We discover that Mexico is far more than tequila-fuelled parties and tacos when we visit Puerto Vallarta, the country’s more undiscovered Pacific Coast
Mexico has long been to Americans what Greece is to Brits. Last year, it topped the list of the most popular destinations for American tourists (according to Euromonitor), who are drawn to its tropical sunny climes, beaches, and relative proximity. However, in recent years the British have slowly been getting on board with the idea of venturing over to the North American country. This is largely due to the weekly flights introduced at London’s Gatwick and Heathrow, making it easier than ever before to get there.
While Cancún and Cabo are arguably the most famous of Mexican resorts, I decided to visit the comparatively quieter resort town of Puerto Vallarta. True, you are less likely to find tequila-fuelled students looking to cause mayhem on their spring break, but this (I think you’d agree) is the basis of its appeal. Situated on the Pacific Ocean’s Bahía de Banderas, the city was once a thriving fishing and pearl-diving village in the 18th century, before slowly transforming into a beach-landing port for the nearby Sierra towns (and reportedly a hotbed for pirate smuggling operations).
Last year, Mexico topped the list of the most popular destinations for American tourists (according to Euromonitor)
As such, Puerto Vallarta has far more of a romantic history than one would expect. And this is no doubt why it attracted writers and artists in the 1950s, not to mention Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose affair began during the filming of the 1964 film, The Night of the Iguana. Tourists can still go visit both of their houses (Taylor’s home, Casa Kimberley, has been turned into a chic boutique hotel), which are located across the street from one another and connected via a bridge. Named Lover’s Arch, it was modelled on Venice’s Bridge of Sighs and was built by Burton so that he and Taylor never had to cross the street when meeting for one of their trysts. However, according to locals at the time, it also served as a necessary divide during one of their infamous fighting matches and was even rechristened the Reconciliation Bridge.
Anyhow, I digress. North of Puerto Vallarta is where you’ll find a series of stylish new luxury hotels, one of which – Casa Velas – is where I stayed last year. The all-inclusive boutique establishment, located minutes from Puerto Vallarta airport, is one of five owned by the Mexican vacation resorts developer, Velas Resorts Group. It represents the company’s adult-only offering, which – when you consider its tranquil setting of lush, tropical gardens and swim-up pool bar where you will find couples whiling the hours soaking up the sun and having numerous cocktails – is entirely fitting.
Puerto Vallarta has far more of a romantic history than one would expect and this is no doubt why it attracted writers and artists in the 1950s, not to mention Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton
Contemporary Mexican decor meets a fusion of art works from around the world in the spacious, inviting lobby, which features a tiled floor embedded with an indoor pond, complete with koi fish. This manicured attention to detail continues outside, where the wild Mexican jungle has been replaced with pristine palm trees and perfectly groomed gardens. Resident peacocks stroll aimlessly around the grounds, occasionally pausing to pose for picture-perfect moments. Authentic Mexico this is perhaps not, but for those of you looking for polish, refinement and great service, this is the place.
There are standard room options, as well as eight suite categories (totalling 80 in all), ranging from Master to Presidential. Rooms come with all the usual bells and whistles, or alternatively you can opt for one of the suites with a Jacuzzi and/or a terrace, or even the dedicated Wellness Suite (every fitness fanatic’s fantasy, it comes complete with an exercise bike next to your bed and a pair of weights carefully laid out on the floor).
Contemporary Mexican decor meets a fusion of art works from around the world in Casa Velas’ spacious, inviting lobby
The hotel has exclusive access to Marina Vallarta 18-hole golf club. Boasting views of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it has unsurprisingly become a favourite spot for avid golfers around the world. Alternatively, if you’re in the market for something more relaxing, you can enjoy the world-class spa. Signature treatments – ranging from therapeutic massages to citrus body wraps and multisensory facials – incorporate herbs and plants sourced from the hotel’s botanical gardens (featuring more than 30 varieties of garden plants), which have also been put to good use in the cuisine.
Casa Velas has two restaurants: Ocean Club and Emiliano. The former – located at the hotel’s beach club a short drive away – is the more casual of the two, serving up Asian-inspired fare, while the latter is Casa Velas’ gastronomic pièce de résistance. Dispelling the myth that Mexican food is unsophisticated, the fine dining menu shows off the country’s authentic flavours in a series of refined dishes, from delicate tuna tacos served with avocado tomatillo salsa, to succulent rack of lamb over polenta with poblano peppers and barbacoa juice. To finish, nothing tops the heavenly opera chocolate mille-feuille with hazelnut cream.
Outside the resort, there is plenty to see and do. For instance, a short drive away is the city centre, which is famed for its mile-long esplanade, the Malecón. Strolling down this long and picturesque stretch, you will come across several key sites, including the city’s emblem, Los Arcos Amphitheatre, where free concerts and cultural performances are held throughout the year.
At night, the sophisticated promenade descends into a slightly Malia-esque strip, with a series of late night bars and clubs to keep the partying fringe entertained. However, it is all in good-humoured fun and I feel you cannot miss visiting Señor Frogs for sheer novelty value. Founded in 1969 and still going strong, this unashamedly tacky Mexican-themed franchise certainly lives up to its reputation for “anything goes” – which is hardly surprising given the fish-bowl-sized cocktails visitors are expected to neck on arrival. For a real taste of Mexico, there are plenty of good restaurants in the area, for instance gourmet French-Mexican Café des Artistes; superb seafood eatery Joe Jack’s Fish Shack, and my personal favourite, Pipis. This local haunt may not look like much from the outside, but inside the honest and delicious food speaks for itself.
Dispelling the myth that Mexican food is unsophisticated, Casa Velas’ fine dining menu shows off the country’s authentic flavours in a series of refined dishes
Beaches are a drop in the ocean in Mexico and all have much to recommend them. North of Puerto Vallarta is the quaint fishing village of Sayulita. Christened Pueblo Magico (magic village) by the Mexican government, it still retains traces of when it first became popular in the ‘60s, with multicoloured pom-poms hanging off the stalls and celebratory bunting lining the cobbled streets. This hippy town’s biggest claim to fame is its surfing, although paddle-boarding is a big trend, too. Whale watching in Sayulita begins in November and lasts until April as the “jorobadas” or humpback whales sail down the coast on their annual migration. Daily boat trips leave from the town and are a great way to seek out these magnificent mammals in their element.
Despite being a small town, there are several restaurants from which to choose, but the one which I’d particularly recommend is Capitan Cook. Firstly, don’t be put off by the name. This casual family beachfront establishment offers perfect views of the ocean while serving up some of its freshest inhabitants, including the incredibly moreish shrimp tacos. Bursting at the seams from too many tortilla chips and salsa is inevitable, but fortunately you can walk off your massive lunch along the beautiful beach.
Finally, for those seeking adventure, an excursion to the Marietas Islands National Park is a must. This small group of uninhabited islands off the north coast of Banderas Bay has two main volcanic islands – Isla Redonda and Isla Larga. Dating back 60,000 years, they are considered national treasures. The islands double as a wildlife refuge and are home to several endangered bird species (such as the comically named blue-footed booby). There’s also a variety of fish species, making it an ideal spot for snorkelling.
Unspoilt, authentic and unassuming, Puerto Vallarta, in my opinion, is the true heart and soul of Mexico. So make sure to visit before everyone else cottons on.