Venturing out beyond Puerto Vallarta’s tourist center pays big rewards. In fact, some of the most worthwhile outdoor experiences await in the city’s surrounding areas. After all, we’re talking about snorkeling in sublime jungle-backed coves, unwinding in green getaways nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains and exploring uninhabited islands teeming with wildlife. Here are five of the best day trips from Puerto Vallarta.
Designated as a national marine park and Unesco biosphere reserve, these uninhabited islands 22 miles (36km) west of Puerto Vallarta provide some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities on Banderas Bay. Here snorkelers and divers can marvel at giant mantas and sea turtles as they glide through clear waters, while on land you can spot the blue-footed booby and some 90 other bird species.
And just wait until you lay your eyes on Playa del Amor, an astonishing underground crater beach. As a measure to protect Marietas from overtourism, access to Playa del Amor is limited to only 116 daily visitors. Actually, all excursions to the islands, regardless of whether you are lucky enough to score the coveted Playa del Amor permit, must by arranged with a certified tour outfit, so plan ahead.
How to get to Islas Marietas: Ecotours de México is a reputable company with guided outings led by naturalists. Tour operators specify on their websites that they cannot guarantee access to Playa del Amor until the day of the visit but you can still enjoy a memorable day of snorkeling and wildlife-watching.
San Sebastián del Oeste
For a dramatic change of scenery from the coast, head inland for the cool climes of San Sebastián del Oeste, a centuries-old mining town perched 4855ft (1480m) above sea level. Half the fun is getting there as you make stops along a winding mountain road at Panadería Carmen, an artisan bakery with highly addictive pastries; Hacienda Jalisco, a fascinating former silver hacienda; and Hacienda Don Lalín, a family-run distillery that produces organic raicilla (a mezcal-like agave drink).
San Sebastián’s population of about 5600 makes it the ideal spot to social distance, and if you embrace hiking, bird-watching and the underrated art of doing nothing, it’s definitely calling your name. For an overnight stay, colonial-style hotel Mansion Real provides comfy rooms in the heart of the small historic center.
How to get to San Sebastián del Oeste: by private car it’s about one hour and 50 minutes east of Vallarta. Alternatively, you can leave the driving to Vallarta Adventures on a informative and fun-filled guided excursion.
Jardín Botánico de Vallarta
Set in the verdant Sierra Madre mountains, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens’ beautifully-curated grounds are home to a wide array of native plant species and it boasts one of Mexico’s top orchid collections. After taking a stroll along manicured paths lined with bromeliads, agaves and wild palms, make your way down a jungle trail to the tranquil shores of Río Horcones and have a refreshing swim in a river that flows past large boulders.
On your way back to Puerto Vallarta, make it a point to stop in fishing village Boca de Tomatlán to access a coastal trail that leads to a series of secluded coves and beaches. The scenic Colomitos cove is only about a half-mile (1km) away from the trailhead and the path continues as far west as Playa Quimixto if you’re up for exploring more of this inviting emerald coastline.
How to get to Jardín Botánico de Vallarta: by car, the gardens are a 40-minute ride south of downtown. Or take an ‘El Tuito’ bus departing from the corner of Carranza and Aguacate (in Zona Romántica) to reach both Boca de Tomatlán (30 minutes) and the botanical gardens.
Sayulita & San Pancho
Offering a respite from the hubbub and high-rise hotels of downtown Vallarta, the neighboring beach towns of Sayulita and San Francisco (aka San Pancho) have more than enough activities to keep even the most restless of kids (and adults) entertained. The rideable breaks in Sayulita, about 25 miles (40km) north of Vallarta, make it the perfect spot to learn surfing, while kayaking, horseback-riding and turtle releases are always a hit with families.
Up the coast about four miles (7km), San Pancho draws smaller crowds than Sayulita, giving it a more low-key surf town vibe. On the return to Vallarta consider making a detour in Punta de Mita, a scenic peninsula where you can delight in scrumptious seafood at oceanfront restaurant Tuna Blanca.
How to get to Sayulita and San Pancho: buses operate frequently from a stop in front of Puerto Vallarta’s Walmart (opposite the cruise ship port). Some buses will leave you at the highway turnoff, so you may have to walk or cab it into the towns. By car, you can reach Sayulita and nearby San Pancho in about one hour and 30 minutes.
Playa Majahuitas & Playa El Caballo
A trip to Vallarta wouldn’t be complete without visiting a series of southern beaches that hug a glorious coastline backed by jungle-shrouded mountains. For the ultimate in carefree beach-bumming, head for the golden sands of Playa El Caballo and plop down under a rustling palm tree with that book you’ve been meaning to read.
If you’re up for some snorkeling, make your way over to the clear jade-green waters of Playa Majahuitas, a serene cove where you can duck into small caves as you swim among the parrotfish and angelfish. Majahuitas and Playa El Caballo stand out as two of the most restful spots along this coast when compared to the relatively busier beaches of Yelapa, Quimixto and Playa Las Ánimas.
How to get to Playa Majahuitas and Playa El Caballo: both beaches can be reached in 30 to 40 minutes by water taxis departing from the Zona Romántica’s Playa de los Muertos pier. Playa El Caballo is a short walk east from Playa Las Ánimas. You can also access Playa El Caballo by hiking west along a coastal trail approached from Boca de Tomatlán (a fishing village about 30 minutes south of Vallarta).