Jaded hearts don’t stand a chance in Viejo Vallarta, the very soul of Puerto Vallarta. The city’s historic center excites all the senses: Candlelit restaurants and streetside taco stands tempt your tastebuds. The salty sea air soothes your lungs. Salsa, rock and jazz rhythms vibrate your eardrums and your dancing feet. And there’s a happy surprise for the eyes wherever you turn.
PASSION FRUIT, ANYONE?
Exceptional galleries, shops and restaurants fill the maze of narrow streets in Viejo Vallarta. Whimsical bronze sculptures line the city’s malecón, a wide bayside promenade that passes by the main plaza and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church’s tiara-style crown rises above the red-tiled roofs of the Gringo Gulch neighborhood. It was here, in this jumble of mansions and modest homes, that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor carried on their famous love affair while Burton was filming The Night of the Iguana in 1963. A small bridge (now called the Bridge of Sighs) connected Burton’s home with Liz’s Casa Kimberly, which is being restored by the owner of the luxe Hacienda San Angel. Below the hills, artisans’ stands spill from the Mercado de Artisanías on colorful Calle Agustín Rodríguez along the Río Cuale, which separates Viejo Vallarta’s Centro Histórico from the south side’s hip, artsy Zona Romántica.
To explore the galleries and shopping streets of the Centro Histórico, the busy heart of downtown, use the ArtWalk map (available in hotels and at vallartaartwalk.com) as a guide. Galería de Ollas sells intricately painted Mata Ortiz pottery; Galería Caballito de Mar tempts collectors with jewelry and ceramics by famed Mexican folk artists. Gary Thompson, whose Galería Pacífico has been showcasing contemporary Mexican artists since 1987, leads free Tuesday morning tours of the malecón’s sculptures (mid-November to mid-April). You’ll need to climb some steep steps to reach the backstreets and find more shops, cafés and the tucked-away Esquina de los Caprichos restaurant, where the tapas not only taste good, but look like little works of art.
Many of the Zona Romántica’s best shops are on Basilio Badillo, where benches and wide sidewalks make browsing easy. Mexican and international sculptures strike poses in the garden at Galleria Dante, and Cassandra Shaw displays her silver jewelry at her namesake gallery. Handsome stamped leather purses from Guadalajara and ornately embroidered textiles from Chiapas lure fashionistas into Serafina and its sister shop Sirenas. Finally, for the ultimate expression of love, visit Xocodiva for heart-shaped boxes filled with French sherry cordials and passion-fruit truffles.
Advice about curbside dining is served with a splash of humor during the Taco & More tour with Vallarta Eats. The 3-hour walking tour covers about 1½ miles of the backstreets in the Zona Romántica. Along the way you’ll taste true corn tortillas (some have flour added) at a tortillería in the Mercado Municipal, and crunch on chicharrón (fried pork skin) in an air-conditioned butcher shop. You might slip into a bakery where crusty bolillos (bread rolls) are baking atop ceramic tiles in a giant oven or visit ladies selling coconut water on a busy corner. (About that curbside dining: Before you buy, look for a posted safety certificate and water or hand-sanitizer for customers to clean their hands.)
During a café stop for naranjada (orangeade) and seviche, your guide will share enough gossip to elevate your status to that of seasoned traveler. At the carnitas stand, you might suspect that the shredded pork comes from various parts of the pig. It’s probably best not to ask which, until you’ve devoured a fragrant, steamy taco. A bright green seafood stand that’s encircled by stools is obviously a local favorite; one bite of the tangy seafood brochette taco will explain why. At another stand on the malecón, a cook demonstrates the fine art of grilling fish on a stick. Your last stop is at a dazzling candy shop, where clerks pull out samples of caramels and tamarind sweets.
Have you and your partner found that a few shots of tequila will loosen frozen hips and clumsy feet? Then you’ve come to the right place. Latin rhythms flow from clubs and restaurants all over Puerto Vallarta. Sure, there are plenty of places playing rock, lounge and disco. But take a few steps outside your comfort zone and you’ll soon be shimmying and spinning with the pros.
On Sunday nights, live bands fill the plaza with the beat of danzón, choreographed dance moves that originated in Cuba. When performed correctly, the dancers look proper and serious, but in Puerto Vallarta only a few couples stick with tradition. Others go with the flow as crowds assemble to watch and tap their toes.
For a faster immersion in salsa dancing, take a few lessons from the Latin Brothers Dance School. They work out of the J&B Dancing Club, an old-fashioned nightclub with a huge dance floor, a life-sized Elvis statue and a display case filled with model cars and ’50s-era memorabilia. When the band starts up around midnight at J&B, the dancers don’t kid around. Get out on the floor to pick up a few steps from seasoned couples who have obviously been dancing together for decades.
At La Bodeguita del Medio, a spinoff of a 1940s Havana night club, there’s always a Latin beat in the background. Authentic mojitos and dishes like roast pork leg with garlic fortify diners before the Cuban band starts playing cumbia and salsa classics around 9 p.m. If you’re a beginning salsero, you might be discouraged by the expertise of local salsa stars who occasionally claim the dance floor. Before you go, you can sharpen your moves with a lesson from salsa queen Marcella Castellanos, who teaches group and private classes at various spots in town.
SAND & SEA
There are beaches all around Puerto Vallarta. Peaceful, welcoming Playa Camarones lies at the northern end, with views of the far busier beaches around the Zona Romántica across the bay. Families come with their towels and toys, and at lunchtime gather at El Barracuda, a kitschy café serving seafood cocktails, fish tacos and molcajete (grilled marinated steak, shrimp, onions and cheese served in a sizzling stone mortar).
Around the corner, cooks at El Carboncito taco stand (Calle Honduras near the beach; no phone) make tacos al pastor so sublime they’ve been blessed by Chicago chef and Mexican-food connoisseur Rick Bayless. The stand and the indoor seating area are open from around 5 p.m. to midnight.
Towel-sized patches of sand are scarce on the beaches near the Centro Histórico. But it’s easy to find a spot to sit on the broad stairways along the malecón, so you can admire the skills of the sand sculptors. The happening scene starts where the seaside sidewalk passes over the Río Cuale to Playa Olas Altas. Here shops and stands sell hats, beach balls, giant inflatable sharks and any other accoutrement you might need. Vendors balance trays on their heads to show off their wares: flower-shaped carved mangoes, sticky-sweet macaroons and glazed fish on a stick. For treats served tableside, try the juicy, crunchy coconut shrimp at the Blue Shrimp.
Once you’ve passed Plaza Lázaro Cárdenas you’ll come to Playa de los Muertos, the liveliest beach in Viejo Vallarta. Restaurants along the malecón set up full-scale operations on the sand with waiters bustling about the shaded, linen-draped tables. Crowds of friends, sunbathers and vendors cover the beach most afternoons. Sunday mornings are far more peaceful. Couples linger over breakfast at La Palapa, where waiters have been presenting baskets of irresistible pan dulce (sweet pastries) since 1959. Shoppers prefer tables beside the malecón, so they can check out the souvenirs while grazing on berries and yogurt, chicken sopes with poached eggs, or crab and chipotle Benedicts. Vendors bring their classiest wares on Sundays, it seems, and are happy to chat without too much of a sales pitch. Wood-carvers unload fanciful mermaids and angels from deep shoulder bags, and seamstresses unfold lace tablecloths. Even the ubiquitous cotton blankets tempt you to consider covering your bed or couch back home with bright stripes. As you sip your coffee or fresh-squeezed OJ, you’re sure to find the perfect heartwarming Viejo Vallarta memento.