The vibe aboard Flight 2204 from Edmonton to Puerto Vallarta can best be described as “school bus en route to the year-end field trip.” The passengers are looking forward to warm weather and beach time and a vacation in a place that is different enough to be an escape from the everyday grind, but not so different as to be intimidating. On board, everyone is chatting away excitedly, fast friends are made across the aisle, and even the flight attendants are having fun, joking around. It’s lively and bright and light-hearted.
24-year-old me would likely sneer at the scene; tourists on their pre-packaged vacations at all-inclusive resorts. She might rail against mass tourism as the new colonialism and the basic vapidity of this class of travel. It’s possible 24-year-old me was a bit of a jerk.
24-year-old me needs to face it: having children, limited vacation days and a budget means that sometimes you need to do yourself a favour and take “the easy way.” Sometimes fun on the beach is exactly what you need to maintain (regain?) a stable hold on your general well-being.
Difficulty can be a character builder, certainly. I’m not arguing that there isn’t a time and a place for life-changing treks across the desert. But not every trip must be a transformative retreat on a remote mountain peak. Sometimes a vacation can be just a vacation. And a vacation in Puerto Vallarta might be just what you need!
Puerto Vallarta is set up for tourists. We encountered families there for a week and snowbirds there for the season. We felt safe and found it easy to get around. At the airport, we fell for the obvious trap of being roped into a timeshare hard sell (“not a timeshare!” the salesmen assured us) but learn from me and head outside to catch a cab. The guys at the desk are not going to arrange a ride for nothing!
Barring highly motivated salespeople, there is lots of fun for holidaymakers. Here are some of our top picks for traipsing the tourist trail in Puerto Vallarta:
The nearly kilometre-long stretch along the seaside is the “must do” thing in P.V. The boardwalk is filled with vendors and small shops, restaurants, art and entertainment. Puerto Vallarta is justifiably proud of the public art along the promenade. You are going to want to make sure your camera has lots of memory because the bright sculptures and dramatic seaside backdrop are a thing of beauty. Make sure you have lots of small bills with you as there are many street artists plying their wares, and artists have gone to great lengths to outfit themselves into photo-worthy vignettes. I could have watched for hours the two men who had transformed themselves into a sand sculpture carefully enacting an afternoon of chess. A bumpy ride on the public bus was straightforward to figure out to and from the Malecon, made all the better by the gentleman serenading us with a small amplifier attached to his iPod. (Not sarcastic. He was a really good singer!)
Plaza de Armas and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Steps from the Malecon is Puerto Vallarta’s main square, Plaza de Armas. Most days, I am assured, it is a quaint, quiet spot to eat an ice cream cone (make sure you get ice cream!) and watch the world go by. When we visited during the early December Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the square was alive with vendors and revellers. If you are looking for music and dancing, you’ll want to be there after dark. The party gets started in the evening (8 or 9 pm) and goes past midnight. Daytime during the holiday, the square is a bustling marketplace, the tempting smell of baked goods competing for attention with the ice cream already melting in my hand.
On Sundays following Mass, the doors of the adjacent church fly open, parishioners bursting forth onto the square for an afternoon of dancing to the municipal band the plays from the white painted wooden bandstand. Although the dancers tend to an older demographic, the dancing is free and open for everyone.
A visit the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is another thing you would be remiss to skip. The church is a mix of architectural styles, based mainly on the taste of whichever priest was in charge at various times of construction. The result is a sacred space that is unique to Puerto Vallarta. One of the most recognisable landmarks of the city is the front tower, topped by a regal crown hoisted high above the town by angels.
Swim with the Dolphins
And a tourist visit to a marine city should be capped off with a once in a lifetime experience, like swimming with dolphins. After glowing recommendations about Vallarta Adventures, we booked in for a “Dolphin Signature Swim.” The 40-minute adventure at the Vallarta Adventures centre in Nuevo Vallarta is unlike anything I have experienced. The squeals and laughter of my 5-year-old being pulled through the water on the belly of a dolphin is a highlight.
After pictures with a parrot and watching the underwater mammals swim around from behind the glass, we joined our group for a quick presentation. We learned of the environmental challenges facing marine animals and picked up a few tips for being better citizens of the earth (just say no to plastic drinking straws!) Then we dove in. Well, climbed inelegantly down a ladder, but you know what I mean.
Standing on a platform in the dolphin enclosure, the friendly animals seemed as eager to be stroked by us as we were to pet them. I learned that women who are pregnant are asked not to participate in the experience, as the dolphins can sense the fetus and the novelty of an unborn human are irresistible. They may knock against the woman in an attempt to figure out what is going on, and they get distracted from doing their job. Dolphins are amazing.
The staff we encountered were all serious animal lovers and spent time imparting that passion. My son felt nervous being in the water, and they went out of their way to reassure him and help him feel safe. As much as a busy tourist attraction could feel like a cookie cutter experience, I feel like we had a day that was special to us, and the memories are the best souvenir we could get!
Accepting that you can have a wonderful, fulfilling vacation at a popular tourist destination is okay, I promise. Just relax, realise what many other vacationers have realised, and enjoy the tourist treats Puerto Vallarta has to offer!