Travel Guide: Puerto Vallarta

Beaches, whale watching, and decadent cuisine make this Mexico destination the next hot spot
Sunset at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Sunset at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Photo by Amy Nelson

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was just the winter beach vacation I didn’t know I needed.

A mix of sand, surf, and beautiful sunsets, this quick five-day trip was affordable, accessible, and easy to navigate. It was also my first international trip in a long time because of COVID-19 restrictions and decades since I had first visited Mexico, and the journey felt indulgent yet safe.

My friends and I had been talking about a girls’ weekend for months and finally booked a trip to have something to look forward to as winter dragged on. When we picked Puerto Vallarta, it was both a relief and a mystery if we actually would get to go, as the Omicron variant was shutting down lots of travel across the globe. We decided to try our luck with the future dates but also purchased trip insurance in case it didn’t work out.

Grand Velas sits on the Pacific Ocean coastline
Grand Velas sits on the Pacific Ocean coastline

Courtesy of Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit

Puerto Vallarta is a direct and very affordable flight on both Delta and Sun Country airlines from the Twin Cities. I used some frequent flyer miles on Delta for my flight, while my friend had a free voucher for her Sun Country flight.

While Puerto Vallarta was a new destination for me, it’s clearly not a secret to a number of Minnesotans. Both our flights were full, on the Wednesday flight down and the Sunday return flight. We also made friends with a couple from North Branch on one of our excursions and met other Minnesotans at our resort. Many people I chatted with said they were return vacationers who visit the area annually.

It was impossible to see everything we wanted on this quick trip, but we may be like those other Midwesterners and return again for more. Here’s a look at what we did pack in, with tips and tricks we learned along the way.

At Casa Velas, live bands perform every night on the patio for happy hour
At Casa Velas, live bands perform every night on the patio for happy hour

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Day 1

The nearly five-hour flight from MSP to Puerto Vallarta may seem long but, thankfully, both of our plane rides were direct and departed within 45 minutes of each other at a reasonable mid-morning hour. We carpooled to terminals 1 and 2 together and were reunited in Mexico by 2 p.m., ready to enjoy the 80-degree temperatures and escape the snowy weather back home. We were through customs quickly and efficiently—unlike the overcrowded MSP wait on our return to the United States—and had been warned to ignore the vacation rental hawkers in the airport hallway as we made our way to the taxi stand for a ride to our resort.

Peacocks roam the grounds at both Grand Velas and Casa Velas
Peacocks roam the grounds at both Grand Velas and Casa Velas

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Traffic was very busy for a weekday mid-afternoon, and I was glad I wasn’t driving or renting a car to navigate the area. Our cab driver was friendly and pointed out some landmarks along the 20-minute drive to the all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, an all-inclusive resort in Nuevo Vallarta, where we booked our first two nights as part of a special media rate.

The botanical gardens at Casa Velas is the ideal location for a picnic
The botanical gardens at Casa Velas is the ideal location for a picnic

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Sometimes first impressions make all the difference when you’re traveling and in a foreign country, out of your comfort zone. For me, Grand Velas was exactly what I was expecting—and then some. There’s a big wow factor as you walk into the open-air seating area and spy peacocks strolling through lush gardens, a multitiered pool that fades into the horizon along the beach, gleaming white sand dotted with private beach cabanas, and the smoky gray Sierra Madre Mountains ringing the Banderas Bay oceanfront of the Pacific. We were greeted with hand massages and margaritas during the check-in process and assigned our personal concierge for the remaining visit who cheerfully helped us with room service requests as well as dinner accommodations.

We dropped our bags in our room, marveled at the views from our private covered balcony, and quickly headed out to explore the rest of the enormous property.

the spanish-inspired architecture at casa Velas includes several covered porticos
the spanish-inspired architecture at casa Velas includes several covered porticos

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Grand Velas is perfect for parents: There’s a baby concierge, a separate wing where mom and dad can drop off their preschoolers and elementary-aged children for some supervised play time, and an impressive teens’ club with video game stations and a smoothie bar. Adults can indulge, too, with a swim-up bar, fitness center, sports bar, and private beach loungers, but the vibe is definitely family-friendly.

That first night we made sure to watch an amazing sunset over the ocean before heading to our late dinner reservation at one of the resort’s four gourmet restaurants, the Asian-inspired Sen Lin. After an afternoon of barely seeing any other vacationers at the pool and wondering if COVID-19 had severely impacted the resort’s clientele, I was surprised to see the restaurant at capacity with multigenerational families and couples dining in the semi-formal space. We dined on delicious dumplings, shrimp pad thai, and specially requested macaroons. Then we took one last moonlit walk along the beach before calling it a completely satisfying night.

Guests start their day with beachfront yoga at the gazebo at Grand Velas
Guests start their day with beachfront yoga at the gazebo at Grand Velas

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Day 2

We left the balcony door open overnight and woke up early to more perfect weather the second day. My friend headed down to a yoga session while I checked in for a spa treatment, which started with a hydrotherapy circuit an hour before my massage. I had the pools, sauna, steam room, and showers to myself during this morning session but was guided by a friendly attendant who also offered me drinks and the resort’s signature power bars.

Grand Velas offers weekly mixology classes that focus on Mexican flavors
Grand Velas offers weekly mixology classes that focus on Mexican flavors

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

The relaxing 80-minute massage started with an aromatherapy session and featured flower petals scattered around the room. It was among one of the best spa treatments I’ve experienced—including a massage I had in Bali—but is a pricey additional charge, plus tip. After the relaxing morning, we spent most of the afternoon at the beach, reading and watching the paragliders, anglers, swimmers, and beach walkers. For a late lunch, we tried the fish tacos and nachos with some expertly made margaritas.

Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit offers a progressive taco tour to guests and the public, featuring dishes and drink pairings from its four gourmet restaurants
Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit offers a progressive taco tour to guests and the public, featuring dishes and drink pairings from its four gourmet restaurants

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

I didn’t think the previous night’s sunset could be topped, but the scene from our balcony this second night was breathtaking. We then headed to dinner at the authentic Mexican restaurant, Frida. Highlights here included fresh guacamole made tableside (with the option of adding dried crickets for protein) and a crunchy churros dessert. After dinner, we listened to a live band perform songs in English and Spanish on the patio before we returned to our room to watch the stars, chat, and collapse into our incredibly
comfortable beds.

It takes some courage to try the aerial yoga class at Grand Velas
It takes some courage to try the aerial yoga class at Grand Velas

Courtesy of Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit

Day 3

The next morning, I slept in while my adventurous friend tried another yoga class. We’ve traveled to Costa Rica together to do yoga and have been practicing for years, but I still couldn’t muster the courage to try the aerial version the resort was offering. And after hearing about how dizzying and difficult it was to hang from the fabric hammocks while stretching, sometimes hanging upside down, I’m perfectly fine that I missed the experience. My friend said one guest in the full class mentioned “too much wine last night” and nearly everyone agreed. Still, I do wish I had enjoyed the resort’s many athletic activities, like the boogie boards and beach volleyball.

Casa Velas
Casa Velas

Courtesy of Casa Velas

This was a transition day for us, as we checked out of our family-focused resort into an adults-only property also run by the Velas company, Casa Velas. Another friend joined us and we spent the afternoon chatting by the impressive blue-tiled sculptural pool. We had a chill day at this property in the middle of a Mexican residential area adjacent to a golf course. The number of single women at the pool made us think that many were visiting Mexico with their husbands, who were probably out golfing that afternoon. We agreed that’s what we likely would be doing, too.

Casa Velas
Casa Velas

Courtesy of Casa Velas

We also reflected on how different the vibe of this resort was compared with the more upscale Grand Velas, and how much quieter and serene the resort was without children splashing in the pool and at the beach. We ended the night with a lovely dinner chatting with the chef of the on-site restaurant, Emiliano, and watching some talented bartenders entertain a guest’s request to pour a complicated flaming drink to everyone’s astonishment. 

At Grand Velas, guests gather along the beach and near the infinity pool to watch the sun set
At Grand Velas, guests gather along the beach and near the infinity pool to watch the sun set

Courtesy of Velas Resorts

Day 4

The promise of whales and waves, snorkeling and sailing got us up early on the fourth day of our trip as we took a taxi from Casa Velas to the nearby Puerto Vallarta terminal. I highly recommend this popular five-hour snorkel tour with Vallarta Adventures and the professional, personable crew. I was skeptical as we set sail from the port about 8 a.m., but the half-day trip proved fun as we snorkeled, lounged, and grooved to a fun playlist. For about $100 each, this cruise was a steal. We watched dolphins on the way out, whales on the way back, and felt like we saw some of Mexico’s true wonders along the water. When we got back to shore, I wish we would have spent time exploring Puerto Vallarta’s downtown because it was our only chance to see the area on this short trip. 

That afternoon the resort arranged for a doctor to administer the COVID-19 tests that the United States required for entry. We were relieved that we all got negative results, but also joked that staying another 10 days would be OK. We celebrated with some more margaritas, and that evening at dinner made friends with Canadians, Mexicans, and other Americans talking politics, travel, and international intrigue.

One of four gourmet restaurants at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, Lucca features Italian-Mediterranean cuisine
One of four gourmet restaurants at Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit, Lucca features Italian-Mediterranean cuisine

Courtesy of Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit

Day 5

For our final day in Mexico, breakfast included watching the colorful yellow birds pick off pastries at a neighbor’s table as we enjoyed our strong coffee and weak eggs Benedict. We knew it was time to go home but also wished we had a few more days to explore the area. We walked the neighborhood, nodded at the others power walking the streets, and watched the large lizard near the pool surreptitiously climb the pool palm tree. On our way to the airport, our driver informed us that Sundays in Puerto Vallarta are very busy because the airport is one of the few ports for both international and Mexican locations along the peninsula. It was crowded, crazy, and chaotic. But it made me realize Mexico is a perfect destination for a quick winter getaway, something I was just discovering—but that others have known for a long time.

A word about all-inclusive properties: My only other experience with an all-inclusive vacation was years ago on a Disney cruise with my family. It took me several conversations with others to figure out what felt so different for this trip: I had everything I needed in one spot, which is both a luxury and a disincentive to explore the rest of the area and Puerto Vallarta. All of my entertainment, meals, and leisure activities were at the resort, for better or worse. For some families, that’s exactly what they want. For example, one kid can order chicken fingers and cheesecake to the room while the parents eat at the on-property restaurants. For me, after a day or two, I’d want to spend more of my own money on excursions away from the resort to get a better sense of the destination.

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As editor of Minnesota Monthly, Amy works collaboratively with a team of writers, designers, photographers, and digital producers to create impactful, surprising, timely and insightful content that reflects the Spirit of Minnesota. An award-winning newspaper and magazine editor based in the Twin Cities, Amy has decades of experience guiding coverage of luxury living, arts and culture, style and travel topics across multiple platforms. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Prince to Roger Goodell and has stories to tell.