In some beach vacation areas you’ve got one strip and that’s it, so choosing your location isn’t all that important. Puerto Vallarta, the popular Pacific Coast sun and fun getaway spot in Mexico, is a whole different animal. Visitors walk out of the buzzing airport here and fan out to multiple sections of this region, from Punta Mita many miles to the north (in Nayarit state) down to Mismaloya to the south. In between you’ve got a whole string of beaches and a downtown, all very different in character and appeal.
Here’s the lowdown on the appeal of each part of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as well as some top hotels to consider in each place.
Puerto Vallarta Center
If you’re more into strolling, shopping, nightlife, and restaurants than you are into sitting on a beach, head downtown. This is where you’ll find many of the top places to eat and drink, the lovely cathedral, and the attractive malecon filled with sculptures. Even in you stay elsewhere, come here for a day at least. If you’re staying at a hotel with no beach, you can still get a day pass at one of the beach clubs like Mantamar. (Some are gay, some are straight, that one’s for both.)
Puerto Vallarta Beach Area
Heading north from the center toward the airport, there’s a string of probably 30 hotels before getting to the marina. Villa Premiere is close enough to still walk downtown, but most of the others will require a taxi ride to get to the center. The Bandaras Bay water in this area is not as clear as when you get further away from the center, especially during rainy season, and beaches are inconsistent, so pay attention to online reviews before choosing.
Just past where the cruise ships, fishing boats, and sightseeing boats dock is a section of land with a strip of beach, several hotels, condos, and a golf course. This is an area where you can actually go for a walk or run: much of it is residential around the course and there are commercial stores and restaurants around the Marina. There’s a Marriott here, a Westin, and two great Velas all-inclusive properties we’ve reviewed in detail.
There’s a specific spot called Mismaloya, but for the purposes of this list consider it the area south of Puerto Vallarta’s center, heading toward the big Los Arcos of Mismaloya rocks sticking out of the water. These are mostly self-contained resorts meant for people who don’t plan to be out and about very often: they’re not convenient for zipping in and out of town. The water is gorgeous here though and the views are more dramatic. There are a few current and coming chain resorts like Fiesta Americana Grand, Hyatt Ziva, and Barcelo, as well as some smaller hotels and condo buildings scattered along the coast.
Sometimes called Riviera Nayarit or just “the beaches north of the airport,” this part has some of the whitest sand and clearest water in the immediate area and is loaded with huge all-inclusive hotels. These range from the low-end ones filled with high school groups and budget vacationers to ones for those who think nothing of dropping $1K a night to relax in their private whirlpool facing the water. If you’re looking for the prototypical beach getaway experience you’d find in any major resort area, this is your place.
If you’re part of the elite 1% or just have something big to celebrate, then head 40 minutes or so north to the planned Punta Mita development on its own peninsula. Nestled among the two PGA golf courses and mansions costing millions are two premier resorts—Four Seasons and St. Regis—that pour on the pampering. The town of Punta de Mita has a few small hotels, but the two below are the only resorts inside the gate.
If you head north from there, it’s a wilder coast with jungles and secluded beaches, with luxury boutique hotels like Imanta and Casa de Mita, then expat haven communities like San Pancho and Sayulita. At this point you’re close to an hour from the airport and further still from Puerto Vallarta itself, so most people who head up to this area are experienced travelers coming back for their third or fourth time. Or they loved it so much they decided to stay!
Article and photos by editor Tim Leffel, who has been to the region five times on travel writing assignments, for conferences, and for family vacations. Over the years he has been hosted at some of the hotels mentioned here.