From straight to single to same sex lifestyles, Puerto Vallarta’s warm welcome for every family traveler makes for a great Mexican beach vacation with kids. Located in the state of Jalisco on the Pacific coast, the resort area of Puerto Vallarta stretches for 40 miles along Bahia de Banderas. Gold sand beach and sapphire water capped by the verdant Sierra Madre Mountains first lured foreign tourists more than 50 years ago, but this is no worn out, old-fashioned beach resort.
Since then, while preserving its natural environment and Mexican architectural style, Puerto Vallarta (PV as it’s known) has developed a very active, sophisticated social scene. And since the advent of the popular “Love Boat” TV series, up to three cruise ships a day dock in the city’s port, spewing eager shoppers and adventurers.
Art galleries, many fine restaurants, and theatre combine with beach time and eco-adventures to provide a variety of activities rarely seen in one destination. Families with toddlers can join the locals along the kilometer-long, pedestrian, waterfront promenade called Malecon. Day and night you’ll see all ages strolling the seaside boardwalk, enjoying the breezes, sand sculptures and performing artists. Adventurers and families with older kids will boat to remote beaches, swim with dolphins or drive overland through the jungle on ATVs.
There’s great nightlife too. While some head to the Malecon after a late supper (PV is truly a foodie haven), others will troll the clubs knowing that their kids are enjoying a night out at a resort’s kids program. From straight to single to same sex lifestyles, PV’s diverse attractions and live-and-let-live acceptance of every family traveler makes for a great vacation with kids.
Malecon’s Small Town Charm
Because Puerto Vallarta has long been a magnet for artists and artisans, large outdoor sculptures fill many public spaces, especially along the Malecon. You can take pictures beside the sculptures or have your family portrait sketched by one of the many pay-for-portrait artists who sit by the waterfront.
There’s fine art too. All ages will have fun dropping by the galleries and boutiques where Huichol ceramics and beaded ornaments (especially beautiful native Indian crafts) can be seen. Jewelers working in contemporary gold design or etching ancient Indian patterns in silver have found a home in PV, including Cassandra Shaw, a Vancouver born artisan with a very popular collection. It’s a fun after dinner activity, as many shops and galleries stay open as late as 10pm.
Touring Downtown Puerto Vallarta
Between the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town and Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone) is the River Cuale, a stream which runs dry until the summer rainy season. Under the small Cuale River Bridge is a flea market of shops and outdoor art vendors who set up their wares day and night.
Independence Square, the typical main square, is bordered by a new City Hall (step inside and admire the mural by naif artist Manuel Lepe) and a school. It’s also home to the pretty, mid-19th century Church of Guadeloupe, PV’s patron saint, whose feast days are celebrated from December 1-12. Opposite the church is El Campanario, one of the locals’ favorite taquerias, where a variety of inexpensive snacks and small plates are served.
On Thursdays and Sunday nights, parents can dance with their kids outside the church, right in the square facing Malecon. Under the moonlight, the Municipal Band performs as local families congregate for an open-air, old-fashioned town hall dance.
Here’s a one minute video tour of Puerto Vallarta from our April 2015 visit.
Ahoy Maties, A Boatfull of Pirate Fun
Parents can introduce kids to a variety of eco-outings and pint-sized adventures. Starting with your youngest, join a day-long Pirates of the Bay cruise aboard our favorite vessel, Jolly Roger, which sails from the PV Marina out across the bay to beautiful Mahahuitas Beach.
This “abandonded” tropical island is where preschoolers and Johnny Depp fans can join the captain on a treasure hunt while parents take out sea kayaks, join a snorkel tour or enjoy their margaritas and get some sun. The pirate ship is a wonderful recreation of Columbus’ Santa Maria gone wild, with skeletons and cobwebs and planks galore. The rowdy crew of peg-legs and damsels entertain kids the whole way, providing breakfast and a full lunch, as well as snacks, drinks, dance contests and sword play in the price of admission.
Taking Little Adventurers to Las Caletas
The well known tour operator Vallarta Adventures has created a delightful Robinson Crusoe-like getaway at Las Caletas, a natural, eco-themed park with activities for all ages. Today, the secluded beach hideaway of legendary filmmaker John Huston — only accessible by sea — has been developed into a family recreation area. What’s left of Huston’s original home is a restaurant; nearby, a glass case contains the only mementoes of his residency.
Hand-hewn pathways course through ficus trees and hanging vines. Several thatch palapas under the palms house restaurants tucked into the hillside. The gold sand beach is checkered with lounge chairs and sea kayaks. For adult relaxation, there’s a seaview, clifftop spa with herbal wellness treatments. At night, a rock-carved amphitheatre hosts evening cultural shows with choreography inspired by Cirque du Soleil.
A mini-zip line (junior canopy tour) has been specially designed for ages 6-10 who are carefully fitted with tiny harnesses and helmets. After getting their faces painted in animal patterns, the kids are led through several stages of low, controlled zip lines from tree platform to platform.
Parents who want to extend their kids’ fun can pay a premium for activities such as snorkeling with sea lions, scuba diving (for PADI or Naui certificate holders), a beginner scuba lesson for ages 10+, or kayaking and exploring the area on a guided nature walk. During our June visit, there was an infestation of jelly fish, so we never had a chance to swim with the Las Caletas sealion, but that’s available too.
Puerto Vallarta’s More Active Eco-Adventures
For older kids who may tire of sun bathing, Puerto Vallarta is a great base for mountain biking, tropical rainforest hikes, and several other adrenaline-filled options. Vallarta Adventures runs several active daytrips, including boat tours by high-speed Zodiac; high altitude zip lines, waterfall rappels, horseback riding, and a multi-sport combination for the restless.
The Vallarta Adventures Dolphin Encounters and trainer-led dolphin swim are very well done too. On dry land, families can sign up for a fun romp along the back roads of Puerto Vallarta on an ATV (all terrain vehicle) or dune buggy.
During the December to April migration season, whale watching cruises sail the Bay of Banderas as Humpback whales play in the calm waters. The Humpback breaches the waves frequently — up to once every 40 seconds for several minutes — so even during our June visit, we were fortunate to see one swimming past our boat.
Families can also enjoy real life eco-adventures at their hotel. Ridley sea turtles make their way back to the shores of Puerto Vallarta from July to December to reproduce. The local marine turtle conservation and protection program sends out professional marine biologists to rope off a certain areas of beach to protect turtle eggs incubating in their nests. Once the hatchlings are ready to return to their natural habitat, hotels invite guests to aid in the release of the newborn turtles so they find their way into the water.
After Hours in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta’s proximity to Mexico City has made it the resort of choice for affluent families planning weekend getaways. This means there are many options for families who want to see the town after dark.
Starting with free, a public Art Walk is held weekly between November and March. Along the Malecon and downtown, there is nightly outdoor entertainment that includes concerts, theater, mimes, and the flying dancers of Papantla — a fantastic Aztec gymnastic pole ritual.
Families who want a gourmet night out with the kids have a fun option at El Arrayan. In a very traditional courtyard style house, a large menu of traditional Mexican dishes is available. After dining, El Arrayan’s chef teaches guests of all ages how to make mole sauces, ceviche and other simple Mexican dishes.
Prefer to go out on your own? Parents have many opportunities to take in some of PV’s fine restaurants and nightlife. The family welcoming hotels reviewed in FTF’s Puerto Vallarta Family Hotels roundup provide private babysitting so, even if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort where meals have been prepaid, allow the culinary scene to lure you out.
The Visit Puerto Vallarta office keeps up with the latest in gourmet eateries, often chosen at the annual International Gourmet Festival each November. Then, depending on your mood, you can end your day with salsa classes, a cocktail or a dance at one of the many bars and lounges in Zona Romantica.
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