Walking out of the Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport in mid-July is like walking into soup. The air is thick, hot, and fragrant. We tasted it for a moment, on the tunnel above the tarmac, but we quickly washed our mouths out with top-quality tequila, given to us for free by the airport tourist agent.
“In Hawaii, they give you a lei,” he said, “In Puerto Vallarta, you get tequila.”
Once outside, we are assaulted by the heat and humidity. My skin is already beginning to prickle with sweat. For the low price of $30USD, however, I have booked the ultimate luxury experience.
Our driver is holding a sign with my name on it, which briefly makes me feel famous. He happily offers us two cold, fresh Coronitas (miniature bottles of Corona). The Coronas in Mexico are so much better than they are in the United States. I’m not a big beer drinker back home, but I enjoy every last sip of my Coronita here – aside from the bit I spill on my shirt.
Sam and I chat quietly in the backseat and look out the windows as we wind toward our hotel.
Along the way, the driver pauses to let a massive green iguana cross the street. I ask if they are common. Our driver says yes. Not even a quarter of a mile later, we see a bright yellow, “Iguana crossing,” sign, and we begin to appreciate where we are – on a beach surrounded by subtropical rainforest.
Trouble in Paradise
There’s some trouble at check-in, but a kindly woman gets us set up with one pina colada and one margarita while we wait. Eventually, the front desk gives us a towel key and instructs us to enjoy the pool until our room is ready.
We dine at a poolside bar that looks out onto the ocean. The tuna tiradito is sharp with lime and jalapeño, our calamari is crisp and delicious, and the guacamole packs some heat, too. My lips and tongue are numb with spice by the end of the meal, and I’m bloated from a big meal and a day of travel, but I change into my tiny red bikini, anyways.
The water is an extension of the air, warm and languid. Still, it’s refreshing to glide through it, and afterwards we stretch out on the pool chairs. Sam has a nap, and I read the book I’m really getting into: "Animal" by Lisa Taddeo.
After a few more check-ins with the host, and we are upstairs in our room. The air conditioning is the best thing I have tasted all day. It’s so crisp and refreshing. We take a shower and spend the afternoon cooling off.
Later, we hunt for iguanas on the way to our meeting point and get into an extremely affordable Uber. The driver chats with us in Spanish before dropping us off at the main drag, Malecon. On a hotel employee’s advice, we find the beautiful chapel and get in line for the restaurant right across the street He said it was the best place in all of Puerto Vallarta for antojitos, and based on the clientele – locals and employees from nearby businesses – he’s right.
The food – a traditional pozole and mix of tacos, tostadas, and sopes – does not disappoint, but the real star of the show is a freshly made agua fresca with sweet, flavorful guava.
We gobble it all up and head out to find some dessert. After a bit of wandering, we discover a small shop with expertly decorated artisan chocolate. As we sit down to eat it, a mariachi band begins to play.
For a while, we listen, but the day of travel is getting the best of both of us. We walk around relatively aimlessly until we stop under a patio surrounded by the smell of tacos and wait for another Uber driver to take us home.
Scuba Diving in Puerto Vallarta
The next day, we wake up early, pack our backpacks with sunscreen, towels, and scuba masks and head to Vallarta Underseas for our scuba diving adventure... also known as the reason we took this trip.
Carlos immediately greets us like we are old friends, then we pay our remaining balance and get wristbands up front. By the time we turn around, Carlos has fins that fit us perfectly and is discussing the merits of a wetsuit.
As a surprise to us (we have done all of our diving so far in chilly Southern California), we don’t need one. He gives us loose-fitting spring suits so we don’t get rashes and a little time to reapply sunscreen, buy snacks at the market next door, and take last-minute bathroom breaks. Then, we’re off.
On the boat, it is just Carlos, us, the driver, and Cristina and Sofia, two lovely divers from Guadalajara. We switch back and forth between Spanish and English for the duration of the tour, and I translate bits and pieces for Sam.
Along the way, we spot a turtle floating at the surface. It looks kind of like a living rock.
Once we are underwater, one of the first things we see is a turtle! Watching it move under
the surface is beautiful and otherworldly - just like the entire experience.
We also see a magnificent coral reef with schools of little fish all around. Big, brightly colored fish swim solo, and moray eels jut in and out of the rocks.
Every now and then, we also spot a puffer fish. Unpuffed, they appear to be smiling, and they don’t seem too bothered by our presence, even when the water displaced by Cristina’s fin spins one around a bit.
I’d love to see one puff up, but I don’t want to do anything to disturb the magic we see here - or the life that creates it.
Eventually, we come up to switch tanks and move to another part of the park, where we swim through incredible coral reef formations. Here, we spot an octopus that blends in so well with the rocks that we almost don't see it. We accidentally scare it and watch it swim away. It's mesmerizing.
When Carlos calls us up, we all pout because none of us are ready to leave this magical undersea world.
Back on board, I reapply my scolpolomine patch (life changing for my motion sickness), and Carlos hands out ham and cheese sandwiches with flavorful chiles folded in.
On the way back, we see dolphins!
Ochos Tostadas, Cuates y Cuetes, El Colibri, and El Solar
Before heading back to the hotel, we stop at Ochos Tostadas and enjoy a shrimp and octopus ceviche, along with two varieties of fish tostadas and another Corona.
It’s all so incredible, and we feel ready to walk "home" in the heat, which is much more difficult than expected. The walk requires several stops, a reapplication of sunscreen, and a giant bottle of water.
At the hotel, we shower and pass out for a long, luxurious nap.
When we wake up, we do an online search to get an overview of the nightlife, head into town, and snag one of the last tables in the sand at an oceanside restaurant.
At Cuates y Cuetes, we have a freshly grilled octopus (sorry buddy we saw in the ocean!), a Veracruz style white fish, and some crunchy coconut shrimp, along with some lovely cocktails I don’t remember the name of.
It somehow gets hotter when the sun sets, and we drift through the stifling heat to a couple bars on all the lists. We have trendy (flaming!) cocktails at El Colibri and end the night on the shore of El Solar, where we’re too tired to enjoy the generous pours and relaxed ambiance.
Vallarta Botanical Gardens
The next morning, we are early once again to meet our guide, Eduardo, for a tour of the Vallarta Botanical Gardens. We give ourselves extra time to grab breakfast along the way and spot iguanas – and a crocodile! – in the harbor.
We also see our guide from yesterday. Carlos calls my name, greeting us like he has known us forever (not just yesterday). He makes a joke about the crocodile, lets me stop by the dive shop for a bathroom break, and sends us off to our next tour.
Eduardo is a relaxed but enthusiastic man who is Sam's age (31). He is so excited to share everything about Mexico with us, and we are glad to hear it. At the gardens, he is totally in his element and teaches us all about the difficult process of making vanilla. He pulls bees out of his backpack, lets us try a pure cocoa bean, and guides us through all the best spots in the garden.
One of my favorite spots was a colorful cathedral made from fabric and carefully stitched images of the garden. Eduardo also took the best photo of Sam and I ever (see below).
After the tour, we go to a special lunch, where we have mojitos and ice cream made from the vanilla plantations we just toured. I also have probably the best quesadilla I’ve ever had in my life.
We have free time after lunch, and we walk down to the river. It’s muddy because of the rain, so we just dip our toes. Then, we hike back along the jaguar trail, but we don’t spot any big cats – or even any of the famous macaw parrots.
We buy some obscenely fresh chocolate and vanilla from the gift shop, as well as a small wooden sea turtle for our cat sitter.
Eduardo saves us the hot walk back by dropping us at our hotel, where we go for a swim before cooling off and preparing for the night.
Our Last Night and Street Food Adventure
Our final evening is a street food adventure, so we eat crispy skewered shrimp, asada tacos, and anything else we can find in the city’s bustling market. We also stop for oysters and beer to wait out some of the rainstorm that has started coming down. Finally, we end the night watching lightning on the rooftop of YamBak, a local brewery Eduardo recommended to us.
When the storm stops and we finish our drinks, it seems a natural moment to go home, so we call our Uber and get going.
The next morning is spent at the airport while Sam takes a meeting and we have uninspiring muffins.
Until next time, PV!
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