Travel

Mexico's Gorgeous, Gritty Beach Town You Should Party in ASAP

Come on down for fresh seafood, immaculate vibes, and parties that last 'til dawn.

Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock
Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock
Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock

Beach towns in Mexico tend to lean in one of two directions: gorgeous tropical paradise or somewhat unkempt beach drag. Puerto Vallarta, however, manages to strike a balance between the two, offering a charming, sunny coastal escape that’s somewhat rough around the edges in the best ways possible.

Let’s put it this way: With plenty of resorts and typical tourist-fare but a more local vibe than, say, Cancún, this smaller city of 250,000 sees some 2 million visitors each year. That’s a lot of people moving through a not-quite-streamlined tourism infrastructure.

As a result, you’ll enjoy a charming, vibrant beach vacation with a healthy side of the chaotic character-including nightlife that rages until 5 am-for which Mexico is rather famous. Yet Puerto Vallarta also rewards with its breathtaking, scruffy beauty: Terracotta roofs top white-washed buildings, scattered throughout the hills that rise up from the bay into the misty, mountainous jungle that surrounds the city. It’s a beautiful contrast of clay, white, green, and blue, mixed with the explosive purple jacaranda blossoms that arch over the cobblestone streets.

While travel to Mexico has gone more or less unabated during the pandemic-no proof of vaccination or a negative test is required for entry-that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely without regulations. In Puerto Vallarta’s state of Jalisco, for example, you are currently required to show proof of vaccination for entry into casinos, concerts, indoor bars and clubs, and large events. You’re also usually required to wear a mask indoors and there’s strong social pressure to wear one whenever you happen to be around other people. When you fly back to the US, you’ll also be required to show proof of a negative test. Testing sites are scattered all around Puerto Vallarta, and information about these and the latest COVID regulations can be found here.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

The best time to visit Puerto Vallarta, other than literally any time

Puerto Vallarta is in a geographical sweet spot: It’s on the Bay of Banderas (the second-largest bay in the world) and sheltered by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, protecting it from the threat of hurricane season. It’s in the north of Mexico, so temperatures stay mild for the majority of the year, but visit between January and April for the very best weather. You can visit in the summer (when everything is a fraction of the price), but prepare for the sky to open up Shawshank Redemption-style multiple times a day.

New Year’s Eve is a massive party, so avoid it if you want to stay low-key. Same with Easter and Semana Santa (Holy Week, which begins Palm Sunday), when the city will be gridlocked, first by Mexicans on vacation and then by sloppy, loud gringos on spring break. (Of course, if you are a sloppy, loud gringo on spring break, then, by all means, knock yourself out.)

Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Which Puerto Vallarta neighborhoods to hit (and which to avoid)

Coming from the airport into downtown, you’ll pass the ritzy marina, where the cruise ships and yachts dock. The slips are surrounded by high-end condos, touristy restaurants, overpriced shopping, and tour operators. Keep moving. You’ll then pass the Hotel Zone, which is a strip of all-inclusive resorts along the northern beaches of PV. This area also has a few new-ish shopping malls and a food park. Keeeeeep moving.

Next, you’ll hit Cinco de Diciembre. This neighborhood is a solid blend of locals and newcomers, extending from the beach up the hillsides. It’ll be your first encounter with PV’s red-tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, and purple jacaranda trees.

Then, you’ll come to Centro. This is where the Malecon (boardwalk) begins, and it’s a must-see lined with yummy restaurants, street performers, shopping, and nightlife. It’s also a front-row seat for Puerto Vallarta’s spectacular sunsets, which are followed by a regular fireworks show around 9:15 – 9:30pm every single night. Keep in mind that on weekends and holidays, the Malecon is a bit of a hot mess thanks to the party bars (one of which celebrates Mardi Gras on a weekly basis for no apparent reason).

South of the Río Cuale is the Zona Romántica, PV’s LGBTQ+ district. It’s also the oldest and best-preserved section of the city with beautiful historic streets and buildings. Nightlife here is pulsating, with the highest concentration of bars and restaurants beloved by tourists and the city’s substantial gay population.

Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Hop from beach club to art gallery to mountain village

Hit up a beach club. There’s the super fancy (like, infinity-pool-on-the-beach fancy) Mantamar Beach Club, which is technically an LGBTQ+ club, but you can be none of those letters and fit in just fine. You’ll pay top-dollar for this adults-only experience (around $80 per person for the day), but you’ll get swanky cabanas, excellent food, impeccable service, and a private section of sand un-pestered by beach vendors hawking luchador masks and pipes. For something a little cheaper and more central, a day of lazing and lunching at Mango’s Beach Club will cost you around $30.

Of course, you absolutely do not have to pay to enjoy the beach in Puerto Vallarta. If you’re staying downtown, you can lay out on public spots like Playa Los Camarones, Playa Los Muertos, or one of any number of beaches just outside town (more on those momentarily).After you’ve thoroughly baked yourself in the sun, take some time to experience Puerto Vallarta’s art scene. The entire Malecon is lined with a rotating showcase of art and impressive sculptures, and there are several small galleries owned by local artists in the city center. Every Wednesday at 6pm, an art walk will take you through some of the coolest galleries and public works. Foodies can also join Vallarta Food Tours, a solid excuse to go nuts eating all the street food you can handle in some of the city’s more local spots. Or there’s Vallarta Adventures, which offers guided outdoorsy trips for whale-watching, zip-lining, or just exploring the area’s smaller mountain towns.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

Hit some of the area’s best beaches

South of town, you’ll find a spectacular beachfront on Playa Mismaloya, Playa Gemelas, and Playa Las Animas. Accessible only by boat, Las Animas is home to a frenetic stretch of beach bars and restaurants, making it a great place to spend the day happily flitting between the sand and a frozen margarita. You can hire a water taxi to take you there, aka one of the many boat operators at Los Muertos Pier in the Zona Romántica. Or DIY: Take the orange line bus from Zona Romántica to Boca de Tomatlan, which will run you about 8 pesos (40 cents) for the 20-minute ride. From there, a water taxi to Playa Las Animas is around 50 pesos ($2.50).

If you’re feeling adventurous or just want to skip the boat, there’s a secret hike from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas, which passes by several private coves and beaches along the way. It takes an hour and a half, and you’ll hardly see a soul along the route. If you want something even more remote, consider going farther south to Yelapa, a quiet beach community with far fewer beach bars than Las Animas-and waterfall hikes nearby.

To the north of Puerto Vallarta is the state of Nayarit. Here you’ll find bohemian beach towns like Bucerías, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, Sayulita, and San Pancho, with a growing stock of boutique hotels, yoga retreats, and galleries. The crowd swings a little more Lululemon these days, but these are still semi-quiet communities with authentic Mexican culture.

Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images
Greg Vaughn/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Devour shrimp burgers, quesadillas al pastor, and late-night tacos

PV has such a large international community that you’ll find lots of other cuisines that are just as good as the local food. But let’s start with Mexican food, because that’s obviously what you’ll want first. For starters, street food is on almost every corner. Wander around Cinco de Diciembre or the Zona Romántica and you’re sure to find a food truck selling everything from tortas and tacos to shrimp burgers and quesadillas the size of your head. Our personal favorites: El Carboncito and Tacos El Moreno.

If you’d rather have a sit-down meal, you can line up with the rest of the world at Pancho’s Tacos. Yes, the quesadillas al pastor are absolutely worth the wait… but you will be waiting a long, long time, especially late at night when the bars start to close. For killer home-cooked Mexican and a mind-blowing breakfast, go to La Chula, or find the best fish tacos in this seafood-centric coastal city at Joe Jack’s.

Head to Los Muertos Brewing Company to suck down a frosty pils and snack on homemade pizzas. If it’s date night, hit 116 Pulpito, a hole-in-the-wall-sized tapas restaurant with friendly staff and excellent cocktails, or splurge at Tre Piatti, home to fantastic homemade Italian cuisine and Ulises, one of the best cocktail-makers in Puerto Vallarta.

Keep the party going all night long

… Puerto Vallarta heats up. The craft brewery trend has trickled down here-we already mentioned Los Muertos Brewing, which has two locations. If you’re in the mood for something mellow, stick to Centro and hit up Bar Morelos, which draws a local, laid-back crowd. In Cinco de Diciembre, you get late-night DJs at the famous El Solar, an offshoot of the neighboring Barracuda Bar; both serve amazing seafood and are right on the sand. Unless you’re 18 and making bad life choices, avoid Señor Frog’s, as well as Zoo Bar, Mandala, and La Vaquita (there’s a swing there-enough said).

For all-night parties, you’ll want Mr. Flamingo, an open-air spot especially popular with the LGBTQ+ community. At 7 pm it’s a chill, sunset happy-hour bar-but by 7:30 pm it flips into full-on party mode, spilling out into the streets and not losing momentum until around 3 am. Afterward, head next door to Paco’s Ranch, which is as ridiculous and raunchy as it sounds. You’ve been warned.

Puerto Vallarta is a 24-hour city if you know where to look-even in the downtime between 5 am and 9 am, you can always find a spot along the Malecon for breakfast.

ferrantraite/E+/Getty Images
ferrantraite/E+/Getty Images
ferrantraite/E+/Getty Images

Where to stay when you’re all danced out

Come 5 am, you’re going to need somewhere to sleep. Airbnb is alive and well in Puerto Vallarta, so find an apartment if you want to kick it like a local. If you aren’t renting a car, you’ll want to stick to the Zona Romántica, Centro, or Cinco de Diciembre, just to avoid taxi fees.

Or you can go boutique with Rivera del Rio, which is almost camouflaged among the houses near the Río Cuale. The motif here is oddball elegance, with a lobby on an open balcony overlooking the street. Inside, it’s got an air of M.C. Escher, with narrow staircases, secret rooms, and eight unique suites. The best part of the hotel is the pool deck, with a Roman-style hot tub that overlooks the entire Zona Romántica.

If you’re more into traditional all-inclusives, you can certainly take your pick in the Hotel Zone. Try Villa Premiere, a small resort that is both on the beach and within walking distance of downtown. Two other solid but more expensive options are Grand Fiesta Americana and Hotel Mousai, each about 10 minutes in a taxi from downtown.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer living and breathing in NYC. But if you give her a plane ticket today, she will be somewhere else tomorrow. She likes tacos, music, and making lists. But travel is her life.

Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, the Daily Beast, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his weird adventures via Instagram or Twitter.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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