LONG BEFORE CRUISE SHIPS, tourists and boutiques arrived in the 1970s, Puerto Vallarta was a popular getaway for Hollywood celebrities that included Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and John Huston. They discovered the sleepy seaside village while searching for a location for the 1964 movie The Night of the Iguana, and immediately fell in love with the place. In fact, Huston spent many of his later years at his isolated retreat, Las Caletas, south of town on Banderas Bay.
Today's Puerto Vallarta is bigger, brighter and busier than 50 years ago, but it retains much of the beauty and charm that first attracted northern visitorsthe sun-dappled bay, whitewashed villas and laid-back hospitality.
The city is divided into several informal zones. The three main ones (from north to south) are Nuevo Vallarta/Marina Vallarta, the Hotel Zone, and El Centro/Zona Romántica.
Boaters will likely experience the Marina Vallarta area first, where they find luxurious and pricey hotels, the 18-hole Marina Vallarta Golf Club, a few bayside cafes, shops and restaurants, and the El Faro lighthouse. Nuevo Vallarta, to the north, is a recent luxury development that includes tropical gardens, golf courses, resorts and five miles of beach.
The Hotel Zone is what its name suggests: two dozen or so beachfront hotels, as well as amenities such as a cinema, hospital and retailers Walmart, Sam's Club and Costco.
To experience the real Puerto Vallarta or the original part of the city that movie stars fell in love with, head south to El Centro and Zona Romántica. El Centro's narrow cobblestone streets, Colonial-era buildings, eclectic shops and restaurants, the Malecón (beachfront boardwalk) and the Church of our Lady of Guadalupe make for an interesting and historic walkabout.
Day trip options include the quaint fishing village of Yelapa (only accessible by boat), the lively beach town of Sayulita (an hour's bus ride up the coast) and Vallarta Botanical Gardens.
The colorful and bustling Zona Romántica, on the other side of Isla Cuale, is bursting with galleries, cafes, boutique hotels, authentic restaurants, nightclubs, markets and taquerias. Most of the top dining spots are here and in El Centro, and prices tend to be lower than in Marina Vallarta. Zona Romántica best personifies this unique coastal city's duality: traditional and trendy, laid back and lusty, quaint and cosmopolitan.
Marina Nuevo Vallarta
Just inside the entrance of the Nuevo Vallarta Channel, this marina features 200+ slips for boats from 22' to 130', and the development's network of canals will ultimately offer space for 3,000 more vessels. Nuevo Vallarta offers golf courses, resorts and five miles of beach. Docks A and B are ready with 68 new slips, 172 slips are under construction, and there are 230 mooring spaces.
Marina Vallarta (Bay View Grand)
This 450-slip marina is part of a 544-acre upscale resort. Slips range from 30' to 140', and the full-service marina features a golf club, tennis courts and shopping complex. In the high season (November to April), local vendors sell their wares at a farmers' market along the promenade.
Paradise Village Marina & Yacht Club
Paradise Village Marina is adjacent to the five-star Beach Resort & Spa that features the Vallarta Yacht Club, a private facility with a pool, showers, restaurant and more. The marina has 200 berths from 26' to 240' and offers security gates and camera monitoring, pump out station and other amenities.
After years as John Huston's private chef, Archie opened his namesake eatery in 1986, mixing the flavors of Mexico with a Far Eastern palette and an emphasis on fresh local ingredients.
Cafe des Artistes
For nearly 30 years, Chef Thierry Blouet has served Mexico-inspired French cuisine at this perennial favorite. Whether you choose the main dining room or the lush, lantern-lit Exterior Garden, it's the place to go for a casual elegant culinary experience.
El Santo Taco
El Santo Taco serves fresh, authentic Mexican fare in copious portions. The menu is simple but deep heavy on tacos and quesadillas, with a few daily specials, half-dozen beers and decent liquor selection.
Since 1957, La Palapa has served upscale food and drink under its thatched roof just steps from Banderas Bay, while offering guests spectacular sunsets and unsurpassed ambiance. Seafood is the main attraction along with a few land-based options.
Sonora Grill Prime
Located in the Marina Zone, this posh restaurant and wine bar specializes in steaks and chops. Add a dizzying array of starters, pastas, seafood, tacos even three different carpaccios and a long wine list, and you may never leave.