I truly dislike the term "sun-and-sand Mexico." Yes, the country has that in abundance. But venture off the beaches in any direction for more than a couple of miles and you'll begin to see a very real country. (Yes, even in Cancun.)
People ask me what it is about Puerto Vallarta that I love so much, seeing as it is my favorite destination in all of Mexico. And while it does have the beach and an endless string of beach bars/lounges, it's not the beach that has made me love it as much as I do. After two months based there, these are alternative activities to enjoy in and around Puerto Vallarta, and they are what make it so unique to Mexico.
This coastal beach hike starts from Boca de Tomatlan, just south of Puerto Vallarta's Zona Romantica, and hugs the coastline for about two miles all the way to Las Animas beach.
The medium-level hike climbs over the craggy points that jut out into the Bay of Banderas, opening up to secluded beaches and hidden coves. The hike culminates at Las Animas beach, a popular beach among locals, most of whom take the water taxi from Boca to get there. To return, take the water taxi back where you can easily find a taxi back into town, or take the bus for 8 pesos.
The Magic Towns
More than Sayulita, which is in the state of Nayarit and nowadays has become a polished version of its former backpacker self, Jalisco has its own set of Magic Towns, all within a couple of hours from Puerto Vallarta. San Sebastian del Oeste was once an important mining city with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Today it is a sleepy relic, with just 600 residents, marked by its iconic plaza with a blue-domed cathedral. The town is a hot spot for foodies, where travelers can sample local dishes like huitlacoche stewed with onions and spices.
Mascota is another Magic Town near San Sebastian, known for its brightly colored buildings and cobblestone streets. The town is nearly 400 years old and popular with outdoor activities like horseback riding, kayaking, boat tours and rock climbing.
Talpa de Allende is the third Magic Town near Puerto Vallarta, and it is an important religious destination. Founded by the Spanish in 1585, Talpa de Allende is best known for its Our Lady of the Rosary cathedral, where each year thousands of followers arrive on pilgrimages.
Eating and drinking
One of the best meals/experiences you can have in Puerto Vallarta is dinner and drinks at El Solar/Barracuda. These sister establishments enjoy a beach address, with a shared wall in between. Perfect for sunsets, this expat/local favorite dishes up delicious seafood and a long list of cocktails, wines and beers.
For daytime fun, skip the crowds downtown and opt for the beach club Mango's in the 5 de Diciembre neighborhood (which is very close to El Solar/Barracuda). This beach bar/lounge has day beds, a restaurant, and prime ocean real estate, where a minimum 300 pesos (about $15) allows you to spend the entire day eating, drinking and relaxing.
In the trendy Zona Romantica, 116 Pulpito is a hole-in-the-wall bar and restaurant with top-notch cocktails (including lethal sangria in mason jars), pizzas and tapas like tuna tartar, salmon croquettes and hummus.
It's easy to add as many, or all, of these activities to a short stint in Puerto Vallarta, and after doing so it will become clear why this city is more than just another sun-and-sand destination in Mexico.