Puerto Vallarta started off at a disadvantage, because it was going to be compared with our fabulous experience in Cabo San Lucas. Cabo remains primo in my Mexican heart, but Vallarta was a worthy place and experience.
First, the good things - weather, beach, color, food, people, tequila, not necessarily in that order.
The weather was perfect, starting out with a little cloudiness and humidity, but most of the week was warm, in the 80s, with sea breezes that made the shaded cover of the grass hut umbrellas the perfect place to enjoy the view of Banderas Bay. Caught out in the sun in the middle of the day in town, you start to think you are on the surface of the sun, but in the shade or on our 21st floor balcony (numbers started at 11, so I think this was only 10 floors up), it was a perfect temperature.
Banderas Bay is one of the largest bays in North America, making it seem like open ocean, and not the best for swimming, but I don't swim, I watch waves, and for this, it was more than sufficient. It was also reasonably calm for our boat trips and paddleboarding. Apparently the size and depth of this bay, yet its protection, makes it an ideal spot for deep sea fishing, whale and dolphin watching. We did see dolphins on our boat trip to the Marietas Islands. What this bay also offers in abundance is sea glass! Without too much work or effort, I managed to bring home about 5 pounds of sea glass. I suspect the ecology of not throwing trash into the ocean has not completely caught on in Mexico, although there were many very positive signs of recycling, composting and efforts to go green (organica, inorganica and plastic, "El Tuita va Verde"), or perhaps it is just the geography of the bay which causes so much perfectly tumbled glass and bits of ceramic to come on shore. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it.
Our resort was location in the central portion of Puerto Vallarta and faced due west. Early in the week, while there were still clouds, we saw some of the best sunsets we have ever seen.
The resort was a Sheraton, reportedly about 30 years old, but in wonderful condition and spotlessly maintained by a staff of seemingly thousands. The pools were large and clean, there were all the chairs you could want, multiple bars, towel service, drink service. There was even a hotel cat, a cautiously friendly Siamese who liked to drink out of the flower-infused water fountain outside one of the spas.
Out on the beach, they provided a roped in area with grasss umbrellas. This was my favorite place to hang out. Why roped? Alas, like Cabo, Vallarta has "the vendors".
The vendors all dress alike, in white (remember, it's hot out there in the sun), and are mostly licensed, and from overhearing some conversation, they may also be organized (there was some comment about the big boss sleeps under an umbrella while the others work, but it was stated with a smile). They are hawking silver, hats, blankets, sunglasses, tons of junk jewelry, toys, you name it, along with shrimp on a stick, coconuts, and some snacks that looks like fried pork rinds. The vendors are not supposed to cross the ropes into the hotel grounds, but some did. There was a very vigilant security staff at the hotel, surreptitiously but exhaustively checking arm bands of everyone to be sure they were entitled to the facilities, who seemed to sometimes turn a blind eye to vendor violations. But for the most part, you say 'no, gracias', and they go away. You do however need to be prepared to say this a hundred times per day. Although I didn't buy anything, many people do. You see them all over the beach and at the airport, wearing those hats and those dresses. I do enjoy the color this adds to the atmosphere, and admire the willingness of the people to work.
Besides goods, you can also buy services from the vendors, like henna tattoos, hair braiding, tours, boat and fishing trips, and music. A family next to us engaged a roving mariachi band on multiple days, and they would play for seemingly hours. I far preferred this to America's greatest hits of the 90s which would blare from the hotel pool speakers.
"All inclusive" is a primary concept behind many of the resorts in Puerto Vallarta. It is not a good deal, and certainly not the thing to do if you want cheap, aka good, Mexican food. My observation is that most people are happy to eat and drink themselves into a stupor and never leave the grounds of the hotel. Heck, it's their vacation.
Even if you are not adventurous or energetic enough to walk the roughly two miles into the old town, cabs are plentiful and cheap. For 50 pesos (less than $5 with tip) you can go door to door to good food. We particularly enjoyed the Margarita Grill, which featured molcajete-prepared salsa and main dishes. We went there on the recommendation of our neighbor Ann, a 70+ year old who has been to Vallarta every year for the past 25 years. Everything we had there was fresh and delicious, the service was top notch, the margaritas large and good, and for about $40, two people can have great meals, multiple drinks, and enough left over for lunch the next day.
Right across the street was El Mole de Jovita, where again, two fresh and delicious meals featuring three different flavors of mole, prepared fresh on the street by a lovely senorita, four margaritas, great service, $40.
The exchange rate was running about 14.5 pesos to the US dollar. So the rough mental math is, divide by 10, and if that's a good deal, the real price is even better. For example the cost of the Thursday night fiesta was $595 pesos for the two of us (because we had a 2-for-1 deal, more on that later). So that's less than $60 for two, which included all you can eat, all you can drink, and believe me the waiters made sure you never had an empty cup or tequila shot glass, and entertainment, and the real converted price was just over $40. (Our resort charged $80 US per person per day for all inclusive, so clearly this is not a good deal, especially if you tire of stuffing and obliterating yourself three times per day).
I cannot say enough good things about the friendliness of the people. Hotel staff, restaurant servers, cab drivers, tour guides, even the vendors. It is a pleasure being among people who greet you, smile, go out of their way to be helpful and ensure you enjoy your stay. This little towel guy certainly brightened our day, and they even do turn down service at night. Yes, it is their business, for without tourism, Vallarta has very little.
This all sounds wonderful, what's the downside? The city itself, outside the resorts, is pretty run down. The streets are paved but cobbled and run down, the sidewalks are broken and run down, there are resorts and businesses abandoned and run down, empty lots full of trash, rivers clogged with trash. There are some beggars on the streets. It doesn't feel unsafe, but its not at all pleasant. If you cab between the resort and your destinations, you will miss most of this. The cruise ship clientele probably miss all of this. But we like to walk around, and it is not a place to walk around. We had decided this after several days, and gladly hopped a cab back from our third tour of the week, and good thing. That day, Friday, May 1, which is a sort of labor day in Mexico, the local drug cartel in the state of Jalisco burned and vandalized gas stations and banks in the city. One of the banks was just blocks from our hotel. Police were patrolling the streets in full riot gear with machine guns, right in front of our cab. While our driver's English was not sufficient to explain the situation, he advised us to stay in our hotel and not go off the grounds. We left the next day and didn't notice many signs of trouble, other than the torched bank, which they were cleaning and repainting when we passed on our way to the airport. There may have been extra security at the airport, but it was hard to tell since it's likely there are always armed military at the airports.
While this makes me feel that Mexico is likely not in our future vacation plans, it makes me sad for the area and the people who are trying to make a living. The city desperately needs a facelift, which can only come from a lot of money from a lot of tourists, so if tourism is affected, the city will only get worse. There did appear to be an area on the southern end with some nicer condos and it was not quite so shabby. Perhaps, like any city, there are nice sections and not-so-nice sections, and it would be hard to know this after only one visit. And while street blockades and burned buildings sounds like a terrible thing to be happening in a vacation destination, I think about the tourists and residents in Baltimore and conclude there are bad things going on in many places.
Next, the tours!