Escape from COVID
Assuming you’ve listened or read any news in the last three years, you know that we have been dealing with a worldwide pandemic since early 2020. The idea of escaping from COVID is obviously a fantasy since this virus will be with us for a long time, if not permanently. But we seem to have resigned ourselves to learning to live with it. The purpose of this trip is not, however, to spend much time thinking or talking about COVID- we’re all ready to travel again, even if traveling is forever changed.
Travel preparations certainly feel different. We’re leaving tomorrow and already discussing how many rapid tests we need to take, what masking is like, if we need to take our actual vaccine cards (“no”), and the fact we should take a rapid test this morning. We will not need a PCR test to get into Mexico, but will need one to get back into the U.S. In the height of irony, the COVID community spread in Puerto Vallarta is lower than here but of course we need to be tested so we don’t bring COVID back into the U.S. We’ve had a number of federal agencies disappoint us during this pandemic, and the CDC has unfortunately done a great job of leading from the rear.
Pre-pandemic we were talking about traveling to Spain and perhaps Italy, but things all changed. Since most travel restrictions have been lifted, we could still technically travel to Europe, but we thought that Mexico was a simpler first place to go. After some research, we decided to try Puerto Vallarta. There are a number of famous resort areas in Mexico, including Cancun, Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas and each has their own vibe. Acapulco is the closest to Mexico City and welcomes a lot of local traffic for that reason. Cancun is one of the largest on the Caribbean side of Mexico and draws crowds from Mexico and the East and Southeast of the U.S. Cabo San Lucas has been more recently developed and tends to be more expensive. Tripadvisor described Cabo as drawing “raucous spring breakers and A-list celebrities,” while Puerto Vallarta is famous for “strolling, shopping and sipping tequila.” Well, we’re certainly above the legal age to be spring breakers, and I haven’t yet qualified for A-list status. So, Puerto Vallarta it is.
There’s nothing quite like getting up at three in the morning for a flight, but unfortunately that comes as part of the package. It was interesting to note that fewer and fewer people were masking in the airport and on the plane, although no one seemed stressed about those who made different mask choices than you might have made. Oddly the seeming end of mask wars did not yet result in people going back to complaining about carry-on luggage, leg space, and snacks, but don’t assume those complaints won’t be back. The actual flight to Puerto Vallarta from the U.S. is not long, but getting connections to the right departure airport takes longer than you think it should.
Mexican immigration and customs are easier than the U.S., but no one raves about U.S. customs so we’re talking about a low bar. Getting transportation to the hotel requires some planning since there are any number of willing drivers who are ready to take you for whatever price. However when you compare the reception here to the mob that rushes you at many other airports, it isn’t bad.
Puerto Vallarta is located in Jalisco, one of Mexico’s 32 states, and please don’t ask me to name all of them or their state capitals. Mexico’s country name in Spanish is actually the United States of Mexico (“Los Estados Unidos de México”), but the locals don’t seem to be too bothered that we say that we are from The United States, assuming there is only one. A bigger and justifiable criticism is that we call ourselves “American,” when both South and North Americans can rightfully claim themselves to be American too. To be fair, we don’t have a term such as “United Staters,” which they do in Spanish, so most of the world is OK with simply calling us “Americans.” From having watched a number of Mexican Telenovelas, I can also share that there are a number of nicknames for Americans in Mexican Spanish, some of which you know, such as gringo, and others which you probably don’t want to.
Puerto Vallarta has a population of around 400,000 in the greater metropolitan area and around 200,000 in the city. It was named for Ignacio Vallarta (I had to look that one up). Ignacio was a lawyer, served with Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, two of the who’s who of Mexican history, and then ended his governmental service as Chief Justice of the Mexican Supreme Court. Not bad.
Back to Jalisco: Jalisco is famous for tequila. Let me start by clearing up an often debated issue, usually after a number of shots: are mezcal and tequila the same thing? Tequila is a liquor made from the agave plant and which is mainly produced in Jalisco and four other Mexican states. There is actually a city named Tequila which you can go visit for tastings, but that does involve a day’s trip and you don’t need to travel there to sample the product of course! Mezcal is also made from agave, but the production method is different than tequila and it’s made in different states. The cocktail party fact you want to have about all of this is that tequila is a type of mezcal but mezcal is not necessarily a tequila. You’ll see lots of tequila in bars and stores here but it’s more of a Jalisco state product than anything to do with Puerto Vallarta directly. Nonetheless, it’s the drink of the city.
There are two main areas in Puerto Vallarta. The older area is actually Puerto Vallarta and contains the old city center, the artisanal markets, the boardwalk, which is actually made of stone, as well as a number of hotels and condominiums. The area to the north is Nuevo Vallarta, which is filled with high end all-inclusive hotels, fancy restaurants and ritzy shopping. It’s where the other half lives. Other guests we met loved their accommodations, so where to stay depends on what type of experience you want. We preferred to not be so insulated and pampered and chose to stay in the older area of Puerto Vallarta. The price for this is of course some quirky hotel experiences, such as not having an elevator and five flights of stairs to climb, but that’s what makes for an adventure.
Puerto Vallarta’s signature attraction is their boardwalk, the “Malecón,” which displays an amazing number of sculptures. All of these are true museum pieces and it’s a nice change from cities who honor politicians and other historical figures, many of whom have controversial histories with today’s lenses. Whether during the day or at night, it felt pretty safe, with small and non-frenetic crowds and visible police patrols.
Puerto Vallarta gives a justifiable impression of appreciating artistry and handcrafts. Although there are tons of souvenirs in shops made mainly in China, there are numerous shops which display and sell crafts made by local artisans.
Like many other resort areas, the boardwalk also hosts street performers of all kinds, including figures made to look like statues, fire dancers, musicians and indigenous dancers. If you have long hair, expect half-a-dozen requests to braid it. You’ll also be lured into restaurants with offers of 2 for 1 drinks, catchy phrases and promises of the best food. It’s what they do. Notable for us was that the tourists here seemed mainly Mexican, so it was nice to blend in vs. feeling like you’re part of a large tour group. Puerto Vallarta has different tourist seasons, with November through February being filled with mainly Canadians and Americans and the summer with Mexicans during school holidays.
The boardwalk is also steps away from Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is the city cathedral. It’s a beautiful old church, slightly older than a century, although you’d think it’s older. If you’ve been to older cathedrals in other cities, this one is nice and worth a visit, but may not be as distinctive as others. One of the special treats we witnessed during our visit was to see a robed priest come out and open the hood of a woman’s car. While we thought he was going to deal with an overheated radiator, he proceeded to actually bless the car with holy water. I wonder if he could do something about gas prices as well.
Danza de los Voladores
One of the neat things to watch is something that you may have seen on some Mexican travel programs. It consists of men being hung by their feet and dropping in a circular motion from a high pole. This is from an ancient Nahua, Huastec and Otomi ritual which is believed to have been developed to appease the gods and end a drought. I know that we have a drought in the West right now, but I have my limits.
Mirador de la cruz
Another neat thing to consider doing is climbing to the top of the hills above Puerto Vallarta to the look out over the city. It’s somewhat of an ambitious climb and hard but not impossible to find the way through the city. It is used by many for cardio exercise, so if that’s your thing, go for it.
Eating and Drinking
This is a city that offers a lot in terms of great restaurants. There are fewer really fancy restaurants, but there are plenty that offer very nice meals at very affordable prices. For those that care to know, the drinking age is 18 and people know how to celebrate. Fish is something that seems to be on every menu, as well it should be. Menus have a lot of local dishes and often will have burritos, which are not Mexican in origin, but I suppose so many tourists have asked for them they have given up and just added them to the menus. In addition to a lot of tequila based drinks, there is a wide selection of Mexican beers and even Mexican wines, which I found quite good. The service is really excellent, and you will have the chance to appreciate the wonderful sense of humor that people have here. At least in Puerto Vallarta, the servers will introduce themselves by name as is common in the U.S., but often joke extensively with you. It really makes an evening fun. Tipping in restaurants is around 10-20%, with 15% customary for good service. If you’ve been to Mexico before you will already know that much of what is called Mexican food in the U.S. is more Tex-Mex (think: I add cheese and refried beans to everything) than traditional Mexican. As a result, dropping or reducing the cheese and beans can make the food a little bit healthier, and even adding things such as cactus even more so.
We didn’t go to any bars per se but I did ask our cab drivers. As with any city, you have some bars you’d want to go to and others to avoid. Bars stay open until 3:00 am (no, that’s not a typo) and at least one stays open until 6:00 am. I found about the 6:00 am one since one of the taco restaurants we visited also stayed open until 6:00 am. Guess you can just finish up before you go to work in the morning, quite convenient.
Puerto Vallarta is apparently one, if not the most, gay friendly resorts in Mexico, with a gay beach, Los Muertos, numerous gay-friendly hotels and nightlife. While none in our group are members of this community, the welcome reception to LGBTQ visitors is clearly visible by the large number of gay pride flags on restaurants, shops and hotels, as well as the large number of LGBTQ groups we saw.
The Romantic Zone or Zona Romantica is one of the must see areas of the city. It is the old downtown, with a wide variety of restaurants, stores as well as ubiquitous vendor stalls selling souvenirs, clothing and most anything else you’d like. You’ll also notice the famous cobblestone streets, which look romantic, but will send your shocks to an early grave.
Short piece of advice: Don’t rent a car. Taxis are all over the place and inexpensive. Buses are available too, but the incremental cost of a taxi is worth it. I would also add that driving in Mexico is not for the faint of heart. There is a rhythm and a logic to when people cut in and when you let someone cut in, but it will not be intuitive to any American driver.
There are no meters in the cabs and they work on a zone system. To be honest, I never quite mastered the rates and they seemed to vary for reasons not understandable to most, such as picking up a taxi next to the port was more expensive than one on the street next to it. That said, nothing was too expensive. Most if not all drivers speak some level of English, with some being perfectly fluent. Most Mexicans don’t tip taxis unless luggage is involved. In Puerto Vallarta, I had the impression that most expect a tip from Americans since we manage to create expectations for tips and ruin it for every other tourist group, and we went along and ruined it for others by tipping. Even if you do not speak Spanish, you will be able to get by in almost every shop and restaurant, and hotels are a given. You will also run into a lot of people who have lived in the U.S. at one point or another. I can’t tell you how many people we met who lived in the Bay Area at some point.
You can also Uber if that is more comfortable to you. I would not always expect a fluent English driver, but then you don’t really need that in an Uber since they know where you need to go. But it will help in those places where getting a taxi is not always easy (which are very few).
If you check the internet, there are a ton of recreational activities you can do while here. To list a sample of them: snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, jet-skiing, horseback riding, boat rides, zip-lining and ATVs. The water and the beaches are wonderful, and many of these activities will be spectacular. We didn’t do a lot of these since we have done many of these during other trips, but I did want to highlight a couple of them that are unique to Puerto Vallarta.
The first is what is called Hidden Beach on the Marietas Islands. This involves a long boat ride on a fast boat to a protected island which requires you to swim 75 meters to shore while wearing a life preserver and a protective helmet. And did I mention this may be against the tide? Hidden Beach is in the middle of an island after swimming through a cave. If you’re up for it, it is surely worth the investment. This is an iconic landmark of Puerto Vallarta, thankfully saved from destruction since it had previously been used as target practice for the military.
The second activity to mention is the Rhythms of the Night Show. This is the Mexican equivalent of Cirque de Soleil, with plenty of acrobatics and neat music. It’s all performed on an island which is an about 25 minute boat ride from Nuevo Vallarta. The tickets are an incredible bargain considering you get dinner, unlimited drinks, and transportation. For us, seeing the people on the boat ride out and back alone, including the salsa dancing, loud reggaeton music and incredible party vibe was worth the price of admission alone.
One of the hidden gems we lucked into visiting was the Botanical Garden. It is a rather long cab ride south of the city and was on our list to do, time permitting. We were glad we did. This garden has apparently not been around that long and was developed by a transplanted (best term considering we are talking about plants) Californian and his mother some dozen years ago. It has a wide collection of native plants and trees, walking paths and a large gourmet restaurant with live music. It was honestly the best dining experience our group had during the trip. The entrance price is really low, and I speculate this was done to make it affordable for the locals to enjoy. It’s peaceful, there is no effort made to upsell anything and you’ll enjoy it. And you’ll learn some things: for example, I will confess that I never knew that vanilla comes from an orchid plant.
Night of the Iguana
Having saved the best for last, one really interesting fact about Puerto Vallarta is how it become famous. In 1964, there was a black and white movie released named Night of the Iguana, which sounds like a cheap horror film, but is actually a drama about the trials and tribulations of a defrocked priest played by Richard Burton. Based upon a play by Tennessee Williams, it also stars Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. More than one person will tell you that this movie made Puerto Vallarta famous, and you can even see the remnants of the movie set on your way to the Botanical Garden. In fact, there is a statue of John Huston, who directed the film, in the town square. We watched it before going, hoping to see wonderful views of the city and country, but the black and white film and limited locations didn’t provide any of that. It is well acted though, even if a bit dated.
The other part of this story is that Richard Burton, a famously functioning alcoholic, was having an affair the time with (wait for it): Elizabeth Taylor. She came to Puerto Vallarta during the filming, kept coming to the set and was probably “not helpful.” According to Wikipedia, at the award dinner for John Huston, who won an award for his directing, “Allan Sherman performed a song to the tune of “Streets of Laredo” with lyrics that included, “They were down there to film The Night of the Iguana / With a star-studded cast and a technical crew. / They did things at night midst the flora and fauna / That no self-respecting iguana would do.” Their house is today a restaurant and hotel and has been wonderfully modernized. The restaurant is fantastic, a true high-end experience.
So I started this narrative out talking about COVID tests. We all scheduled our COVID tests the day before our return at the hotel. They were administered by a doctor (would not happen in the U.S.) and cost $50. They were also rapid tests, which was a surprise. We were delighted to have them in hand when we arrived at the airport and happily pulled them out only to be told: “We don’t need those anymore.” Although we knew the rules were changing that evening at 12:00 am, the airport seems to have decided on early implementation. So, we were the last group to have had these. We hope this isn’t something we’ll have to repeat.
Enjoy some more pictures from the trip below!