It stands to reason that a tourist-friendly resort like Puerto Vallarta can get a bit pricey. But rest assured, there are plenty of activities to enjoy that won’t cost you a single peso – whether it’s an intriguing street art tour or a glorious hike along a jungle-backed coastline, you can keep yourself thoroughly entertained even while on a modest budget. With that in mind, here are 10 free things to do while visiting Mexico’s Pacific coast town of Puerto Vallarta.
Get things started with a walk along downtown’s broad seaside malecón (promenade). The boardwalk really comes alive at dusk as visitors take sunset strolls and street performers work their magic on the crowds.
Dotted with about a dozen bronze sculptures made by national and foreign artists (including a surreal ladder to nowhere piece by famed Mexican designer Sergio Bustamante) these giant statues stand out as Vallarta’s most emblematic public art. On the malecón’s south end you can often catch gratis concerts and folkloric dance performances at the Romanesque Los Arcos amphitheater.
City Walking Tours
For in-depth background on the artists behind the boardwalk sculptures, a local gallery owner runs a free walking tour along the malecón from mid-November to mid-April.
Alternatively, you can join a two-hour city tour led by English-speaking guides who visit Vallarta’s iconic parish church, the boardwalk and Gringo Gulch, an upscale neighborhood that was home to Hollywood stars and renowned artists in the 1960s and 70s. The cost-free excursion is offered year-round and departs from downtown’s Municipal Tourism Office. See www.visit-vallarta.com for more information.
Voladores de Papantla
On the boardwalk’s north end, every half-hour the Voladores de Papantla (Papantla Flyers) enact a pre-Hispanic ritual in which four men attached by ropes swing upside down with open arms from a 65ft (20m) pole. The fifth participant often remains perched atop the pole’s tiny platform while playing the flute.
Rooted in an ancient religious ceremony of Veracruz’s indigenous Totonac people, the flyers represent the four elements as they perform the rainmaking ritual, which seems to be working out just fine in showery Vallarta. The high-flying act is free to watch but the birdmen welcome any tips.
Self-Guided Street Art Tour
For a cool urban outing, set aside several hours to check out some of the city’s best street art. Dozens of colorful murals have been painted throughout the tourist center in recent years, transforming downtown Vallarta into an outdoor gallery of sorts. The good folks at The Whole World or Nothing have laid out a detailed DIY route that even includes some eating recommendations along the way. The 3-mile (5km) walk takes you to numerous ocean-themed murals backed by a crowdfunded coral restoration project from Mexico.
A 4.5-mile (7km) out-and-back jungle trail from Boca de Tomatlán (a small beach town south of Vallarta) to Playa Las Ánimas hugs a spectacular coastline graced with a series of secluded coves. Along the way, you can stop to cool off with a refreshing swim or nosh on fresh seafood at rustic beachfront palapa (thatched-roof) restaurants.
The path leads to the relatively busy Playa Las Ánimas (where most beachgoers arrive by water taxi) and it continues westward to Playa Quimixto should you decide to explore more. The hike is moderate but expect a hot and humid walk.
Buses to Boca de Tomatlán (sorry we lied, you’ll have to splurge one dollar on transportation) depart from the Zona Romántica at the corner of Constitución and Basilio Badillo. You can always return to Vallarta in a water taxi from Playa Las Ánimas or Playa Quimixto if you decide not to backtrack to Boca de Tomatlán.
Salsa Dancing Class
Feeling a bit awkward on the dance floor? Get your groove on with a free salsa class at La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-style bar covered in wall-to-wall graffiti. For the rhythmically challenged, the one-hour lesson (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm) just might be a game-changer. After class, hang around for the live music, knock back a few of La Bodeguita’s signature mojitos and strut those fresh new dance moves.
Playa de los Muertos
No trip to Vallarta is complete without some beach-bumming and although this busy spot pales in comparison to the distant sands on the bay’s gorgeous southern side, Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) central location makes it one of the cheapest and most easily accessible options in town. The calm water is good for swimming and the southern end of the beach is known for its laid-back LGBT-friendly scene. The yellow sands of the Beach of the Dead cover what is said to be an ancient cemetery, hence the name.
Cerro de la Cruz Lookout
For a bird’s-eye view of the city, hike up to Cerro de la Cruz lookout, which affords a rewarding panoramic vista of downtown Vallarta and the sprawling Banderas Bay. Head out about 40 minutes before dusk and you’ll be treated to a memorable sunset moment, not to mention a much cooler ascent. To get there from the malecón walk uphill along the cobbled Calle Abasolo, then climb a series of stairs and follow a sloped path leading up to the spacious observation deck.
Every Wednesday evening from June through October Vallarta hosts a downtown art walk with 15 participating galleries. Of course, you can also seek out the many art galleries and crafts stores that didn’t make the list. Among the standouts are Galería de Ollas, which showcases intricately crafted pottery from Chihuahua; Peyote People, known for its psychedelic bead and yarn art made by indigenous Huichol artisans; and Galería Alpacora, where you’ll find alebrijes (wood sculptures of mythical creatures) and brilliant hand-woven textiles.
Isla Cuale River Walk
Take in a change of scenery and linger for a while on Isla Río Cuale, a traffic-free sand island lined with shady rubber trees, riverside restaurants and cafes and a flea market selling everything from colorful Huichol crafts to touristy knick-knacks.
At the halfway point you’ll see a rickety suspension bridge that leads to a municipal market selling more crafts and very affordable eats. On the island’s east end, look for the tiled Iguana bridge and cross over into Gringo Gulch to roam the old stomping grounds of Hollywood cinema legends Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.