ABOVE PHOTO: National Park
By Renée S. Gordon
The fuming dewdrops from the flowers in the fields intoxicate my soul.
–Ancient Nahuatl Poem
Banderas Bay is 26-miles from north to south with Puerto Vallarta situated in the center. The bay culminates at the quiet, scenic 46 mile stretch of beaches in the area known as Cabo Corrientes in the foothills south of the Sierras, 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta. Literally hundreds of adventures await visitors as they head out of the city, both rugged outdoor activities and tamer treks to beautiful waterfalls and panoramic vistas. Visitmexico.com
Your key to adventure is coastal Highway 200, the Carretera Costera Federal 200. It winds along the Central Pacific coast through several Mexican states before reaching Guatemala. Eleven miles from PV, at Boca de Tomatlán, it heads into the Sierra Mountains providing access to mountain villages. There are viewpoints, souvenir stands and local eateries scattered along the route.
Your first must stop is seven miles south of PV for the perfect photo of Las Peñas, Los Arcos Marine Park off the shores of Mismaloya. These five beautiful granite islands, rising out of the sea up to 65-ft., are famous for snorkeling and scuba diving amidst the fossilized coral beds, tunnels and caves and they have been protected as an underwater nature preserve and National Marine Park since 1984. The islands are a breeding ground for sea birds and several parrot species and are in the deepest waters, up to 1,600-ft., in the bay.
The 20–acre Vallarta Botanical Garden opened in 2005 to showcase native tropical plants, conserve local flora and educate the public. Eighty percent of the plants on-site are native to Mexico including the centerpiece of the entry courtyard, Mexico’s national tree, the Ahuehuete or Montezuma Cypress Tree. The garden is the winner of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for 2015, has been featured in National Geographic and is one of the “10 Most Beautiful Gardens in the Americas.” Guided and self-guided tours are offered of both the gardens and the Orchid Conservatory. I strongly suggest a guided tour because the guides include the history and mythology connected with the plants. The most important plant in the ancient world was the agave. It had more than 1000 uses including using the sharp edges as cutting tools to make sacrifices to the gods and there are more than 250 species.
The Visitor Center is absolutely wonderful and visitors should spend a significant amount of time there. The gift shop sells handcrafted, unique items and serves their signature Lemon Grass Tea. On the upper level there is a veranda with lounge chairs and views of the jungle and a waterfall. The Hacienda de Oro Restaurant is on the lower level where you are served meals made as you watch, if you wish, in a traditional rural Mexican kitchen. The Gardens are located 12 miles from the heart of PV. vbgardens.org.
El Tuito is the quintessential Sierra Mountain village that has thrived for more than 500 years. It was established on what was then a main Spanish road leading to mining towns even higher than El Tuito’s 2,000-ft. above sea level. The town served as a supply depot, providing food, water and animals. Today the city seems nearly unaltered with cobblestone streets that lead to a rectangular plaza surrounded by red clay adobe buildings. It is 30 miles from PV and a million miles from your usual exploits.
City Hall is constructed in Mexican architectural style with interior rooms around a central open courtyard. As you enter the building a stairwell to the right frames a tri-panel mural, “Universal Revolution,” that recounts the history, legends and leaders of Mexico from Montezuma to the 20th Century. Visitors get the best view of the mural and the interior of the building from the second floor balcony.
San Pedro Apostol, the parish church, is a mere block from the plaza. The church is several hundred years old and is noted for its rock altar, a symbol of St. Peter as the rock upon which the church was founded. The cross on the exterior is shown upside down to represent the belief that Peter demanded he not be crucified as Christ had been.
El Tuito Cemetery is located on the edge of town and has been recognized as an outstanding example of cultural heritage. Mexicans believe that there are two types of death, spiritual and physical and an individual does not truly die until they are no longer remembered. The Day of the Dead, Día de Muertos, is a two day festival that celebrates the memory of the loved ones who have died. Festivities are held in the cemetery where family members serve food and decorate the gravesite with objects the deceased enjoyed in life. Guided tours of El Tuito Cemetery include a detailed explanation of the customs and local folklore. A highlight of the tour is a section of the cemetery tales tell us is the site of vampire burials based on its unusual appearance.
In the area away from the town’s center there are several places that are open to visitors and provide authentic Mexican experiences. You can watch tortilla’s being made, taste the local Panella cheese and purchase handcrafted rosewood products in the craftsman’s workshop. Rosewood is protected and becoming increasingly rare and the decorative and utilitarian objects make valuable souvenirs.
Tequila Distillery tours can be taken through a distillery nestled snuggly in the hills. Raicilla, made from the blue agave, was once considered Mexican moonshine but has gained respect over time. The tour explains the process and ends with a tasting. The setting is lovely and the experience is both fun and educational.
Panaderia Los Pinitos is a well-known, authentic, roadside Mexican bread bakery. The family-owned establishment makes and bakes the “pan” on the premises and you can watch as the dough is kneaded and then placed in the wood-fired oven. A large number of fillings are available, fruits, sweet potato, chocolate, meats and cheese and they are all delicious. It is filled with locals, always a good sign that attests to authenticity.
Villa Azalea Inn and Organic Farm is an atmospheric location for lunch. This small boutique hotel offers cooking classes incorporating vegetables and fruits grown on their farm. Buffet tables can be placed in the shallow waters of a small river on the beautiful property allowing guests to cool off as they dine. This is a totally location specific experience and one that should not be missed. Villa Azalea has earned the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for the past two years. villaazalea.com.mx
During a Puerto Vallarta vacation visitors must make a trip to Yelapa, the most distant beach on the bay. By car the trip takes more than eight hours on winding roads but fortunately there is another option. The Horcones River descends from the Sierras into the bay of Boca de Tomatlán 11 miles south of the city. Water taxis depart from the pier there for a 45-minute ride to Yelapa with several stops along the way.
After disembarking your first stop should be a trip from the beach into the hillside fishing village to wander the narrow paths that lead to the Cascada Cola del Caballo, Horse Tail Waterfall. Those slightly more adventurous can continue on to the second, larger, Cathedral Waterfall. Souvenir kiosks line a portion of the walk. The village has no roads and seems arrested in time and it and the beach are so serene and scenic that at one time it was a favorite spot for Bob Dylan and Dennis Hopper to rest and regroup.
The beach has a dramatic tropical backdrop and no matter where you gaze you are awed by the sheer beauty of palm, bougainvillea and hibiscus in the hills and manta rays and dolphins cavorting in the incredibly azure waters. Activities along the ¼-mile beach include swimming, kayaking, horseback riding, snorkeling, parasailing and tanning. Thatch-roofed beach restaurants serve a complete menu of food and drinks surfside. A day in Yelapa is a day in a tropical paradise. yelapacasa.com
One of the most famous international destinations within Puerto Vallarta is the Hidden Beach. The Marietas Islands are an array of tiny volcanic landmasses In Banderas Bay first brought to the world’s attention by Jacques-Yves Cousteau a French undersea explorer, documentarian and co-inventor of the WWII Aqua-Lung. The islands are ideal for exploring their surrounding ecosystems. The Hidden Beach was created when the erosion of the island’s volcanic rock formed a cave and entrance to the beach can only be achieved by swimming 246-ft. The swim is well worth it and once there the snorkeling is great.
There are numerous tour companies based in Puerto Vallarta that offer a variety of destinations and services. I have found the most affordable, comprehensive, professional and award winning to be Vallarta Adventures tours. They have been rated the #1 tour company and are recommended by The Travel Channel, the BBC, Good Morning America, the New York Times and Discovery Channel. They offer discounts and specials and, most significantly, they support local businesses and employ environmentally sound practices. Groups are transported in open-air Mercedes Benz Unimog 4×4 trucks with a driver, a guide and refreshments. vallarta-adventures.com
CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, a luxurious beachfront resort, has been designated one of the “Top Ten Pacific Riviera Hotels” by Condé Nast Traveler. The list of amenities appears endless and includes the Ohtli Spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, pool, access to golf facilities, six on-site dining establishments and experiential opportunities.
The Marriott offers an upscale Tequila Tasting experience that is designed to educate your palate to its unique qualities and change the culture of Tequila drinking. It is not just for college kids anymore. There are five kinds of Tequila, all 100 percent natural. Marriott has created a house brand that is exclusive to the hotel and the tastings are paired with foods that enhance each round. The tasting is hosted by an extremely knowledgeable female sommelier.
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are breeding grounds for several species of sea turtles and in 1981 Puerto Vallarta instituted a sea turtle conservation program. Mother turtles bury their eggs in nests they dig along the beach where many are accidentally destroyed by beach traffic. The Marriott has a marine biologist on staff and assistants who patrol the beach, collect the eggs and relocate them to a hatchery on the grounds of the resort. The new nests are dated and protected until they hatch and are released and visitors can visit the Turtle Conservation area and participate in the release. An extensive list of thematic packages and specials is available. marriott.com
Puerto Vallarta is a unique destination that can fulfill the vacation dreams of any traveler and best of all, as the cold settles around your bones the weather is always perfect there. Make plans to follow the sun. visitpuertovallarta.com
I wish you smooth travels!