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THIS ISN’T A THEME-PARK:
THE REAL PUERTO VALLARTA

 

Bob Bundergeist, 10-year Puerto Vallarta resident, reporting in TravelVibe

(March 2005; used with permission)

A few years ago I gave up my comfortable suburban lifestyle on the edge of Minneapolis, and traded it for an even more comfortable city lifestyle in what had been my favorite vacation destination, Puerto Vallarta Mexico. My friends all thought I was crazy (and some still do), although very few have ever been shy about flying out of a frozen winter to spend a week or two in my spare bedrooms.

 

The first couple of years they filled their days with shopping for trinkets and over-drinking in the beach restaurants, returning to the house sun-burnt and tipsy. They rented ATVs and dune buggies and took guided tours through the jungles with multiple stops for tequila-tastings and tacos washed down with beer (“Awesome!” said Greg and Doug). Matt and Nicole went para-sailing over the bay (“Beautiful!” said Nicole) and went to wet T-shirt night at Carlos O’briens (“Great” said Matt…Nicole replied that she could have won the contest “if she’d wanted to”, had she only entered of course).

 

John and Marge stayed in a hotel-zone high.rise and spent nearly every day on an air-conditioned bus, taking comfortable tours of the city and surrounding towns, farms, and jungles; but never actually feeling it, not once actually touching the real Mexico. Bob and Suzanne and 8 of their friends all stayed at a modern all-inclusive hotel in Nuevo Vallarta, nearly as far removed from Mexico as a Holiday Inn in their own town would have been. They left the resort property exactly once, to see my house and comment “This isn’t ANYTHING like where WE’RE staying…THIS is COOL!”

 

I have no problem with people enjoying their vacations, doing all these things and more in a new and different environment that is so far removed from their normal, daily expectations. After all, that is what taking a vacation to a different country is all about: new sights, different experiences, seeing something out-of-the-ordinary of our day-in, day-out, ordinary lives. I myself have done most of the ‘tourist’ things during my vacations before I moved here and with my visiting friends on their vacations.

 

Then Carol and her two surly teenaged sons visited and insisted on a trip to Wal-Mart to try and get the best prices on souvenir shot-glasses, with a stop at the McDonald’s on the way back to “see if a cheeseburger is the same as at home”. (It is, by the way, except for the word ‘fast’ obviously removed from the term ‘fast-food’.) I realized that all my friends were missing something in their trips here. Puerto Vallarta is pretty much a ‘theme park’ to so many visitors, and in treating it as such, they miss out on the real beauty of Mexico, its culture and people, and it’s natural beauty. They miss the REAL Mexico that is more exciting and different than any guided tour can provide. They miss the reasons I decided to make this my home.

 

The reason I fell in love with Puerto Vallarta has nothing to do with the activities promoted by beach vendors or (for a kick-back) by the hotel concierges. Rather, it has EVERYTHING to do with the delicious out-of-the-way local restaurants you’ll never find advertised in a tourism magazine, the friendly local residents in the stores off the tourist-track, the incredible scenery that you can’t witness from a tour bus, and the experiences that can only come from first-hand interaction with the local culture. Remember that Puerto Vallarta was a ‘real town’ before international tourism came…as opposed to places like Cabo and Cancun where there was nearly nothing before the federal government decided to develop and promote them as tourist destinations.

 

With this in mind, I developed several alternatives for my continuously-returning friends who were quickly beginning to tire of packaged tours, tourist-oriented restaurants, and other obviously-made-for-visitors attractions. Something for those who wanted to experience something of the genuine Mexico. Since turning my friends on to the ‘real Vallarta’, they’ve returned more often and for longer stays, made long-term friendships with beautiful local residents, and one couple has even bought their retirement home here while others have purchased time-shares or secured standing-reservations at their favorite little hotels. They all find that they spend less money by knowing where to avoid the ‘tourist tax’ (higher prices charged by businesses catering to tourists). They are testament to the fact that when you find the REAL Puerto Vallarta, you may discover a real home away from home, not just a theme-park vacation.

 

 

REAL LOCAL RESTAURANTS:
You won’t find any of these places in any of the tourist brochures, magazines, or guides. And yet they offer some of the best meals you will ever eat, with genuine Mexican hospitality (not ‘staged’ for the tourism trade), and without paying an inflated price (the ‘tourist tax’).

 

TACON de MARLIN: Still a mystery to most tourists, even though it’s been written up in BonApetit magazine (after which the prices immediately went up a few pesos, but it’s still a bargain). Tacon de Marlin has a short menu of seafood wrapped in a large flour tortilla and seared on a grill. Marlin is of course the most popular, but I prefer the ‘combo’ of marlin and shrimp. Only mildly spicy, but add a little heat if you like with the sauces on the table. Comes with a delicious salad of carrots, jicama, and cucumbers in a creamy sauce. Around $6 (usd), and they’re plenty big enough for two if you’re not overly hungry.


HOW TO FIND IT: Right across from the airport, at the foot of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the highway. (This is a popular place to eat before your flight home…check your bags in, cross the bridge, and enjoy a great lunch before your flight…or get a few to go, and you’ll be the envy of your fellow passengers.) The airline flight crews regularly eat here…don’t be surprised if your airplane’s first officer is picking up a bag for their in-flight meal!

 

MAURICIO’S and EL COLEGITO: ‘Comida’ is the largest meal of the day, generally taken between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Just North of the airport is Ixtapa, one of Puerto Vallarta’s ‘suburbs’, and here you will find TWO great examples of the typical small-town or neighborhood comida restaurants. A party atmosphere complete with strolling mariachi musicians is part of the fun, and as the peak hour approaches (around 3pm), you’ll find the place crowded with entire families, groups of co-workers, and college students from the nearby university. Mauricio’s features a mix of seafood and carnivore fare…my favorites are the ‘surf and turf’ (a nice steak and a big pile of large shrimp), or the tender ribs. Order a can of Tecate beer and it comes with a several free shrimp on top to nibble on. ElColegito is strictly seafood, and lots of it…get the combo plate and you’ll be served a huge platter of fish fillet, shrimp, octopus, and more. Free tequila here…just ask and they’ll gladly refill your glass! At either place, go with a big appetite or plan on bringing home leftovers. I personally can’t recommend one over the other…they’re both excellent, a good value, and my best advise is to try them both!

 


HOW TO FIND THEM: Any taxi driver or bus driver (take any bus that says “Ixtapa”) will be able to get you there…just say “Mauricio’s in Ixtapa” or “El Colegito in Ixtapa” and they’ll know. Mauricio’s is on the right at the first speed-bump after turning off the highway towards Ixtapa; El Colegito is a couple miles further up the road, on the left, after the university.



EATING FROM THE CART:
Many guide books and vacation-package companies will warn tourists to avoid eating from the many food cars around the city, citing health hazards and other perils. In my experience and that of my friends, this advice taken as a whole is ridiculous. The numerous carts here provide delicious meals at bargain prices…it’s where most of the ‘locals’ eat. The dreaded ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ comes usually not from eating bad food, but rather the typical tourist’s failure to keep themselves hydrated with lots of water in this hot climate combined with an excess of celebratory tequila and other spirits…but it always gets blamed on bad food.


The best tacos and quesadillas in town are at the carts. If you’re feeling just a bit skittish about this advice but still want to enjoy what we who live here know as some of the best eating and value in town , the following precautions are not out of line:


1) LOOK FOR A CROWD: The places with a few people already enjoying their food is a good sign that it’s been there for nearly forever without complaint.
2) DON’T OVER-DO THE SPICES: A ‘Gringo’ stomach not familiar with Mexican chili sauces will likely revolt. The carts generally have a selection of sauces which customers can apply as they like, depending on their taste. If in doubt about the spiciness of a given sauce, point at it and inquire “picante?” (spicy?)…take the one that is ‘no picante’.
3) USE LIMON: ‘Limon’ means ‘lime’, and it’s a staple of Mexican dining. Squeeze some limon on your taco…it adds a nice ‘zing’ to your food and is a natural anti-bacterial.
4) IF STILL IN DOUBT: Take some Pepto-Bismol BEFORE you eat. Many tourists swear by this and take it before EVERY meal, but in trying this myself find that it gives me a constantly-full feeling and takes away my appetite for ANYthing after a day or so.
5) GOOD ADVICE NO MATTER WHERE YOU EAT: Drink LOTS of bottled water…at least 3 quarts/liters a day. You’re probably not used to the heat here, and your body will thank you for the hydration. This is ESPECIALLY important before, DURING, and after enjoying the inexpensive cold beer and delicious margaritas. I know you’re on vacation, but try nonetheless to practice a bit of moderation…overindulging in liquor is the NUMBER ONE reason, especially when dehydrated, for Montezuma’s Revenge!

 

A “SECRET” RESTAURANT: Fresh fish, chicken, and steaks draw those who know about it to its 8 or 9 tables. A waiting line out front is common, and get here early…the kitchen takes last orders at 9:30pm. Great food, great service, and great prices! Usually too much food for anybody except very-hearty eaters. I’d give you its name and location, except for the fact that it is a small place that is already sufficiently busy and successful. If I tell you, it’ll just be harder for me to get a table. However, here’s a CRIPTIC CLUE: A witch by the mouth of a cave.

 

“GRINGO GULCH” WALKING TOUR:
The hills above the ‘Malecon’ (the beach-side sea-walk downtown) have taken the nickname ‘Gringo Gulch’ due to the large number of ‘Norte Americanos’ who have moved here. But they haven’t destroyed any of it’s charm by building modern high-rise condos…rather, these gringos are here because they love the natural and historic beauty of the area, the friendly neighborhood stores, and the breezy views of the bay. Just spending a few hours walking around here will give you a taste of real Mexican life-style, as you pass a combination of simple homes and restored haciendas, many brightly decorated and with balconies over-flowing with flowers. The higher you go, the better the views, so keep climbing up the steep streets or stairways…but stop occasionally for refreshments at any of the little stores you encounter. You can begin your journey from nearly any point along the Malecon North of the big Guadalupe church…just put your back to the ocean and head up the hill. I recommend this walk for a morning activity, before the sun gets too hot.

 


PUNTA DE MITA
A day trip (or longer!) to Punta de Mita is a trip to a different side of the Vallarta area. Where the road ends along the North side of the bay is the little town of ‘Mita’, with some of the most beautiful strolling beaches you’ll find on the Pacific coast. This town actually used to inhabit the actual point of land that defines the end of the bay and the beginning of the ocean, but developers bought the town, moved it a bit to the East, and are building a super-luxury resort where the town previously lived. You can’t access the point any longer unless you’re in the class of people who routinely pay $300 (usd) per night for a hotel room, $25 for a cheeseburger, and hundreds of dollars for a round of golf. (John Travolta and other celebrities are frequent guests of the 4 Seasons Resort here, however few of them venture off the property. Those that do, however, are friendly and approachable if you’re not ‘star-struck’…British comedian John Cleese of ‘Monty Python’ fame has been known to stay here and spend most his afternoons for lunch with ‘the locals’.)

 

Nonetheless, the ‘new’ town of Punta de Mita is a quaint fisherman’s village, at least for now. There’s a nice row of restaurants where the bus lets you off, all serving meals that were likely swimming just a few hours previous. You carnivores won’t find any shortage of beef and chicken either, served whole or in tacos, fajitas, and quesadillas. The waves are reputed to be among the best in Mexico for learning to surf, and the town is close to the Marietta Islands which stand in the middle of the mouth of the bay, and offer excellent snorkeling and scuba adventures. Sightings from the shore during ‘whale-watching season’ (December through April) are common, and a fishing trip from here rather than Vallarta will save you an hour of transit time in the boat each direction.

 

The best beaches are just East of the town, but a recent rash of mid-rise condo-building on the waterfront has disrupted public access to them. (All beaches in Mexico are ‘public’, but builders can block access to them from the land.) Either walk along the beach from the restaurant row, or walk through town to the East end of town where you’ll find an access road at the end of the condos. You can walk for several miles and find lots of small shells, tide pools, and a few secluded coves. New villas owned by sheiks, princes, and movie stars dot the land along the beach…you can get a glimpse of how ‘the other half’ lives.

 

If you choose to spend more than a day here, you’ll find friendly ‘locals’ and an outgoing group of ex-pat Gringos and Canadians who’ll likely help you feel at home. There are a couple small hotels, and ask around for vacation rentals…there are several. Posada Paraiso (“Paradise Inn”) is a charming bed-and-breakfast with a few private casitas just a block or so from the beach and the restaurant row (www.posadaparaiso.com).

 

VIEJO VALLARTA
The term “Viejo Vallarta” (‘Old Vallarta’) is a bit of a misnomer. This area South of the Rio Cuale (‘Cuale River’) is not actually the oldest part of the Puerto Vallarta, but it certainly maintains the ‘authentic’ feel of this not-very-old city. While hotels. modern shops, and tourist attractions have replaced most of the origins of the original town, ‘Viejo’ has retained the original charm of Old Mexico.

 

Cobblestone streets lined with trees divide legitimate ‘local’ shops and newer small boutiques. ‘Tourist’ restaurants stand nearly side-by-side with ‘locals’ restaurants. A t-shirt store may be next door to a neighborhood hardware store, and women’s clothing stores selling comfortable dresses of cotton ‘Manta’ (a soft and natural-colored cotton fabric) are frequented by Gringos, ‘locals’, and tourists alike. There are little groceries and service stores on every block mixed with stores catering to the tourist trade and featuring everything from ‘typical’ souvenirs to beautiful hand-crafted works of art.

 

DOWNTOWN BUT NOT “THE MALECON”
Within a block or two of the Malecon are Juarez and Morelos Streets…here is the REAL downtown where the locals go to shop, as opposed to the tourism-oriented Malecon. Fabric stores, artist’s supplies, clothing boutiques, and appliance stores…all of the things a ‘local’ or ‘resident gringo’ needs to get by. Spend a little time wandering the shops here to see how it would feel to live here.

 

THE "TAKE ANY BUS" TOUR:
Good for a couple hours or more, get on a local bus. ANY bus. Bring along a couple of sodas, sit toward the front if you can to get a good view out the windshield, and see where you go. You'll most likely wander through the residential areas of the city where every other house still raises chickens in the yard, children play soccer barefoot in the street, and local vendors sell their wares door-to-door. When you get to the end of the line, buy a snack at the store that inevitably sits at the corner, then pay your fare again (7-1/2 pesos, about 40 cents (usd)), and take the trip back. Sit on the same side of the bus as you did coming out, and you'll see the other half of the trip you missed. If you're lucky, a musician may ride along and belt out a song or two, then politely explain to the passengers that this is how he earns his living for his large family, and pass a hat for pesos. Surprisingly, some of these musicians are extremely talented...but even the worst deserve a peso or two for trying. BEST PLACE TO CATCH A BUS: In Viejo Vallarta, at the east end of Cardenas Park, one block from the beach. This is the start-and-finish for most of the routes, so you should be able to get a seat up front. Remember, the yellow seats (usually directly behind the driver) are for the elderly and handicapped.

 

FINALLY; Don't be afraid to get off the beaten 'tourist track'. Some of the best times my friends and I have had occur when we venture out into the neighborhoods and discover a friendly little restaurant or cantina that seldom sees a tourist. When you encounter local gringos, ask them for their favorite places (they're usually not the ones all the tourists go to). Ask around in the places where the locals go...try stopping in at La Escondida Sports Bar, next to the Hotel Villa del Mar at the corner of Madero and Jacarandas in Viejo Vallarta...this is a good 'locals hang out' where everybody will have some ideas for you in your quest to find the REAL Puerto Vallarta.

 

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