One of Mexico’s most popular holiday spots, Puerto Vallarta offers all the attractions tourists expect in terms of entertainment and accommodations, but there is much more to see and do in the city and surroundings than most visitors ever realize. Vallarta (as it’s known by locals and frequent visitors) is an ideal destination for families with children, though the adults will enjoy it every bit as much as the kids and everyone will have adventures to remember.
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The climate obviously has a great deal to do with Puerto Vallarta’s many opportunities for outdoor delights. Whether you prefer water or land-based activities, there’s plenty to choose from and never time enough for everything. A bit of advance planning is a good idea; try to allocate enough time for the activities you enjoy most, but leave room for some you’ve never tried before but find irresistible.
On the Water
Of course Vallarta’s beaches are a major attraction, and not just for basking. The warm, clear waters of the huge Bahia de Banderas (about 28 klms across) on which the city is situated offer some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving sites. The water is calm and suitable for novices but wonderfully diverse and intriguing even for highly skilled divers.
The best beaches for swimming are those with wide expanses of soft white sand, such as Garza Blanca, Playas Gemelas and Flamingos Beach, amongst many others. In many, if not most areas, you will find beach side restaurants/cafes/sidewalk vendors offering delicious hot food, fresh fruit, sweets and drinks. There are usually public restrooms, lifeguards on duty and chairs, umbrellas etc. for a small hourly or daily fee.
Take a short boat ride
Take a short boat ride and you can land on beaches that are mostly unpopulated and absolutely gorgeous, though they will have few of the usual tourist amenities. Playa las Animas is one exception to that rule; you can get a local panga from Boca de Tomaltan and catch some spectacular scenery on the way, plus there’s a delightful restaurant (very child-friendly) right next to the pier.
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If you want to stay atop the water but in touching distance, try one of the ocean kayak trips or (in November through March) a whale-watching tour. Banderas Bay is the Pacific calving ground for great numbers of humpback whales, and it’s almost impossible to miss seeing them, up close and awesome. There are different vessels on offer; if you have small children it’s best to choose the larger boats, but with older ones a Zodiac is a must for maximum thrills.
Even little kids can enjoy the wonders of undersea exploration with just a mask and snorkel. Parts of the coastline are sprinkled with caves, tunnels and grottos that invite exploration. In general the area is little short of perfect for novice paddlers; the water is smooth, crystal clear and warm and just beneath the surface is a wonderland of colorful and fascinating marine life.
Snorkeling is a year-round activity in this area, but for the warmest water and best visibility the months from June through December are usually preferable. In November (beginning of the ‘whale season’) you might even hear, under water, the song of the humpback whales – and see them leaping in waters close offshore.
Off the Water
Canopy tours are a relatively new (and hugely popular) attraction, for everyone over the age of six.
A canopy trip involves zooming over and through the treetops on zip-lines as high as 250 meters and as far as two kilometers or more. These zip-line adventures are hard to beat for exhilaration and excitement – but professionally operated and quite safe for kids and adults. There are several reputable companies operating zipline ‘tours’, from mountain to mountain and over rivers in the Sierra Madre range that towers in the east over Puerto Vallarta and the bay.
For a different sort of excitement, take in the Zoologico de Vallarta; it’s unlike most zoos you may have visited. Here you can feed (some of) the animals, with carefully chosen pre-sorted nuts and fruits, and get quite close to many that you never expected to encounter. The Zoologico’s management is dedicated to educating as well as entertaining its visitors, and offers an unusual and fascinating experience for everyone in the family.
In the Town
Many frequent visitors to Puerto Vallarta report that, ocean and beaches aside, the food is enough to draw them back again and again. They also note that almost without exception, restaurants are very child-friendly (as is most every other venue in the area). Chances are if you choose one of the many beach side restaurants your kids can go play in the sand while the adults watch and digest- it’s that informal and beach-oriented.
Since Puerto Vallarta is a major tourist destination, of course you will find the usual tourist-oriented establishments of all sorts in town and along local beaches. However, be sure to venture into the Zona Romantica south of the Rio Cuale that more or less divides the city. Here you’ll find the ambiance is less touristy and more like the Mexico that harks back to the time before Vallarta became a ‘discovery’ of the travel trade. Don’t miss a stop on Isla Cuale in the middle of the river.
Altogether, Puerto Vallarta is a terrific spot for a family holiday any time of the year, so it’s really just a matter of how long you can stay. The temperature range is just about perfect; very seldom does it drop below 22ºC or above 30ºC degrees during the entire year, so whenever you visit, the water and the welcome will be warm.