In search of the heart and soul of Puerto Vallarta

Statue-Puerto vallarta

One of the many statues along the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta, home to 50,000 expats and favored vacation destination of many thousands of North Americans, has lost any semblance of being a sleepy fishing village. Walmart, Home Depot and KFC are all evidence of the gentrification of the area. United States chains notwithstanding, Puerto Vallarta still has a lot to offer, from silky, warm tropical air to endless organized activities and delicious seafood. As winter closes in on North America Puerto Vallarta offers a respite from the cold.

Eschewing turkey with all the trimmings I traveled to Puerto Vallarta with two companions over Thanksgiving week in search of the real Puerto Vallarta. We managed to find some less commercialized places, some in, but mostly around Puerto Vallarta, and still within a convenient hour or two driving distance.


The beautiful surf break at Sayulita

The beautiful surf break at Sayulita


About an hour by public bus (35 pesos/US$2.80), Sayulita is a fishing village that has the good fortune of being graced by a good surf break, making it popular spot for surfers. While it has definitely been “discovered” by gringos, it still retains some of its old style charm, with one and two story rustic buildings, open air restaurants and a beautiful long beach.

Getting There:  We took a local bus from Marina Vallarta to Walmart (a big transfer location)and transferred to a Sayulita bus. The clientele were about half local, half tourist. Look for buses with “Sayulita” written in white letters on the passenger side of the windshield going there, and “Puerto Vallarta” on the way back. Walk two blocks to the beach.

Old Town

Mariachi band

Mariachi band performs in Old Town, while a young apprentice captured everyone's heart

Known for endless street vendor stalls and tequila hawkers “Old Town” still offers a taste of local culture if you catch it on an evening when celebrations are happening. A few days before Thanksgiving a beach service was being held to honor Saint Cecelia, complete with a priest and Mariachi band. Across the street at the plaza a mariachi face-off continued long into the night on dueling stages. The crowd was 90% local and it was wonderful to see families with children swaying to the traditional music.

Getting There: Take a city bus to  “Centro” (downtown). Get off at the plaza and wander around the waterfront and flea market.

San Sebastian del Oeste

San Sebastian

Town square in the mountain town of San Sebastian

Deep in the 8,000 foot mountains behind Puerto Vallarta lie gold and silver reserves that are still being mined to this day. We took a day tour from Vallarta Adventures (850 pesos/US$68) and traveled 45 miles and a world away, driving through farms and ranch land, agave-producing fields, over steep mountain roads and high valleys. We reached San Sebastian, a UNESCO heritage site recognized for it’s colonial architecture dating from the 17th century, sampled the local coffee and met a silver artist making jewelry in the traditional way with hand tools, teaching his son the craft. At 4,500 feet San Sebastian is tucked into the mountains in a narrow valley and can provide cooling relief from the heat of the coast.

Getting There:  Various tour companies offer day trips to San Sebastian. We booked a Vallarta Adventures tour through Explora. We decided against renting a vehicle or hiring a private driver as we wanted to learn about the history of the area and were fortunate to have an entertaining and knowledgeable guide, Gustavo.


We sailed along the waterfront on the Simpatico, a Rawson 30' sailboat

We sailed along the waterfront on the Simpatico, a Rawson 30' sailboat

Puerto Vallarta’s original reason for being was tied to the sea with the warm waters attracting abundant sealife. A 4 hour sailing expedition on a Rawson 30 foot sailboat (374 pesos/US$30/person) took us across the waterfront, where we spied whales spouting and breaching, their massive gray bulk shining in the sun. Manta rays frolicked, shooting up out of the water while colorful tropical fish surrounded the boat.

Getting There: Numerous fishing, sailing and boat trips are offered through many sources. We booked through Geraldo of the Tequila & Guacamole Restaurant in Marina Vallarta. We were happy with the reasonable rates and thought it was good value for getting out on the water and going for a short snorkel but got a little hungry as the snacks were limited to chips and beer.

The real Puerto Vallarta
The truth is all facets of Puerto Vallarta are real, but if you think that the town has been entirely supplanted with condo and hotel development and U.S. chains it’s not true. Look beneath the surface, travel with the locals on public transportation and glance down alleyways and you’ll find a multidimensional town that embraces visitors while at the same time retaining traditional ways. And the warm, tropical sun certainly feels wonderful after a few months of freezing winter temperatures.


  • Puerto Vallarta is located on the Pacific coast of Mexico and the surrounding area is lush and tropical.
  • Several US airlines fly to Puerto Vallarta, including United, Alaska, Delta, American and Continental.
  • Information about what to do and where to stay can be obtained from the Visit Puerto Vallarta website.

See other articles by Inga Aksamit about Puerto Vallarta:


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