Four Perfect Days in Puerto Vallarta

Sacramento Region, CA  |  By David Dickstein
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The luxurious Grand Miramar offers stunning views of Banderas Bay. Photo by David Dickstein

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Café des Artistes is sophisticated, yet anything but pretentious. Photo by David Dickstein

Puerto Vallarta’s 3 million international visitors who arrive by air annually aren’t teased like the 300,000 who come by ship and don’t get to stay the night or longer. Cruises are great, but when passengers are given a measly 6 or 7 hours to explore a port as easy to love as this friendly, safe and beachy jewel south of the border, sail away is like pulling the Mexican rug out from under them.

If only cruise passengers had more time. Well, that’s what a next vacation is for. So, for them and others who have never truly explored this Conde Nast Traveler “Best Cities in the World” winner, do we have four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta for you.

Day 1

            Your airport shuttle has taken you to the Grand Miramar, where you happily trade the hustle and bustle of downtown for tranquil luxury in the exclusive Conchas Chinas neighborhood. The hilltop location of your accommodations requires using the shuttle service to and from the beach and town, but any inconvenience is forgotten with every stunning view of Banderas Bay from your suite and the property’s understatedly elegant restaurants and bars.

            The six or seven hours in the air from Sacramento have you hungry, and wanting to start your Mexican getaway right, only eating among the locals will do. The street food from all those taco stands downtown smells great, but there’s apprehension over American health laws not being enforced because, well, you’re in Mexico. Good thing you booked “The Street – An Evening Taco Adventure Tour” with Vallarta Food Tours. A street-wise English-speaking guide takes you and a small group by foot and public bus to a handful of stands you can trust. All vendors must have a permit at least six years old to participate, and they need to demonstrate a unique flair for curbside cooking. At the first stop, a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Joe Jack’s Fish Shack in the Romantic Zone, you’re enticed with a red snapper taco that goes well with avocado and habanero salsa. It’s amazing, and just before the heat travels to the back of your throat, you wash it down with a shot of mezcalini, a refreshing cocktail best described as a cross between a margarita and a mojito. Other than a stop at Vallarta Chocolate Factory for a quick sample, the rest of your 3 1/2-hour tour is strictly street food. By the end of your eighth tasting of another full-sized taco, this one birria, or goat, you find yourself stuffed like a pinata for Las Posadas. $50; nightly except Wednesdays.

            Before calling it a noche, you head up to the Grand Miramar’s ultra-chic rooftop lounge, The Gin Joint, the highest point on beautiful Banderas Bay. The epic view from your comfy couch, lit by candle and moon, is the perfect outdoor setting to enjoy a signature tamarind margarita or passion fruit gin martini.

Day 2

            Still full from the downtown delicacies of the night before, not to mention the midnight tapas you somehow made room for at the rooftop bar, you’re fine skipping breakfast for morning snacks aboard your catamaran en route to Las Caletas, a private beach paradise on the south shore of Banderas Bay. Besides, you’ll be chowing down plenty once there as a seafood paella cooking demonstration, guacamole and pico de gallo cooking lesson and incredible buffet await, along with full-service hosted bars. A wide variety of activities also are included in your 6 1/2-hour “Las Caletas Beach Hideaway” with Vallarta Adventures. Stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, snorkel gear, hiking trails, animal encounters, clay modeling and an adventure cove lure you away from a perfectly positioned lounge chair. Up-charge options range from marine life encounters to flyboarding. The blowing of a conch shell beckons you to the dock, but the 12-mile sail back home is fun, too, thanks an open bar and hilarious show by the crew. $139; daily.

            After a refresh and some down time at the hotel, you take a cab to Playa Los Muertos for appetizers and dinner at two great finds minutes and worlds apart. Seated under a namesake shelter at La Palapa, you’re delighted by the bar menu and starters of coconut shrimp, lobster and shrimp taquitos and seared scallops influenced by Mexican, French and Asian elements. Calling La Palapa the Mama’s Fish House of Puerto Vallarta would not be insulting to the restaurant considered by many as the best on Maui. Very similar décor and vibe shared by both, although La Palapa is easily half the price and, established in 1959, is 14 years older. Not even a year old is where you’ve made dinner reservations. Your walk of a single block has you at Medregal. The positive buzz around this hip eatery is justified in large part to chef Fernando Sanchez’s innovative menu that puts a twist on traditional Jalisco cuisine. The mahi mahi served in a banana leaf and topped with yellow mole sauce is a winner, as is the cochinita pabil, a traditional Mexican recipe headlined by shredded pork marinated in orange juice.

            Not quite ready to pack it in, you head to the Malecon, a mile-long shoreline promenade that hugs downtown. By night it’s one big party. You check out the clubs that befit your style, working off Medregal’s killer guanabana pie you had for dessert with some hot moves on the bar’s lively terrace. A taxi takes you back to your hotel, where you mentally dance yourself to sleep doing the cha cha, cumbia, merengue, salsa and samba – all to perfection, of course.      

Day 3

            This is your day to relax at the hotel and beach, so enjoy! Just remember to be ready in time for your big night. Yeah, another one. But tonight you’re wearing the finest threads you brought.

            A twilight stroll along the Malecon is a lovely way to ease into your special dinner. And what a meal it’s going to be. Café des Artistes, 27 years young, is one of Mexico’s most revered and gorgeous restaurants. Storm-free evenings beg for a table in the lush, romantically lit garden, but with showers in the forecast, you’re seated in a cozy room inside. Glass raindrops hang from the ceiling – sophisticated, yet whimsical and anything but pretentious. You’re living large, about to experience chef-founder Thierry Blouet’s six-course tasting menu with wine. Fresh mahi mahi and watermelon tartar leads to roasted eggplant au miso. Salmon scallops in green mole transition to suckling lamb. Then come the cheese tasting and piece de la resistance, the OMG-worthy chocolate spiral with coffee panna cotta, cardamom ice cream and fresh cream. The numbing effect of the perfectly paired wines helps at check time, and how nice that Monsieur Blouet stops by to personally thank you.

            You return to your hotel fat, happy and exhausted.

Day 4

Other than breakfast at the hotel, this morning’s feast is for the eyes, not the stomach. Today you’re taking a self-guided art walk of the city’s famous al fresco bronze sculptures that line the Malecon. You hardly recognize the paved boardwalk from last night. Fun seekers and loud techno music have been replaced by tip-seeking street musicians, talented artists and annoying vendors all hoping to score some of your American dollars. Perusing the ornate sculptures, you eavesdrop on an English-speaking tour group that’s learning about each work, the most popular also the first ever installed: Rafael Zamarripa’s “Caballero del Mar,” or “The Seahorse.” After some nasty stares from the paying guests, you walk up Calle Allende for three blocks when a gallery specializing in ancestral contemporary art catches your eye. Within Colectika are works from regional artists, many hailing from remote villages in the Sierra Madre Mountains who express old traditions in a whole new light. Canadian ex-pat Kevin Simpson, who also owns the nearby Peyote People Gallery, is full of great stories. You want to hear the one about his friendship with the mountain woman who inspired the grandma character in the animated feature “Coco,” but cocoa is next on your packed itinerary.

            At the Choco Museum Puerto Vallarta, anyone can be a confectioner. Five different workshops are offered at an awesome-smelling downtown location that opened in June 2017. You chose the most popular, a two-hour experience called “Bean to Bar.” After a horticulture and history lesson, you and your fellow bakers roast and grind cocoa beans to prepare three chocolate drinks, none of which delight your American sweet tooth. Also unremarkable are the dark chocolates you got to take with you – too bitter is that batch. At least you had fun pouring the pre-blended mixture into molds and adding your own toppings before the cooling stage. $34; three times daily.

For your last night in PV, dinner is at the best-reviewed new restaurant in the Marina Zone. Refreshed from some down time at the hotel, you take a half-hour taxi ride to Tintoque, a year-old gem from chef Joel Ornelas. You and your waiter chose right, going with the heirloom tomatoes appetizer with pesto ice cream; shared main entrees of strained tamale with shrimp caritas in adobo sauce, Baja California-caught escolar drizzled with smoked pineapple puree, and pasilla-crusted beef steak; and for dessert, it’s cheesecake and chocolate cake. Pure heaven.

You head back to your hotel to pack for the next morning’s flight home, looking on your calendar to find time for another four perfect days in Puerto Vallarta.

If You Go ….

Puerto Vallarta Official Tourist Guide – visitpuertovallarta.com

Grand Miramar Hotel & Spa – grandmiramar.com

Vallarta Food Tours – vallartafoodtours.com

Vallarta Adventures – vallarta-adventures.com

Café des Artistes – cafedesartistes.com

Tintoque – tintoque.mx

La Palapa – lapalapapv.com

Cacao Museum – chocomuseo.com

The luxurious Grand Miramar offers stunning views of Banderas Bay. Photo by David DicksteinCafé des Artistes is sophisticated, yet anything but pretentious. Photo by David DicksteinChef Albis Salas (right) and sous chef Ramon Bramasco make a mean seafood paella at Las Calitas. Photo by David DicksteinLas Calitas is a beachy hideaway for all ages. Photo by David DicksteinSurf and turf tostadas are a tasty starter at Medregal. Photo by David Dickstein