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A Coastal Adventure Awaits You In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Posted by Jen King on 4/17/24 3:15 PM


Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a total dream. Here are a few of the top things you absolutely have to do when visiting.  

We're big fans of spending a full semester in Mexico, teaching English to cute kids, being able to learn basic Spanish by practicing every day at the local taco stand, and crossing off your Mexico bucket list.

Headed to Mexico?
Plan your trip the right way with this Mexico Destination Guide


One of the things we think you should fit into your semester in Mexico? A vacation to Puerto Vallarta. And don't worry because your trip is made way easier, thanks to these insider tips. 

A Quick Glimpse At Puerto Vallarta

With a million worthwhile destinations to choose from in Mexico, why Puerto Vallarta? It really depends on what you're looking for, so here's a quick look at this popular spot.

Popular is the key word here. Puerto Vallarta isn't a hidden gem by any means. It's well-traveled and honestly, fairly touristy. The good news is that you can pick your adventure here and plan a trip that meets your budget. There's everything from fancy beach resorts to quaint Airbnbs. Downtown and you'll find plenty of restaurants and shopping, then head to the coast for your beach-y vacay.

A couple truth bombs? Because it's a bit of a tourist spot, this isn't our pick for souvenir shopping. Prices are a bit higher here, so you might want to save your money for places like Leon. And if you're picking the top beaches in Mexico, these may not fall into the top 5, but there are so many fun things to do here that have left ILP volunteers recommending Puerto Vallarta for one of your vacations. Think everything from deep sea fishing to ziplining to releasing baby sea turtles.

It's a bit more humid here than other parts of Mexico! Bring your sunscreen and hat and prepare for the sun.


Our Favorite Things To Do


I mean, you're coming to the coast for the ocean views, right? So the first stop for us is the beach. Here are a few beaches that ILP volunteers recommend. 

As a heads-up, volunteers say that the free beaches that you'll find close to some hostels typically aren't very nice at all. It's worth it to hunt around and pay to get into the nicer beaches in front of resorts where the sand is cleaned and is nicer. 

Also, it gets extremely hot in this part of Mexico, and volunteers said they were so glad they split the price of an umbrella for the day so you can get a break from the sun when you're at the beach all day. 

Conchas Chinas

Situated between a string of resorts that lie in front of the towering green mountains, you’ll get quite a view on this beach. The name of the beach refers to the wavy conch shells that wash up on the shore, so keep an eye out for that. There are some rocky outcrops that jut out from the ocean into the sand where you can spot little crabs, sea anemones, and starfish hiding in the tide pools.

It's pretty small compared to other beach strips in Puerto Vallarta and also tends to be less crowded which we love. That's probably because it's a bit further away from the city center, so depending on where you're staying you may need to take a taxi or Uber to get here.

One group of ILP volunteers said this was the only beach worth going to, so we say start here before you start venturing out to explore more beach areas. They loved that it felt a bit more taken care of.

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You’ll find little snorkel shops and stands around this fishing-village-esque beach. A gorgeous and small stretch of pretty water and sand, this beach has calm waves that are perfect for swimming rather than surfing.

Los Muertos 

One of the most popular beaches if you ask any ILP volunteer who vacationed in Puerto Vallarta.

You’ll find a lot to keep you busy on this beach. Along the sandy shores, you’ll see vendors offering to take you out paddle boarding, and other activities. If you look hard enough, you might spot a bit of sea glass among the shells on this beach. There are also food vendors and restaurants nearby which makes it easy to spend an entire day here. Our suggestion? Get the mangoes that you'll see sold on the beach! 

Playa Palmeres  

Into crazy blue water? This fabulous beach has a bit of a rocky shoreline, but the views really can't be beat. It can get a bit crowded so arrive early if you want a good spot (before 1:00 PM, one ILP volunteer suggests). It's a fan favorite! 

Volunteer in Mexico

Take A Boat Tour To Los Arcos 

If you're wanting a taste of Thailand in Mexico, take this boat tour. You'll typically find half day snorkeling tours that will take you out into the ocean to glimpse the jungle-topped arches and pinnacle mountains emerging from the sea. Underneath, you'll find schools of colorful fish. The area is actually a Marine Park, so you might even run into a few protected sea animals, like the sea turtle. 

Keep an eye out for schools of splashing dolphins on your way there and back! They love to swim alongside the boats.

This is one of the most highly recommended tour options our ILP volunteers just can't get enough of. 

You can do a quick online search for a tour company, or you can charter a captain and boat in Puerto Vallarta or off of Mismaloya Beach. 

It'll take you about an hour to reach the arch from Mismaloya Beach. Most tours (or hired boats) include your snorkel gear, and most tours also include lunch. Be sure to pack up plenty of water and sunscreen and some extra pesos for a tip. Some groups have gone with this company, but there are tons of options for you to do your own research on. 



Walk The Boardwalk 

The Malecon is a 12 block (1 mile) promenade parallel to Playa Rosita that might be the best place to see the sunset. You'll find ocean views, sculptures, art galleries, restaurants situated right in the sand, musicians, and street performers, and other highlights along the boardwalk. Our suggestion? Find a place to grab dinner then walk the boardwalk to find the best place to watch the pink and orange sky fade into the ocean. 

At the south end, the boardwalk leads right to Zona Romantica which is a trendy, artsy little neighborhood that is fun to explore as well.

Find it on Google Maps

Whale Watching 

Puerto Vallarta's Banderas Bay is the perfect location to go whale watching. Whale watching season is December - March, so this is perfect for ILP volunteers in both Fall and Spring Semesters in Mexico.

Typically in December, you'll be able to see adult Humpback whales. By January, you'll typically be able to see newborn baby Humpback whales and by February and March, you'll be able to see happy and active baby Humpback whales in Puerto Vallarta. Even if you can't make it during prime whale watching season, there are plenty of other fun activities in Puerto Vallarta. 

You'll be able to find plenty of whale-watching tours to take you out for the afternoon along the main street. 

Release Sea Turtles 

Another location where you can hang out with cute baby turtles before releasing them into the ocean. Most groups have this adventure in Puerto Escondido, but you can cross it off of your bucket list in Puerto Vallarta, too.

Past ILP groups went to Campamento Tortuguero Boca de Tomates. Check their Facebook page for dates and to RSVP — this activity happens around 7:00 PM or 8:00 PM and is free, but tips are encouraged. Here's a bit more info about that from a past group: "10/10! Just follow them on Facebook or Instagram. You can’t book ahead, you just know the day of if you can sign up to go that evening so pay attention to their stories! (They don’t post, so watch the stories). 

It is hard to find the place. We had to walk down the beach until we came across it. Uber and DiDi will not come to it, so you’ll have to walk a bit into a neighborhood to get a ride back."


Mirador el Cerro de la Cruz

Grab your tennies and come do this hike! It's a steep set of stairs that may make you work up a sweat, but the view at the top is so worth it. It's the best lookout point in Puerto Vallarta, and even more spectacular if you can time it with the sunset. 

Getting there: You can walk to the trailhead from the Malecon. This website has detailed directions from a few different locations, but it's pretty straightforward to just walk down Abasolo Street making your way toward the TV tower. There are a lot of stairs though, so just be prepared for a hike that takes around 30-45 minutes or so to the top.

Botanical Gardens

Take a break from the salty ocean spray by strolling around these beautiful botanical gardens. They're quite impressive and have won many awards, plus it's an expansive area to explore.

Plan about a half day for this excursion. It's a 30 minute drive from Puerto Vallarta and then there's loads to do to fill your time for 2-3 hours. Stroll the trails, visit the orchid conservatory, and even swim in the river (just make sure to bring your swimsuit for this!). There's also a restaurant, La Hacienda de Oro, at the top of the gardens that have been a favorite amongst ILP volunteers. You'll find everything from caesar salads to shrimp tacos. Check out their menu here.

A general admission ticket is 300 pesos and they accept cards for payment when you arrive. There is an option to book a ticket that includes a shuttle to and from the gardens from Puerto Vallarta, but it's going to be more affordable to book your own taxi. The Gardens are even so generous as to provide typical taxi costs getting there to make booking a bit smoother.

Find their website here
Find good recommendations for what to bring, how to get here, and hours

Relax At The Mall

Need a break from the sun? Head to the Galerias Plaza. It's a modern shopping mall with a movie theatre and AC. The movies that say DUB are in English with Spanish subtitles. 

Find it on Google Maps

+ Endless Adventure Options

When in Puerto Vallarta, head to any tourism booth and you'll be amazed at the endless adventures available. Zip lining through the jungle, swimming with dolphins, horseback riding on the beach, snorkel tours, deep sea fishing, surfing, etc. are just a few of the incredible activities you can do when in Puerto Vallarta. 

Here's an example of what a tourism booth might look like: you'll also likely find that your hostel or hotel has excursions you can book. 

Past groups have looked into day snorkeling with Vallarta Adventures SA de CV, or Gray line Vallarta, others have gone surfing with Wildmex Surf and Adventure, All PVR Tours, looked at a canopy tour with Nogalita Ecopark, and found options on Airbnb, and some have booked a bioluminescent snorkeling tour through Airbnb or with the company, Paddle Zone as well if you're looking for more options. Taking a full-day tour of Banderas Bay is also popular with this company

Into zip lining? ILP volunteers have gone on this adventure with this company


A Nearby Adventure 

Say Hi To Sayulita 

More popular now than it was 5 or so years ago, this beach town is still miles away from the popularity you'll find in Puerto Vallarta. It has a colorful vibe, complete with bright murals, painted buildings, plus beaches, yoga, and smoothie shops. We love taking a day or two to explore this chiller coastal town after experiencing all the things to do in Puerto Vallarta. 

We've got a Sayulita guide to help you plan your trip here.

ILP Mexico

Getting To Puerto Vallarta 

Tucked on the western coast of Mexico, most tourists arrive via plane, or you can take a bus. 

Take A Flight 

You’ll fly into Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport (PVR) and we love booking flights on these cheap airlines in Mexico to help you get a good fair from Mexico City or another hub. 

Once you land, it’s easy to get into the main city which is about a 20-30 minute bus ride. You’ll find taxis lined up, waiting to take you, but you’ll often run into the most expensive kind of taxi right outside of the terminals (the white, federal taxis). For a better fare, cross the pedestrian bridge and hail a less expensive, yellow cab. 

If you’d like to take the bus into the city, look for the bus stop under the pedestrian bridge. Look for a bus marked “#11-D Centro” or “Zona Romantica”, then pay the driver the 8 peso ride. Don’t get on the bus marked “Pitillal!” Best to have exact change and pay in cash for your ticket, though sometimes you will get change back. Also, you’l want to pack light if you’re taking the bus. There is no room for luggage, so you’ll need to fit your bag on your seat or pay for another seat for your luggage. Here’s the bus route. 

Take A Bus 

If you're in central Mexico like our ILP volunteers are, it's a bit of a long distance ride. Depending on where you're coming from, it may be 6-8+ hours away. It's a perfect overnight trip that will be a lot less than taking a flight.

You can easily grab a taxi to your Airbnb or hostel from the bus station. 

Getting Around Puerto Vallarta 

The city is walkable, though you can always call a cab if you’d rather not walk.

Since Puerto Vallarta is popular with tourists, it’s a common occurrence to be overcharged in any popular tourist city. It's just nice to know little things like keeping the meter on to help you avoid a taxi scam or two and researching what the costs should be for particular journeys ahead of time. If you're staying at a hostel, they can typically be quite helpful for giving suggestions.

Places To Stay 

Expect a huge range of prices around Puerto Vallarta. If you can afford to splurge, you’ll find fancy, all-inclusive resorts all along the coastline which can be a fun break from staying in hostels — everyone loves smoothies and dinner catered right by the pool!  Other groups in the past have split an Airbnb or found a couple of hostels worth recommending. Overall, we seem to prefer Airbnb over hostels. 

It can get pretty hot here at certain times of the year, so we highly recommend finding a location with AC if possible.

This depends on what you're hoping to do, but some volunteers have recommended staying near the Malecon/Zona Romantica area because it's close to a lot of the popular activities which helps you avoid so many taxi rides.

Here are a few to check out: 

Oasis Hostel

With a fabulous staff (and rocking breakfast), The Oasis Hostel has a whole host of people waiting to help you plan out your time in Puerto Vallarta. There isn't AC which is rather common in Mexico, but if you're prepared for that, this is a good pick. Volunteers have said this was a nice spot, but the lack of AC was a bit of a bummer. The other con is that is you're tucked a bit further into the town. It's about a 15-20 minute walk to the beach. Still, it comes recommended because it's such a nice little spot.

El Sunset Hostel

ILP Volunteers said that El Sunset is not the nicest hostel they have ever stayed in, but they booked it for the AC. They said this is a good option if you just want a really cheap place to stay and aren't planning on spending much time at the hostel. It's outside of the big high-rise resorts, but still close enough to everything you want to do in Puerto Vallarta. It's just a 5 minute walk from the beach.

Soy Local Puerto Vallarta Hotel

One ILP group recommended this hotel after staying here because it's a 5 minutes walk from a beach (playa Las Glorias) at an affordable price point. They said the breakfast is good too!

A Couple Of Airbnbs 

There's not a ton of hostel options, which is quite surprising for such a touristic area. Volunteers have had luck with Airbnbs though, so make sure to browse their site when considering where you'll be staying.

A couple suggestions to get you started on your search? This place has a gorgeous oceanfront view and a stunning pool, which is pretty much all you need for a tropical vacation, right? Or, opt for this spot with a great ocean view and a great location. 


Restaurant Recommendations 

Being a tourist destination, you will find plenty of places to eat in Puerto Vallarta. If you want some local dishes, look for eateries that have a chalkboard menu, aren't in English, and don't have pictures of what's on the menu. Our volunteers also like having a taste of home, so just FYI there are some western foods here as well. Here are a few spots they've recommended:

Fajita Republic 

If you're hanging out near Playa Los Muertos, this is a no brainer nearby spot to grab a bite to eat just a few blocks from the beach. Apart from some delicious (and huge!) fajitas, the chicken tortilla soup is a total favorite ... as are the fish tacos. You'll find generous portions which makes for a good dinner if you're hungry. 

Find them on Google Maps
Find them on Facebook

Pepes Tacos

Supposedly this spot is home to the best gringo tacos ever, with groups coming back multiple times in the same vacation. They're so popular that they get quite a few location tags on Instagram. You'll find them on the northern end of the Malecon boardwalk. Tacos at sunset anyone?

Find them on Google Maps
Find them on Instagram

Elixr Spot

Start your day with a smoothie bowl (or cool off with one after a day out at the beach). The whole restaurant is vegan, blending smoothies, bowls, and other drinks with creamy nut milks. 

There are a couple locations, making it easier to find one that works for you. 

Find them on Google Maps
Find them on Facebook

Derby City Burgers 

A total "food from home place" catered to tourists, you can order up milkshakes, onion rings, burgers, fries, chicken wings, and other classics off of this menu.

They're located near the pier at Playa Los Muertos. They're usually closed on Wednesdays, so just check their hours before you go to be sure.

Find them on Google Maps 
Find them on Facebook

Bar Canto del Mar

Um, the food here is bomb. "The limeade was honestly the best thing" according to one ILP volunteer — it's served up in a huge glass, and it just isn't the same as the stuff you get at home. As far as food goes, the classics just can't be beat. Burritos, tacos, and lots of rice and beans.  You'll find them north of Playa Los Muertos, just off the beach.

Find them on Google Maps
Find them on Facebook


Interested in vacationing in Mexico?

How about living there and making a difference in the lives of children? Each ILP volunteer is teaching English part time, which leaves plenty of free time to explore during the week. Plus, you'll have weekends off to visit nearby cities and vacation days to see places like Puerto Vallarta. Oh and did we mention how good the food is in Mexico? We're big fans. 

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Topics: Central America

Hey friends!

We are ILP, a Utah-based non-profit org that has service abroad opportunities for college-age volunteers. We love travel so we're sharing all our tips for making the most of your time living abroad + seeing the world, and how to do it all on the tiniest budget.

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