Puerto Vallarta - Expectations and Reality
Updated: May 9, 2020
There were plenty of things where Puerto Vallarta delivered exactly what I thought it would - beautiful weather (it did not rain once during our two-week stay), great quality all inclusive, cheap massage (not at the hotel of course, their prices were exorbitant but plenty of massage parlours in town where 350 pesos buy you 75 minutes!) and the sunsets were incredible. But there were also six things that turned out not at all as I expected, with both positive and negative surprises:
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Expectation nr. 1: Safety achieved by heavy police presence
Our first trip to Mexico was to the other side of the country - the Yucatan peninsula - and one of the first things we noticed during the drive to the hotel was how many heavily armed policemen there were everywhere. Not even in cities - they were out on the roads, watching over the passing traffic, stopping and checking some cars. 'Ah', I thought, 'with that much police attention I don't think I have to worry about personal safety here.'
Having seen Puerto Vallarta frequently described as a safe place to be, I was expecting the same kind of police presence, but the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel proved me wrong. Yes, the hotel entrance itself had a gate and a guard, but the only place in and around Puerto Vallarta I saw a high concentration of security people was La Isla shopping centre. Somehow the town has managed to remain inviting, open and safe without enforcing order. We walked around in the area between the harbour and Los Muertos beach quite a lot and while there were a few dodgier characters on the streets, we never felt threatened.
Expectation nr. 2: Biodegradable sunscreen widespread and easy to purchase
If you research tours and day trips in Mexico, you will no doubt come across the requirement or at least a mention of biodegradable sunscreen - something I have not come across in other countries. As it turns out, the chemicals in the standard sunscreens we use are actually harmful for the environment, damaging the corals and other marine life. I have to admit I have never before given a second thought to any other impacts of sunscreen apart from protecting me from sunburn, but having read more about the subject, I felt it was a worthy cause and really wanted to do the right thing and stock up on biodegradable sunscreen not just for this trip but for future use as well.
However, it wasn't as easy to find as I expected. The supermarkets and pharmacies in Puerto Vallarta whilst offering plenty of standard sunscreen to choose from either don't stock biodegradable options at all or only have one - Hawaiian Tropic SPF 50 spray, which is what we ended up buying for lack of other options. Don't get me wrong, it was great, but if you are after lower SPF, I recommend that you source your sunscreen online beforehand.
Expectation nr. 3: Outside the expensive resorts, life in Puerto Vallarta is quite simple if not poor
With Puerto Vallarta's roots going back a lot further than a purpose-built resort's, I had this image in my head of a town that I suppose is similar to a Greek village - whilst there are luxury hotels for tourists, once you venture outside your resort, it is essentially a place of simple life and inhabited by the locals. This was partly fueled by a hotel review I read that complained about slums all around the hotel and a mysterious unfinished hotel building I looked at on Google Street View (which as I discovered also lets you walk along the beach, not just on road, who knew?!).
Though simple life and even poverty is undoubtedly present in and around Puerto Vallarta, what surprised me was the amount of wealth that was on display at the same time. Yes, you have a lot of old and dented rust buckets driving around (including the public buses, which didn't look inviting enough for us to try), but then you also have shiny new SUVs and Mercedes saloons. Yes, there are dilapidating or half-finished houses where people actually live, but then you have massive luxury apartment building complexes popping up everywhere, like the Grand Venetian, which is next to a brand new shopping centre and waiter-serviced recliner-seats Cinepolis VIP cinema at La Isla. I am not sure whether the luxury developments are for foreign buyers or whether locals live there as well, but they are certainly not what I was expecting to find in Puerto Vallarta. Not that I'm complaining though - that cinema was one of the best discoveries of the trip and for all you non-Spanish speakers out there, it also has films in English with Spanish subtitles, so do check out the programme on the Cinepolis website. We ended up going three times! As for slums all around the hotel - that was an extreme exaggerration!
Expectation nr 4: Great swimming and snorkelling
Whilst I knew that opting for Puerto Vallarta meant sacrificing beach quality, I was still expecting to able to go for an enjoyable swim. There were complaints on Tripadvisor about the beach in front of Now Amber hotel being rocky, but I just didn't get it - the trusted Google Street View was showing a beautiful sandy beach... Now I know what they meant. Yes, the land side of the beach is sandy, but as you start to walk into the water, the whole seafloor is pebbles of a considerable size. Not just a random rock here and there, no, it's all rocks. That coupled with strong waves at any given time makes for a bad combo - not only are you hobbling on the pebbles, the waves also throw rocks agains your feet/ankles and if you fall and get dragged by a wave along the bottom.... ouch! My ankle scuff is still healing... There were also weird brown bits swimming on top of the water - not sure if it's just some darker foam from the waves and sand mixing or something less appealing which I'd rather not think about.
We also walked to Los Muertos beach which seemed like it might be less rocky under the water and had a lot more people swimming there, but that area has a different problem - boats. There is a pier in the middle of the beach with constant boat traffic and a multitude of boats parked all around. I doubt that the water is particularly clean with all that going on.
As for snorkelling, we took a tour to Los Arcos national marine park and apart from there being a lot of jellyfish, the water was also very murky and had weird bits swimming in it. That might be just a seasonal thing, but I was expecting better conditions.
Expectation nr. 5: Easy and cheaper to find tours on the spot
My usual approach to booking tours is:
- Do some research in advance on beautiful areas to visit/ things to do
- Ignore the meeting with the rep
- Go into town and book something at one of the numerous booths/tour offices as it's cheap and easy
Tried that in Puerto Vallarta and it did not work very well at all. There are certainly a lot of people selling tours in town, so choice is not the issue. The first issue is you can't make any comparisons until you go in and have a detailed conversation with the salesperson because they don't really use posters with prices to advertise, so you don't know what they sell and how much they sell it for in advance. Fine, I chose a more respectable looking booth on the Malecon (i.e. it was actually in a building, so could pass for an office, rather than a booth in the middle of the street or a person on the beach with some fliers). Bought Los Arcos, las Animas and Quimixto tour for $40.
Three days later, we arrived at the maritime terminal, went through security, paid the the port fee only to then be told by the company running the tour that they didn't have spaces for us as the seller didn't contact them about our booking until 10pm the night before, by which time they were full. The seller then told them that we could just do the tour on any other day and that it wouldn't be a problem to just tell us to come back another time. Seriously?! To make things worse, nobody notified us about this in advance even though they had our hotel name. Luckily, the time had changed the night before and caught some people off guard, so they had a few cancellations and were able to fit us in after a short wait. As you can imagine, that was the first and the last tour booked from a street vendor.
What I ended up doing instead is something I have never done before - booking the tours online from Puerto Vallarta Tours (http://www.puertovallartatours.net/). They had a lot to choose from, prices were all there and seemed reasonable and both bookings went through without a glitch. True to their promise, I got an instant email confirmation and the voucher with pickup instructions within 24 hours. Please note that you will need to provide the voucher when you arrive for the tour - something to bear in mind if booking while in Mexico and not necessarily having an access to a printer or mobile internet on your phone.
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Expectation nr. 6: Dangerous fauna is found in the jungle - not in town
On our first trip to Mexico we were lucky enough to see quite a lot of different (non-dangerous) animals in the hotel, though I suspect that had more to do with the hotel than anything else. So on this trip we thought we would get to see some iguanas and different birds in Puerto Vallarta, but what we weren't counting on is finding a large crocodile lounging around by a public path to the beach about 10 minutes away from the hotel. No fence or anything! During daytime it had a favourite spot in the sun and when the sun left that area, so did the crocodile - not being able to see where it was made me quite uneasy. You can probably guess we did not use that path...
On the bright side, if you are into crocodiles, you can go and say hi - the path to the beach I'm referring to is in the area of Plaza Caracol shopping centre.
Even though some surprises were not that pleasant, I still had a great holiday in Puerto Vallarta. I hope this post makes it easier for you to plan your trip (or makes you want to visit if you weren't thinking about it before). :) If you want to discover what places you can visit in and around Puerto Vallarta, have a look at my post about Puerto Vallarta sights here.