Just back from seven days in Puerto Vallarta and am grateful for the wealth of advice and expertise available on this board! I hope to give some back--especially in the cost analysis area.
Being the tightwad that I am, I scoured the net for days looking for the best price for an air and hotel package for my family of three. Expedia had the best price coming in at $2500ish. We flew out of Dulles on United and stayed at the Marriot Casamagna, which is either a 45 cents pp. bus ride or a ten dollar cab ride away from the Zone Romantica, where many of the restaurants and shops are, but it has the advantage of being located on the Marina, an area that I found preferable to the Romantic Zone. The hotel was immaculate, service was excellent, the pool was large and had a swim up bar, and the beach was ok. More about the beaches later. If you are looking for luxury, the Marriot and the Westin, both on the Marina, would be my suggestions. The Sheraton and Holiday Inn are in the Hotel Zone, which I did not explore, but from the bus, it didn't look inviting. If I were traveling with my more budget-conscious friends as opposed to my spend-like-there's-no-tomorrow husband, I might have considered The Playa Los Arcos Hotel as it was quaint and in the midst of things, but much smaller than the Marriot.
Food is a major incentive for traveling for me, but I must say that I didn't find the restaurants in PV exceptional nor were they the bargains I hoped they would be. This is still the place of the $17-35 dollar entree which I was hoping to escape and after a couple of such meals, I realized that the less I paid for my food, the better it was. Mediocre food was had at El Dorado, Marisco Polo, and
My best meals were at Cafe de Ollo (we went there twice!), The Red Cabbage, Vaca Grill (fantastic arrachera) and the very clean Marisma taco stand at the Marina location. I'll be craving those fish tacos for awhile! Mr. Cream is the place to go at the Marina for breakfast--every kind of pancake you can imagine and wonderful Mexican egg specialties.
Our first night we decided to hit The Red Cabbage as this is the place for authentic gormet Mexican food that goes beyond tacos and enchiladas. A caveat: don't look at a map and think you can walk there from the Romantic Zone. Take a cab. It's hard to get to this place, but it was worth it. Chiles Nogada, like those said to have been served at Frida Kahlo's wedding, a stuffed chile with a very complex cream sauce served cold was a standout, but everything we had was good. Cafe de Ollo is a time-honored spot in the Zone Romatica. My husband and I had the special which was a seafood platter with 4 lobster tails, shrimp, and your choice of filet mignon or fish for $41. It was delicious. Even cheaper was Vaca Grill, a place where our concierge said he goes with his buddies. My hubby and daughter had a big barbecue platter with steak, ribs and chicken for $16. I had the arrachera--perfecto. As for margaritas, maybe I just didn't go to he right places, but none were standouts.
While not planned to be such, this turned out to be quite an outdoorsy vacation--perhaps because we were not at an all-inclusive. Those of you whose top priority for a vacation is the beach may seriously want to reconsider PV and head south of Cancun as the beaches in PV are spotty. You generally do not have white sand; the water can be muddy/sandy; the surf is rough, and to get to a really good beach, it may be a day's work. We took two beach excursions, the first to the beach called Yelapa. To do this, one must go to the pier in the Romantic Zone and catch a Water Taxi ($20 pp). Before getting down there, I had visions of beach hopping as I'd read about several nice beaches (really more like big beach cul de sacs), but once there I could see that that was not possible, and they looked to be pretty much the same anyway. Yelapa was a fun day. As part of your water taxi fare, the guide will take you to a water fall. At the beach, I parasailed ($35) for the first time and ended up landing in the water for which I was pestered for an additional $10 tip since I got the guy's parasail wet. This is also the place where you can get a picture with an iguana on your head for $5. Cheesy I know, but I had to have one.
The water was pretty calm here, so I'd definitely recommend this beach, but there were no pie ladies! Perhaps that's just a high season thing.
Our next outing was a trip with Vallarta Adventures to The Marietta Islands. Breakfast (fruit, juice, and muffins) lunch, and all the booze you can drink after you swim, were included for $85 pp. This trip was typical laid back fun. The islands are actually protected, so you don't walk on them, but you snorkel and kayak around them. The snorkeling was decent, but nothing like Cozumel. After snorkeling they took us to a beach, where the surf was pretty rough. We dug sand out of our bathing suits for days after this beach. Be sure to bring your own towels as there is nothing at this beach but sand and water.
My final adventure proved to be what I imagine will appear to the unknowing to be the pinnacle of my athletic career--ziplining through the Sierra Madre! At one point we were 540 feet above ground, and the longest line is a quarter of a mile. We did this with Los Veranos Canopy tours, and that is an important distinction because there are other tours where you have to walk a ways up in the air on platforms, and nobody in my camp would have wanted to do that. Contrary to my fears, it was not unbearably hot. Just as it got hot, it was time to zip across the jungle-what better air conditioning? The guides were wonderful, and I felt completely safe doing something that could be very daunting. The hardest part was climbing the steps up the jungle, but we managed.
All in all, we had a very active, adventurous vacation. The Mexican people are so eager to make sure you are enjoying yourself, and I never feel unsafe. But in the age old debate about whether to go to Puerto Vallarta or the south of Cancun, I have to cast my vote for south of Cancun for the following reasons: beaches, Playa del Carmen, quality and value of resorts. I equate Playa with the Romantic Zone, the hub of restaurant and shopping activity. Playa is far cleaner and to me seemed more sophisticated. I realize this is perhaps because Playa is newer. The buses (vans really) one takes to Playa are also newer and cleaner and the landscape is relatively undeveloped, less run down. I'm usually all about the authentic bus experience in a city, but after about two days, the buses in Puerto Vallarta just seemed hot and bumpy, and often people were unwilling to move over to make a seat available! I'd never imagine seeing something like this in the otherwise very friendly Mexico, but even my daughter commented on this. The all-inclusive business in PV doesn't seem to be what it is in the Mayan Riviera. I heard people who were staying at AI's in PV complaining about the repetitiveness of the buffets, but I would have welcomed a 5 or 6 star all- inclusive since the food proved to be average for the most part, and those $8 margaritas add up at the swim up bar at the Marriot. Thanks to everyone who posts here to help make this another informed and enjoyable vacation!