An Alternative Mexico – A Trip to Puerto Vallarta
When you tell people that you’re going on holiday to Mexico, most people naturally assume that you are off to the Yucatan (Mayan) Peninsular with its well know resorts of Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Having worked in these resorts in an earlier life, I find them quite lacking an insight into the ‘Real’ Mexico. Catering for many North American tourists, they can sometimes have a feel of LA about them (That Tex-Mex Vibe),therefore I wanted to try out something slightly different and more ‘Mexican’.
TUI have been taking UK Holiday makers to Puerto Vallarta for a number of years on and off, but its only recently that they have started these trips from Manchester Airport, so I took the trip to find out how it fared.
The flight to Puerto Vallarta takes just over 11 hours from Manchester. Thankfully with TUI, all their long-haul flights are on board the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner), if only the rest of their holidays were as pleasant!
The Dreamliner has now been used for a number of years and anyone that has flown on them will immediately appreciate the difference of this revolutionary aircraft.
The cabins are pressurised at a much lower level resulting in the air becoming less dry. As a contact lens wearer, this is a major bonus for me as it stops the lenses becoming dry and itchy onboard. It also has much less of an impact on anyone that suffers from ear/sinus problems, with ears popping or hurting being greatly reduced.
Another major benefit of this aircraft is the lower noise levels. With it being so much quieter, it means that you can actually listen to music or watch a movie without the engines drowning out the sound.
The hotel chosen for this trip was the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta, a beach-side hotel along the Bay of Banderas, which is just 5 mins from the international airport.
The hotel is made up of the main hotel, plus a new ‘The Hacienda’ an adult only section of 192 Junior Suites located around a beautiful courtyard. The Hacienda also has its own check in area, dedicated butler service and preferred access to the Sunset Terrace Lounge named O West, which as well as Cocktails has a selection of tapas available.
Dining is a plenty in this All-Inclusive Hotel, with options including
Fogo – A Brazilian Churrasqueria
Il- Formaggio – Traditional Italian Cuisine
La Catrina – Authentic Mexican Cuisine
Le Delice – A more formal French Fusion Cuisine
As well as the Sea Fire – All Day Restaurant serving international Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, all Buffet style.
We were initially shown a room that we would not leave a pet in, so after complaining we were immediately moved to the new Hacienda adult section of the hotel, which has beautiful suites and an adult only pool area. Being the relaxed area of the hotel however, you tend to find that the pool area can get reserved up and finding a sun-lounger difficult. We are not late sleepers though and being up at 7am enables you to get your spot. What I do find incredibly frustrating however, are the number of guests that have put down towels BEFORE 7am and even now as I write this, three hours later, are still not being occupied. Ive always been a fan of hotels that remove towels that are left unattended for over say an hour.
The adult section of the hotel also has an additional adults only area for breakfast. Whilst the main hotel is packed and noisy, this section, which is also right next to our room, is a tranquil paradise. A quiet coffee, omelette and some potatoes to set me up for the day, if only they would cover the breads and pastries as were sometimes swarming with gnats which meant that I kept to the eggs that were cooked fresh.
Food in the main restaurants can be very hit and miss, the Italian by the beach for example, was as far from proper Italian food as you could imagine and the service pretty non existent. On leaving I also noticed that food was being pre-prepared and left on the side so the waiters could just grab whatever you order from a pile of plates, not really the most hygienic way of storing cooked food I would say!! You felt uncomfortable just sitting down as you were being rushed so much. In contrast, the Mexican served up beautiful dishes, with a relaxed and friendly service, I’ve never known such contrast in the same hotel.
Food in the Buffett was pretty inedible with raw chicken being served up twice and lots of the food being uncovered. On one occasion when a visiting, what I can assume was a manager, was there, they rotated food constantly to keep it fresh – shame this didn’t happen any other day! It seems the hotel is set up for guests that are more interested in eating and drinking as much as they can throughout their All-Inclusive stay, rather than people that wanted to really get out and see the real Mexico.
But that’s enough about the hotel. Whilst we have a stunning room after the move and a lovely pool on hand, what I really want to do is to see what Puerto Vallarta has to offer over the most visited destination of Cancun. The All-Inclusive for us wasn’t really used to its potential, partly due to standards (I found raw chicken twice in the buffet) and partly because being inside a resort, you really could be anywhere in the world!
Therefore the first thing that I loved about Puerto Vallarta, is that fact that you can walk out of your hotel and straight into the world of everyday, unlike Cancun and Riviera Maya which are in a little cocoon of tourism.
Stepping out of the hotel you soon find yourself on the main road to downtown Puerto Vallarta. The walk takes around 30-45 mins, passing shopping malls, pharmacy’s, supermarkets and a few bars and restaurants. Alternatively a taxi will cost you 75-100 Peso (£3-£4) and take around 10 mins.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta is split into two zones. The pedestrianised Malecon and the Zona Romantica.
The Malecon is a strip of bars, restaurants and shops. Whilst some of these are overpriced and very much catering for the tourist, some of them offer up some authentic Mexican cuisine at great value prices.
Bars along the beachfront allow you to sit on the beach, enjoying a beer for a little over £1 or 2-4-1 cocktails at approx £3.
This area is also home to La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Church of our Lady of Guadalupe) – a stunning church with a tower topped by a crown, built to resemble that worn by Carlotta Of Mexico (A Belgian Princess who became the Empress of Mexico in the 1860’s)
The area around the Church is also where you find the main square. It is here where you will find locals gathering on various days, the local council put on live bands or music, to which people love to get involved and party the night away with a little dance. It’s sights like these that made me fall in love with travel. Watching local people, who live very basic lives, embracing what they have, partying and having fun with no money needed. This is where you find wealthy and non-wealthy mixing care free.
As you walk further down the Malecon, you’ll find stalls serving up street food. Fresh fruit or prawns on sticks, freshly made Taco’s, Quesadilla all costing under £1 – you can’t get more authentic than this, unfortunately we were limited on food choices due to India’s braces so had to pass on most of this.
At the end of the Malecon, you cross a bridge spanning a small river, its on the other side that you enter the Zona Romatica, which is also the Old Town area of Puerto Vallarta.
Little cobble streets are lined with much smaller bars and restaurants, some clearly catering for the tourist, while others seem to filled more by Mexicans. My favourite site in this area though, was what appeared to be a local child’s birthday celebration happening in one of the narrow streets. Family’s celebrating with homemade food, music in the street and a Piñata being hoisted. Whilst I’m not sure hoisting a child’s Piñata from an electrical cable across the street meets any form of health and safety requirements – it seemed like they were well rehearsed in this, with no one seeming to be fussed.
Even after just one day in Puerto Vallarta I was already finding it to have much more of an authentic feel, than all my time spent over on the Caribbean Coast. With two weeks to explore we check out some of the trips available in the area as some of the local dishes available.
Not feeling the food in the hotel really wasn’t a problem as the choices outside were great – Local Tacos from a roadside Taqueria served up cheap, tasty and hot food – A quesadilla with meat was huge and filled you up, for around £1.50.
We also wanted to see a little further out, so took the decision to try out a couple of organised excursions. The first trip that we undertook, was to visit some of the ‘Magical Towns (or Pueblos Magicos), with a local tour operator named Vallarta Adventures.
The Magic Town Scheme covers 111 towns in all states of Mexico and are deemed to have special status due to its cultural, gastronomical or natural importance. These are towns that take you away from the tourist mass and transport you to times past.
First stop of the day was high up in the Sierra Madre, close to an impressive bridge over the San Sebastián River, we stopped at a small bakery for a snack.
Panaderia Carmens Bakery serves up home made delights right by the side of the road with different varieties of muffins and filled breads all made fresh daily.
The first town we visited was that of Mascota, home to the unfinished Temple de la Preciosa Sangre, a 19th Century church that was never completed.
The old colonial homes show signs of wealth past. With a beautiful Town Hall, Gardens and 18th Century Baroque style Church.
On leaving Mascota, we followed the mountainous roads back to the town of San Sebastián. A mining town with a population now just in the hundreds.
This picture perfect town really is in the middle of nowhere, with small cobble streets, an impressive main square and a beautiful church that was originally built in the 1600’s but rebuilt after an earthquake in 1868, it is looked after by the local family’s, each taking it in turn to ensure it is clean and presented well.
The town is also home to Cafe de Altura – The High Coffee, a family run organic coffee producer, we we got to try some of there amazing coffee, grown, picked and roasted all on site. You can also buy directly from them while visiting.
The day was completed off with a trip to a local Tequila maker, as well as making his own Tequila and Mezcal (Made with Green Agave rather than the Blue Agave used in Tequila), he also makes flavoured liquor varieties of Almond, Orange and Coffee, all of which are very tasty.
The second place that I heard was a must visit, was the remote beach destination known as Las Caletas. The beach hideaway was once featured the home of American film producer John Huston. The beach is now leased and operated by tour operator Vallarta Adventures.
A one hour boat crossing from Puerto Vallarta Marina takes you across the Bay of Banderas. The bay is an important breading ground for the Humpback Whale and we were very lucky to witness these magnificent creatures during the crossing.
The beach itself is a real spot of beauty – its just a shame that you have to share the spot with a couple of hundred other tourists. There are plenty of activities that you can partake in, many being water based. From snorkelling in the crystal clear waters, Paddle Boarding or even Mexican Cooking Lessons. I was looking forward to the latter, however due to lack of information on arrival, I completely missed where and when I had to take part. Very disappointing and a clear lack of organisation from the operator, who seem to dump you in a breakfast area and leave you to find your own way around. We later found that some people had been given maps which contained details of the activities, however these were never shown or offered to us at any point.
Some areas of the beach were beautiful however and India definitely enjoyed the chance to relax with no one around but the sound of the ocean as unfortunately she had already been hit by the first round of sickness from the hotel meaning this excursion was a do nothing occasion – we had tried to cancel the trip however the rep wasn’t around at the hotel when he should have been and we were told that they could not be refunded.
The Beach Hideaway is also home to a number of animals that are part of a protection program. Animals that have been removed from captivity are now looked after in this little piece of paradise. This includes a sea lion that was swimming freely in the ocean, a number or parrots that happily flew around the beach resort and a small number of Flamingoes that were wandering around. I was lucky enough to come across them on my own whilst being hand fed. I was asked if I would like to help and I happily took part. Holding out the food they very gently took it out my cupped hands.
The beach is said to be in the top 4 of best private beaches in the world and whilst it wasn’t the most stunning beach that I’ve ever sat on, the wildlife and fact that you can only reach it by boat, definitely added to its beauty.
The final organised trip we undertook was to Sayulita, another small village known for its beaches with strong surf, feeling a little better, we chanced this trip, taking special care with due to previous sickness.
Sayulita started life as a small fishing village, but due to its positioning, it has a great beach for surfing. Over the years this has led to an increase in tourism and as such commercialisation of the area.
The town itself is known for its colourful banners along the streets, which make it a much photographed place.
As well as visiting Sayulita we also travelled slightly further, to the less commercialised town of San Pancho (Or San Francisco) – Like Sayulita it has a hippy vibe, but with less tourists it feels much more authentic.
The highlight of the town has to be the community projects that take place here. Firstly we visit the local community centre.
This is open to the public and with the help of volunteers, provides a place to meet, relax, read and learn.
With internet access for children to use, those that do not have such luxuries at home can keep up with their school work. Books in Spanish and English that adults and children can use. They also have a whole agenda of activities, including Reading Lessons, Acting Lessons, Singing Lessons and while we were there, what seemed like the teaching of fire dancing (with unlit torches obviously).
The centre also has a big recycling project, where children are taught the importance of recycling and waste control. The whole town collects and reuses old plastic, glass and cloth.
Glass Bottles are made into useful everyday objects.
Plastic from the town is pressed into plastic boards – these ones were made into table tops.
Cloth is screen printed and made into goods such as cushions that they sell to tourists.
Right next to the centre is also a Circus School, where we managed to see children being taught aerial silk skills with equipment donated by Cirque du Soleil.
It was great to see such community involvement in this small Mexican village and an insight into the lives of those that lived there.
For me, coming to Puerto Vallarta was about seeing how it compared to Cancun. A place where I have previously lived and worked. I managed to mix with locals and eat in small Taquerias, but for the vast majority of tourists in the resorts of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, you very rarely get that opportunity. Yes it has some great hotels and All Inclusive options. Yes it has some incredible tours such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. But if your not going to see these magnificent sites and you want to stay local in the resort, does it really give you an insight into Mexican life – for me the answer is no.
That’s where Puerto Vallarta wins hands down. The hotels close to Puerto Vallarta are definitely below the standards found in most of Cancun. The All Inclusive we experienced was poor with a few issues forcing us to go out and eat rather than use the All-Inclusive. Thankfully we like to explore and the world we found outside the hotel was beautiful and welcoming. Food in local restaurants was tasty and without any issues.
If you’ve visited the Cancun region before, but want to try something a little more ‘Local’ then I would highly recommend trying out the Bay of Banderas and Puerto Vallarta.