The Dish on Puerto Vallarta

The scene: A beautiful woman sips a fruity drink out of a coconut, lounging on a picture-perfect beach with a pink hotel in the background. The words “Puerto Vallarta are scrawled across the strangely muted image, immortalized forever in the  postcards of yesteryear. Take me there, I always thought.

Now I am here, and the colors are bright and the city very much alive. The region’s surfing and yoga culture draws legions of devotees here, but well-heeled travelers may be surprised to hear that the food I tasted in Vallarta surpassed meals I’ve paid triple for in New York (don’t even get me started on the ceviche) and that the city’s rich cultural heritage can be felt on the streets, in the shops, and in boutique hotels.

I stared at Before and After photos of Puerto Vallarta at La Palapa Lounge, a legendary beachside hot spot in “Zona Romantica,” as JourneyMexico CEO Zachary Rabinor narrated. Yes, buildings had popped up all around the city’s old town, but the oceanfront looked the same. “I think of the [Vallarta/Nayarit] region in different subsets,” Rabinor said as he flipped through the images. “Nature, culture, adventure, and luxury.”

After Richard Burton and Ava Gardner filmed The Night of the Iguana in Puerto Vallarta in the early ’60s, thousands of Americans and Brits flocked to the neighborhood known, appropriately, as Gringo Gulch. Despite all the attention from foreigners, the heartbeat of an authentic Mexican fishing village remains.

Hacienda San Angel, is a breath of fresh air in a world of perfectly manicured resorts, combining authentic Mexican architecture with true luxury. Think high-powered couples on a romantic getaway (Richard Burton was so charmed by the property that he bought the main villa as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, Susan) or families in search of cool cultural finds. Janice Chatterton purchased the hacienda in 1990 and has made it what it is today: a showstopping labyrinth of tucked-away suites and swimming pools that seem to melt into their surroundings.

At one end of the city, near the airport, is Marina Vallarta, a newer complex with great shopping, a boutique, hacienda-style property, Casa Velas, and, you guessed it, a marina where you can rent small boats to take out snorkeling or fishing. At the opposite end, old town and downtown Vallarta are best explored on foot, as the long Malecon (boardwalk) is closed to traffic and the place to be — especially on weekend nights.

After strolling along popular thoroughfare Basilio Badillo for rustic pottery, colorful linens, and party skirts, you’ll work up an appetite. While the traditional Mexican food you’ll find in Vallarta is bar none, I loved seeing how Spanish and Italian cultures have leant their influences to the local cuisine.

Here are some of my favorite spots and what to try there: 

Cafe des ArtistesFine dining is the name of the game here, from seafood to steak, all housed in a historical home off the Malecon. Blend with the locals in their Vallarta location or up the beach in Punta de Mita.

La Esquina de Las Caprichos: You’ll smell garlic wafting through the air a couple blocks before you actually enter this neighborhood favorite. The Spanish owner serves Vallarta with tapas like croquettes and chickpeas with oil, garlic, and parsley. My advice? Try the Paella Valenciana.

Barracuda: Nearly every local I met asked me if I had gone to Barracuda yet, and I could happily tell them…yes! In addition to being one of the most stylish beachside restaurants in town, Barracuda also serves some of the best seafood around. Don’t miss the favorite drink “Cielo Rojo,” or Red Sky.

El Arrayan: It’s all about authentic Mexican cuisine at Arrayan, a popular spot with a bright pink entrance. The colorful chairs and exposed brick feel like you’re in the home of a fabulous friend.

La Dolce Vita: For Italian, head to this two-story spot on the Malecon. The owner hails from Venice and an afternoon stop here for cappuccino took me straight back to Italy.

De Santos: When I found out that this restaurant was part-owned by the band Maná, I had to go. The menu is full of stylish comfort food, with pizzas, pastas, chicken, and beef that won’t disappoint.

Barcelona Tapas: Located on top of a residential unit, this two-story modern tapas spot boasts sweeping views of Banderas Bay and an enticing array of cold and hot plates that are big enough to share.

La Palapa: Don’t forget to visit La Palapa on the beach and look at all the Before and After photos to see how the city has changed over the years.

Annie Fitzsimmons is on the beat in Mexico. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, on Twitter @anniefitz, and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.