto Vallarta. Although not traditional Mexican, the European cuisine did not disappoint. The dining area was filled with lush greenery, making the atmosphere on-point to give it a secluded, peaceful vibe.
Street tacos were a highlight of our time in Puerto Vallarta. They were delicious yet so inexpensive, costing 15-25 pesos per taco. We tried a bunch of different street taco stands. Our favorite stand with the best tacos was located about a ¼ mile east of the Los Muertos Pier at intersection of Olas Altas and Francesia Rodriquez streets
A Page in The Sun
This funky used bookstore and cafe sells scrumptious baked goods, coffee/tea drinks and tasty salads/sandwiches.
Joe Jacks Fish Shack
For a lively atmosphere and fun dinner, be sure to eat at Joe Jack’s Fish Shack. The rooftop dining area is decorated with lush greenery. Joe Jack’s is located in a very lively area of Zona Romantica with lots of bars and restaurants so you can easily go bar hopping from here. We really enjoyed our seafood dishes as well as our unique cocktails here.
Hacienda del Oro
This restaurant is located on site at Vallarta Botanical Gardens. You can’t go wrong at this restaurant. The food and views are both great. See the Vallarta Botanical Gardens in What to do section of guide above for more info.
Tip: Go grocery shopping at Casa Ley on the outskirts of the city center
There are plenty of small stores in the heart of Zona Romantica and the city center. However, grocery options are very limited/expensive here and you will find little to no produce. We used our stroller to cart back groceries to our Airbnb in Zona Romantica. If you have a car, go grocery shopping outside of the city center for the most options and best prices.
Other recommendations we did not have time to check out (all walking less than 10 minutes walking from where we stayed)
- Coco’s Kitchen (many people recommend to us, good breakfast place, with baby we tend to eat breakfast at our accommodations)
- Fredy’s Tucan (Local spot, Breakfast, closes 3 pm, No credit cards)
- Langostino’s (Seafood, Beachfront dining, Surf and Turf at a good price)
- Los Muertos Brewing (brewery with food as well)
Tip: Learn some Spanish prior to traveling to Puerto Vallarta
We highly recommend learning some Spanish prior to visiting Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as many people only speak Spanish in this area. Natalie knows very basic Spanish (took in middle/high school) and Sam is more conversational (taught himself during pandemic lockdown). We found Sam’s capability to speak Spanish conversationally exceedingly helpful. We were able to communicate with locals much easier and it really added to our cultural experience. Sam taught himself Spanish through using several books, the Duolingo App and italki. Please reach out if you would like to discuss with Sam how he taught himself Spanish!
Where to Stay in Puerto Vallarta
We highly recommend staying in the heart of Zona Romantica. From here, you will be able to walk or catch a bus/uber to everywhere you may want to go. You will not need to rent a car.
We particularly recommend the Zona Romantica Airbnb we stayed at in Puerto Vallarta. It has amazing floor to ceiling window views overlooking the picturesque rooftops as well as the ocean in the distance. It also had a stunning infinity pool on the roof that we loved swimming in with our daughter.
We hope this guide helps you plan what to do in Puerto Vallarta. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!