Puerto Vallarta, located on the Pacific coast of Mexico, is a vibrant and stunning tropical destination that is perfect for travelers looking to see amazing flora and fauna, tour the cultural attractions, and soak up some sun on the beautiful beaches of Banderas Bay. I recently had the opportunity to visit this charming city, and I must say, it exceeded all my expectations.
Hotel Velas Vallarta
The bay is lined by beautiful resorts overlooking the ocean, and these are the ideal place to settle in for a visit to Puerto Vallarta. My resort, the Hotel Velas Vallarta, offered stunning views of the ocean, but it also offered something unique – a garden environment that immerses you into this horticultural wonderland.
Most hotels have landscaping but Hotel Velas Vallarta has a garden with a purposeful design down to the plant tags with information about the plants. Philodendron xanadu, Musa x paradisiaca (banana), Bismarckia nobilis (Bismarck palm), Ptychosperma macarthurii (Macarthur palm), Dypsis lutescens (butterfly palm), red ginger, and Thunbergia laurifolia (royal clock vine) are among the multitude of plants that fill the garden’s beds while Washingtonia robusta (Mexican fan palm) towers overhead and colorful bougainvillea cascades down from the balconies of the multi-story buildings. It’s a wonderful stay in a lovely garden. The resort’s pools, the outdoor restaurant overlooking the bay, and the resort’s many activities add to the “this is a place to relax” vibe found here.
Just outside of town is one of the city’s newer attractions. The Mariposario Jardin Magico educates visitors on the full spectrum of the life of a butterfly. A typical butterfly sanctuary is more exhibition focused where you can see exotic butterflies fluttering about. But this sanctuary is all about education and focuses only on native butterflies.
The owner originally started the sanctuary for the local community to teach about the importance of butterflies, but visitors have quickly discovered it, too. There are some 190 species of local butterflies, and the sanctuary is licensed to reproduce 35 of these by using local host plants like pipe vine, passion fruit, Mexican petunia, and others to attract egg-laying butterflies.
Inside the sanctuary, you can see up close the transformation to a butterfly. From looking at the tiny eggs that dot the leaves and caterpillars happily munching away, to witnessing the change of a chrysalis into a butterfly, you come to appreciate the short-lived life of a butterfly and all the steps it took to become one.
Signage thoroughly explains all of this as you walk through the sanctuary, but a guided tour is worth the extra fee and includes the opportunity of releasing newly born butterflies and granting them the first flight of their life.
Vallarta Botanical Gardens
Upon arrival to this garden, you will first notice the area is thick with tropical vegetation that looks natural only to soon discover that it is mostly planned and planted. That’s the beauty of the Vallarta Botanical Gardens that was once a pasture transformed into a stunning living museum of tropical plants. It is a highlight of any visit to Puerto Vallarta.
From the moment you step into the garden and walk the cobblestone path to the first garden house, it is easy to understand why it was honored with the 2022 Award for Garden Excellence by the American Public Gardens Association. It was quite the accolade for a garden in Puerto Vallarta to win this prestigious recognition, making it the first garden outside the U.S. to receive it.
For a botanical garden that specializes in plants from Mexico’s vast list of unique species, you might do a double take at your first garden stop – the Daneri Vireya Rhododendron House, named for a plant species that usually likes cooler temperatures. A donation of Rhododendron ‘Vireya’ by Dee Daneri, a retired director of the American Rhododendron Society, added this warm weather variety from Indonesia to the garden’s collection, making it the only place in Mexico where you can see tropical rhododendrons. It thrives here in a protected pavilion and grows among colorful pots of orchids, begonias, fuchsias, and calla lilies on display.
Paths lined with exotic plants – vanilla orchid, ginger, stag horn fern, chocolate, and more – traverse up and down the hills and radiate off the main path, with a new plant delight waiting at every stop along the way. At the crest of one hill is Our Lady of the Garden chapel and an International Peace Garden.
Nearby, the Bridge of Dreams takes you across a creek bed to more areas, including the large open-air Vallarta Conservatory of Orchids & Native plants. Protected under the conservatory roof is a multitude of plants, mostly in containers, of species native to Mexico, including a neo tropical magnolia, Magnolia vallartensis, discovered in this area in 2012. It is now the official flower of Puerto Vallarta. At the back of the glass house is a vitro propagation lab growing most of the orchids you see in the garden from seed.
Wandering is encouraged to discover a vast selection of botanical wealth in this garden. Side paths lead to a Begonia House, Cactus House, Tropical House, and a water garden, all filled with the namesake plants. Vines of the impressive jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), blue trumpet vine (Thunbergia laurifolia), and bougainvillea drape many of the buildings. There is a forest of large jaguey blanco trees (Ficus trigonata) and throughout the grounds are vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), cacao and coffee trees, citrus, and butterfly friendly plants. The garden hosts a chocolate and vanilla festival each spring and plans to add a coffee festival soon.
Hiking paths take you further into the garden where you can explore more of this magical paradise, swim in the Los Horcones River, and bird watch some of the 230 different species seen here. The Hacienda del Oro Restaurant on site offers classic Mexican dining with spectacular views and is open for breakfast and lunch.
The visionary founder and creator of the Vallarta Botanical Gardens, Robert Price, and his mother, Betty, were originally from the U.S. before moving to Mexico. Their love of Mexican orchids got them asking why wasn’t there a botanical garden in the tropical paradise of Puerto Vallarta. In 2004, Bob founded the garden, began planting, and in 2005 the garden opened. Today, it has grown to nearly 300 acres of developed gardens and nature preserves. After a visit, it’s obvious why the 2022 Award for Garden Excellence was given to this unique and special garden.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta
A visit to Puerto Vallarta should include time exploring the historic city and its rich culture. As I walked along the Malecón, the main boardwalk along the bay, I was struck by the vibrant colors and stunning art installations that lined the path overlooking the ocean.
The iconic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Puerto Vallarta. The church’s towering spire and intricate architecture rise above the town. I spent some time inside admiring the beautiful stained-glass windows and ornate decorations.
The flora-filled residential enclave of Gringo Gulch is higher up the hillside, named for the many Americans who have frequented Puerto Vallarta over the years. Among the most notable were the Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Her former home is now a luxury hotel, Casa Kimberly, with its Iguana Restaurant & Tequila Bar a must-dine spot for the food and the views.
When You Go
After days spent on land looking at the ocean, a boat excursion to Majahuitas beach was my opportunity to experience the area by water. A spacious catamaran boat skimmed across the water with views of the city and mountains to one side as it took our group to the southern part of Banderas Bay.
Options on the excursion included snorkeling, water activities, and time to lounge on the relaxing private beach. Most tour operators include food and drink in the excursion package.
Mexico is a country that loves its tacos. They will even turn food from other countries into tacos, which is why you might see Asian tempura made into fish tacos or tacos al pastor using a style of Mediterranean shawarma cooking original to the Lebanese. A great way to experience the taco culture is on a street taco tour by Vallarta Food Tours.
The three-and-one-half-hour tour stops at eight places for tacos, from family-run taco stands to restaurants that have been passed down through the generations. There is even a stop at a tasting room to try mezcal, the spirited drink made with fermented agave smoked over a fire. You can also try a paloma, which is the national cocktail of Mexico, not the margarita that was born in California.
For a more contemporary dining experience, the food and décor of La Leche Restaurant is a standout. La Leche translates into “the milk”, so it’s fitting that the restaurant’s furnishings from top to bottom are all white to represent the color of milk.
The extensive menu calls for multi courses to try a variety of exquisite food served here. From the sopa de nada (a creamy vegetable soup) to entrees like duck, mahi mahi, and stuffed poblano peppers, the food is a creative masterpiece like the décor of this fun and eclectic restaurant.
Makal restaurant is a casually elegant dining experience in the heart of the Romantic Zone, an area of old Puerto Vallarta where you will find quaint cobblestone streets lined with shops, restaurants, and cafes. The dishes are made with a fusion of flavors and a presentation of the courses that will leave a lasting memory with you.
The Los Muertos beach area has a number of restaurants that line the walkway, including many that set up tables and chairs on the sandy beach for another unique dining experience.
Throughout my time in Puerto Vallarta, I was struck by the warm and welcoming nature of the locals and the stunning natural beauty of the city and mountains that surrounded me. It’s safe to say that this city with its gardens is a place that I can’t wait to visit again soon. For more information, check out www.visitpuertovallarta.com.
Featured image – Vallarta Botanical Gardens / Beverly Hurley
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.