Puerto Vallarta is so much more than big hotels, all inclusive resorts, margaritas and beach bars. It can be as touristy as you want, or as authentically Mexican as it gets.
If you’ve been to Puerto Vallarta a few times before and you’re looking to get off the beaten path and try some new adventures, this post should give you some new ideas.
We visit Puerto Vallarta a few times a year and always love seeking out new and unique things to do, so I hope you enjoy this hidden gems travel guide.
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Faro de Matamoros Lighthouse
From the Malecon, take C. Mina street uphill for 3 blocks. You’ll find Faro de Matamoros – an old lighthouse that’s no longer operational.
But there’s still a great viewing platform (one of the best views in Puerto Vallarta that’s easy to get to).
Join the Puerto Vallarta locals and watch sunset from here, or visit around 8:30 pm to watch the fireworks.
Plaza de Armas
On the Malecon, find the Los Arcos arches and walk across the street to Plaza de Armas.
This square comes alive at night and is where you’ll find more Puerto Vallarta locals than on the Malecon.
Most nights there’s live mariachi music, and there’s always food stalls and local vendors.
Inside tip: during the day, the public bathrooms at the municipal building are free.
Olas Atlas Juice Stand
Across from the Hotel Posada Lily, at the corner of Basilio Badillo, look for Daniel at his juice stand.
In the mornings you’ll find him blending up fresh green juice to order.
He’s got the freshest ingredients to choose from, like celery, spinach, cactus, parsley, basil and all kinds of citrus fruits.
Every drink is made to order.
For more hidden gem breakfast places, here’s my insider list of the best breakfasts in Puerto Vallarta.
El Cora Crocodile Sanctuary
20 kms (12.5 miles) north from Puerto Vallarta is the El Cora Crocodile Sanctuary.
It’s a rescue and rehabilitation center for crocodiles and other native animal species.
This nonprofit organization is run by veterinarians and marine biologists who are so passionate about the importance of crocodiles for the ecosystem around Puerto Vallarta.
For 250 pesos per person you get a one hour guided tour which takes you along a 2 km loop through the property where you get to meet many different crocodiles and other animals.
You can also take a self-guided tour for less money, but I highly recommend going with one of the guides.
I made a full video tour from our visit to El Cora to give you an idea of what to expect.
Baby Sea Turtles
Each year from August to December, sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand along the Puerto Vallarta coastline and hundreds of baby turtles hatch from their eggs at night time.
Under the guide of the moonlight, the newly hatched turtles crawl to the ocean.
But this is a dangerous venture as predators are waiting.
With the help of volunteers, there are now several organizations who dig up nests and bring the hatched turtles to the sea by hand, so that there’s no risk of predators scooping them up.
So if you’re visiting Puerto Vallarta between August and December, you can volunteer to help the baby sea turtles make it safely to the ocean.
I recommend contacting Campamento Tortuguero Boca de Tomates on Facebook.
Each morning they announce how many reservation spots they have open based on how many nests they found.
Puerto Vallarta beaches are often busy, crowded and loud.
If you want a quiet and chill day at the beach, go off the beaten path and head to Chacala.
It’s about 1.5 hours north of Puerto Vallarta, but if you can hire a driver for the day to get you there, it’s SO worth it. It’s a small village tucked away in a calm bay.
The water is crystal clear, the sand is soft and the water is almost like bathtub temperature.
You can hang out at one of the beach bars, or rent 2 beach loungers and an umbrella for 250 pesos (about 13 dollars).
That’s for the entire day. Keep in mind, you might also be able to negotiate this price. Or, you can always bring your own chairs and beverages too.
These beach chairs are comfy and easy to carry anywhere.
San Sebastian del Oeste
San Sebastian del Oeste is a Pueblo Magico.
This means that it’s a community designated by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism because of its historic and touristic properties.
You’ll find quintessential colonial buildings, authentic restaurants, great scenery, coffee shops and market shopping.
San Sebastian is about 1.5 hours outside of Puerto Vallarta, so it’s easiest to take a tour.
We booked this tour through Viator for a fantastic day trip to San Sebastian del Oeste.
We visited a traditional hacienda, tasted locally roasted coffee, had home cooked lunch from a family owned restaurant and learned all about the historical significance of this town that thrived in the silver mining days.
Natural Hot Springs
Visiting the natural hot springs is one of the most unique thing to do in Puerto Vallarta, and most tourists have no idea it exists.
The Nuevo Ixtlan hot springs are going to be the most relaxing spa day you’ll ever experience.
It’s about an hour and a half drive inland, but the relaxation vibes are worth it.
For 60 pesos per person, you choose a natural stone tub where the natural hot spring water is piped in.
Enjoy under the jungle canopy and can stay as long as you want.
The hot springs are a little tricky to get to, so we always book a day trip tour with a guide.
On this tour, you get picked up, stop in San Juan de Abajo for coffee and market shopping, soak in the hot springs and enjoy a grilled BBQ lunch and then get a 1 hour massage on the beach.
Since the Vallarta Botanical Gardens are located about 30 minutes south of downtown Puerto Vallarta, many tourists miss this spot.
It’s a serene sanctuary full of hundreds (if not thousands) of different species of flowers, tropical plants and cacti varieties.
They have over 300 different varieties of orchids alone.
There’s even a butterfly sanctuary and a spot along the river where it’s shallow and calm enough to swim.
There’s also a restaurant onsite, and even if you aren’t hungry, definitely stop in for a glass of their chilled hibiscus tea.
We really enjoyed this full day tour, which brought us to the gardens, a small village to sample local coffee, tequila tasting and lunch.
Butterfly Sanctuary Mariposario Jardin Magico
If you love gardens and nature, this is a hidden gem in Puerto Vallarta that you don’t want to miss.
You can take a one hour tour in which you will learn all about the butterfly species this organization is working to protect.
You’ll learn about the importance of butterflies for our ecosystems and all about the beautiful flowers they call home.
In the village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle (about 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta), Playa Manzanilla is a popular beach for locals.
The sand is soft and the water is shallow and calm, which is why you’ll find families who flock here so their kids can swim.
Since it’s mostly locals that come here, the beach bars have great deals on food and drinks.
Inside tip – visit on a Sunday and start at the marina market in La Cruz, and then hit the beach for some drinks and appetizers. Or the Green Tomato for live music!
Mirador Cerro de la Cruz Viewpoint
This is the best view in all of Puerto Vallarta. And you can hike up to it in about 30 minutes from the Malecon.
If you’re starting from the Malecon, find Calle Abasolo and follow this street all the way to the top of the hill.
There are some narrow streets and, and some steep sections but the views are phenomenal. I recommend doing this hike early in the morning or at sunset.
I also made a full video documenting our hike up so you know what to expect (and also get an idea of what the views are like).
Cat Park (Gatos Park)
At the east end of the Isla Cuale (the island in the middle of the Rio Cuale River), there is an area where many stray cats live.
The cats roam freely in this area among the bushes. They’re friendly and domicile, as visitors bring them cat food, treats and water.
You can stop in at any of the OXXO convenience stores and usually at the front they have cat treats!