Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, topped with a crown, dominates Viejo Vallarta, the city's historic UNESCO World Heritage site. (Maribeth Mellin / SF)
I have certain expectations when visiting Puerto Vallarta. I plan to eat well and often, purchase more than I can carry and learn something totally unexpected. Gorgeous sunsets are a given, as are mountains so lush they soothe weary eyes. I'll inhale the sweet scent of mangos and churros, tap my toes to salsa and mariachis and exchange cheek smooches with (nearly) everyone I meet.
In short, I'll savor all my favorite Mexican sensations without racing all over the country. Puerto Vallarta, you see, has a bit of everything I adore about Mexico. And though I've visited PV, as it's known informally, at least two dozen times, I always find a new favorite thing. What follows are just a few of the reasons I keep returning.
So iconic as to be passe, the view of the filigreed crown atop PV's Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, set against the blue horizon and Bahia de Banderas, always sends my inner shutter into ecstasy.
Surrounded by a panorama of white boxes with bumpy terracotta roofs tumbling down steep hillsides, the church dominates Viejo Vallarta, the city's historic UNESCO World Heritage site. My preferred perch for this portrait is the Celestial Suite at Hacienda San Angel, though it's hard to find a bad angle from the hills above the city.
With unusual prescience, the city's leaders have long protected this view, ensuring wires and cables are buried beneath river-stone streets.
At street level, PV's recently remodeled waterfront malecón serves as a combo sculpture gallery, performance space and front porch for all vallartaneses and their guests. Lingering sunsets bring out lovers, browsers, buskers and baby strollers.
On Sunday evenings, dancers gather in the main plaza to practice the danzón, a strictly choreographed dance led by live bands.
When I have just a few days in PV, I stay right in the middle of it all and usually end up with an extra bag — PV's shops and galleries are packed with the best folk art from throughout the country.
One recent morning I began the day scarfing down tacos de birria, bits of savory stewed meat on a corn tortilla, and drinking hearty birria broth in a plastic glass at a simple stand on a busy downtown street. It wasn't a breakfast I'd normally try, but I was under the spell of Chacha, the ebullient guide leading the Taco and More Tour from Vallarta Eats. "I want to make you feel good eating on the street," Chacha said as she led our group of eager eaters deep into the soul of PV.
Three hours later I'd learned more about the tastiest bits of pig parts than I care to remember and devoured carnitas, chicharrones, shrimp-stuffed jalapeños, pescado sarandeado (red snapper glazed with spices and mayonnaise), mango lollipops and way more. Travel writing can be all-consuming.
Until Chacha awakened my tastebuds I'd pretty much concentrated on PV's vibrant restaurant scene, so impressive it supports a 10-day-long Gourmet Festival every November. I have my favorite spots, of course: Blanca Blue for pure escapist romance and fine Mexican wines; Cafe des Artistes or Trio for any chocolate dessert; Vista Grill for its unbeatable view of fireworks flashing over the bay; La Palapa for Sunday breakfast on the beach; Mariscos 8 Tostadas for camarones aguachile, shrimp marinated in lots of lime juice and fiery chilies.
Recently, I discovered all sorts of new treats including the absolutely best pulpo ever at Esquina de los Caprichios, an artsy tapas bar tucked on a steep corner, and tangy, inexpensive ceviche and cerveza at El Barracuda. Every time I visit I'm convinced PV is the second best dining city in Mexico (after Mexico City) — I'm sure readers will happily insist I'm wrong, and add more PV favorites to the list.
Carretera Barra de Navidad winds its tortuous way south of PV past eye-popping scenery to idyllic beaches, hidden jungle rivers and precious nature reserves.
These days, my favorite turnoff leads to an enchanting 20-acre Eden where hummingbirds and butterflies flit about orchids. At Vallarta Botanical Gardens a half-hour south of PV, tropical hillsides nourish leafy tree ferns, spiky agave, blankets of fuchsia bougainvillea and fields of pink and blue wildflowers. A dusty trail winds downhill to the chilly Río Horcones while another pathway enters a fantastical orchid nursery and the Hacienda de Oro restaurant and shop, where dining tables face the treetops and honeys, jams, blown glass and beaded jewelry sit temptingly on rustic wood shelves. Friends told me the gardens were the ideal escape — after one visit I understood why.
Pablo could have been 90 or 60. It's hard to tell when a man's face is creased by harsh mountain sun and he speaks the language of the peyote people of the high Sierra Madre. The elder shaman in the Huichol village of San Andres Coamihata, Pablo greeted us in all his finery, his straw hat covered with feathers. For the next three hours our small tour group witnessed a culture few outsiders see outside the galleries and shops in PV.
Huichol bead and yarn work is among Mexico's most precious folk arts, and PV is the easiest place to find a wide array of masks, figurines and bowls with swirling patterns made from thousand of tiny colored beads or strands of yarn. Some of the finest pieces are on display in Viejo Vallarta at Peyote People, where the owners freely dispense intriguing info about this elusive indigenous group.
Men and women dressed in elaborately embroidered shirts and pants practice their art in shops and markets around the city. But to understand Huichol culture, visitors must make special arrangements and treat the experience with utmost respect.
I traveled to San Andres with Vallarta Adventures, a well-established company with connections at a few villages. Tour guide Martin Aver explained a bit about the culture as our flight took us northwest into the mountains where only a few dirt trails wound through forests.
Benito, our Huichol guide, blessed us as we entered the village, where two men played a dirge on handcrafted instruments similar to violins. Accompanied by the inevitable band of semi-shy children and languid dogs, we checked out the worn table where shamans determine future events during a peyote-enhanced trance.
Inside a circular ceremonial house, Benito explained the petroglyphs covering the walls. In the church, he showed us a hole in the dirt floor representing the womb of the world. Bashful women in bright yellow blouses and long blue skirts stood half-hidden behind wooden doors; many covered their faces the moment they sensed a camera pointed their way.
We were led to a gathering of artists displaying their simple, primitive handicrafts and purchased bracelets and necklaces, beaded iguanas climbing carved branches, and masks with swirling patterns and flowers representing peyote plants. With bundles in hand, we boarded the plane and waved to the gathering below. A subdued sense of awe settled upon as Aver said, "We always leave with great emotion."
Maribeth Mellin has received Mexico's prestigious Pluma de Plata for her book Traveler's Mexico Companion.
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