Puerto Vallarta is not a place that comes up in conversation much where I live. Here in Atlanta, when people travel to Mexico, they head for the beaches of Cancun, Cozumel or Playa del Carmen. They might visit Mexico City or Guadalajara. But not Puerto Vallarta. Those of us in the southeastern United States just don’t travel to the Pacific side of Mexico much. However, I recently had the opportunity to visit Puerto Vallarta and I can say with confidence: We’ve been missing out.
Despite being a recognized travel destination – Puerto Vallarta ranks fourth in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for Best Cities in Mexico, Central and South America – it is not a flashy, hyper-touristy place. Instead, the gracious, unassuming city sits back and lets you discover its charms on your own. You never know when you might happen upon something unexpected, and that makes the getting-to-know-you part of the relationship more personal.
From the time I disembarked, I felt a soft, easy vibe and relaxed right into it. A fast six-minute ride from the airport brought me to Velas Vallarta, the oceanfront hotel where I would spend the next four days. My room overlooked a tropical garden that wrapped around a pool and led to the beach, where I experienced my first Puerto Vallarta surprise: the water.
Now as someone who has traveled the coasts of Northern California, Vancouver and the San Juan Islands, I know my Pacific. It’s cold. Wet suit cold. As a point of pride, I always test the temperature using my feet as my thermometer. And each time, I shriek and scuttle back to land. So, as soon as I checked into my room, I headed straight to the beach, proceeding directly to the water’s edge. Prepared for a rapid retreat, I let the water roll in up to my ankles. And froze. But, this time, not in the literal sense but, rather, in shock. It was warm. I was standing in warm Pacific water.
I waded further in to make sure the test wave wasn’t an errant freak of nature and found myself waist-deep in a blissful bathtub, with water moving just enough to make it refreshing. Later, I inquired about the phenomenon and found out that Puerto Vallarta’s location at the center of Banderas Bay was responsible. The colder waters beyond never make it all the way into the bay, and, as a result, it remains warmed by the sun.
That evening, I attended a reception at Casa Velas, the adults-only counterpart to its family-friendly sister, Velas Vallarta, where I was staying. Moving past a startlingly similar Frida Kahlo look-alike and some juggling skeletons, I came upon an expanse of tables where offerings from the chef’s tasting menu were artistically displayed. I admired the presentation and sampled. Surprise No. 2: Puerto Vallarta had some serious culinary creativity going on.
So pleasing were these morsels to both eye and palate that I found myself making multiple trips to the spread. Servers started recognizing me, half smiles forming on their faces when they saw me returning. Welcoming me back? Or smirking at the stereotype of the overeating American? I prefer to go with the former.
As the days went by and the sophisticated cuisine continued, something struck me. At every restaurant I went to, I noticed something unrelated to food that was uniquely Puerto Vallarta. At the Vista Grill, it was the view. Perched high on a hillside, the Vista Grill overlooks the bay and rooftops of Puerto Vallarta with the misty Sierra Madre as a backdrop. Watching the sun make a leisurely descent into the shimmering indigo water while sipping a fresh tamarind margarita – there was no forgetting I was in Puerto Vallarta. Not that I’d want to.
La Leche does it in a different way. With spotlights bouncing brightness off its white exterior and swirling lines of black, La Leche makes a statement. It introduces itself with confidence, ushers you in and waits for the impact to hit. I didn’t have any particular expectation when I entered but, if I had, I never would have conjured what met my eyes. Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall whiteness. Lest that create an image of sterility, let me set the record straight. The white walls are actually shelves filled with milk cartons (“leche” means “milk”) containing water. A giant black-and-white photograph of a model with milk dripping from her lips overlooks the tables. Farmhouse pendant lamps cast a soft light on the tables. The people provide a montage of color, and the brilliantly plated food pops from the white tablecloths.
But its unique concept and undeniable cool factor are not what give La Leche its Puerto Vallarta identity. That comes from Ignacio “Nacho” Cadena, the father of the father-son duo who founded La Leche. A chef himself, Nacho handles the front of the house, while his son Alfonso turns out exceptional food from a menu that changes daily. Nacho moves among the tables, talking with diners with the familiarity of a good friend. Within minutes, they are laughing and posing for pictures with the charismatic Latin. I am reminded of a Dos Equis beer commercial, with Nacho as “the most interesting man in the world.” I later found out that, in addition to being a chef and owner of a high-profile restaurant, he is a poet, writes a newspaper column, participates in radio and TV shows, and promotes all things cultural. Even before learning all of this, I somehow knew that I was in the presence of a Puerto Vallarta legend.
During my stay, I dedicated one morning to roaming the cobblestone streets of the old part of town, called the “romantic zone.” Despite being a given stop on the visitor tour, the romantic zone is not dressed up for tourist eyes. It is a functioning vital neighborhood in its own right. Down the street from the former villa of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – he starred in “The Night of the Iguana,” which was filmed in Puerto Vallarta – are hardware stores and newspaper stands. Around the corner from a souvenir shop and a row of taxis, I passed a man selling bread from a basket. From the rooftop of TRIO, another topnotch restaurant, I watched a woman hanging laundry on her terrace and a man calling out parallel parking instructions to a challenged driver below.
This easy flow from one setting to another was my third surprise. At no time did I feel like I had crossed a distinct border between neighborhoods. Instead, they blended and overlapped, adding to the overall comfortable feeling of the place.
Fortunately, my visit involved more than eating my way around town, as my clothes were already feeling a bit tight. Okay, maybe overindulgence doesn’t translate to increased size that quickly, but it felt like it. Guilt can do that. The panoply of available activities was enough to keep even the most energetic of travelers occupied: treetop canopy tours, sunset cruises, ecotours, tequila tasting, and, always, beach and pool time.
As I contemplated the options, a horseback riding excursion at Hacienda Doña Engracia that involved riding in a river jumped out at me. Decision made. I mean, how often do you get a chance to do something like that? Remember, I’m a city girl. As it turned out, the river riding wasn’t trotting through knee-deep water as I had imagined. That had sounded intriguing enough but, as it turned out, the excursion involved riding bareback on a submerged and dog paddling horse. Apparently, it’s not just for dogs.
As I was clueless about the swimming, I had no bathing suit with me. But I couldn’t let the opportunity pass so, fully clothed, I hopped on, grabbed my sea horse’s mane and had the kind of fun you usually only have as a child. The swim was short, but the memory stays with me and makes me smile whenever I think of it. I didn’t have any children with me on this trip, but I noted numerous activities suitable for all ages. Sand sculptures, dolphin swims, pirate adventures, snorkeling, diving – the list goes on.
When it came time to leave, I found that I wasn’t getting back into a real-life mindset, like I usually am when heading home from a trip. I was thinking about when I might return with my family. But I wasn’t stressing about a date. I was as relaxed as the lovely seaside town I had just gotten to know.
Disclosure: Travel expenses were paid for by the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board and its partners. They did not require that the author write this blog post, nor did they request it. All thoughts and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
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