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As the sun disappears into the Bahia de Banderas, the place to be is the malecon, the sea-edged promenade that stretches the length of Puerto Vallarta’s downtown. Locals and visitors alike meet here to stroll in the twilight. It’s an oh-so Mexican thing to do, especially treasured in this once-sleepy fishing village.
While luxury development has spread north and south, taking advantage of glorious indentations of sand and sea, Puerto Vallarta’s heart remains in its downtown area. Through the years, every attempt has been made to keep its colonial character intact. In addition to the malecon, clients will find cobblestone streets, red-tiled roofs and white-washed buildings. While wandering the streets of downtown, visitors will quickly discover, as I did, that it’s not just its picturesque setting that distinguishes Puerto Vallarta from other resort destinations. Two other aspects set it apart: outstanding art and craft galleries dedicated to the work of Mexican artists and local craftsmen and a restaurant scene that dishes up excellence on a regular basis.
Calling All FoodiesFor 10 days in November, the International Gourmet Festival Puerto Vallarta will showcase chefs from all over the world. Approximately 30 guest chefs from four continents participate in chef’s tables, winemaker dinners, chocolate pairings, cooking demonstrations, tequila and wine tastings — all open to thousands of gourmet fans that gather to enjoy the event each year.
Gary Beck has reviewed Puerto Vallarta’s dining opportunities, from street food to five-star, for more than 30 years. Responding to my request for a short list to get me started during my stay, he suggested that I visit Cafe des Artistes, a cosmopolitan and romantic restaurant that’s very expensive but worth every peso, and Trio, where locals flock to enjoy the rooftop terrace. Other recommendations for clients who want to eat their way through the destination include Vista Grill, Vitea Oceanfront Bistro and Mariscos Polo.
Arts and CraftsAs for shopping, a range of options are available, from upscale galleries featuring unique works of art to mercados jam-packed with colorful hand-made items to wear or take home as souvenirs.
The pedestrian-only island in the middle of the Cuale River is a good place to start. There, clients will find stalls that sell crafts, jewelry, folk art and clothing. In the shade of old hule de oro (rubber trees), visitors stroll the array of stalls, stopping off for flea-market-style shopping. Where the river meets the sea, the small but fine Museo Cuale features early pottery, clay figures and other ancient objects.
Turn right at the sea to walk the one-mile malecon past a series of imaginative bronze sculptures. On Tuesday mornings, from mid-November through mid-April, clients can join a free, two-hour sculpture walking tour led by Gary Thomson, owner of Galleria Pacifica. He also hosts Vallarta Art Walks to various galleries November through May on Wednesday evenings.
For crafts, Puerto Vallarta offers some of the best Huichol art in Mexico. The indigenous Huichol are known for yarn paintings and beaded pieces. Authentic representations of each can be found at Peyote People in Old Town and Huichol Collection on the malecon. More authentic examples of native Mexican crafts and folk art are on display at Olinaia, along with a collection of museum-quality masks — souvenirs that capture the magic of Puerto Vallarta.