Holidays to Mexico’s Pacific Coast shake up the traditional beach break by throwing in zip-lining in the Sierra Madre Mountains, and some of the best dining and nightlife in the country.
Mexico’s west side
Hollywood’s original screen sirens were among the first to get a soft spot for Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Ava Gardner and Richard Burton fell for the place in the early Sixties, when they came here to film The Night of the Iguana. The Pacific Coast’s chemistry begins with its beaches. Almost 800 kilometres of white sand fringes Mexico’s west side, and sitting pretty in the centre of it all is Banderas Bay. Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta are the big resorts in these parts.
Puerto Vallarta has made waves as the cosmopolitan alternative to Cancun. Just take a look at the Malecón – a mile-long seaside promenade stippled with art installations. Here, street food vendors share pavement space with some of the best restaurants in the country. And lively bars line up next to VIP nightclubs.
Further north, Nuevo Vallarta is a purpose-built resort that teams its beaches with a stylish marina. Walk along the boardwalk here, and you can lust after the super yachts and million-dollar condos. Better still, between December and April you can board speedboats into the bay spot humpback whales on their yearly migration.
Sierra Madre Mountains
Beyond the sand and townscapes, Mexico’s Pacific Coast turns green. Here, the line blurs between mango and papaya plantations and the tropical foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. This part of the map is prized for its adventure activities, like abseiling, and it’s where you’ll find the longest and fastest zip-lining circuit in Mexico.
Things to See and Do in Mexico - Pacific Coast
There are beaches left, right and centre on the Pacific Coast. You get 25 miles of sand in Puerto Vallarta and its surrounding areas, alone. As a rule of thumb, the beaches in the north, near Nuevo Vallarta, tend to be longer and have larger waves than the smaller, calmer coves in the south.
The big beach
Playa de los Muertos is the biggest beach in the Puerto Vallarta area of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and it attracts a mix of locals and tourists. There are plenty of parasols and sunloungers, and you don’t need to look far to find a place to eat – there are plenty of cafés and bars on the sand where you can get everything from burritos to shrimp.
The secret beach
There’s a beach on the Marieta Islands that likes to play hide and seek with tourists. The aptly-named Hidden Beach is located inside a hollow in one of the islands. You have to swim to get to it, but you can go on a guided trip that’ll get you there safely.
For souvenirs that won’t break the bank, head to the indoor market on Augustin Rodriguez in Puerto Vallarta. Here, shopping bags can be filled with everything from ceramics to necklaces. Alternatively, take your spending money to the artisan market in the community centre on Calle Pulpito on a Wednesday night to buy jewellery, soap and pottery direct from the makers.
To shop in the style you’re probably accustomed to at home, visit Paradise Mall in Nuevo Vallarta. Here, air-conditioned jewellery shops and clothing stores are accompanied by a food court and cafés. Alternatively, browse around Calles Libertad. The shops here range from beachwear stores to jewellery boutiques.
Bright Huichol art can be bought in a variety of galleries in Puerto Vallarta. There’s everything from masks to Faberge-style decorated eggs and vases, and every piece is ornamented with delicate beads set in beeswax. Some of the best galleries can be found around Juarez and Coronoa. Bucerias, 15 minutes north of Nuevo Vallarta, is another pulse point for art. Lazardo Cardenas is lined with contemporary galleries.
A lot of tourists in Nuevo Vallarta like to batten down the hatches in their hotels and enjoy the cocktail bars and entertainment there. Those that don’t, usually end up on the Pirate Ship sunset cruise at some point. Departing from the marina, this galleon serves up dinner, cocktails, dancing and fireworks. In Bucerias, meanwhile, Thursday nights are ‘art walk’ night and the galleries on Lazardo Cardenas open late and serve cocktails.
The Malecon rules the nightlife roost in Puerto Vallarta. Things start heating up as the city is cooling down, around sunset. Street performers and singers ease visitors into the night ahead. The bars and clubs are at their densest around Plaza Aquiles Serdan. There’s a big gay scene in Puerto Vallarta, too, and you’ll find the most established gay clubs on Juarez.
Pescado de bara
Mexicans know how to do a picnic. They don’t take sandwiches to the beach with them – instead, they tend to buy fish kebabs from the sand-side shacks. The vendors on Playa de los Muertos usually use mahi mahi and grill the fish over red-hot coals.
This is the staple item of any Pacific Coast barbecue. It’s made by marinating red snapper in birra paste, which is made from roast peppers, garlic and chillies. The fish and its new coat are then smoked over searing coals until the sauce turns into a glaze.
This traditional Mexican fast food looks like a cross between a pizza and an open sandwich. It’s made by layering a disc of fried maize with refried beans, cheese and salsa, and pinching the sides so nothing spills over the edges.
Agua Fresca is a grown-up Robinsons cordial. It’s made by adding fruit juice or flower extracts to water. The drink comes in a long list of flavours, including a bright red version that’s flavoured with hibiscus, and rice, cinnamon and vanilla varieties.
It’s almost as easy to get your hands on tequila as it is water on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The alcohol is made by distilling the blue agave plant, which grows locally. The spirit is often aged to give it more distinct taste, plus you can get your hands on flavoured versions you won’t find back home.
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Nuevo Vallarta starts at Marina Vallarta – Banderas Bay’s midway point. It then shoots an arrow-straight course up the coast all the way to Bucerías. On its way, it passes a seven-kilometre beach lined by a long row of luxury hotels. Behind the front, there’s a residential-resort community that’s grown up with a big bucks tag. Grand villas and residences with tropical gardens are the norm. And most of them have private piers by the canal, which weaves through the district. Elsewhere, galleries and restaurants border two marinas.
The publicity around Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton while filming in Banderas Bay put Puerto Vallarta on the map in 1963. Not one to let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers, it’s since developed in to a big-name resort city. Running from the marina in the north to Mismaloya to the south, it’s got just about everything you can think of. There's a kilometre-long zip line across its tropical jungle, and on the coastline, its buttery beaches come with a supporting cast of bars, curio shops, markets, and as many watersports as there are days of the month. Plus, there are hundreds of terrific places to eat, from starry restaurants to streetside taco stands.
Punta De Mita
The natives believe Punta de Mita is a place for spiritual renewal, and it’s easy to see why. Sitting on the uppermost tip of Banderas Bay, it’s surrounded by the sky-blue Pacific on three sides. The traditional beachfront fishing village lies next to a cluster of swanky resorts. It’s a real playground for the rich and famous – think Beyoncé, Britney and the Kardashians.
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