A Visit to Puerto Vallarta – Mexico’s West Coast

November 2019

Our close friends, Bob and Diana, kindly invited us to join them for a week at the Vidanta Resort located on Mexico’s west coast near Puerto Vallarta on Banderas Bay. The Saturday flight to Puerto Vallarta is an easy one connecting through Houston, Texas, and the airport exit is the typical chaos of hawkers, salespeople and taxi drivers.  This weekend is the annual “Day of the Dead” festival, and tourists are crowding the small facilities.  We finally found our way to our transport to the resort, which required entrance through an impressive security gate and passage through miles of meticulously gardened roads.  Apparently, the resort owners are terra-forming the many acres of reclaimed ground into a mini-Disneyland of Mexico’s west coast.  The resort itself is huge with multiple timeshare, hotel and condominium buildings, numerous restaurants, and a half-dozen pools, including swim-up bar, a lazy river, wave pools and cabana service. We checked-in, drank our complimentary margarita, met up with Bob and Diane, and made our way to our 6th-floor, two-bedroom suite in The Grand Bliss, a central building overlooking a pond, a pool, the beach and Banderas Bay. The suite included a complete kitchen, 2 ½ baths, a balcony and a private plunge pool!  All the facilities and amenities at the resort are connected by walkable paths but can also be accessed via a complex golf cart transportation system, as automobiles are not allowed into the guest areas. Dinner was at Epazote restaurant where we dined on traditional Mexican fare, including guacamole made fresh at our table-side.  That evening, we enjoyed fireworks over the Bay, and prepared a plan to explore the next morning.

Local egrets (Nivea Garza) wandering the extensive gardens.
View from the Suite’s balcony of Banderas Bay.

Sunday morning, we were up early for a walk on the beach where we saw many tracks from active Olive Ridley Sea Turtles nesting during the night.  At the southern end of the resort, there is a point of land where the Ameca River flows into Banderas Bay, and it was populated with numerous local fisherman casting from the beach. On the way back, we watched two local men swim their gillnet through the surf and manually haul it in, reminding us of similar fishing techniques that we watched local tribes do in Nigeria. As the sun rose over the mountains to the east, we watched the many dolphins playing and eating just offshore before heading back to get breakfast.  After consuming huge crepes at the Sweet Paris Creperie, we walked to the resort’s local grocery to stock-up on water, wine, rum, cheese and snacks.  Then it was off to the Concierge to book any tours that we wanted to do later that week, which would include a trip to the town of San Sebastian, and an excursion offshore sport fishing.  Then, it was off to one of the swimming pools for a relaxing afternoon of reading and margaritas. Julie and Bob took a couple of trips around the Lazy River, where they enjoyed waves from the wave machine, while large 3-foot-long Green Iguanas along the way took little notice of them.  After pool-time, we all headed up to the suite for a dip in the plunge pool and a glass of wine, before getting ready to head out for dinner.  That night we dined “french” on lobster, escargot, and scallops at the Azur Restaurant, which we finished off with an excellent crème brulee. 

Local fishermen with mornings catch.
Relaxing in the suite’s plunge pool.

Monday morning, we had a light breakfast at the suite, before meeting our bus for our excursion to San Sebastian.  San Sebastian del Oeste is a town 60 miles from the resort located high up, (over 1-mile in altitude), in the mountains.  The town was founded in 1580, and at one time was home to over 30,000 people – most making their living from the vast silver mines located there.  During the revolution of 1910, the mines were blown up, and the town has shrunk to less than 1000 people today. Their economy is now principally driven by agriculture and a growing tourism business.  Until relatively recently, the trip to San Sebastian would have taken many hours over dirt and gravel roads and old river crossings.  Today, the road is paved, and a new bridge crosses the principal river gorge making the trip only about 90-minutes. Along the way, we stopped at Raicilla de El Nogalito de San Sebastian, a local family-run tequila maker that only makes small runs of tequila monthly from their locally grown blue agave plants.  There, we tasted Blanco, Reposado and Areanas tequilas, and tasted their local flavored blends, including our favorite – coffee. We then traveled to the edge of the town, San Sebastian, where we stop to explore a local coffee plantation – the Café de Altura La Quinta.  This small plantation (~12 hectares) has been operated by the same family for over 100 years, originally founded by a Spanish settler who married a native woman.  The coffee trees are shaded by an extensive fruit orchard that towers over them, providing both the right amount of sunshine and the necessary soil nutrients to be successful.  After exploring and tasting their coffee, we walk into the town of San Sebastian, where the building and stone cobble streets are still original from the 19th century.  Access to town for the surrounding population was principally still via donkey carts until 2010. We stop for lunch at a local restaurant, “Jardin de Ninos”, where we have a fantastic traditional meal of quesadillas, machaca, chicken mole and refried beans.  After lunch, we walked into the town’s center looking at the pre-revolution architecture, including the old silver company store, the jail (still in use) and the church.  After free time to explore and shop, we board the bus for the trip back to the resort, go for a quick walk on the beach where we watch the “Fiesta Mexicana” show and firework.  That night we relax at the suite enjoying drinks and a light dinner.

New bridge across river gorge on the way to San Sebastian.
Blue Agave – the principal source of Tequila.
The quaint still used by the local family for tequila.
The streets of San Sebastian.
San Sebastian Old Town Square
Inside the San Sebastian Church.

On Tuesday morning, Rocky arose early to try his luck fishing from the beach but only caught two small stingrays. After a light breakfast, we assembled at the pool for another relaxing day.  From 11am until 3pm is “happy hour” at the swim-up bar, and we take advantage of the 2-for-1 drinks, cooling off from the sun with frozen margaritas. We both decide to ride the Lazy River before coming back for a poolside lunch of mussels and quesadillas. After the restful day, we had dinner on the beachside restaurant, “The Havana Moon”, where we enjoyed Cuban preparations of salads, shredded beef and barbequed pork ribs.

Julie on the Lazy River.

Wednesday morning gave Rocky another chance at fishing from the beach, but with no success at all this time.  However, the early start did offer the chance to see one Ridley Turtle finish laying her eggs and make her way back into the sea.  The Olive Ridley Turtles are only ~18” to 2’ long, and their nests are very shallow, making them easy targets for predators such as birds and racoons.  After returning to the suite to clean-up, we all headed to a complementary buffet breakfast at The Café Largo Restaurant. This was an appointment scheduled for Bob and Diana to review their current membership status, but the breakfast offered some of the best empanadas and Mexican treats that we had had.  After breakfast, we headed to the pool and “happy hour” for the rest of the day before making reservations for a traditional Mexican dinner at La Cantina.  This novel sports bar boasts stools made from horse-riding saddles and traditional décor and food.

Mexico’s Green Iguana – about 2 1/2 feet long.

Thursday morning, we were all up early to catch our taxi transport to Paradise Village Public Pier for a day of sport fishing. At the pier, we were met by the captain and first mate of the “Luky”, a twin outboard sport fishing boat.  As we motored out into Banderas Bay, the weather was good, and the seas were calm.  By the time the sun started showing over the eastern mountains, we had motored west ~20km to a point near Destiladeras where we began fishing for bait and potential lunch.  While there, Rocky caught two Spanish Mackerel and one Skipjack, Diana cause a Spanish Mackerel and Yellowtail, Bob caught 2 Spanish Mackerels at one time, and Julie caught a Spanish Mackerel, as well. With these fish and others that the first mate both brought and caught, we continued our journey to the southwest to get beyond the bay and into deeper, cooler waters where mahi and billfish might be caught. With seven lines out at various distances, we fished for the 4-hours past the Marietas Islands and all the way across the outer edge of Banderas Bay, however, we never got a bite. As noon approach, the first mate cleaned and filleted several of the mackerel, and made an outstanding ceviche, which we ate with chips for a delicious lunch.   As afternoon began, we headed back to the port, stopping briefly to watch the frolicking dolphins that came to investigate us.  After returning to the resort, we went for a walk on the beach, explored the Turtle Nesting Nursery, and spend some time at the pool.  Dinner that night was via “room service” where we had steak and fajitas and watched a movie, “Deja Vu”, in Spanish on the television.

Sunrise from out on the water.
Fishing in Banderas Bay.

On Friday morning, Rocky again tried his luck fishing at the beach, but again with no luck.  Julie came down to encourage him and to explore and got to witness not only a nesting turtle, but also the release of baby turtles back into the sea from the Turtle Conservancy located there. They have a regular program where they collect turtle eggs from their beach nests, rebury them in a protected area, and then release them into the sea when they hatch.  After our morning beach excursion, we headed to “Sweet Paris” again for a crepe breakfast, and then again spent the day poolside before making reservations at “Gong”, an Asian-style restaurant.  Here we had one of the best tempuras we’ve ever tasted and complimented our meal with dumplings and red wine.  Then, it was back to the suite to pack for our journey home the next day.

Nesting Olive Ridley Turtle.
Baby Olive Ridley Turtles

Saturday was “travel day”, but, after arriving at the airport, we were excited to discover that part of our trip we were upgraded to first class.  This was a great way to conclude a fantastic and relaxing week.