Find Your Bliss
By Renée S. Gordon
Mexico’s Banderas Bay is 26 miles from north to south with Puerto Vallarta situated in the center. The Bay culminates at the quiet, scenic 46-mile stretch of beaches in the area known as Cabo Corrientes in the foothills south of the Sierras, 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta. Literally hundreds of adventures await outside the city, both rugged outdoor activities and tamer treks to beautiful waterfalls and panoramic vistas.
The fuming dewdrops from the flowers in the fields intoxicate my soul. — Ancient Nahuatl Poem
The key to adventure is coastal Highway 200, the Carretera Costera Federal 200. It winds along the Central Pacific Coast through several Mexican states before reaching Guatemala. Eleven miles from Puerto Vallarta, at Boca de Tomatlán, it heads into the Sierra Mountains, providing access to mountain villages. There are viewpoints, souvenir stands and local eateries scattered along the route.
The first must-stop is seven miles south of Puerto Vallarta for the perfect photo of Las Peñas, Los Arcos Marine Park, off the shores of Mismaloya. These five beautiful granite islands, rising out of the sea up to 65-ft., are famous for snorkeling and scuba diving amidst the fossilized coral beds, tunnels and caves. The area has been protected as an underwater nature preserve and National Marine Park since 1984. The islands are a breeding ground for sea birds and several parrot species and are in the deepest waters, up to 1,600-ft., in the bay.
The 20–acre Vallarta Botanical Garden opened in 2005 to showcase native tropical plants, conserve local flora and educate the public. Eighty percent of the plants on-site are native to Mexico, including the centerpiece of the entry courtyard: Mexico’s national tree, the Ahuehuete or Montezuma Cypress Tree. The garden is the winner of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence for 2015, has been featured in National Geographic and is ranked as one of the “10 Most Beautiful Gardens in the Americas.” Guided and self-guided tours are offered of both gardens plus the Orchid Conservatory. I strongly suggest a guided tour because the guides point out things you might otherwise miss plus explain the history and mythology connected with the plants. The most important plant in the ancient world was the agave. It had more than 1,000 uses including using the sharp edges as cutting tools to make sacrifices to the gods: there are more than 250 species of agave.
The garden’s Visitor Center is wonderful so plan to stop there and allow sufficient time. The gift shop sells handcrafted, unique items and serves signature Lemon Grass Tea. The upper level offers a veranda with lounge chairs and views of the jungle and a waterfall. The Hacienda de Oro Restaurant is on the lower level where you can savor meals made as you watch, if you wish, in a traditional rural Mexican kitchen. The Gardens are located 12 miles from the heart of Puerto Vallarta.
El Tuito is the quintessential Sierra Mountain village that has thrived for more than 500 years. It was established on what was then a main Spanish road leading to mining towns even higher than El Tuito’s: 2,000-ft. above sea level. The town served as a supply depot, providing food, water and animals. Today the city seems nearly unaltered with cobblestone streets that lead to a rectangular plaza surrounded by red clay adobe buildings. It is 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta and a million miles from the usual exploits.
City Hall is constructed in Mexican architectural style with interior rooms around a central open courtyard. A stairwell on the right frames a tri-panel mural, “Universal Revolution,” that recounts the history, legends and leaders of Mexico from Montezuma to the 20th Century. For the best view of the mural and the interior of the building head up to the second floor balcony.
San Pedro Apostol, the parish church, is a mere block from the plaza. The church is several hundred years old and is noted for its rock altar, a symbol of St. Peter as the rock upon which the church was founded. The cross on the exterior is shown upside down to represent the belief that Peter demanded he not be crucified as Christ had been.
El Tuito Cemetery is located on the edge of town and has been recognized as an outstanding example of cultural heritage. Mexicans believe that there are two types of death—spiritual and physical—and an individual does not truly die until they are no longer remembered. The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is a two-day festival that celebrates the memory of loved ones who have died. Festivities are held in the cemetery where family members serve food and decorate gravesites with objects that the deceased enjoyed in life. Guided tours of El Tuito Cemetery include a detailed explanation of the customs and local folklore. A highlight of the tour is a section of the cemetery that tales suggest is the site of vampire burials based on its unusual appearance.
In the area away from the town’s center there are several places open to visitors that provide authentic Mexican experiences. You can watch tortillas being made, taste the local panella cheese, and purchase handcrafted rosewood products in the craftsman’s workshop. Rosewood is protected and becoming increasingly rare; the decorative and utilitarian objects make valuable souvenirs.
Tequila distillery tours are offered in a distillery that’s nestled snuggly in the hills. Raicilla, made from the blue agave, was once considered Mexican moonshine but has gained respect over time. The tour explains the process and ends with a tasting. The setting is lovely and the experience is both fun and educational.
Panaderia Los Pinitos is a well-known, authentic, roadside Mexican bread bakery. The family-owned establishment makes and bakes the bread, or pan, on the premises and you can watch as the dough is kneaded and then placed in the wood-fired oven. A large number of fillings are available: fruits, sweet potato, chocolate, meats and cheese—all delicious! The bakery is routinely crowded with locals, always a good sign of authenticity.
Villa Azalea Inn and Organic Farm is an atmospheric location for lunch. This small boutique hotel offers cooking classes that incorporate vegetables and fruits grown on site. Buffet tables can be placed in the shallow waters of a small river on the beautiful property allowing guests to cool off as they dine. This is a totally location-specific experience and one that should not be missed. Villa Azalea has earned the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for the past two years.
During a Puerto Vallarta vacation don’t miss a trip to Yelapa, the most distant beach on the bay. By car the trip takes more than eight hours on winding roads, but fortunately there is another option: The Horcones River descends from the Sierras into the bay of Boca de Tomatlán 11 miles south of the city. Water taxis depart from the pier there for a 45-minute ride to Yelapa with several stops along the way.
After disembarking, first make a trip from the beach into the hillside fishing village to wander the narrow paths that lead to the Cascada Cola del Caballo, or Horse Tail Waterfall. If you’re slightly more adventurous, continue on to the second, larger Cathedral Waterfall. Souvenir kiosks line a portion of the walk. The village has no roads and seems arrested in time; the village and the beach are so serene and scenic that at one time it was a favorite spot for Bob Dylan and Dennis Hopper to rest and regroup.
The beach has a dramatic tropical backdrop, so no matter where you gaze prepare to be awed by the sheer beauty of palm, bougainvillea and hibiscus in the hills while manta rays and dolphins cavort in the incredibly azure waters. Activities along the quarter-mile beach include swimming, kayaking, horseback riding, snorkeling, parasailing and tanning. Thatch-roofed beach restaurants serve a complete menu of food and drinks surfside. A day in Yelapa is a day in a tropical paradise.
One of the most famous international destinations within Puerto Vallarta is the Hidden Beach. The Marietas Islands are an array of tiny volcanic landmasses In Banderas Bay first brought to the world’s attention by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French undersea explorer, documentarian and co-inventor of the WWII Aqua-Lung. The islands are ideal for exploring the surrounding ecosystems. The Hidden Beach was created when the erosion of the island’s volcanic rock formed a cave and entrance to the beach can only be achieved by swimming 246-ft. The swim is well worth it and once there the snorkeling is great.
There are numerous tour companies based in Puerto Vallarta that offer a variety of destinations and services. I have found the most affordable, comprehensive, professional and award-winning to be Vallarta Adventures tours, which has been rated the #1 tour company and is recommended by The Travel Channel, the BBC, Good Morning America, the New York Times and Discovery Channel. The company offers discounts and specials and, most significantly, supports local businesses and employs environmentally sound practices. Groups are transported in open-air Mercedes Benz Unimog 4×4 trucks with a driver, a guide and refreshments.
CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, a luxurious beachfront resort, has been designated one of the “Top Ten Pacific Riviera Hotels” by Condé Nast Traveler. The list of amenities seems endless and includes the Ohtli Spa, a state-of-the-art fitness center, pool, access to golf facilities, six on-site dining establishments and experiential opportunities.
The Marriott offers an upscale Tequila Tasting experience that is designed to educate your palate to the unique qualities of tequila and change the culture of drinking Mexico’s spirit. There are five kinds of Tequila, all 100-percent natural. Marriott has created a house brand exclusive to the hotel; tastings are paired with foods to enhance each round and hosted by an extremely knowledgeable female sommelier.
Puerto Vallarta’s beaches are breeding grounds for several species of sea turtles and in 1981 Puerto Vallarta instituted a sea turtle conservation program. Mother turtles bury their eggs in nests they dig along the beach where many are accidentally destroyed by beach traffic. The Marriott has a marine biologist on staff who patrols the beach, collects the eggs and relocates them to a hatchery on the grounds of the resort. The new nests are dated and protected until they hatch and are released. You can visit the Turtle Conservation area and participate in the release if your trip coincides with release dates. Anytime of year, a lengthy list of thematic packages and specials is available.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is a unique destination that can fulfill the vacation dreams of any traveler—and, best of all, the weather is always perfect.
Make plans to follow the sun.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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