Three Days in Puerto Vallarta
Three Days in Puerto Vallarta

by Jill K Robinson

Here's how to see it all during a long weekend in the seaside Mexican resort town of Puerto Vallarta

Right on the Pacific Ocean, Puerto Vallarta has it all: coastal waters, lush jungle, luxe resorts, relaxing spas -- and it's the base for a variety of adventures. Even if you can't spend an entire week in this Mexican seaside destination, here's how to enjoy your vacation in a town where it's almost impossible to have a bad day.

Arriving in Puerto Vallarta

Arrive in Puerto Vallarta just in time to settle in to you room at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa in the Marina Vallarta and watch the sun set over Banderas Bay.

The hotel's 404 luxury guest rooms and 29 suites include either a private balcony or terrace, and mine looked out over the garden with a view of the pool and the ocean. The CasaMagna is conveniently situated on the beach (with a luxurious family pool for loungers), near golf courses and within an easy walk to shops and restaurants in Marina Vallarta.

Take it easy on the first night and have dinner at La Estancia, the restaurant at the CasaMagna. Offering authentic Mexican regional cuisine with a blend of the contemporary and traditional, this sleek restaurant completed a $1.3 million makeover in 2008 and makes it easy to forget about any travel hassles earlier in the day. Be sure to ask for a sample of the hotel's private-label tequila -- its production is overseen by the CasaMagna's own tequila sommelier.

CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa. Paseo La Marina 435, Marina Vallarta. Tel. +52-322-226-0000.

Puerto Vallarta: Day One

Three Days in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta Seahorse Sculpture

After a leisurely breakfast at La Estancia (its breakfast buffet includes made-to-order omelets and chilequiles, as well as a bevy of fruits, juices, sweets and more), head out to the main part of town -- El Centro.

One of the best ways to begin your discovery of Puerto Vallarta is to just wander through El Centro and linger at places that catch your eye. Start along the Malecón, the seaside sidewalk studded with amazing sculptures every few feet. The Seahorse, installed in 1976, has become one of the most recognized symbols of Puerto Vallarta.

From here, streets radiate up to the hillside, and are rich with bars and restaurants, art galleries, jewelry shops, Huichol galleries and clothing stores. Be sure to stop at the Iglesia de Nuestra Se-ora de Guadalupe, a crowned church that's named after the patron saint of the city.

Two of my favorite shops in this part of town are Dulces Tipicos Mexicanos con Orgullo Azteca (1449 Avenida Juarez, tel. +52-322-223-0707) and Niuweme Gallery of Huichol Indian Art (190 Guerrero, tel. +52-322-222-3419). The first is a candyland where owner Gerardo Mu-oz creates delicious treats specific to the state of Jalisco (where you are), from candied pecans to chocolate to caramels. The art gallery is owned by a Huichol family and features the intricately woven and beaded designs for which the indigenous culture is known.

Just south of Puerto Vallarta is Mismaloya, made famous as the site of the film, The Night of the Iguana. It's nice to spend some time here, out of the bustle of the city, and see what the area may have been like before Puerto Vallarta really took off for tourism.

In Mismaloya, start at Tequila Don Crispin, and get a taste of the local tequila and raicilla made here. Raicilla is a distilled spirit made from agave, but not the same agave that's used to make tequila.

Now that you're loosened up, head to the El Edén Eco Park in the jungle where Predator was filmed. Here, you can take a zip-line canopy tour, swim in the river, chill out at the palapa bar and restaurant that overlooks the river, or particpiate in a temazcal (an Aztec spiritual cleansing and purifying ceremony) at Spa Mayahuel.

The temazcal typically takes five hours, although I participated in an abbreviated one. The ritual involved mud, refreshing water, a sweat lodge and a shaman who told us to "move your asses" when we were too slow following his lead.

El Edén, Mismaloya. Tel. +52-322-222-2516. Canopy tours cost $81 per person ($71 for kids 7 to 10 years old); the temazcal ritual is $125 per person. Transportation from select locations in Puerto Vallarta and Mismaloya is included in tour and spa prices.

You can also get spa treatments back at the CasaMagna. The newly-built Ohtli Spa is 22,000 square feet of luxury. Choose from a menu that includes Swedish to Thai massages, facials, wraps and even a Fire Opal Balancing Stone Therapy (which is what I chose) that involves Mexican fire opals in a hot stone massage. Absolute heaven. Prices range from $65 to $230 for treatments.

After all that adventure and relaxation, treat yourself to dinner at La Palapa, located in a thatched-roof building right on Playa Los Muertos in the Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone). With heavy emphasis on fresh and local ingredients, dishes range from lobster tacos with jicama and red pepper salad, to grilled shrimp with tequila sauce (especially yummy), to adobo grilled beef filet with huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle).

La Palapa. 103 Pulpito. Tel. +52-322-222-5225. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Puerto Vallarta: Day Two

Three Days in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta Beaches

After breakfast, pack your bags and move to your new hotel: the Hacienda San Angel, located on a hillside in El Centro. The second I walked into this boutique hotel (with only 21 rooms), I wanted to send for the rest of my things back home and never leave.

One of the five villas that make up the property was once owned by Richard Burton. Each room is decorated differently, and all have amazing views, either of the hotel gardens or the surrounding city and ocean. I could spend all day lounging at one of the Hacienda's three pools or eating yummy dishes from the restaurant's menu. Combine them both and snack by the pool!

Hacienda San Angel. Miramar 336, Colonia Centro. Tel. +52-322-222-2692 (U.S. toll free: 877-815-6594).

After you investigate your new digs (take your time -- there's something to see everywhere you turn), head down the hill for lunch. The R'o Cuale runs through the heart of Puerto Vallarta, and on the lush green island in the middle of the river is The River Café.

It's easy to forget you're in a city while enjoying the restaurant's tropical setting, complete with iguana-viewing opportunities from the comfort of your table. Choose among Mexican specialties such as chile pepper strip and squash blossom quesadillas (my fave), local fresh seafood, pasta or meat dishes. Chef specialties include white fish stuffed with crab meat.

The River Café. 4 Isla R'o Cuale. Tel. +52-322-223-0788. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Walk off your lunch by exploring the Zona Romantica (just south of the R'o Cuale) and Playa los Muertos. Like El Centro, the Zona Romantica is a great spot for wandering, shopping and people-watching. Here, you can buy handmade huaraches, home décor, jewelry or T-shirts. Or stop in at a cantina and grab a cerveza.

Another good spot for that beer is Playa Los Muertos. Chill out on the beach and watch the fishermen or other tourists -- or snack on the stuffed shrimp. Don't do too much snacking, because you need to be hungry for dinner.

Celebrated chef Thierry Blouet of Puerto Vallarta's Café des Artistes opened Thierry's Prime in the city's hotel district as an "avant-garde eatery with Mexican flavor." The spacious restaurant has wood-beamed ceilings and an open kitchen, plus a huge central chalkboard-style drawing of a bull mapped with cuts of meat.

While the main feature is luscious, buttery prime rib (I'm not usually a fan, but I was amazed) -- offerings range from salads to sandwiches to seafood and other meat dishes. Kids can venture downstairs to the cinema room to catch a flick.

Thierry's Prime. Interior Plaza Peninsula, 2485 Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascensio. Tel. +52-322-221-1212. Open daily, 1 to 11:30 p.m.

Puerto Vallarta: Day Three

Three Days in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta El Centro

After breakfast at the Hacienda San Angel, consider heading into the Sierra Madre Mountains for a visit to a former mining town. Just 50 miles inland, the sleepy town of San Sebastián del Oeste was home to a flourishing silver-mining operation in the 17th century (as well as gold and copper mines). Wander the cobblestone streets between whitewashed buildings with red-tiled roofs, pass the time in the zócalo (the main plaza) and pay a visit to Iglesia de San Sebastián.

There are a handful of restaurants for lunch. Los Arrayanes, just a couple of blocks off the central plaza (Lerdo de Tejada 16, tel. +52-322-297-3225) has a patio which looks out to beautiful green trees. Try some of the traditional Mexican dishes, or just enjoy a cold cerveza in the mountain air.

The nearby Hacienda Jalisco was built 170 years ago, and remains an elegant guesthouse for visitors wanting to get away from it all and escape the heat at the coast. The ground floor is a museum (open Mon. to Sat.; admission $2), with historic items from the hacienda's heyday as a mining company. With rustic but nicely appointed guestrooms with fireplaces, Hacienda Jalisco is a romantic retreat as well -- with no electricity, candle-lit evenings are mandatory.

Stop by the La Quinta Mary Café de Altura organic coffee farm on your way back to Puerto Vallarta and pick up some java for your coffee pot at home.

After you've returned to the city and relaxed a while, head out to dinner at La Leche Almacén Gourmet. Chef Alfonso Cadena (son of respected local chef Nacho Cadena) focuses on a contemporary culinary experience. The daily-changing menu includes dishes with names like "Tuna My Tuna" and "I Want Some Oysters."

I had delicious raviolis and mussels in an oyster cream sauce. The modern décor is white, like leche (milk), and diners are entertained by local DJs playing music in the front room.

La Leche Almacén Gourmet. Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascensio Km 2.5. Tel. +52-322-293-0900. Open daily for dinner, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.