Travel

Vacation vs. adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

From rich history to natural charm, this colourful beach destination has something for everyone 

  • May 09, 2024
  • 1,602 words
  • 7 minutes
Team Adventure in action at Canopy River Park. (Photo: Canopy River Park)
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The fundamental difference between an adventure and a vacation is simple: if you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and the outcome of the journey is uncertain, it’s an adventure. 

Many travellers enjoy this particular type of travel, ranging from mild discomfort to death-defying stress, whereas others prefer a vacation: relaxation, feasting, napping, and uncertainty kept to an absolute minimum. For reasons I have yet to determine, adventurers and vacationers tend to marry each other, with offspring that land in both camps.

Such is the case in my own family, which begs the question: is it possible to combine active and cultural adventure with a flop-n-drop family beach vacation?

Pool Vacation at the Velas Vallarta. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Canada has surpassed Europe as the second-largest source of tourists to Mexico, with 4.2 million Canadians venturing south in 2023. Chasing tropical weather, sandy beaches, arty neighbourhoods, and sprawling vacation resorts, many of us will head to Jalisco’s Puerto Vallarta (PV). A safe, stable and progressive city, this resort town is in the midst of a tourism boom, buoyed by an estimated 50,000 full or part-time expats. Framed by the Sierra Madre mountains and overlooking the deep waters of Banderas Bay, the city is geared for wedding parties, cruise shippers and package tourists, complete with malls, high-end dining, expensive boutiques, all-inclusive resorts, timeshare condos, and flashy tourist attractions. Readers of this column will know these ingredients don’t mix in my perfect margarita, but I can’t escape the fact that half my family craves a buffet and a swimming pool. After navigating through timeshare vultures at the airport, Team Vacation (mother-son) and Team Adventure (father-daughter) arrive in the expansive, open-air lobby of the Velas Vallarta pulled in two directions. Fortunately, we are also greeted with the embrace of warm humidity, dinner on the beach, and the first of PV’s reliably magical sunsets.

Alma by Rhythms of the Night is a thrilling show for all ages. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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After a day of lounging at the pool, my daughter and I are ready for the aptly-named Vallarta Adventures. The tourism operator offers a slick menu of activities that include whale watching, beach tours, and a Cirque du Soleil-inspired circus at a private beach an hour’s cruise from PV’s modern marina. Never pass up the opportunity to take a boat ride into the warm Pacific breeze at sunset, although you might want to ask if you’re getting on the party boat first. Music blared, and tequila flowed all the way on the choppy, hour-plus ride until costumed mermaids and other Mexican creatures greeted us upon arrival. The boisterous dinner show is called ALMA by Rhythms of the Night, an energetic, acrobatic spectacle to dazzle all ages. After a quality buffet dinner, our moonlit return journey would have been transcendent if not for ear-pounding music, clearly enjoyed by the appropriately imbibed, kid-free demographic. “Well, you wanted an adventure,” says my wife, covering the ears of my unimpressed seven-year-old, clearly beyond his personal comfort zone. Patrolled by green iguanas and colourful peacocks, the huge pools, friendly staff and lush gardens of the Velas Vallarta made a strong case to keep us within her bosom all week.

Puerto Vallarta's Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Sunset on the beach in the Romantic Zone. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Memo Lira, the passionate founder of Vallarta 101 Tours, made a better case to get us out to explore the Malecón and Centro. He offers engaging walking tours along quiet, cobblestone streets, popping into the impressive Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, the glittering market stalls, and the sculpture-laden ocean promenade. We visit the giant fig trees on Cuale River Island, the modest houses of Gringo Gulch, and a hidden public viewing deck with a 360-degree view of the bay. Memo also guides us to the Bridge of Love, built by the actor Richard Burton to access the house he bought for his lover Elizabeth Taylor. Burton, who was married at the time, was in town filming the salacious Night of the Iguana, a movie that put Puerto Vallarta on the global tourism map. Paparazzi followed the Burton-Taylor affair, the couple continued to visit PV for decades, and other celebrities followed. The influence of Hollywood royalty can be felt with the city’s eclectic art, its thriving LGBTQ+ community, upscale boutiques, galleries and world-class restaurants. We head into the Romantic Zone, where we dine at an iconic beach restaurant called La Palapa, joining a chorus of applause for another perfect evening sunset. “Life is good in Puerto Vallarta,” explains Memo, and it is easy to see why.

Team Adventure left Team Pool at the breakfast buffet in search of thrills in the Sierra Madre. Canopy River Park is a farmer-owned, protected jungle accessed by all-terrain vehicles and nearly a dozen wild ziplines. We hop into a 4-seat Polaris RZR and blitz along a winding, dusty track, braking to rock jump into a clear, refreshing river.

The climax is a cautious crossing of the Jorullo Bridge; at 470 metres (1542 feet) long and 150 metres (492 feet) high, it’s the longest vehicular suspension bridge in the world. There is barely time to catch our breath before we snap onto the wildest zipline of my career. Typically, zipline tours take their time, but the pace here is wild: zip-zip-zip, we fly across the 11 lines, hurtling from launches with names like Human Bullet and Speedy Gonzalez. The last zip is low enough to dunk us in the river, where we are greeted by stubborn mules on the riverbank, waiting to return us up the steep hill. An elated Team Adventure is in our element.

Crossing the world's longest vehicular suspension bridge on an RZR. (Photo: Canopy River)
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Ziplining in Canopy River Park. (Photo: Canopy River)
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Velas Vallarta has an excellent Kids’ Club, where staff keep the kids busy just long enough for their parents to attempt to relax. My wife and I booked into an aromatherapy couples spa because I’m determined to show her there’s a time and place for adventure and vacation. Kneaded muscles, wine, and fine single malt accompany the evening’s entertainment in the lobby, where mimes and jugglers captivate our kids before bedtime. Both teams had few complaints.

The Marigalante Pirate Ship. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Beach time with the Marigalante Pirate Ship. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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It took Mexican carpenters seven years to construct an exact replica of the 700-ton Santa Maria galleon. Completed in 1987 to commemorate the voyage of Columbus, the striking ship sailed to Spain and Japan before settling in Puerto Vallarta in 1994. Here, it has found new life as the Marigalante Pirate Ship, a historical party boat departing twice daily into the sparkling Banderas Bay. The day trip is a kid’s dream: think costumed performers, swinging ropes, big explosions, and hammy pirate theatre. Joined by a large family vacationing from Inuvik, clearly enjoying the climate swing from negative 28 to positive 29 degrees Celsius, my kids made fast friends on the boat and beach.

Loading up a volcano taco on the Street Taco Tour. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Adventure found us in the form of a rogue jellyfish, which stung my daughter several times, searing a painful experience into memory. Adventures shouldn’t hurt, but sometimes they do. Fortunately, the pirates were on hand with vinegar and sympathy. A boozier pirate boat party departs in the evening, where passengers might not notice just how much we miss modern ship stabilizers when they’re gone.

Back on land, we sign up for a taco adventure with Vallarta Food Tours. Visiting eight different establishments that range from iconic restaurants to roadside shacks, our knowledgeable guide introduced us to the traditions and history behind Mexican cuisine. Incorporating a popular local churros table and chocolate factory, the kids enjoyed weaving through the hot, busy streets of Centro. Smoked marlin, crispy mahi-mahi, flank steak, beef cheek and spiced al pastor – tacos never tasted this good. Having long banished the ghost of Montezuma’s Revenge, the food scene in Puerto Vallarta is sensational, both inside and outside the resorts. Purified water is standard in all the hotels and resorts, so you don’t have to worry about the tap water either. 

On the Street Taco Tour. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Ocean views over Velas Vallarta. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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“Mexican food is so much more multicultural than people think,” explained our lovely guide Miele. We learned that wheat tortillas have their roots in Jewish matzah, while churros originated in China. My ancestors were vegetarians; it is the Spanish who brought European meats to Mexico,” she continued. Over the centuries that have followed, even a humble street shack can turn a taco into an art form.

Time on vacation moves differently than time on adventure. Hours dissipate into a fog of drinks and pool dips, the days blending like coconut cream in a piña colada. Many Canadians visit or return to PV for annual vacations, and for those who seek adventure and exploration, I barely scratched the surface. Scuba diving, mountain treks, horseback riding, watersports…it’s all there if you need it. Leisure isn’t a competition, and we should all travel in the manner that suits us best. Rest assured, in booming Puerto Vallarta, there’s a vacation or adventure for everyone.

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