Sprawling beaches. Cobblestoned streets. Vibrant art galleries. Hollywood history. Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, has tantalized vacationers with this winning formula since the area was spotlighted by the 1970s TV series The Love Boat. But beyond the area’s Old Town and sun-drenched Los Muertos beach, you’ll find unforgettable places that locals have long kept secret, and for good reason. Read on for our top picks.
A scenic 45-minute boat ride from town, the small fishing village of Yelapa exudes a laid-back, old-school charm. You can hail a public water taxi from the Puerto Vallarta marina or book a private boat at Boca de Tomatlán. In Yelapa there are no chain stores, sky-high condos or—most appealing of all—crowds, which means the area has remained unspoiled. Settle into a palm-tree-shaded hammock on the soft sand, or sidle up to one of the thatched-roof beach-shack bars for fresh margaritas. This crescent-shaped stretch is virtually deserted, and the point is to do a whole lot of nothing at all.
Puerto Vallarta’s dense rain forest doesn’t get as much attention as the beaches or Old Town, but it’s just as alluring. Its pristine terrain is home to abundant wildlife, and its waterfalls, deep in the jungle and surrounded by rugged mountains and towering trees, are spectacular. Among them, Quimixto Waterfall, in Quimixto, is the most accessible. You can book a 30-minute boat ride from the Puerto Vallarta marina. From the pier at Quimixto visitors can either hike a half hour along a scenic path where two rivers meet or take a guided donkey or horse ride. (The waterfall is close to Yelapa, so consider packaging the two attractions together into one trip.) The waterfall rushes into an emerald-hued pool and makes a great spot for a refreshing afternoon dip.
The Vallarta Botanical Gardens has 3,000 plant species, a colorful orchid farm and agave gardens. A half-hour cab ride from town, the 20-acre spread is set within a lush rain forest. Visitors can immerse themselves in nature along miles of hiking trails, where labels identify native trees and scenic lookouts afford breathtaking views of the Sierra Madre mountains. Don’t forget to pack your swimsuit: The gardens are situated near the crystal-clear Los Horcones River, a favorite splashing spot for families.
In the 1960s oceanographer Jacques Cousteau championed the effort to protect the Marieta Islands, a marine park that’s home to the blue-footed booby and giant manta rays. Today you can visit the 3,460-acre archipelago by charter boat or with a tour operator; choose one that provides kayaks to better navigate the expanse’s far. Snorkeling is a great way to spot wildlife, but don’t miss out on the park’s unique Playa Escondida, a beach that formed inside the rim of a crater long ago when the island’s volcanic rock collapsed. To get there, you must swim from your boat, and even then it’s not a sure thing: In the morning, tour operators gauge sea conditions, which determine whether boats venture out.
Around the time actor Richard Burton filmed The Night of the Iguana, in 1963, he bought actress Elizabeth Taylor a house on the hillside, where they could live together. For decades curious visitors to Puerto Vallarta were never able to peek any farther than the Love Bridge the couple built to connect that home to another villa. Now their former hideaway has been reimagined as Casa Kimberly, a palatial boutique hotel that offers an alfresco Mexican restaurant, called the Iguana, and a tequila bar, both of which are open to the public and offer sweeping views of the bay.
Slip away from Old Town’s popular cantinas and beachside restaurants and head to El Patio de Mi Casa. This tucked-away jazz club has no signage and sits on an unassuming cobblestoned street. The club is one of only a few tony places in town where you can order raicilla—a distilled agave-based spirit that’s native to Mexico’s western state of Jalisco—and it’s a magnet for discerning locals who appreciate craft cocktails, fine wine and live jazz. The courtyard, with its brick walls, ivy and a cozy bar set under a vaulted ceiling, twinkles with lights at night.
Vallarta Botanical Gardens: Carr. Puerto Vallarta, a Barra de Navidad km 24, Las Juntas y Los Veranos, Cabo Corrientes; 011-52-322-223-6182
Vallarta Adventures: 888-526-2238; vallarta-adventures.com
Casa Kimberly: 445 Calle Zaragoza; 877-218-3248; casakimberly.com
El Patio de Mi Casa: 311 Guerrero; 011-52-322-222-0743
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.