Puerto Vallarta locals and visitors alike strut their stuff on El Malecon, the city ’s iconic boardwalk overlooking the Bay of Banderas. It’s the place for sunsets strolls, rollerblading, ice creams and admiring the many public street sculptures that adorn the boardwalk.
You’ll see sculptures of dolphins, loving couples, a seahorse, angel and various abstract works. The malecon also takes in the color and vibrancy of the local fish market and the graceful arches known as Los Arcos that make up the city’s public amphitheater for outdoor entertainment.
Beautiful Banderas Bay - or Bahia de Banderas - is just one of the reasons why Puerto Vallarta is such a highly sought-after beach resort destination.
The Pacific Ocean bay is Mexico’s largest, lapping the two Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit. Its long beautiful coastline runs for 42 miles (68 km), 25 (40) of them in Puerto Vallarta.
Banderas Bay is the number-one location for sports and eco adventures on the water, from parasailing and surfing to yachting from the port’s ritzy marina.
Whale-watching in these waters is also popular, especially December to April when the whales come here to calve.
Get out on the water of Banderas Bay in a sea-kayak, or cruise to one of the many islands dotting the bay.
One of the most popular snorkeling destinations in the Bay of Banderas is Los Arcos. The protected marine park has all manner of treats in store for avid snorkelers and divers.
There are islands to visit, reefs to dive, tunnels to swim through and caves to explore, providing plenty of the arches and grottoes that give the park its name.
The marine life is stupendously varied, from clownfish to rays, octopus and lobsters and angelfish.
Organize a day cruise for relaxing at sea and peerless diving and snorkeling in the caves of Los Arcos.
Puerto Vallarta’s Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was built over the course of several decades in the first half of the 20th century.
Built in rustic pink stone, to a neo-baroque design, one of the prettiest details is the crown that tops the church bell tower.
The liveliest time to visit the church is December 1 to 12, when crowds celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with street processions, festive food and mariachi music.
The festival coincides with the anniversary of the founding of Puerto Vallarta, so locals have even more reason to celebrate.
Ringed with charming towns and villages, Lake Chapala has drawn a steady stream of foreign visitors since the sixteenth century, when the conquistador Nuño de Guzman arrived on the lake’s muddy shores. In the early twentieth century, the luxury obsessed dictator Porfirio Diaz popularized the area as a vacation spot for Mexico’s middle and upper classes, and lakeside towns like Ajijic abound with storied hotels, hot springs, beer gardens, and bars.
Located roughly 50 km south of Guadalajara, Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake: 35 km wide and 120 km long. Chapala is not a swimmer’s paradise: water levels have sunk steadily over the years and the lake is murky and choked with pretty but invasive water hyacinth. Most visitors prefer to explore the lake by boats, which can be chartered at the pier in the town of Chapala. The ruined fortress of Mezcala Island, also known as Presidio, is a must-see.
The heart of every Mexican city is its cathedral, and Guadalajara is no exception. Officially known as the Basílica de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de la Santísima Virgen María, the Guadalajara Cathedral towers over the city’s central plazas. A mishmash of Gothic, baroque, Moorish, and neoclassical styles, the building is atypical for a Mexican cathedral, and its unusual design has made it an emblem of the city.
Since 1561, the massive cathedral has weathered eight earthquakes, two of which did serious damage. An 1818 quake demolished the central dome and towers. The distinctive tiled towers you see today date back to1854. The interior is awesome in the original sense of the word; the stained glass windows are reminiscent of Notre Dame, and 11 silver and gold altars were gifts from Spain’s King Fernando VII. But it’s not all just finery --- the cathedral also has its share of macabre relics.
Across from the Guadalajara Cathedral, the Teatro Degollado looms in stony, neoclassical glory. Corinthian columns form a massive portico topped with a marble relief of Apollo and the nine muses. The length of the building’s rear wall is adorned with a stylish sculptural depiction of Guadalajara’s history; a fountain runs along the base.
The inside is even more over-the- top, with five tiers of gilded balconies and a ceiling frescoed with scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. A red-and-gold color scheme is augmented with frippery, including a fearsome golden eagle above the stage. The eagle holds a chain in its beak: as legend has it, the theater will stand until the day the golden eagle drops its chain.
One of the major attractions in Puerto Vallarta, Marina Vallarta is a self-contained stretch of boardwalk, white sand and retail outlets that has become so well-known for its beauty and success that it was a model for its sister cities of Cabo, Mazatlan, Ixtapa and Cancun. Easily identifiable by its large, 450-slip marina and lush 18-hole golf course, Marina Vallarta’s main attraction is its beautiful promenade, whereupon you’ll find numerous boutique beachfront shops and restaurants, including a lighthouse that makes for great viewing of the bay.
On the north side of the Guadalajara Cathedral, you’ll find a little park that contains the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, or the Rotunda of the Illustrious Jaliscans. Ringed by bronze statues and flowering trees, the neoclassical rotunda houses the remains of the state’s luminaries. Inside the rotunda, the coffin of Enrique Díaz de León, the first rector of the University of Guadalajara, sits in state. You’ll also see urns containing the ashes of Jalisco’s honored dead; additional empty urns await their occupants. A crypt below the floor contains the mummified remains of General Ramón Corona, who defended Mexico during the French invasion, served as a popular reform governor, and was murdered in 1889.
The culture of the plaza, or town square, is central to Mexican life: the plaza is a community gathering place where school kids flirt, couples promenade, and everyone catches up on the latest gossip. Guadalajara contains many plazas, but the heart of Guadalajara’s historic downtown is the Plaza de Armas. The Plaza de Armas has all the trappings of a classic Mexican jardin: wrought iron benches, prim topiary, strolling vendors, and the requisite Sunday social scene.
Classical statues that represent the seasons of the year preside over the four corners of the square, which is ringed with historic buildings, including the Palacio de Gobierno, a baroque monster that houses two famous murals by the social realist artist Jose Clemente Orozco.
The centerpiece of the scene is a belle époque bandstand. A gift to the city from the dictator Porfirio Diaz, the gazebo was built in Paris in 1909, and features a hardwood ceiling that enhances sound quality.
Spiked with spindly spires and decorated with fine stonework, the Templo Expiatorio is one of Guadalajara’s iconic churches and a striking example of neogothic style. The first stone was laid in 1897 and construction was completed in the 1930s. Inside, the ambiance is dreamy. Graceful multilayered arches frame an altar backlit by massive stained glass windows and crowned with a giant yet simple gold chandelier. Beams of colored light cast by the stained glass cut through smoke and dust motes, and the air smells of incense, candles, and flowers.
By new world standards, Guadalajara is an old city. This is most evident in the downtown district, with its Colonial plazas, its 400-year-old churches, and its numerous venerable old buildings, including the Palacio del Gobierno, the Teatro Degollado, and the sprawling Instituto Cultural Hospicio-Cabañas. In fact, the majority of Guadalajara’s historical attractions are within walking distance of the city cathedral.
Wandering is facilitated by pedestrian mall streets and the seven-block Plaza Tapatía, which is studded with modern fountains and sculptures. Three additional downtown plazas are excellent places for people watching, especially on Sundays, when the locals come out to flirt, stroll, and spend family time. If people watching gets old, there’s more to see: Guadalajara’s historic buildings house some of Mexico’s, and indeed the world’s, finest murals, including José Clemente Orozco’s famous frescos at the Instituto Cultural Hospicio-Cabañas.
Just south of the cathedral and facing the pretty Plaza de Armas, you’ll find the imposing governor’s palace. The two-story building is massive, baroque, and beset with snarling gargoyles, but the façade is far less interesting than the building’s illustrious history and unique interior.
The palace was completed in 1790. Father Miguel Hidalgo occupied the building in 1810, during the Mexican War of Independence. A radical priest with a taste for wine and women, Hidalgo crusaded for human rights; it was here in the governor’s palace that he issued his famous proclamation to abolish slavery. Later, during one of Mexico’s numerous small civil wars, Benito Juarez, “Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln,” also occupied the building. When opposing forces entered the city, Juarez was captured outside the palace and very nearly executed. The guns of a firing squad were lined upon him when the novelist Guillermo Prieto jumped forth to shield Juarez.
The Beach of the Dead - or Playa de los Muertos - may not sound like the most promising place for a day by the sand, but for an authentic and truly lively Puerto Vallarta beach experience, it can’t be beat.
The gay-friendly stretch of sand fronts a pier and moored excursion boats, and is lined with bars and cafes. Locals and families also love this beach, and the diversity of the crowd is part of its appeal.
The swimming can be good at Los Muertos, and out of the water the ambiance, beach volleyball and people-watching will keep you entertained.
If you walk west from the Centro Historico along Avenida Juárez, you’ll come the University of Guadalajara campus and the University of Guadalajara Art Museum. A two-story neoclassical building of white brick, the museum is designed on a cross formation and is home to two important works by Jose Clemente Orozco. The murals are located in the auditorium: Stone columns support a domed ceiling emblazoned with the dramatic "El Hombre Creador y Rebelde,” or “Man, Creator and Rebel.” Behind the lecture stage is Orozco’s famous fresco, “El pueblo y sus falsos líderes” or “The People and their false leaders.” The clever use of space creates the impression that you are inside an Orozco mural. In typical Orozco fashion, the effect is mesmerizing but slightly unsettling.
The museum also houses a rotation of traveling exhibits and a fine permanent collection with works by important Jaliscan artists such as Martha Pacheco, Javier Arévalo, and Carmen Bordes.
Once a quaint outlying village, Tlaquepaque has been swallowed whole by Guadalajara. That said, the “town” retains its identity and feels more laid-back than Guadalajara proper. Tlaquepaque was originally known as a shopping Mecca for traditional ceramics and glass, and the town still boasts some of the best high-fire ceramics in the country. In addition, the area now abounds with galleries and boutiques selling Oaxacan rugs, Guerrero masks, fine leather purses, high end jewelry, antiques, traditional clothing, and all manner of rustic furniture.
Tlaquepaque is touristy but pleasant. Many shops and galleries are housed in Colonial mansions, and the pretty town plaza is worth a stroll. If shopping gets old, check out El Parian, an enclosed plaza ringed in bars and eateries where you can order local specialties like birria, a spicy beef or goat stew. El Parian is also a good place to hear mariachis, especially on Sundays when the locals flock and sing along.
Riding the Tequila Express is one of the most atmospheric ways to take in the highlights of Mexico’s tequila country, chugging through the sweeping valleys between Guadalajara and Amatitan. Hop on board the historic railway and take in the UNESCO-listed landscapes of Jalisco, the center of Mexico’s tequila industry and home to over 30,000 hectares of blue agave plantations and over 140 tequila distilleries that produce some 50 million gallons of the spirit each year.
Taking a day tour on the Tequila Express is about more than just the journey though - it’s a cultural experience that includes a visit to the famous Casa Herradura Distillery, where you can learn all about the production of the historic spirit; a buffet lunch of traditional Mexican food and an entertaining show of Mexican mariachi music and dance. Of course, you’ll also get the chance to visit the town that started it all – Tequila – where you can sample some of the region’s finest tequilas.