Even if you’re staying in the finest or largest of Puerto Vallarta’s hotels or resorts, you’ll want to get out and discover the city, visit restaurants, do some shopping, whatever.
Your first instinct tells you that traffic is a little different here (some would use the word ‘crazy’), and it’s true…so renting a car, at least right away, isn’t usually your smartest option.
Puerto Vallarta isn’t very big, really…but still you wouldn’t want to walk from one end to the other. So we are blessed with thousands of taxis and hundreds of buses, all inexpensive and efficient. Just as when visiting any new destination, it’s good to know in advance the ins-and-outs of getting around in ‘public’ transportation.
PUERTO VALLARTA TAXIS
Yellow taxis will likely be a primary mode of transportation for you. (There are a few ‘white’ taxis, but these are licensed only for trips from the airport and cruise ship terminal…see “Arriving and Departing…” from the left menu for more info.) The majority of the yellow taxis are late-model Nissan Sentras, plenty of room for up to 3 passengers, a little cramped for 4, and downright crowded for any more. In fact, the police (and therefore taxi drivers) frown on more than 4 passengers, so if you’re in a larger group, plan on taking 2 or more taxis.
You can hail a taxi anywhere you see them driving…just hold out your arm at a right angle, or point to the taxi and make a ‘come here’ motion. There are also numerous taxi stands through out town…along the malecòn, near the supermarkets and shopping centers, and at the entrances to hotel driveways. If you’re emerging from your hotel, the bellboy or concierge will call a taxi for you (there are nearly always several lined up at a nearby call box) if they aren’t already lined up and waiting at the lobby entrance.
Fares are set by zone, but seldom posted, and there are no meters. Minimum fare is 40 pesos for a short trip, and rise depending on the distance to your destination. As an example, a trip from Viejo Vallarta on the South end of town to the Airport at the North end is currently about 120 pesos. From downtown to midway along the ‘hotel zone’ is around 60 pesos.
Always establish the cost before you get in and close the door! Most hotels have the standard tariffs posted in the lobby, and while most taxi drivers are good and honest, more than once a few have unfortunately tried to cash in on an unsuspecting tourist. It’s also a good idea to carry small bills for taxis…they always seem to be short of change. Keep a stash of 10-peso coins and 20-peso notes for these trips.
Tips are not expected, except for extra service (help in loading or unloading baggage/groceries, waiting time while you make a quick stop, etc.). Not many taxis have air-conditioning, and the ones that do often don’t engage it (gasoline is expensive here too)…most taxis use “4/40” air-conditioning…4 windows down and 40 miles per hour. A single passenger, by courtesy, should ride up front.
Taxis can take you for longer trips as well, and in these cases you may negotiate to try and get a better deal. The official tariff from Puerto Vallarta to Punta Mita (about an hour away at the north tip of the bay) is around 600 pesos, but a ‘taxista’ (taxi driver) is likely to discount this by 100 pesos.
PUERTO VALLARTA LOCAL BUSES
Puerto Vallarta offers an efficient municipal bus system, but unlike any you’ve seen in the United States or Canada. All the buses are owned by their drivers, and may bear the names of the driver’s children painted on the back, a windshield shade sewn by his mother, and a gear-shift cover knitted by his sister. The painted words above the driver reveals his ‘slogan’…”Dios esta my copiloto” means “God is my Copilot”, and “poker de ases” does NOT mean what you think it does…it just means a poker hand full of aces. There’s even more to enjoy (see the end of this ‘BUSES’ section), but for now here’s the nitty-gritty.
In the city, you will find buses running to most destinations every 4 or 5 minutes or so. Inside the city the bus fare is 7 pesos. Pay as you get on board, and most drivers will give you a thin little ticket. This is NOT a transfer (no such thing here), but you should hold on to it…inspectors occasionally board to make sure the driver has given a ticket to each passenger, as this is how they account for their revenue to the bus syndicate.
Each buses’ main destination or route is on a sign at the top of the front of the bus, just like ‘back home’, however this may not mean much to you since you are likely unfamiliar with the names of the neighborhoods here. There are usually also destinations written on the windshield, such as ‘Hotel Zone’ (or even a list of the major hotels), ‘Gigante’ (a local supermarket), ‘Sam’s’ (meaning of course Sam’s Club and Wal-mart which are side-by-side), etc. IN GENERAL, when traveling TO downtown, any bus which is traveling towards downtown will take you directly downtown. It’s when you’re coming back out of downtown that you want to be sure the bus is going where you want to go. When uncertain, simply ask the driver before boarding…just say “Canto del Sol?” (or the name of your hotel)…he’ll either wave you on or jerk his thumb behind him, meaning more or less ‘take another bus that is behind me’.
There is also a smaller sign, usually at the bottom of the windshield, which tells you whether this route will go through downtown (“Centro”) or via tunnel on the by-pass around downtown (“Tunel”). Either way, if you’re heading IN to town, you’ll end up in Viejo Vallarta…the perfect place to start your ‘downtown’ trip. But if your decided destination is in “El Centro” (for instance, along the Malecòn), take the bus labeled “Centro”. On the other hand, the ‘tunel’ route takes you over and through the hill above the city, with great views of the town and bay. Sit on the right side going into town, and on the left coming out for the best window seats.
For longer distance trips within the Vallarta region, the easiest place to catch buses North-bound to Bucerias (20 pesos each way) or Punta Mita (30 pesos each way) is in front of the Wal-mart. Buses run every 6 or 7 minutes, so you never have to wait long. Be aware that on the return trip, these buses only travel as far as the South end of the hotel zone…if you’re traveling further than that, you’ll need to get off and then take another bus to your destination.
South-bound, you can catch buses to Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan (“Boca”) at the corner Basilio Badillo street and Highway 200 in Viejo Vallarta. The fare is 8 pesos each way.
A Mexican bus ride can equal anything a good amusement park will offer. Drivers have perfected the ‘race-brake-race-brake’ technique of getting through traffic (and ahead of their ‘competitors’ to the next large group of waiting passengers). They drive so close to one another you’d swear your buses’ paint is on the bus next to you. But it’s the safest place on the road to be, really, because the bus driver and his big machine are literally the king of the road here. (As a pedestrian, WATCH OUT! Be sure to check for oncoming buses prepared to do a tilting two-wheeled turn across your path…that’s HIS road you’re walking on!)
Musicians often are welcomed aboard the bus to belt out a few songs. These range from the half-blind old man with a cracked boom-box providing background to his sad wailing song, to duos and trios of amazingly talented and enjoyable musicians. After a song or two, the hat gets passed for your spare pesos.
Vendors also come aboard selling candies, stickers, or miracle skin cremes. It is common for them to walk down the aisle handing each passenger one of their wares while telling their story, then come back through to either accept return of the merchandise or payment for it. Be sure to take advantage of delicious homemade candied peanuts or other sweets. The last type of ‘entertainment’ you might encounter will be a person who has just seen better days, and will tell his or her sad story to the busload of passengers in an attempt to win a little sympathy and a few coins. Don’t be afraid to bless these souls with what will be a graciously accepted peso or two, and count it as ‘good karma' money well spent.
LONG DISTANCE BUSES
The long-distance bus system in Mexico puts to shame that and the passenger railroad systems of the rest of North America. Modern Mercedes, Saab, and Volvo buses offer true ‘first class’ (“clase primero”) service throughout the country, with reserved seats bigger and more comfortable than on the airlines. From Puerto Vallarta, the buses are a popular way to get to Guadalajara, a 5-hour journey that includes a sack lunch, at least one movie (usually in English with Spanish subtitles), and beautiful views of mountains and valleys, ranches, and agave (for tequila) plantations. There’s even a little kitchen in back for making coffee or tea. From Guadalajara you can continue your journey to any other point in the country. If you're headed North, a 3-4 hour bus ride to Tepic will get you started...you can travel as far as the U.S.-Mexico border.
The bus terminal ("Centro de Camiones") is just a couple minutes north of the airport. There are three different bus lines serving the Puerto Vallarta - Guadalajara route: The absolute best is ETN, with 2 barcolounger-size seats on one side and one on the other. Think of ETN as the airline equivelent of "first class". Primera Plus is more like business class, with two-by-two seating, but the seats and legroom are still more than ample. A newcomer to the scene is Vallarta Plus, which also offers 2-by-2 seating with ample leg-room, but is generally the least expensive. Each line operates at least 10 trips per day at varying hours, from an "early bird" (5 or 6 am) departure to a late "red-eye" (midnight or so) departure.
Fares between Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara vary by season and competitive pressures, but currently, all three are locked in a bit of a "fare war", with prices of under 300 pesos one-way. Under less competitive pressures, the ETN price is usually closer to 450 to 500 pesos (non-stop); Primera Plus around 400 pesos (non-stop), and Vallarta Plus in the under-250 peso area.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT VALLARTA PLUS: This bus line has THEIR OWN terminal about a kilometer from the "main" bus terminal (it's actually closer to the main highway), perhaps one of the reasons for their typically lower fares. Vallarta Plus journeys are not "non-stop", but rather take just a few very quick stops on the way to Guadalajara. One of the attractions of this is when returning from Guadalajara...the bus will stop on the edge of the city at a major transit center. A few vendors will board the bus offering inexpensive delicious tomales and tortas (sandwiches) for your dining pleasure on the ride home. You can also get off quickly to visit the OXXO convenience store for drinks, snacks, or a six-pack of beer to make your trip more enjoyable (make sure to let the driver know as you leave the bus, so he remembers that you've already paid for your ticket, and also so he doesn't leave without you).
PUERTO VALLARTA RENTAL CARS
In the humble opinion of this Puerto Vallarta resident, having a car for trips inside of town is LOTS more hassle than it is worth here. Over the past few years the availability of financing has created a surge of new car sales, taxing the road system and eating up all available parking. Rental cars are expensive (about double what you’d pay in the U.S. or Canada); Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, and the bus is even cheaper and even more entertaining.
On the other hand, if you want to visit all that is Vallarta OUTSIDE of ‘Puerto Vallarta’, then having a car for a day or two is a great way to go. Bucerias, La Cruz, and Punta de Mita to the North of “PV” are easily accessible via modern highway, and with a rental car you are free to move about as you desire. Driving south on Highway 200 you can reach Mismaloya (about 20 minutes) and Boca de Tomatlan (about 30 minutes) before the road turns inland and over the low mountains before coming close to the Pacific ocean on your way to Bara de Navidad and Manzanillo (about 4 hours or so).
In any case, be advised that driving after dark outside of the well-lighted city streets is highly ill-advised…it’s not gangs of banditos you need to worry about, but rather the stray cow who has wandered into your path. Even the ‘locals’ tend to avoid the country roads after dark if they can.
Most of the major car rental companies you’re familiar with have franchises here (Avis, Hertz, National, Budget, Alamo, Thrifty, etc.), but there are also a good number of smaller companies catering to the tourist trade who want a car for a day or two. The ‘big guys’ have a wide variety of cars from sub-compacts to vans and SUVs, but the smaller companies specialize in more ‘non-traditional’ cars: VW ‘Bugs’ and the VW ‘Safari’ (remember the VW ‘Thing’?…that’s a ‘Safari’ down here) have open tops and are great for soaking up the sun as you tool around (don’t forget the sunscreen!). You’ll also find soft-top (or ‘no-top’) Jeeps, mostly of recent vintage, and wide open and way-fun ‘dune buggy’ style cars that really give you the feel of the wind in your hair.
Every concierge in every hotel has a deal with one of the rental companies for a car…your best advice is to arrange at least the night before for delivery of the car to your hotel the next morning when you need it, or to pre-reserve at least a day in advance (insisting the car be ready when you want to arrive at their office). Many rental companies have several small offices throughout the city, but only one parking lot for all their vehicles…just dropping in and expecting a car to be there and waiting for you will likely result in “just a short wait” of an hour or more for your car to be delivered.
Also note that you will either need a credit (NOT ‘debit’) card to secure your rental, or a very hefty CASH deposit and perhaps the temporary surrender of your passport until you return the car. Insurance is usually included (with only a moderate deductible should you totally wreck or lose the car), but be sure to ask. Terms are similar to those in the U.S. and Canada (rental rates are per 24-hour period, bring the car back with the same amount of gas it left with, etc.).
For a vehicle with which to explore the city, consider either a scooter or 4-wheel ATV for a day. These are considerably less expensive than rental cars, and again your hotel concierge will be able to help you arrange it with a nearby rental agency. WEAR YOUR HELMET. The cobblestone streets here can be a bit tricky to navigate with a scooter's small wheels, and as the smallest vehicle on the road, you'll want to protect your head 'just in case'. You will be well advised to stay off the busy main streets as well. Besides, exploring the city on a scooter or ATV will be more enjoyable if you're exploring the back-roads and side-streets anyway.
ALWAYS REMEMBER A BASIC MEXICAN RULE OF THE ROAD:
If it’s bigger than you, it has the right-of-way! Watch out for buses, cement trucks, etc. THIS IS JUST AS TRUE when you are a pedestrian…be SURE to look BEHIND you for ANY vehicle which intends to turn the corner you’re about to cross!