The Best Things to do in Puerto Vallarta for First-Timers

Puerto Vallarta used to be a sleepy fisher town only intrepid adventurers knew about. But today, it’s a world-renowned tourist destination, spurred by Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s extramarital fling.

Whether it’s whale watching, ATVing or self-reflection you’re into, you’re sure to catch fire in the warm waters of Banderas Bay. So let’s get a feel for the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta.

Aerial view of Puerto Vallarta

Follow in the footsteps of movie stars at Mismaloya Beach

Mismaloya Beach

Mismaloya, known as the place where you can catch fish with your hands, is where the root of Puerto Vallarta’s fame lies. 

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor made Puerto Vallarta famous in the 60s for their off-camera love affair while he was filming the romantic drama, The Night of the Iguana. But since then, Vallarta, as the locals call it, has taken on a life of its own.

John Huston chose to shoot the movie here because the small sandy beach and jungle backdrop looked like the South Pacific Islands. It’s that dream-worthy combination of emerald waters and soft golden sands framed by the rolling hills of the Sierra Madre mountains. 

No wonder this is one of the best beaches in Puerto Vallarta besides Yelapa and Los Muertos beaches. It entices sunseekers into lazy afternoons bathed by warm rays. The palm-fringed Mismaloya Beach, only accessible by the sea in pre-movie times, still has a remote feel.

Aside from curling up for a kip, you can fuel up with fresh-grilled fish at one of the palapas, open-sided dwellings with thatched roofs typical of Puerto Vallarta restaurants on the beach. There are also recliners, umbrellas, showers and washrooms for a perfect day in a postcard-worthy place. 

Soaking up views of the Mismaloya Arches, granite rock islets popular with snorkelers, you can listen to the next wave rolling gently up the sand with an ice-cold cerveza in hand. 

Or, if you’re a more active person, enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, scuba diving, sailing, or water skiing.

To get there, you’ll have to head nine miles south of downtown Puerto Vallarta on a bus from the aptly named Zona Romantica, where Basilio Badillo and Constitución streets join. A ride costs a mere $0.50. You can also use a Puerto Vallarta taxi or Uber.

Best thing to do in Puerto Vallarta with family

Vallarta Botanical Gardens

If you’re feeling beached out, one of the top things to do in Puerto Vallarta is visit the Botanical Gardens, spread out over 64 gorgeous acres, 420 meters above sea level. 

Currently, #3 in USA Today’s Top 10 Botanical Gardens in North America, these gardens are home to water lilies and the largest native Mexican orchid collection. It’s a flower and bird lover’s paradise with over 200 indigenous species.

Your kids will love the aquatic plant pond, the cacti garden, the swinging bridge, and the emerald pools that are lovely for a swim. Then, stroll along the Bridge of Dreams or the Chapel of Our Lady of the Garden amid flitting Anna’s hummingbirds. Grab a hummingbird feeder and the little sprites will eat right out of your hand.

There’s also a tropical fruit orchard that smells of nature’s gifts. And other areas with agaves, wild palms, bromeliads, and oaks galore. 

Unique flowers

Pro tip: Join the expert-guided tour for a wealth of information on scientific studies and research at the Botanical Gardens. It’ll also introduce you to what you can do here, such as feeding birds at the visitor center and the Hacienda de Oro terrace.

To get here, hop on a Puerto Vallarta bus or hire an Uber Puerto Vallarta driver.

Best thing to do in Puerto Vallarta for Insta-worthy photographs 

Arches in Puerto Vallarta

The Malecon Arches on the boardwalk of Puerto Vallarta are the backdrop for the Los Arcos amphitheater and an incredible sunset vantage point. These seven-meter-high stone arches were brought to Puerto Vallarta from a colonial estate outside Guadalajara, Jalisco. 

Almost as unmistakable as the Seahorse monument or the Triton and Mermaid sculpture, these four arches have become an iconic landmark travelers use for their Insta shots.

Sculpture in Puerto Vallarta

The concerts and shows are among the free things to do in Puerto Vallarta. While adults come here for the folkloric dance performances, clowns entertain the kids in the afternoon. There are also charitable festivals, and the government uses this seashore plaza for political events.

Getting to these sculptures on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta is child’s play. Head for the sea when you’re in Centro or the Romantic Zone. The Malecon runs for miles parallel to the coast. And you can’t miss all the incredible sculptures and art along the way. 

Best thing to do in Puerto Vallarta for Wildlife Lovers

Take a day tour to watch and hear whales on a boat equipped with a hydrophone sound system. Listening to their melodic songs echoing is an awe-inspiring experience that’ll pump up your adrenaline, especially when you see the humpbacks up close, sending pearls of spray skywards as they dive back into the sea.

Enjoy a buffet lunch or sip cocktails while being one with whales on a Catamaran.

Visit the Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

One of the most photographed symbols in Puerto Vallarta is the magnificent Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Beckoning from all angles, when you look towards the hills, it stands proudly on the corner of the old town’s Hidalgo and Independencia Street. 

The crown on the Guadalupe Parish has become an icon. So it’s no surprise that you can find it on t-shirts and postcards.

The church that boasts renaissance towers and neoclassical styles in the main building provides a window into Catholicism, and there’s always something going on in and around it.

Admire the Dance of the Flyers and other street artists on the Malecon

Danza de las voladores

Danza de Los Voladores, or Dance of the Flyers, is an ancient Mesoamerican ritual still practiced (in a modified) way today. 

In 2009 it was proclaimed an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Four men hang from their feet by a rope connected to the top of a 30-meter pole. They slowly descend to the ground headfirst as they swing around the pole. The fifth one stays on top, playing the drums and a flute. It started as a way to offer gratitude and prayers to Chi’chini (the Sun God), Xipe Totec (God of Spring & Fertility) & Tlaloc (Rain God).

The last word

Now you know enough things to do in Puerto Vallarta to get started. If you have more time to explore the country, check out our 2 week Mexico itinerary.

FAQ

When is the best time to visit Puerto Vallarta?

The rainy season starts in June and runs to October. September is the rainiest. So plan around those months, and you’ll have blue skies all day long. 

When is the best time to see whales?

December to March is when the humpbacks are in the Bay of Banderas.

What’s the best way to get around Puerto Vallarta?

By foot. Everything is pretty walkable unless you are planning to head out of the city center. Then there are buses, taxis, and Ubers.

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