On very short notice this spring, I found myself whisked away with friends to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Though this country is near to my heart, I’ve never been to this Pacific coast city, nestled in the Bay of Banderas. As the plane touched down and we made our way into town, I got my first glimpse of what was in store…..and it was good.
I love Mexico not only for its beautiful beaches and laid-back lifestyle, but especially for its rich culture and friendly locals. Puerto Vallarta has all of the above, and in spades. From its prime location between the mountains and the sea, visitors can set out to see the rare blue-footed booby in the Marietas Islands, to view the whales as they migrate north and take shelter in the Bay of Banderas, or to find their own private beach and enjoy the pristine sands.
The downtown area is especially beautiful, with a pedestrian boardwalk stretching the length of the beach as a local gathering place. The streets are crammed with tiny shops and restaurants, and the air throbs with culture. While exploring downtown, my friends and I visited a local restaurant, where we received an unexpected lesson on how to make a “real” Mexican margarita. Shortly after sipping my drink and questioning the bartender about the taste, I found myself behind the bar, being instructed on how to make a margarita Puerto Vallarta-style. The key to the mystery – Fresca! In Puerto Vallarta, locals add Fresca to their drinks to sweeten the experience.
A few days later, I found myself on a catamaran heading out to sea on a mission to see the rare blue-footed boobies and to find the “hidden beach,” both of which are found in the Marietas Islands. Anchoring just offshore from a rocky island, we slipped into the water and were soon swimming through the dimly lit cave that leads from the open ocean to the hidden beach. After a few minutes of swimming one behind another, the cave’s roof opened above us in a perfectly circular window to the blue sky above, revealing a small sliver of beach and a crystal clear swimming pool. This particular attraction is unique to Puerto Vallarta, and is one of the loveliest and most romantic sites on Mexico’s west coast.
As we sailed back to the mainland, happily munching on tortilla chips and salsa handmade by the crew, we were treated to an enviable sight – whales breaching in the Bay of Banderas. As whales migrate north in the first months of the year, they set their sights on this particular spot as a place to rest along the way, sheltered from the open ocean. While many whale watching tours elsewhere offer a glimpse of the whales as they are moving steadily northward, here they are at their leisure, affording tourists more sightings and longer times of observation. It was truly awe-inspiring, as we watched tail fins dipping below the waves and blow holes spewing mist into the air.
As I boarded the plane for home, I reflected on how different this experience had been from all my previous travels in Mexico. Puerto Vallarta, with its rich culture, friendly locals and stunning landscape, has left a permanent mark on my heart, and I can’t wait to return.