One of my favorite things to do is plan a trip to Puerto Vallarta. I still remember when I was planning my very first trip there. It was a sister trip, and we were heading down to celebrate her graduation and to have a little escape from the cold Wisconsin winter.
I had no idea I would end up falling in love with this place and meeting my husband. I also had no idea I would end up moving there only 5 months later, leaving behind all of my family, friends, and belongings in Wisconsin. When I think back on it now I just can’t believe I did it, but so happy I did!
Although I am not living there anymore, I still love to visit Puerto Vallarta as much as I can. Direct flights from Orange County or Los Angeles will get me there in just a few hours.
I have so much love for this city, and I still consider it my second home. There are SO MANY things to do and see, delicious food to eat, and amazing beaches!
In this post, I will share the knowledge I gained after living in Puerto Vallarta, including where to stay, eat, and explore. I’m going to give you all the information you need to know to plan your perfect trip to Puerto Vallarta!
The Ultimate Guide for Planning a Trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
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Puerto Vallarta is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It is about 1,000 miles south of El Paso, Texas. The city is inside of the Bahía de Banderas, or the Banderas Bay. The bay includes two states, Jalisco to the south and Nayarit to the north.
You can most likely find good flight options from any major U.S. city. A direct flight from Los Angeles, California is only about 3 hours long.
When searching for your flights, use airport code PVR for Puerto Vallarta’s International Airport (Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz). No matter where you are staying within the bay, you will use this airport. You can check flights to PVR here.
What to expect
Spanish is the official language, but many locals (and most businesses in tourist areas) speak English. If you know a few Spanish basics you should have some fun trying to speak the native language, but if not, don’t feel bad about speaking English. Here is a handy little Spanish phrasebook that you can bring with you on your trip.
The Mexican Peso (MXN) is the official currency, but US and Canadian dollars are accepted at most, if not all businesses. Some people prefer to exchange their dollars for pesos, but I found that my preference is to use dollars. It just makes things easier since you know what your dollar is worth, and it saves the hassle of trying to exchange money or trying to figure out how much you are paying for something in your own currency.
During my last trip to Puerto Vallarta, I was exchanging money at the hotel for a 17:1 exchange rate. While I was out in the city I was finding places with a higher exchange rate of 18:1, so I was actually losing money this way. Another reason I prefer to just use dollars is so I can easily take any leftover cash home. If you are left with pesos you will have to sell them back (or spend them), but the exchange rate for selling will not be in your favor.
You can exchange money at the local banks (they normally ask for your passport), or at your hotel. In my experience, the exchange rate at the hotels is a little lower than the bank. You can also exchange at the airport, but they might have even worse exchange rates.
Be fully prepared to come across places that do not accept credit cards. Most of my favorite restaurants are cash only, as well as taxis and buses. Make sure you have enough cash with you during your trip.
If you do come across a place that accepts credit cards it will most likely be Visa or Mastercard, not American Express. I came across a few places that told me they will take Amex, but for whatever reason, the credit card terminal “wouldn’t work” and I had to use a different card.
I prefer not to use ATM’s while traveling, so I recommend bringing cash with you. If you end up needing to take out some cash just make sure you are using an ATM that is inside of a bank. Never use one that is exposed or out on the street with 24-hour access. With all the ATM scams that go around (not just in Mexico, but in the US too), it’s better to be safe than sorry.
You can typically follow the same tipping guidelines you have at home. Somewhere around 15% is fine at bars and restaurants. Just remember that the employees do not make very much money, and they rely on their tips to survive.
If you are at a resort taking advantage of your all-inclusive option by sipping margaritas all day long on the beach, you should tip. Tip well. Because that waiter is sweating his butt off running back and forth with your drinks while you are just hanging out, soaking up the sun.
Another place that you should tip is on a tour. Usually, at the end of a guided tour, they will ask for tips. Depending on the tour and how good it was, $20 per couple/family should be fine.
Another thing to mention about tipping is that it is normal to tip your grocery store bagger. You don’t have to tip them if you don’t want to, but it is the standard with the locals. An average tip might be around 10 pesos, depending on how many bags you have. If you are only dealing with USD, go ahead and give one dollar.
It’s HOT and HUMID, especially if you are visiting in the summer. The winters are a lot fresher, but it can still get pretty hot. For the summer you will definitely need shorts and tank tops, or a lightweight dress or romper. In the winter I used to wear jeans and a light hoodie at night, but my body was used to those humid days so I would get cold easily.
Rainy season is from around the end of June to the beginning of October. I remember most days during rainy season would be sunny in the morning and afternoon, then later in the day the clouds would roll in and it would rain for an hour or so. Once in a while, there would be a full rain day, but it was rare. If it does rain all day you should expect the streets to flood, so it’s better to just stay at your hotel for the day if that happens.
There are a few major holidays that are celebrated in Puerto Vallarta that could either make you want to avoid that time or go during that time. It depends on what you prefer!
Taking a vacation to Puerto Vallarta during one of these holidays will definitely give you a unique experience, plus it’s a great way to experience Mexican traditions. Puerto Vallarta is very festive and traditional, and if you head to the Malecón (boardwalk) you can definitely find something fun going on.
- Semana Santa (Easter/Holy Week). This occurs between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The national students have a long break from school, so imagine Spring Break with both international and national tourists and students jam-packing the beaches.
- Día de la Independencia (Mexican Independence Day). Celebrations start the night of September 15th and continue through the 16th. There will be fireworks, parades, food, and other fun festivities.
- Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead). This major celebration to honor the dead occurs between October 31st and November 2nd. You will see many decorations with offerings for the spirits, amazing makeup and costumes, and parades.
- Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe). This is a religious holiday, and since I am not religious I never took part in any of the festivities. I just remember the streets downtown were blocked every day due to the parade. The celebrations happen during the first 12 days of December.
- Año Nuevo (New Year’s). New Year’s Eve celebrations will be happening all over the city, which is probably very similar to what you would experience at home. The Malecón (boardwalk) will be packed for what I basically consider a street party, and most resorts will have their own celebrations with fireworks that can be seen throughout the bay.
In order to use your cell phone in Puerto Vallarta, the easiest thing to do is to add an international plan before you leave home. The other option is to purchase a sim card once you arrive in Mexico. As long as you have an unlocked phone, you can purchase a Telcel sim card at any Oxxo, and use it in your phone. The sim card will give you both talk time and data.
If you don’t know Spanish you can say something like “Necesito un SIM para Telcel”. To add a plan, saying “recarga” will get you what you need. The cashier will need the phone number from the SIM, and you can add as much as you want. $20 USD should get you plenty, and you can always add more value whenever you want.
Best time to go
In my opinion, I honestly can’t say there’s a bad time to visit Puerto Vallarta. The entire year is perfect for me, but it really depends on your preference.
- Low season is during the summer months, from around June to November. September is the rainiest and slowest tourism month. Summer is also the hottest time of year to visit and the most humid. You should definitely expect rain during the summer.
- High season runs from about December to May when the weather is best. You should have clear skies and perfect 80 degree days with no rain.
- Whale watching season runs from December to March when the whales are migrating south.
- Snorkeling and Diving can be done all year round, but from what I understand it might be best during the summer months when the water has the best visibility.
My advice: If you can’t stand the heat and humidity, you should avoid traveling here from around June to October. If you like to take advantage of the low season when the hotel prices are cheaper and it’s less crowded, then you should definitely visit during the summer. Be advised that flight availability may be limited since some airlines reduce flights during the summer low season. I have found very good flight prices during high season, but hotels are typically more expensive during this time.
Where to stay
Where do I even begin? There are SO many hotels, resorts, condos, and Airbnb’s to choose from! This is really a hard decision for someone who is taking a trip to Puerto Vallarta for the first time! But again, this really depends on your personal preferences.
First of all, decide what type of accommodation you prefer. Do you want to stay at a resort with an all-inclusive plan or a standard budget hotel? Maybe you would like to experience a small boutique hotel with a view? Or do you like the option of using Airbnb?
By the way, you can save $40 off your first trip when you sign up for Airbnb using this link. It’s free to sign up and whenever you decide to take a trip you will save $40! Why not?!
To help you decide, I have broken down the major areas of Puerto Vallarta to explain what you can expect, and offered some suggestions for accommodations.
Please note that my suggestions below are only that, suggestions. I have not personally stayed at every single one of these places. They are options that are either well known in the area, great for the budget or those that I have actually experienced myself and would recommend.
The Marina is closest to the airport and offers a few hotels, resorts, and condos, as well as a golf course, shopping, and restaurants. There isn’t much action in this area in my opinion, but it is an easy bus or taxi ride to downtown or wherever else you would like to go.
A few hotel suggestions in the Marina area:
This large stretch of land has a bunch of hotels lined up one after the other along the beach, so you have many options here. Most of them have low to moderate prices, their own beach section, and easy access to public transportation. Some of the hotels are within walking distance to downtown.
A few hotel suggestions in the Hotel Zone:
- For the budget: Villa del Palmar Beach Resort & Spa
- For the family: Sunscape Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa
- For the adults: Secrets Vallarta Bay
- For the young couple: Now Amber
Downtown Puerto Vallarta has so much to offer and it is centrally located. With tons of shopping, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and the famous Malecón (boardwalk), you will definitely have plenty to do here. Taxis and buses are everywhere you look so you will never have to worry about getting around town.
This is a crowded area, so don’t expect any huge resorts on the beach. This area offers hotels for the type of traveler who wants to be close to the action, have a nice view, stay in traditional Mexican style accommodations, or for those on a budget. It’s a great place to stay if you are not interested in the all-inclusive beach-front resort experience, and would prefer to eat at all of the great restaurants in town.
A few hotel suggestions in Downtown:
- For the budget: Catedral Vallarta Boutique Hotel
- For the family: Buenaventura Grand
- For the adults: Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel
- For the location: Hotel Rio Malecon
- For the luxury: Casa Kimberly
- For the romantics: Hacienda San Angel
Old Town/Olas Altas
Old Town (some people also refer to this area as the Romantic Zone or Olas Altas) is one hop skip and a jump from downtown, on the other side of the Rio Cuale River. Similar to downtown, you will also enjoy many restaurants, bars, and shopping. Taxis and buses are also available everywhere you look.
Old Town is one of my favorite areas in Puerto Vallarta, just because the vibe is so awesome! It attracts a lot of tourists, and you will definitely have a great time at the bars listening to live music. And the food- OMG, so many great restaurants here!
You also have access to the Pier and Los Muertos Beach, which is the most popular beach in Puerto Vallarta. On Los Muertos, you will find many restaurants lined up along the beach with a great view of the pier and those magical Puerto Vallarta sunsets. You can also take boat tours from the pier, so this is a great location if you are interested in heading out on the water for the day to places like Los Arcos or Yelapa.
A few hotel suggestions in Old Town:
- For the budget: San Marino Hotel
- For the family: Playa Los Arcos Hotel Beach Resort & Spa
- For the LGBT: Almar Resort LGBT Beach Front
- For the view: Pinnacle Resorts
South Zone (Conchas Chinas and beyond)
If you can’t tell from my long list below, the south zone is my favorite place to stay in Puerto Vallarta (and also where I had my wedding!). It has AMAZING beaches, gorgeous views, hillside mansions, curvy ocean-side roads, lush tropical mountains, and it’s much quieter than the other areas.
I have spent a lot of time in this area, so I can absolutely recommend staying here as long as you don’t mind paying for taxis or taking the bus to get around. The south zone is not too far from Old Town and Centro, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to walk there due to the hills (and the heat!).
Most of the resorts below are places where you could literally just live on the resort during your whole trip and be totally content. I definitely recommend this area if you are looking for a vacation where you can just relax.
A bunch of hotel suggestions in the south zone:
- For the budget: Playa Conchas Chinas Hotel
- For the family: Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa
- For the adults: Grand Fiesta Americana
- For the beach: Hyatt Ziva
- For the view: Grand Miramar Luxury Suites
- For the luxury: Hotel Mousai
- For the romantics: Casa Karma Boutique Resort
What to Pack
You should pack light for your trip to Puerto Vallarta. You will not be needing layers in this heat. Shorts, dresses, rompers, tank tops, will all be great options. Definitely bring some comfortable walking sandals (my favorites are these Skechers and Birkenstock).
Bring a purse or a backpack that is comfortable to wear all day, and will keep your stuff safe. I love using my sling backpack, it’s light and doesn’t hurt my back or shoulders.
I also recommend wearing a sunhat, but you don’t have to bring one with you since you can find these all over town. Plus, it’s cool to buy one as a souvenir! Don’t forget to bring plenty of sunglasses!
If you forget anything at home, there is a Walmart by the marina. You can also stop at an Oxxo, which is a little convenience store that you can find on almost every corner. To save space in my luggage I usually do not bring any toiletries with me, so I stop at the Oxxo or Walmart to buy what I need.
Here are my recommendations based on season:
- Shorts, tank tops, dresses, or rompers
- One outfit to wear for a night out or fancy dinner
- Several bathing suits and a cover-up
- Water shoes, or sandals that can get wet in case it rains
- Comfortable walking sandals
- Light purse or backpack
- Compact umbrella
- Shorts, t-shirts, long dresses, or rompers
- One pair of long pants or jeans
- One light sweater or hoodie
- One outfit to wear for a night out or fancy dinner
- Several bathing suits and a cover-up
- Comfortable walking sandals
- Light purse or backpack
If you plan on doing any adventure activities such as zip lining, hiking, or an ATV tour, bring jean shorts or pants, an old t-shirt, and tennis shoes.
How to get around
Buses and taxies are everywhere in Puerto Vallarta so you will never need to worry about how to get around town. Uber is even operating there now, but I have not used Uber in Puerto Vallarta, so I’m not sure how convenient it is or what the prices are like.
A taxi is probably the easiest option for you to get around since there are taxi “sitios” all over the place. This is basically the station for the drivers to sit and wait for passengers, and they are placed all over the city.
You don’t have to find a taxi at one of these designated areas; you can grab a taxi wherever you find one available. Just wave your hand at the driver and they will pick you up!
Don’t be surprised by random taxi drivers asking you if you need a ride, they do that all the time. Simply tell them no thanks if you don’t need one.
Taxi rates vary by zone, not by distance or time. It is helpful to know the rates before you take a taxi just to make sure the driver is charging you the correct price. Your hotel will have that information for you. Always bring cash for taxi rides, even better if you have exact change. Sometimes the driver doesn’t have change, or so they say.
All taxi drivers that I have experienced speak English, or at least enough to get by. Just make sure you know the exact name of the place you are going so there is no confusion.
Buses are a very cheap option if you know how to use them. Plus, they are such a fun way to see the city! The buses are a little scary sometimes because they drive a little fast and the streets are so bumpy, but it is still a fun experience. They recently purchased a few new buses that have cushy seats and air conditioning! No more bumpy, sweaty, stinky rides on those buses! Try to catch one of the white buses to take advantage of this.
Buses are currently $7.50 pesos for the blue and green buses and $8 pesos for the orange. This equals less than $.50 USD!! That’s an amazing deal!
In order to take the bus, I definitely recommend learning how to use them. Ask your hotel before you leave to make sure you know what to do.
When I first moved to Puerto Vallarta I sort of took the wrong bus (it was the right bus going in the wrong direction), and I ended up in the middle of nowhere. I was on a local route, and the bus driver did not speak fluent English. Luckily with the little bit of Spanish I knew and the little English he knew, we managed to figure it out. It was a very long ride back to town though.
Make sure you know which bus to take and don’t be scared to ask the driver if he is going where you want to go.
A quick guide to the buses in Puerto Vallarta
Blue buses (Centro route) stay on the main roads and go from the Marina to Old Town.
Green buses (Tunel route) navigate into the residential areas and bypass downtown. You will go through a tunnel that has been built into the highway. I personally do not like the Tunel route, only because it seems to take longer, and the tunnel smells like pollution.
White buses (the new buses) could be the Centro or Tunel route. Make sure you have exact change for this bus. There are also white buses that go to Nayarit, don’t take those if that’s not where you want to go!
Orange buses go through the south shore starting from Olas Altas and stopping at Boca de Tomatlan. Conchas Chinas and Mismaloya are also along the way.
Here is a good post to read to learn how to use the bus in Puerto Vallarta.
The very last option I should mention is driving a rental car. In my opinion, I do not think it is the best idea to rent a car and drive during your trip to Puerto Vallarta. The roads are a little different than in the US, so it would make your vacation a little easier if you did not drive. It’s kind of a stressful situation that I never got used to after almost 3 years, so it’s just better to use other transportation.
If you do decide to rent a car, you can do so at the airport or even through your hotel. Some rental car companies will even deliver the car to you at your hotel.
What to do
Puerto Vallarta has TONS of stuff to do, and the fun never ends! I can’t exactly say that this is a city that never sleeps, but if you really wanted to you could be up all day and night without ever getting bored.
Here are some recommendations for things to do during your trip to Puerto Vallarta.
Have a Beach Day
The beach is an absolute must for any trip to Puerto Vallarta. The entire bay is lined with amazing beaches just waiting for you to explore.
Some of my personal favorite beaches in Puerto Vallarta are:
- Conchas Chinas
- Las Gemelas
- Punta Negra
- Los Muertos
Read my guide to 5 of the Best Beaches in Puerto Vallarta.
Another absolute must is visiting Puerto Vallarta’s Malecón (the boardwalk). This is a favorite for both tourists and locals, and a great place to start your exploration into the city of Puerto Vallarta.
There’s a ton to see and do on the Malecón, such as:
- Watch the Voladores de Papantla
- Photograph the art sculptures
- Watch a show at Los Arcos Amphitheater
- Visit Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish
- Bars and Restaurants
Take a Guided Tour
One of the most popular things to do in Puerto Vallarta is a tour! One of the most reputable tour companies is Vallarta Adventures. They have a lot of tours to choose from including scuba diving, snorkeling, whale watching, zip lining, off-road adventures, and trips to amazing beaches you need to experience at least once in your life.
Some of my favorite guided tours are:
- Marietas Islands (the “hidden” beach) with Vallarta Adventures
- Sierra Madre ATV Adventure with Estigo tours
- Las Caletas Beach Hideaway with Vallarta Adventures
- Miragalante (Pirate Ship)
- Rhythms of the Night with Vallarta Adventures
- Sunset Sailing with Vallarta Adventures
- Outdoor Adventure (water and land tour including ATV’s and zip lines) with Vallarta Adventures
Take a Self-Guided Tour
Another option is to take a tour of your own! I’ve done this a few times myself, and it’s a great option if you want to feel a little adventurous, avoid the crowds, and save some money. I probably wouldn’t recommend this during your very first trip to Puerto Vallarta, unless you are 100% confident that you know how to complete the trip yourself.
Some great ideas for a self-guided tour are:
- Yelapa: A fishing village that is only accessible by water taxi. You can catch the boat to Yelapa at Los Muertos Pier. Buy your tickets in advance at one of the booths right before the pier. Once you are there head into town to eat, swim in the town’s waterfall, hike further up the river to the larger waterfall, or hang out on the beach sipping some mojitos.
- San Sebastian: A very small and peaceful mountain village, with a few shops and restaurants, and great coffee. There is a hike (or drive) up the mountain to a scenic view called La Bufa. Try to go on a clear day to get the best view. You will need to rent a car to get to this location which is about 2 hours away. You should avoid visiting San Sebastian during the rainy season since the roads might not be in the best condition.
- Los Arcos: This is a marine park on the south side of Puerto Vallarta, which is a great place for scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking. The water is super clear and you can definitely see some colorful fish here. You can catch a boat here from the pier, or even from some beaches. There’s a kayak rental place in Mismaloya, which is a great place to start your kayak tour to Los Arcos.
You can take a whale watching tour from December to February or March. Be sure to check with the tour company for the exact start and end date, because it could vary year to year.
I once took a whale watching photo safari and we saw SO MANY WHALES. I could not believe my eyes. The tour was on a smaller inflatable speedboat (very safe!), so there was not a ton of people. Everyone had a chance to see the whales. If you want to go whale watching, I highly recommend booking this tour with Vallarta Adventures called the Whale Watching Photo Safari.
Have a Spa Day
Take an hour or so to enjoy a well-deserved massage at one of Puerto Vallarta’s many spas. Most hotels/resorts have a spa on-site, but there are also a bunch of them around the city.
If you are looking to save some money, your best bet is to avoid the hotel spas. I’m sure the hotels have excellent spas, but they usually seem to be a little over-priced compared to local spas.
My absolute favorite spa in Puerto Vallarta is Artepil Spa. They have 3 convenient locations, English speaking staff, great service, and great prices.
Get a Day Pass at a Beach Resort
In case you decide to stay at a hotel that is not all-inclusive, or on the beach, you still have the option to spend the day at one of those resorts! Or, maybe you want to check out a resort for your next trip, spend the day there to see what it’s like!
Most resorts offer day and/or night passes, so you can spend the day there with access to the all-inclusive benefits that the guests have!
Depending on the resort, you may have to call ahead to reserve a day pass. Or you could get in touch with them online to get more information about a day pass.
One of my favorite resorts to get a day pass is Hyatt Ziva. The beach is “private” since it’s in a little cove, and it’s one of the best in the area!
Snorkeling is a popular thing to do in Puerto Vallarta and in the South Zone you can find the best water for it. You can go snorkeling on your own, or even take a guided or private tour.
A couple good areas to snorkel are at Los Arcos Marine Park and Conchas Chinas Beach.
Ride the Bus/Rent a Taxi
One of my favorite ways to see a city is to ride the bus! It’s so cheap and you can basically get a great overview of the city and find things to see and do. Another option is to rent a taxi driver for the day! They can take you all over the city for one flat rate. Check with your hotel (or any taxi driver that you like) to get more information on renting a driver for the day.
You will find so many stores and flea markets filled with colorful and artistic designs. It will be hard for you to resist buying some souvenirs! For the best variety and lowest prices try the Isla Cuale Flea Market and the Flea Market right beside the Rio Cuale (the locals just call this one “the flea market”.
There are also 3 shopping malls in the city that offer a wide variety of shopping options from budget-friendly to higher-end stores.
Where to eat
There are currently 954 restaurants in Puerto Vallarta listed on Trip Advisor. This does not include some of the little taco stand “restaurants”.
I am a huge fan of Puerto Vallarta’s food, especially street food. I just can’t get enough! Some local favorites are tacos (of course!), fish, ceviche, and micheladas.
I highly recommend venturing off your resort to try some of the local food. Don’t be turned off by the look or locations of some of these restaurants…some of the best tacos I have ever had were straight off of a little cart on the side of the road!
After living in Puerto Vallarta for a few years, I had plenty of time to try tons of restaurants.
Here are some of my favorite restaurants in Puerto Vallarta
Beach Restaurants with a mixture of food
One thing about dining in Puerto Vallarta is that they will not bring you the bill unless you ask for it. The simple way to ask is “la cuenta”, which means the bill/check. If you do not ask, you might be waiting for a long time.
Do’s and Dont’s
- Don’t stay at the resort all day, get out and explore the beautiful city!
- Don’t believe any rumors that say you shouldn’t eat food that’s not from the resort. PLEASE try the local food, it is the best!
- Don’t use the 24-hour ATM’s, and if you must, check them for skimmers. Bring some cash with you before you leave home. Always carry at least a little bit of cash if you are out in the town in case you need a bus or taxi.
- Don’t be afraid to ask others any questions you might have, and have fun practicing Spanish!
- Don’t bring American Express, a lot of places do not accept it. Make sure you bring another type of card.
I hope this super long guide helps you to plan the perfect trip to Puerto Vallarta! If there is something you would like to know that I did not cover here, please reach out!
While you are here, check out my very first travel video which gives an overview of Puerto Vallarta!
What do you think, is Puerto Vallarta going to be one of your next vacations?! Have you been before and have a favorite place or thing to do?