Puerto Vallarta: Get this Mexican beach to yourself

CNN  — 

As soon as you touch down in Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico’s Jalisco state on the Pacific Coast, you’ll find yourself accosted by offers of “complimentary” tequila shots and greeters trying to sell you timeshares. But Puerto Vallarta was once a very different destination.

Even its name was different.

Known as Las Peñas in the 1800s, it was renamed after former state governor Ignacio Vallarta in the early 1900s. As a fishing town, Puerto Vallarta’s main source of pesos, in addition to fishing, was agricultural exports such as bananas, coconuts and corn. These days, it relies on importing tourists, hypnotized by the green turquoise seawater.

Blame Hollywood. Stars such as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner descended on Banderas Bay to film John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana.” Soon enough, the paparazzi caught whiff of Taylor and Burton’s blossoming love affair with each other – and their new second home. Others followed suit, including investors.

Flash-forward several decades later and cue the mariachi bands that tame tourists with exotic festive sounds, all-inclusive resorts with sandy beaches and watered-down drinks. But the Puerto Vallarta that Burton and Taylor in fell with is so much more, if only you look beyond the confines of your resort when you travel here.

Things worth doing, once (or twice)

Playa Los Muertos, or "Beach of the Dead," as seem from the sky.

Puerto Vallarta is one of the safest cities in Mexico, so don’t be afraid to stroll around its Downtown core, the El Malecon Boardwalk or alongside Playa Los Muertos – “Beach of the Dead.”

The unusually named beach has a legend behind it: According to old story, pirates would come ashore to loot and attack, but the locals didn’t give them an easy time, fighting back, resulting in the death of many pirates. It’s been said that there are buried treasures and skeletons here.

There’s even more adventure to be found in Banderas Bay. At 42 kilometers (26 miles) wide, and 900 meters (about 3,000 feet) deep, it is one of the deepest and largest bays in the world.

A great way to explore is on a yacht. Picture yourself sipping unlimited margaritas, enjoying fresh ceviche prepared on board from just-caught fish, and snorkeling in between soaking up the sun. Like the picture? Then a yacht tour with Mike’s Charters and Tours might be for you (and 8+ of your best friends).

Puerto Vallarta is also rich in unique folk art, much of which won’t set you back as many pesos as you might think. You can discover its art scene on your own by stumbling across galleries and boutiques, or via Puerto Vallarta’s ArtWalk, which is held every Wednesday 6 to 10pm until May 30th, 2018, to showcase sculptures, ceramics, blown glass, crafts, and fine art in spots like Galería Colectika, Galeria Petra Luna, Galería Córsica, Galería 108, and RO´WO.

Maybe chocolate is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mexico — that honor is probably reserved for tequila, but turns out Mexico has pretty distinct chocolate, and Museo del Cacao makes for an interesting (not to mention, delicious) visit, led by a friendly young staff. Don’t leave without trying some Mexican hot chocolate! Of course, you’re also welcome to pair your chocolate with some tequila.

Jardin Botanico Vallarta, Carretera Puerto Vallarta, Las Juntas y los Veranos, 48447, +52 (322) 223-6182

Museo del Cacao, Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, 128, Centro Malecon, 48300, +(52 1) 322 223 40 52

Mike’s Charters and Tours, Mástil 2, Marina Vallarta Interior 1, Puerto Vallarta 48335, +52 322 221 19 79

Puerto Vallarta ArtWalk (until May 30th, 2018)

Vallarta Tequila Tastings, +(521) 322.121.9087

Eating outside the bubble

Mexico meets the Med at Trio restaurant.

Here’s one reason to leave behind the all-inclusive hideouts: Authentic Mexican food, with a bit of a Mediterranean touch.

If you’re on a budget (and even if you’re not), there’s no shortage of hole-in-the-wall eateries serving burritos, tacos, ceviche, fresh juices, assorted tostadas and guacamole you’ll recall after long after you’ve departed. If you see a street vendor on Los Muertos Pier selling “La Tuba,” give up a few pesos to experience this traditional Jalisco drink. Sour and sweet, it is a delicious fusion of coconut cream and apple vinegar, with pieces of apple and walnuts mixed in.

Puerto Vallarta is also rife with mom-and-pop restaurants and that’s exactly how Gaby’s Restaurant started, by a single mother who named the restaurant after her daughter. Over time, it expanded into a popular restaurant and nowadays you’ll find her son, Chef Julio in the kitchen — a lawyer who discovered that his true passion was for food, not law.

Visitors can take a cooking class with Chef Julio that involves a trip to the local market to pick out ingredients, prep, cooking, and a resulting 7-course authentic Mexican meal.

There’s no shortage of more upscale dining spots either, where they can flambé just about anything and turn it into an elaborate show where fire meets food, or you can enjoy a more elegant, quiet meal. A particularly romantic spot located on the beach (Playa Los Muertos) is La Palapa, a restaurant that fuses Mexican, Asian, and French elements. It’s easy to see why Taylor and Burton were regulars here.

The River Café at Rio Cuale Island — nearby the Boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta’s Downtown, too, is a must. The restaurant combines a natural setting with a high-end dining experience, that’s never stuffy. In fact, it’s exceptional in every way, from the attentive yet personable and friendly service, to the impeccable execution of the food.

Start with the Nikei Tuna Ceviche (fresh diced tuna with mango, cucumber and sweet soy sauce) — it will melt in your mouth. Don’t skip dessert. Go ahead and order Bananas Flambe. Kahlua, brandy, orange juice, ice cream, fire…how can you go wrong? Then there’s Trio Cafe, which has European chefs and serves mostly Mediterranean food.

Gabys Restaurant, Calle Mina 252, Proyecto escola, Centro, 48300, +52 322 222 0480

La Palapa, Los Muertos Beach, Pulpito 105-3 Col. Emiliano Zapata, (322) 222-5225

River Café, #4 Río Cuale Island, Downtown, 322 22 30788

Trio, Guerrero #264 Downtown, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, +52 (322) 222-2196

Rest your head and indulge your mind

Casa Kimberly is the onetime haunt of Liz and Dick.

When you’re visiting a city like Puerto Vallarta, a hotel isn’t just a place where you rest you head, it’s part of what you come to experience. Jungle meets the Pacific Ocean at Casitas Maraika, which is so secluded and off-the-beaten-path that you need a boat (or water taxi) to get there. Located on a quiet portion of Las Animas Beach, it is a truly relaxing oasis, with very few of the trappings of modernity to be found within. There is, however, excellent cuisine to enjoy on the beach as you watch the sun go down.

You can also follow in the footsteps of Taylor and Burton and stay at Casa Kimberly, which overlooks Banderas Bay and the red clay rooftops of the Sierra Madre Mountains. What once used to be home to the mega-stars in the 1960s is now a nine-suite boutique hotel that pays homage to its former tenants, steeped in elegant luxury and romance.

Or stay at Hotel Catedral, one of the oldest hotels in Puerto Vallarta, named after Our Lady of Guadeloupe church, only a few blocks away, in Old Vallarta.

Meanwhile, LGBT couples will feel welcomed at the gay-friendly Casa Cupula.

Although not as modern and fresh as some of the other properties in in Puerto Vallarta, this hotel is brimming with colorful personality and has a decidedly historic, Mexican feel, with custom murals by local artists adorning the walls.

The Villa Premiere, situated at the beginning of the Malecon, is also a great option for adults-only. The pampering starts at check in with a hot towel, flute of Champagne and a neck massage.

Casitas Maraika, Playa del Caballo, Las Animas, C.P. 44500 Boca de Tomatlán, Jalisco, +32 2222 2502

Casa Kimberly, Calle Zaragoza 445, Puerto Vallarta, 48300, +52 322 222 1336, 1 877-218-3248

Catedral Vallarta Boutique Hotel, Hidalgo 166, Centro, 48300, +52 322 222 9033

Casa Cupula, Callejon de la Igualdad, México 129, Alta Vista, 1-866-352-2511 or +52 322 223 2484

Casa Velas, Pelícano 311, Los Tamarindos, 48354, +52 322 226 8670

Now Amber, David Alfaro Siqueiros 164, Las Glorias, 48333, +1 877-669-9953

Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel, San Salvador 117, 5 de Diciembre, 48350, +52 322 226 7040

Katherine Brodsky is a freelance writer who has contributed to publications such as The Guardian, AFAR, Esquire, The Washington Post, Variety, Playboy and many others. Follow her on Twitter @mysteriouskat.