Almost perfectly centered between Mexico’s north and south borders on the Pacific, Puerto Vallarta is thought by many to be “the most Mexican beach destination in the country.” While you’ll find plenty of modern resorts and condos here, you’ll quickly see that Puerto Vallarta has retained her old world character in spite of them–carved wooden doorways draped with bougainvillea, wrought iron balconies filled with flowers, the old gazebo awaiting the next festivities in the Old Town square, and the timely clang ringing out from Our Lady of Guadalupe’s crown-topped bell tower. Puerto Vallarta is an ideal destination for families seeking a relaxing beach vacation infused with Mexican culture and Puerto Vallarta’s undisputed artistic flair. If you’re planning a family vacation to the city, here are my top recommended activities for experiencing Puerto Vallarta with kids, along with my picks for 1 great place to eat and 1 great place to stay while you’re there.
Activity 1: Stroll the Malecon
There’s no better way to get acquainted with Puerto Vallarta than by strolling its 12-block pedestrian-friendly promenade, especially the stretch that flows along the seaside border of the city’s oldest districts. From early-morning artists setting up their easels or carving out Puerto Vallarta’s famed sand sculptures through afternoon acrobatics and evening music at the Los Arcos Amphitheater, the Malecon is the place to be for free entertainment, optimal people watching, and spectacular sunsets. Kids also appreciate the unexpected interactive art sculptures (climbing upon them is fine–and even encouraged in some cases) and opportunities for helado. The Malecon also borders Puerto Vallarta’s Old Town Square (Plaza de Armas), where you’ll find the picturesque gazebo (or kiosko) and landmark Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Activity 2: Find Adventure with Canopy River
Catch your complimentary shuttle from town into Puerto Vallarta’s verdant hills for a morning of adrenaline-pumping fun for the whole family. Canopy River offers a variety of ways to explore their unspoiled natural mountain setting, including zip line courses, mule tours, rappelling, river float, ATV tours and combination tours. Committed to sustainability, they are part of the Select Group advised by the Mexican National Forestry Commission.
Minimum ages vary by activity starting with 6 years for the Zip Line tour, which features 11 lines total and ends with a mule ride back up from the canyon. If your children are old enough (12 years min.), I highly recommend the River Expedition tour, which combines the best of Canopy River’s adventures–with 7 zip lines (including one into the river!), rappelling, Tarzan swing, hanging bridges, river float, and mule ride–and there’s even complimentary tequila tasting for the parents afterward. After your adventure, you can enjoy appetizers or an entire meal in Canopy River’s restaurant under the huge palapa–or just chill out in the shade in one of their hammocks until you catch your shuttle back to town. Bring insect repellent, a change of clothes if you plan to get wet, and comfortable closed-toe shoes (cameras are not allowed on tours for safety reasons). Complimentary lockers are provided during tours. Website: www.canopyriver.com.
Activity 3: Shop for Souvenirs Along the Rio Cuale
Just south of the Old Town square (or dolphin fountain if you’re walking down the Malecon), you’ll intercept the Rio Cuale where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Here in its final stretch, you’ll find the river rimmed with vine-clad trees, stands of bamboo–and kiosk after kiosk displaying Mexican handicrafts and souvenirs. The shade of the open air market makes it a pleasant diversion after hours on the beach or walking around town in full sun, and the selection of goods you’ll find here–Mexican textiles, stonework, silver, hammocks, hats, wood carvings, paintings, and the usual souvenirs–add to the fun.
Give your kids their peso allowance and start shopping! You’re all sure to find a treasure here. Before you go, don’t miss the hanging bridge that crosses the river to the quiet Cuale Island; it’s nearly impossible to cross with kids without a lot of giggling and a whole lot of wobbling. And if you’re not ready to give up the hunt, continue shopping on in through the corridors of Puerto Vallarta’s indoor flea market that starts here beside the bridge–and get ready to bargain!
Activity 4: Escape to Las Caletas
Once the home of Hollywood film director John Huston, Las Caletas remains a paradisic escape still only accessible by boat. After a catamaran ride along Puerto Vallarta’s waterfront and through the bird bedecked islets of Los Arcos National Marine Park (cameras ready!), you’ll cross the Bay of Banderas to arrive at the secluded nature preserve. Four picture-perfect private beaches await, some even with hammocks overhanging the tide, but for families, I recommend heading to the main beach first to stake out your lounges to enjoy for the day–and this is where the complimentary kayaks, paddle boards, and snorkeling gear await, not to mention floating “islands” you can swim out to with their own hammocks!
But if you are visiting with kids from 4 to 11 years, don’t lose track of time; they won’t want to miss their scheduled tour through the Kids Adventure Park with chances to hold a monkey, ride a donkey, zip line, and swing through the jungle (and yes, there is face paint). And for kids 12 years + and their parents, their is the Teen Adventure Cove with challenges, water slide (currently under construction), and zip line into the water.
Drinks, hot buffet lunch, and opportunities to hold exotic animals are also included before the festive return ride on the boat. For additional fees, you can arrange spa treatments or a scuba lesson/dive during your visit. Bring towels, biodegradable waterproof sun block, a camera (waterproof if you have one), a change of clothes if you like, and 25 pesos port tax for passengers 12 years and older (paid on arrival at the terminal). Website: http://www.vallarta-adventures.com/tours/las-caletas-day-trip
1 Great Place to Stay: Buenaventura Grand & Great Moments Resort
There are many resorts to choose from in the Puerto Vallarta area, but the Buenaventura Grand has two special advantages for families: it’s both on a sandy beach and less than a mile from the Malecon. When other travelers we visited with lamented about the 50-minute taxi ride from their resort to Puerto Vallarta’s Old Town, we smirked, recalling our stroll down the beach to the Malecon and “art walk” that led us there so quickly and gratis. If you want to spend time in town but with the conveniences and perks of an all-inclusive resort–including a daily Kids Club from 9 to 5 p.m., the Buenaventura Grand is a great option. It is also on the small side as far as all-inclusive resorts go, which made it a much more comfortable place for us to let our older kids assert some independence than a sprawling resort would have been. The food was quite good and included many authentic Mexican dishes offered each meal–and “Mexican night” is not to be missed. Just beware that their nightly entertainment doesn’t end until 10 p.m., which may feel even later depending on your home time zone, and you will hear it whether you choose to attend or not. Be sure to bring ear plugs if you want to turn in earlier than the entertainers. Website: www.hotelbuenaventura.com.mx
1 Great Place to Eat: Gaby’s
For nearly 30 years, Gaby’s Restaurant has dished out authentic Mexican cuisine to a growing number of steadfast locals and enthusiastic tourists alike. With open-air seating on multiple levels, including a grotto-esque courtyard with water fall, Gaby’s stands ready with a full menu of Mexican favorites from land and sea (don’t miss the ceviche if that’s your thing). And in case you have a picky eater along for the ride, don’t worry–they will serve up plain pasta with butter (and/or parmesean and/or garlic) for your young eater while you enjoy more adventurous fare. They’re conveniently located for your Old Town sightseeing, too, just a block and a half north of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the same side of the street. Website: http://gabysrestaurant.com.mx