Mexico is a place many Brits think about going, yet it’s not at the top of the bucket list. For others, cheap stereotypes fermented in politics north of the border put them off completely. Both groups are missing out big time.
One such place deserving much greater attention is Puerto Vallarta, a town on Mexico’s Pacific coast. With flight carrier TUI now offering direct flights from Gatwick, it might be best to check this place out before it becomes less of a secret on these shores.
Puerto Vallarta as a holiday destination first took off with the 1964 film The Night of The Iguana, starring Richard Burton as a wayward priest. For all his antics onscreen he was carrying on an affair with Elizabeth Taylor behind the camera, and a photo of the pair canoodling on a yacht became a tabloid sensation. All the publicity and column inches describing a halcyon getaway put the town on the map.
Since then the whole downtown area, known as the Malecon, has become packed with bars, clubs, hotels, restaurants, as well as the beautiful Our Lady of Guadalupe church. Condominiums line the hillside, and to venture up past them can reward with a magnificent view of the entire area.
The town’s boardwalk is a testament to both classic Mexican architecture and a series of bizarre modern art. A centrepiece is the circle of Lovecraftian chairs, overlooking the magnificent Banderas Bay.
Just off the seafront and deep into what is known as the ‘Romantic Zone’ is Azafran, one of the best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. Offered here is a unique gourmet experience, yet like the rest of the town at very affordable prices thanks to the pound remaining strong against the peso.
Apparently you are supposed to sip tequila like a fine wine. I’m not sure that will ever catch on at the work Christmas party, but as Jalisco state is the home of but both Tequila the town and the spirit, it’s best to listen to the locals here.
One such local is Memo Wulff, chef of the La Lulu restaurant, which also double as the only bar in the world specialising distilling and selling in tequila’s rougher brother, raicilla. Like tequila and mescal, raicilla is a product of the blue agave plant, grown in plantations across the Jaliscan highlands. Originally a form of moonshine created by local miners, raicilla is now an increasingly popular commodity in these parts.
But boy is it harsh. Memo wolfed this stuff down, and in the spirit of things I had a gentle sip before my tonsils were ablaze. A drink for those of sterner stuff than me, and the tee-totalers may be better off seeking adventure through La Lulu’s spicy tacos.
As well as tequila, Mexico is home to another, more obviously tasty export adopted the world over; chocolate. While this delicacy was translated to mass market appeal by European chocolatiers in the 19th century and today most cocoa beans are harvested on the African continent, Chocomuseo in Puerto Vallarta is bringing some of that home advantage back.
Here you can simply sample some of the best chocolate Mexico has to offer, or you can get involved in the process through demonstrations with some expert chocolatiers. Grinding down the cocoa beans may have been hard work but the resulting ganache was more than worth it.
Halfway between the resort experience and the chance to embrace nature is Las Caletas by Vallarta Adventures, taking tourists to a coastal inlet a short boat journey from the town.
Activities range from zip lining, banana boats, to just lounging around by the beach. On dry land one can experience mezcal tasting (after my raicilla experiences I politely declined) and cooking classes. After time spent with the chocolatiers my culinary abilities were once again proved to be sadly lacking, to the woes of the instructor who witnessed my trying and failing to properly cut a jalapeño.
For those feeling extra adventurous Las Caletas also offers more adrenalin inducing activities such as water jetpacks and scuba diving. As sad as it was to leave this beautiful place the boat journey home was buoyed by bottomless margaritas and some crew members playing air guitar in fake wigs performing ‘Summer of 69’.
Another draw for Puerto Vallarta is in humpback whale season from mid-December to March, when these magnificent beasts can be seen rising out of the waters of Banderas Bay. Even when they have migrated back north, wild dolphins still abound.
The group travelling out onto the small boat was was four plus a marine biologist explaining the natural temperament of dolphins, who typically swim in ‘pods’ of about four or five strong. I expected that we were purely there to witness these wonderful creatures. Turns out, we all had the opportunity to swim with them as well.
Stripped down to my boxers I used my mediocre swimming abilities to the utmost in catching up with the fins poking out of the water. The most incredible moments came as I dived under and opened my eyes to see two dolphins dancing around each other. In a week packed with highlights, this was still something special. An absolute necessity of any visit to Puerto Vallarta, this was achieved through Wildlife Connection.
Puerto Vallarta’s surrounds has not only The Night of the Iguana as a claim to fame, but another John Huston film, the classic The Treasure of The Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart.
The Sierra Madre mountains are a lush green in the autumn spanning out into the distance with blue agave plantations in the immediacy. Deep into the vegetation, we come across a clearing, for the farm supplying the nearby Jardin Nebulosa restaurant. The farm is proud of its organic nature, and ensuring the welfare of its plants and animals.
The food at Jardin Nebulosa is magnificent in no small part thanks to its organic, locally sourced ingredients. Though it was a little tough eating piglet having seen his friend trotting around so recently. After food it was more alcohol tasting, though perhaps thankfully this time it was a wide selection of excellent craft beers made by the Nebulosa project itself.
Another area of outstanding natural beauty, encapsulated within the mountainside, is the Botanical Gardens. In both exterior areas and dedicated greenhouses, visitors can experience orchids, rhododendrons, bromeliads, magnolias and much more. A short walk down takes you to the riverside, a short walk in the opposite direction takes you to the Jardín Botánico, offering fantastic food, and a view out over the entire surrounds. The Botanical Gardens is under threat by developers, and to stop the calamity of losing this wonder it’s going to need a steady stream of guests.
Arriving in Puerto Vallarta airport, you may be offered a complimentary cup of frozen margarita and see a video of quad bikes travelling over a rope bridge. If you want this vehicular experience for yourself this can be provided by the Jorullo bridge rzr tour, who take you on a wild ride through waterfalls and up through mountain trails on four wheels. Not one for those suffering vertigo, but for the rest of us this is an intense thrill ride not worth missing out on.
Away from the more nail biting physical activities out there is a chance to experience Puerto Vallarta’s culture at the Colectika Art Gallery back by the Malecon. As well as a chance to see some artworks calling back to Mexico’s colonial and indigenous past was the opportunity to have a go at your very own beadwork. While I certainly enjoyed the experience, I don’t think my final effort is going to be displayed in any galleries anytime soon.
Perhaps key to Puerto Vallarta having such a nightlife on top of its natural and cultural trappings is outside of capital Mexico City, it has the most vibrant gay scene in the country and is known for its Pride festival across all of Latin America.
One of the premier designations in the gaybourhood is aptly named The Top Sky Bar. From here there’s food, jacuzzis, choreographed numbers from LMFAO to Beyonce, and one of the best places to see Puerto Vallarta’s famous sunset. As well as the bar is the hotel, which has two huge swimming pools and its own private beach.
Down on the streets in the Romantic Zone it’s all going on whatever your sexuality. On the boardwalk the La Vaqita club, notably featuring a model cow suspended from the ceiling, is a draw for everyone. Unlike the US when clubs can get going at 9 and end at 2, this is a town that can go all night.
As shown above a picture is a thousand words, and hopefully the view from the room will give some idea of the Now Amber resort I was fortunate enough to stay at during my time here.
A picture isn’t everything though. It doesn’t mention the open bars in the swimming pool or the mariachi bands, or the buffet meals or the spa treatment.
Having eaten from a taco stand in Fargo, North Dakota in my time I can attest that these bits of meat in some folded flour wraps have taken over the North American continent. In Puerto Vallarta dozens of restaurants and stands dedicated to the ubiquitous Mexican snack spread out across the Malecon.
The Street, an evening taco adventure tour offers a chance to experience over a half dozen of such places in one great, hugely filling evening, even if overly dedicated to early 2000s geopolitical references (referring to one of the best stands which offered the Bush, Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein tacos).
Tacos on offer included those filled with fish or chicken, and one particularly hot number with its filling inside a carved out chilli pepper. Perhaps the highlight of the taco tour was at a stand offering tacos with the meat from a cow’s cheek, which was delicious.
With no ill feeling at all towards all of the magnificent foods tasted by incredible chefs through my time in Mexico, the standout meal of the visit was at gourmet restaurant Cafe des Artistes.
Chef Thierry Blouet is French, yet two decades in Mexico have provided him with the skill to effortlessly blend the two cuisines. In a tasting menu bookended with mushroom risotto and sweet habanero chilli filled with passion fruit mousse was a marinated broiled octopus, coupled with grilled polenta and smoked organic beets, pea mousseline and red wine sauce. Bon appetit.
Everything here is but a tiny sample of everything to see in Mexico. Culturally the town of Tequila, historically the magnificent pre-Aztec Ixtlán del Rio ruins and socially the golf courses, shopping centres and beaches of Nuevo Vallarta are all driving distances from Puerto Vallarta, and reminders that this is a country with so much packed in. With those direct flights and a currency still weak against the pound, it might be time to put Mexico at the top of the traveller’s bucket list.