Sometimes called the Gold Coast or the Mexican Riviera, Mexico's Central Pacific Coast is easily as gorgeous as its storied namesakes in France and Italy—and, in some areas, just as ritzy. The region runs approximately 350 miles from the town of San Blas south to the Costalegre, with Puerto Vallarta at its center. Hidden bays and beaches dot the entire coastline, and devoted surfers and beach bums are trying to protect their enclaves from the new wave of waterfront resorts gobbling up great swaths of the coast. Yet there are still plenty of beaches, even in busy Puerto Vallarta, where sea turtles outnumber people.
The most drastic changes are in the area north of Puerto Vallarta, known as the Riviera Nayarit. Fonatur—the Mexican government tourism agency responsible for the resort-ification of Cancún and Los Cabos—is busily developing nearly 200 miles of beach and jungle with luxury hotels, all-inclusive compounds, at least seven golf courses, and several marinas. The project is swallowing up much of the coast and adding paved roads and improving services for pleasant small seaside towns including Sayulita, San Pancho, and San Blas.
At the southern end of the Riviera Nayarit, Punta Mita occupies a gorgeous headland overlooking Banderas Bay. This is where you'll find tiny boutique beach hotels like Casa de Mita and swank resorts like the Four Seasons and St. Regis. Between Punta Mita and Puerto Vallarta, the coastal areas of Nuevo Vallarta and Marina Vallarta offer a bit of everything: time shares, all-inclusives, residential communities, and boutique hotels, including Casa Velas. At the bay's midpoint is Puerto Vallarta, whichamid so much tourismhas managed to remain an authentic Mexican community with a healthy population of artsy expats. Whitewashed homes, chic galleries, and gourmet restaurants cram the skinny cobblestone streets in Viejo Vallarta and the Zona Romántica, both located along downtown Puerto Vallarta's coastline. A malecón (seaside promenade) bridges the Río Cuale, which bisects the two neighborhoods.
South of Puerto Vallarta, eco-lodges and small hotels, such as Verana, claim remote beaches and hilltops on the south side of the bay around Boca de Tomatlán and Yelapa. The jungly stretches in Costa Careyes and the Costalegre, have long been a haven for international jet-setters, who congregate at exclusive hideaways like El Tamarindo and secluded nature reserves like Cuixmala. Historic mining towns and indigenous Huichol villages are tucked away in the forested Sierra Madre mountains towering over the coast.
WHEN TO GO
The climate along the Pacific Coast is tropical. During the rainy summer season (June through September), you can expect high humidity, intermittent afternoon showers, and occasional heavy storms with temperatures reaching into the 90s. The dry, hot months—October through May—are the best time to visit, as well as the most expensive. You can save a little money in the shoulder season: September to early November and March through May. With the exceptions of Easter week and spring break, these months offer the best good-value-to-good-weather ratio; expect average temperatures in the high 70s to low 80s. Note that some restaurants and hotels close between May and October.
HOW TO GET THERE
Puerto Vallarta's international airport is the transportation hub for the whole region, with direct flights from Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as from Mexico City. The vast majority of visitors head to one particular resort or town and either prearrange an airport transfer with their hotel or take a taxi (taxis are easily $20 or more each way to Puerto Vallarta hotels and upward of $50 to places north and south of town; prepay for a voucher at the airport counter). If you plan to stick around your resort, transfers or taxis are generally a better investment than renting a car. However, if you want to explore more extensively, or if your hotel is located further away (such as in the Riviera Nayarit or on the Costalegre coast), a rental car is your best bet.
You can't avoid driving in downtown Puerto Vallarta when exploring the coastal region north to south; sadly, it's the easiest way to connect with Highway 200. Driving in town can be difficult: The streets are narrow and crowded, and the search for a parking spot could ruin your outing.
Highway 200 skirts the city, winding up and down steep hills north and south of Puerto Vallarta. It's tempting to put the pedal the metal (when not stuck behind trucks), but beware of speed traps.
In recent years, violent crime—most of it related to warring drug traffickers—has been on the rise in Mexico. Puerto Vallarta has thus far managed to avoid trouble, and tourist police patrol the major attractions. Before planning your trip, check with the U.S State Department for announcements, but beware of sweeping generalizations. When a Mexican state is listed as having problems, the trouble is usually occurring in remote areas that tourists rarely see.
For information on all the destinations included here, contact the Mexico Tourism Board at (800) 446-3942, www.visitmexico.com. You can also contact the Puerto Vallarta tourism office below:
Hotel Canto del Sol
Local 18, Planta Baja
Tel: 52 322 224 1175