The number one thing most people associate with a trip to Mexico is fun in the sun, beach-style. And who can blame them? Mexico has long been famous for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and clear, turquoise waters to match.
While these beaches are worth visiting, no question, you’d be doing yourself a disservice with any visit to Mexico that didn’t include exploring the culture in its cities.
Puerto Vallarta, in particular, has become a very well-rounded tourism hub. You’ll find all the creature comforts you value when traveling, but with everything that makes your trip really feel like an exotic getaway.
Discovered by American tourists in the mid-1960s, Puerto Vallarta grew from a quiet, cozy beach town into a thriving tourist metropolis, but managed to maintain its small-town vibe.
We’ve put together a list of things to do that encompasses all the best that Puerto Vallarta has to offer so that you can get the most out of your visit to this beautiful Mexican city.
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1. Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
Anglicized as the Church of our Lady of Guadalupe, this iconic 20th-century church is well-known among locals and travelers and can be seen on the city skyline from all over.
If you recognize it upon arrival, it might be because this important landmark is on T-shirts, postcards, and other souvenir items throughout the city. It is also known as the Virgin Mary, as she is the patron saint of Mexico.
While the church is open daily to the public and bells are rung every half hour, the best time to visit is without a doubt during the Our Lady of Guadalupe Festival, which runs for the first twelve days of December.
The festival honors the 1531 miracle of when the eponymous saint appeared to a peasant and is a colorful mania of music, color, and dance. There are street processions, decorated floats, and both Christian and Aztec symbolism are prevalent in every aspect.
The church itself is deeply symbolic of the growth of the city; it began as a small chapel and was gradually added to it until it became the imposing structure it is today. Its lifetime is reflected in the many different types of architecture it displays, something undoubtedly worth seeing on a visit to Puerto Vallarta.
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2. Marietas Islands
If a hidden beach sounds like something you’d like to visit, then the Marietas Islands should be on your list of things to do in Puerto Vallarta. Thanks to a unique natural formation, this hidden gem has created a small beach inside what appears to be a crater on the rocky island.
These two islands are just off the coast of Banderas Bay, formed from volcanic activity that is responsible for the hidden underground crater beach. This beautiful natural beach is only accessible for 30 minutes daily when the tide is out, via a small rock tunnel.
This is a popular attraction and there are limited daily spots, so be sure to book in advance if you want to see this for yourself!
The protected natural surroundings are rich with marine life, and it’s a great place for marine birdwatching. If you are really lucky, you might get to see traveling pods of humpback whales.
Aside from the hidden beach, there are many activities here including stand up paddleboarding, snorkeling, scuba diving, birdwatching, and exploration of caves and rock formations.
Book a GetYourGuide snorkeling cruise here if you want to explore the spot on a catamaran!
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3. Los Muertos Pier
Banderas Bay has a new pier in town. Renovated and heavily modernized in 2013, the Los Muertos Pier is a unique structure with a noteworthy design that sets it apart from what you imagine most piers to look like.
Instead of a straight, single-line structure, the pier curves into a ribbon shape, from which an attached full circle walkway juts out. From the center of this circular walkway bursts a structure designed to look like a sailboat, which is spectacularly lit up with myriad changing colors after sundown.
El Centro, the district in which the pier is located, is a thriving area especially at night, when street performers, funky restaurants and bars, and artisans sell their wares all right within the vicinity of the pier.
This unique and beautiful pier, though less than 10 years old, has quickly become a famed landmark in Puerto Vallarta. It’s not just visually pleasing, either; it’s an important spot for tourism, where boating companies will pick up and drop off guests for adventure expeditions.
Whether you’re here to catch a ride or just want to get a top-tier view of the bay, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Los Muertos Pier.
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4. Mismaloya Beach
If you want to get a sense of Puerto Vallarta’s history and get a glimpse of the original beauty that made this region famous, a visit to Mismaloya Beach might be in order.
This stunning beach is about a 25-minute drive from the center of Puerto Vallarta and became a household name in the 1960s when film director John Huston selected it as a filming location.
As a result, the Mexican government invested funds into better roadways, telephone lines, and facilities to encourage tourism. Over time, nearby Puerto Vallarta blossomed into the bustling tourist escape it is today.
Mismaloya Beach itself is still a little slice of paradise. Nestled within a small cove lined with jungle (and accompanying fauna like jaguars and armadillos), this is a white sandy beach whose sheltered cove makes for calm waters perfect for watersports.
Stand up paddleboarding, snorkeling, and scuba diving are all popular activities. There are even snorkel tours and day trips that include boat travel from Puerto Vallarta.
Here’s another tip: follow the small road from Mismaloya to nearby Barceló, where you can take a tour inside the Mama Lucía tequila factory.
5. El Cora Crocodile Sanctuary
Combine adventure and nature with a visit to the El Cora Crocodile Sanctuary. It’s all in the name; this is a protected wildlife reserve that focuses on wildlife conservation and educational ecotourism.
Entry costs just 20 pesos ($100-150 for guided tours), and you’ll be able to see many different animals native to the area: macaws, parrots, turtles, tejóns, and of course, crocodiles.
With no government funding, all proceeds from food and ticket sales go to self-supporting the sanctuary so that they can continue their work on rehabilitating and repopulating wild crocodiles.
The tours are up to 2 hours long, involving veterinarians and biologists to help with the educational aspects and provide information. If you time your tour correctly, you might be lucky enough to feed one of the seven crocodiles currently held there, or hold a baby crocodile!
Many locals recommend the on-site fresh seafood restaurant for a meal, so be sure to try it out before you leave the sanctuary. It is particularly inviting on a hot day, where you can sip a cold drink on the open-air deck.
6. Playa Palmares
Just south of Puerto Vallarta lies one of the most beautiful and desirable beaches the area has to offer—Playa Palmares. It’s located just a short 20-minute drive away, and once you arrive you’ll agree it’s worth the small journey. (The drive also follows the coastline, so you’ll get to take the scenic route there and back.)
This beach is blue flag certified, which means a few very good things are guaranteed: cleanliness, water quality, and above all—safety. Access is also very easy, and many tourist facilities like parking, sidewalks, and disabled ramps have been constructed so that everyone who wants to use the beach can, something not a lot of other beaches can say.
The beach itself is the quintessential white-sand, crystal-waters kind, so it’s popular with families and travelers alike. Most days you’ll find it quite busy, full of people sunbathing, swimming, and even fishing.
Sometimes boats will pass by offering the well-known banana rides, and food vendors will walk down the sandy banks selling fried fish on sticks. You’ll get a true feel for the vibe of Puerto Vallarta here, so if you can have only one beach day, let it be at Playa Palmares.
7. Mirador La Cruz del Cerro
The best views are always at the top, and Puerto Vallarta is no exception to the rule. For the best views, you’ll get on foot, Mirador La Cruz del Cerro is the place to go. This is a relatively steep, 30-minute stair climb, but with a good pair of shoes and a water bottle, it’s not too strenuous.
The result is worth the hike; at the top of your climb is an observatory with stunning panoramic views of Puerto Vallarta below.
Don’t leave your camera at your hotel—you’ll want to have it when you get to the top to capture the incredible vistas of the white and terracotta-colored houses below, backlit by the turquoise sea.
From the Malecon boardwalk, look for Abasolo Street. From there, follow the road as far as it goes and you’ll start seeing signage for ‘El Mirador’, which will point the way towards the base of the steps. The steps are well-marked and well-constructed, so you’ll know them when you see them.
As a tip: don’t wait around for the cable car! It has been out of service for some years. As long as you’ve got comfortable walking shoes and some water, the hike will be an enjoyable bit of exercise with the reward of great views.
8. Palo Maria Waterfall Hike
This one isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you have the athletic level to complete it you’ll be happy you did. Tucked away in the Sierra Madre mountains is Palo Maria, an adventurous hike with a dozen waterfalls along its route. Many hikers turn back after the first (and most popular) waterfall, but if your skill level allows for a further trek (or a rock climb), there are many more waterfalls to see.
The beginning of the hike is just 20 minutes from downtown, at the Palo Maria Bridge. From there, expect a 30-60 minute hike (depending on your route) to the first waterfall, which also happens to have the deepest pool at almost 25 feet. It’s a popular swimming hole so be sure to bring your swimsuit to go for a refreshing dip.
Even if you only plan to visit the first falls, allow for at least four hours. The hike is weather-dependent, but even in perfect weather, there may be unanticipated breaks or stops. The natural surroundings are unspoiled and breathtaking, so you also want to be able to take your time and enjoy the journey through the jungle.
9. Explore the Centro Historico
Located near the Malecon boardwalk, the city’s historical district is a sight to behold. The surrounding streets and buildings are made up of the original cobblestones and colonial architecture, beautiful stonework, and stained glass windows.
Since this tends to be a draw for tourists and travelers, there are a lot of street vendors and artisans, which only add to the neighborhood’s charm.
Known colloquially as the ‘Zona Romantica’ (romantic zone), there is a lot to see and do in this small area: bright and colorful painted murals make for a photo opportunity at every turn; unique shops selling souvenirs and handmade pieces; tequila tastings and distilleries; and art galleries where unique prints, paintings, and pottery are available for purchase.
While this is more of a shopping experience than a cultural expedition, it has a great charm and while there are certainly tourist traps to avoid, much of what you can find in the Centro Historico is a taste of true Mexican culture.
You don’t need to intend to buy anything to wander these picturesque streets: sometimes just wandering, observing, and people-watching is a great way to spend your day in itself.
And one tip: be sure to explore the side streets and not just the shops along the Malecon!
Places in Mexico to Visit Before or After Puerto Vallarta
If you’ve got more time to explore Mexico there are some amazing places in Mexico nearby you should check out. If you can’t fit it in on this trip consider them on your next trip. Make sure to check out some of our other Mexico articles to fuel your wanderlust.