Pleasures of the Sierra Madre

Pleasures of the Sierra Madre The coastline of Puerto Vallarta is an act of God. One of the best ways to fully appreciate its natural beauty is from the bow of a boat inside Banderas Bay, girdled by the lush rounded spine of the Sierra Madre Mountains. As we motor out to sea, the water deepens from shimmering turquoise to rich cobalt blue.

Mike’s Fishing Charters has seven sportfishing boats, all named after women, that can accommodate from 8-15 passengers each. Our first stop aboard Karina II is Los Arcos National Underwater Preserve, garnering an enviable position close to the mossy rock formations because Mike made sure we arrived before the tourist boats. Immediately, we’re visited by lumbering sea turtles and flirty manta rays, while hundreds of clown fish dash between us and the underwater arches.

But it’s Yelapa that we’ll remember months later. The small rustic village about 45 minutes from Puerto Vallarta sits in a cove off the ragged coastline where thatched casitas are tucked in the mountainside shaded by thick, heavy palms. A few palapas dot the blonde sandy beach where visitors are chilling out in hammocks while sipping margaritas from the Hotel Lagunita bar. We transfer from our boat to a panga (water taxi) before jumping in the surf, and really, we’re feeling pretty good about PV right from the start.

The beauty of this coastal city is that it’s a well established community with a strong sense of place and history. Dating back to the early 1900s, the Montgomery Fruit Company set up shop here in the banana business. In 1942, the area was first promoted for tourism by airline execs as a “primitive place for hunting and fishing.”

Since then, Puerto Vallarta has had time to evolve into Mexico’s most cultured seaside town.

“We are not like other places in Mexico that were built for tourism overnight,” says Matteo Luthi, general manager of Tukari DMC. “We have managed to maintain the essence and heart of Mexico in a beach destination.”

How Matteo, have you managed to do that?

“Through a lot of pride, work and love,” he says. “It hasn’t always been easy.”

EL MALECÓN To really get into the thick of Viejo Vallarta, the historic section, veer off the sweeping seaside malecón (promenade) into the snaking cobblestone streets bordered by white stucco buildings with terracotta roofs and intricate ironwork.

Within this labyrinth, San Angel Hacienda is a villa with tiered fountains and sprawling bougainvillea where actor Richard Burton lived. The 2nd floor restaurant seats private group dinners up to 100, as does the cute Puerta del Cielo chapel. Both showcase drop-dead views of the filigreed crown of the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe cathedral, silhouetted against the blue Banderas Bay waters.

Cuale River winds down from the mountains and empties into the bay. On an island in the river, The River Café is one of PV’s most desirable restaurants, with tables overlooking the river and menu items like Thai crab in coconut cream sauce. A round of fresh lime and mango margaritas with the sound of rippling water and light jazz music in the shade is a nice escape from the intense Mexican sun.

Amstar DMC offers a lively group program in town. “We do a city tour that is so much fun,” says Patricia Flores Mir, group sales executive. “We take everyone shopping, see the cathedral, do some tequila tasting tours.” The tour ends with a late lunch at upscale restaurants like Sí Señor or Mestizo.

“We learn how to make our own guacamole and margaritas, and it’s really nice and I think a more authentic experience of Puerto Vallarta.”

MISMALOYA Just south of town, Mismaloya is a verdant mountainside village where Predator was filmed. Many groups gravitate to the 12 tree canopy ziplines at El Eden Eco Park. The longest cable is a screamer, flying 1,600 ft at 60 mph across Mismaloya River Gorge.

We also highly recommend the Spa Mayahuel at El Eden. The rite of Temazcal, we’re told, is a spiritually purifying Aztec ritual. Wearing bathing suits, we burn herbs in a fire and slather ourselves and/or each other with silty red clay, before lying out in the sun until a crusty second skin covers our bodies. After a thorough rinse under the chilly river water, we enter the sweat kiva under the watchful eye of Mayahuel, the Agave Goddess. Smoldering eucalyptus fills the air as the shaman beats a drum and leads our chant.

The last 15 minutes are silent as we lie in fetal positions until the Shaman taps you to be reborn out of the earth’s womb. Your new life begins with a 30-minute massage.

1ST TIER STATUS The big news in Puerto Vallarta is the new $43 million Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center. The modern venue features a 250,000-sf outdoor plaza with manicured lawns and reflecting pool, and 105,000 sf of indoor meeting and exhibition space. Accommodating up to 7,000 people, it has more than tripled existing conference capacity.

“Puerto Vallarta has an advantage versus other places in Mexico,” says Eduardo Chaillo, director of strategic business for the Mexican Tourism Board, following the ribbon cutting. “It already has the leisure part, the culture part, and now it has the convention part. Our structure is already in place. You can get direct flights from almost anywhere. It’s close to the airport, convenient to first class hotels—everything is here.”

Our group stayed at the all-inclusive Casa Velas, an adult-only boutique hotel located on the Marina Vallarta Golf Course. The 86 suites start at 550 sf, featuring private gardens and plunge pools. The overall villa-like ambience is playful with a modern Spanish colonial décor, and the entire property is swarming in old-growth palm trees. Guests have full access to the Beach Club at the nearby 339-room Velas Vallarta Suite Resort, and the 6,900-sf ballroom. Look into arranging private oceanfront dinners while chefs prepare fresh-daily, plated seafood dinners as the sun sets over the Pacific.

The 337-room Dreams Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa is swathed in a natural jungle-like setting with an all-pervasive sense of exclusivity tucked away in a hidden cove. While there are no private beaches in Mexico, you’ll feel as if you have this one all to yourself, bookended by impassable boulders and cliffs at each end, with palm trees and palapas on the white sand providing shelter. Of all the Puerto Vallarta resorts, Dreams exudes the most hip and sexy vibe thanks to the natural surroundings and urbane, effervescent design. Total group space is 11,000 sf.

The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta shares the same edgy and colorful geometric design sensibilities as its sister Los Cabos property. The 280 contemporary rooms combine modernist furnishings and dark wood furniture with a colorful palette of burnt oranges, blood reds and light chartreuse. Ten meeting rooms total 26,000 sf, and we especially like the covered daybeds on the bright white beach.

The 433-room CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa wrapped a $10.7 million renovation last year. The new look evokes a subdued residential feel in the guestrooms and public spaces with Mexican-themed art work. Over $1.3 million was spent rebuilding and expanding the main restaurant, and $1.2 million was invested updating banquet facilities, A/V, and 8,000 sf of meeting space. The 22,000-sf Ohtli Spa is a highlight incorporating healing Huichol-inspired agave, cornmeal and sea salt body scrubs.