Puerto Vallarta - Expectations and Reality

Flight to Somewhere
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April 22, 2017

There were plenty of things where Puerto Vallarta delivered exactly what I thought it would - beautiful weather (it did not rain once during our two-week stay), great quality all inclusive, cheap massage (not at the hotel of course, their prices were exorbitant but plenty of massage parlours in town where 350 pesos buy you 75 minutes!) and the sunsets were incredible. But there were also six things that turned out not at all as I expected, with both positive and negative surprises:
Expectation # 1: Safety achieved by heavy police presence

Our first trip to Mexico was to the other side of the country - the Yucatan peninsula - and one of the first things we noticed during the drive to the hotel was how many heavily armed policemen there were everywhere. Not even in cities - they were out on the roads, watching over the passing traffic, stopping and checking some cars. 'Ah', I thought, 'with that much police attention I don't think I have to worry about personal safety here.'
Having seen Puerto Vallarta frequently described as a safe place to be, I was expecting the same kind of police presence, but the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel proved me wrong. Yes, the hotel entrance itself had a gate and a guard, but the only place in and around Puerto Vallarta I saw a high concentration of security people was La Isla shopping centre. Somehow the town has managed to remain inviting, open and safe without enforcing order. We walked around in the area between the harbour and Los Muertos beach quite a lot and while there were a few dodgier characters on the streets, we never felt threatened.
Expectation # 2: Biodegradable sunscreen widespread and easy to purchase

If you research tours and day trips in Mexico, you will no doubt come across the requirement or at least a mention of biodegradable sunscreen - something I have not come across in other countries. As it turns out, the chemicals in the standard sunscreens we use are actually harmful for the environment, damaging the corals and other marine life. I have to admit I have never before given a second thought to any other impacts of sunscreen apart from protecting me from sunburn, but having read more about the subject, I felt it was a worthy cause and really wanted to do the right thing and stock up on biodegradable sunscreen not just for this trip but for future use as well.
However, it wasn't as easy to find as I expected. The supermarkets and pharmacies in Puerto Vallarta whilst offering plenty of standard sunscreen to choose from either don't stock biodegradable options at all or only have one - Hawaiian Tropic SPF 50 spray, which is what we ended up buying for lack of other options. Don't get me wrong, it was great, but if you are after lower SPF, I recommend that you source your sunscreen online beforehand.
Expectation # 3: Outside the expensive resorts, life in Puerto Vallarta is quite simple if not poor

 With Puerto Vallarta's roots going back a lot further than a purpose-built resort's, I had this image in my head of a town that I suppose is similar to a Greek village - whilst there are luxury hotels for tourists, once you venture outside your resort, it is essentially a place of simple life and inhabited by the locals. This was partly fueled by a hotel review I read that complained about slums all around the hotel and a mysterious unfinished hotel building I looked at on Google Street View (which as I discovered also lets you walk along the beach, not just on road, who knew?!).
Though simple life and even poverty is undoubtedly present in and around Puerto Vallarta, what surprised me was the amount of wealth that was on display at the same time. Yes, you have a lot of old and dented rust buckets driving around (including the public buses, which didn't look inviting enough for us to try), but then you also have shiny new SUVs and Mercedes saloons. Yes, there are dilapidating or half-finished houses where people actually live, but then you have massive luxury apartment building complexes popping up everywhere, like the Grand Venetian, which is next to a brand new shopping centre and waiter-serviced recliner-seats Cinepolis VIP cinema at La Isla. I am not sure whether the luxury developments are for foreign buyers or whether locals live there as well, but they are certainly not what I was expecting to find in Puerto Vallarta. Not that I'm complaining though - that cinema was one of the best discoveries of the trip and for all you non-Spanish speakers out there, it also has films in English with Spanish subtitles, so do check out the programme on the Cinepolis website. We ended up going three times!

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