Puerto Vallarta is one of the three most popular destinations in Mexico (next to Cabo and Cancun) and having just returned from a visit there, here are some travel tips for anyone who is headed to the Puerto Vallarta area:
Arrival at the airport:
- As is the case with the airports in Cancun and Cabo, stay alert after customs since the first room you walk through is filled with timeshare hawkers. They will ask you if you’re looking for a taxi, ask you how you are, ask you where you’re staying, etc. just to get you to stop and chat with them… so that they can ultimately convince you to go to a timeshare presentation. Of course, they won’t tell you up front that they are part of a timeshare selling team – they’ll act like they are airport officials. Whatever you do, ignore these people! Once you walk out of this room (affectionately referred to as the “shark tank”), you’ll find yourself in the actual arrival hall with real taxis, shuttles, and rental car counters.
- If you take a taxi from the airport, the prices are “fixed” and it’s going to be one rate for one cab (don’t be tricked into paying a per person rate or thinking you’re getting a discount if they tell you, “oh it’s only 200 pesos for two people”.) As a sample, a ride to the Marina Vallarta is approximately 180 pesos and a ride to Punta Mita is approximately 900 pesos. I say the prices are “fixed” because even among these taxi companies, I found a better rate just by walking to another taxi stand that was towards the departures hall. We were headed to Punta Mita so the rate this new taxi stand quoted was 800 pesos instead, saving us 100 pesos. Lesson: It pays to talk to multiple taxi stands at the airport.
- If you really want to save on the taxi ride, however, you can walk outside of the arrivals hall, turn left, and walk over the foot bridge. There will be yellow taxis waiting there that cost way less than the ones at the airport. As an example, the yellow taxis quoted us 70 pesos for a ride to Marina Vallarta (versus the 180 pesos had we taken one from the airport).
- There are ATM’s at the airport, however, you’ll have to walk towards the departures hall to find them (from the arrivals hall, go right down the hallway to find the departures hall and 3-4 ATMs).
- Check the exchange rates before you go on your trip. If the exchange rate is 10 pesos to the dollar, then consider using USDs. If the exchange rate, however, is more than 10 pesos to the dollar, withdraw pesos from an ATM and use pesos! This is because vendors tend to use the 10 pesos to 1 USD exchange rate when giving quotes but will gladly accept pesos, too.
- Credit cards are accepted at most places, but cash is still king so you’ll definitely want to have cash ready.
- A 10-15% tip is adequate for restaurants. There are reports that say that in Mexico, it’s customary to tip waitstaff 15-20% like you would in the US, but some places only add a 10% service charge. We tend to tip 15% when we’re out just to be safe.
- For the most part, you can tip service staff (bellman, porters, hotel maids, spas, tour guides, etc.) like you would if you were in the US, however, you do not need to tip taxi drivers! Locals don’t tip taxi drivers but apparently some taxi drivers have gotten used to receiving tips from Americans and may expect it. Don’t do it! You don’t need to! The only caveat is if the driver is doing something out of the way to help you out like making multiple stops or helping you with your luggage.
- Other people you should tip that we don’t tip at home include the people who bag your groceries and the gas station attendant who fills your tank. We gave our gas station attendant 5 pesos since that’s what a local said he gave.
- If you take a taxi, negotiate the price of the ride before you get in. To give you an idea of how much things are going for, a ride from Marina Vallarta to the airport, which is only 2-3km away, should really only be about 50pesos. If you recall, the yellow taxis outside the airport will want 70 pesos for this – which they might just get considering there aren’t any other options you’ll have at that point. But, you’ll find that when you’re headed back to the airport, the fare will be less. A ride from Marina Vallarta to the malecon (i.e., boardwalk in the older part of town) is 70-80pesos.
- Taxis are more expensive if you take the ones that come to the hotels since the hotels will have set taxi rates. If you want to save money, grab a cab outside the hotel. I always pay less when I’m returning to the hotel than when I get a cab from the hotel. To give you an idea of the fare differences, a taxi ride from our Marina Vallarta hotel to Punta Mita (about an hour ride) is 650pesos. When I asked a random taxi driver outside the hotel for the price, he quoted 600 pesos (and I’m sure I could have bargained it down some more).
Driving in Mexico:
- There may be speed bumps on the road! If so, they may or may not be “colored” to catch your attention. Be wary of the speed bumps so that you can slow down in time.
- Stop signs in Mexico are labeled “Alto”. Unlike in the US, however, there aren’t lines painted on the streets to mark where to stop so you have to look for the Alto signs and just stop at the end of the street – this sounds simple but it takes some getting used to!
- Follow the speed limits. There are a few different speed limits with the highest being 60kph on the big “boulevard-like” streets. While the cars around you may be going faster than that, you are a target for the police if you’re a tourist driving a rental car so to save yourself the hassle of finding yourself in a “bribe” with the police, follow the traffic signs!
- At big hotels and restaurants, the water should be purified, but it never hurts to ask if the ice and water being served is made from “agua purificada”. I’ve always asked this and they’ve always said “yes” but I still make it a habit to double check – just in case! If in doubt, skip the ice and drink bottled water.
- You’ll find plenty of seafood options and Mexican food options in the area. There are also some Italian restaurants. If you stick to the tourist areas, the prices for food will be higher than if you head to less touristed area. For instance, we had dinner close to the church by the malecon – effectively dodging all the touristy restaurants lining the malecon – and paid $10 USD for a beer, juice, soup, and tamales. We also walked a few blocks south of the malecon to the older part of Puerto Vallarta and found street tacos for 9 pesos. I also saw some street tacos selling for 5 pesos elsewhere, too!
- Don’t be afraid to bargain here… on just about anything. I’ve bargained for souvenirs, jet ski rides, taxi rides, spa treatments and tours especially when I’m dealing with a solo vendor. I won’t, however, bargain on a taxi ride or tour if I’m going through the hotel for these services since the prices are fixed.
- Try to make bargaining fun! The vendors are friendly and just trying to make a living. They are also used to bargaining so I’ve used tactics to lower the price by telling them that I can get the same services for cheaper at home or I’ve had similar services for only X amount of pesos before. I’ve also just flashed a big smile and told them they should lower the price and help me out since I can tell they are nice (
flirtingflattery actually works) or I’ve thrown in a lot of “por favors” (i.e., “please” in spanish) and sometimes they just say “OK”.
- Incidentally, anytime you can go outside of the hotel for anything, you’ll find that you can get a better deal.
Interacting with locals:
- While Mexicans overall are a friendly group (especially the ones in this part of Mexico), you’ll notice that they always start every conversation with a “buenos dias” (good morning), “buenos tarde” (good afternoon), or “buenos noches” (good evening). As Americans, we may be used to just replying with whatever request we have for them (example: “hey, how much is this?” or “I’m checking in”), but respect their culture and return their greeting first!
- The locals are a friendly group and generally want to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. Don’t be afraid to let loose and humor their conversation starters. Even the random vendors I’ve met who try to sell me on a tour aren’t overly pushy (thank goodness!) so don’t be afraid to make friends.
- I love going to Puerto Vallarta because the spa treatments are so much cheaper! You could easily find massages that start at $30/hr especially when you look outside of a big hotel. The Marina Vallarta, for instance, has tons of day spas with various deals that you could check out just by strolling through. That said, not all spas are the same so it pays to do your research. Don’t be afraid to ask them for a tour of the facility before you commit. Some spas treatments are held in little hole in the wall stores while others may be outside in a cabana or in an actual spa-like setting.
- Leave the converters/adapters at home. The plugs in Mexico are the same as those in the U.S.