North Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta to Punta Mita
We currently have a bit of a love/hate outlook on the area north of Vallarta due to the fact that the zone immediately north of the city, the Zona Hoterla and Nuevo Vallarta, have lost much of the small-town Mexican charm that keeps Vallarta feeling authentic. These two areas are built to support and host tourists, including a three-slot cruise ship port. We understand the necessary logistics of this area, but wouldn't recommend anyone to run off and spend a day there.
Instead, we suggest going further to Bucerias and Punta Mita, two surfing-oriented areas that are great "just cause" day-trip options. The coast really begins to thin out as you exit Nuevo Vallarta, and the further northwest you go along the bay, the bigger and better the waves become. From these two towns (Punta Mita especially), you are within a short boat ride of the Las Marietas Islands, which harbor the incredible "hidden beach" cavern you see in the photo above.
South Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta to Yelapa
The south side of Banderas Bay is comprised of a series of small valleys and natural coves thanks to the mountains that hug the coastline, forming little pockets that feature local villages and less-touristy beaches with a few condos and resorts thrown in along the way (the latter are mostly between Vallarta and Mismaloya).
If you look closely, you'll notice that the road that heads south out of Vallarta does not turn with the coast of the bay at Boca de Tomatlan. Instead, it continues due south, meaning that the remaining villages on the map - Las Animas, Quimixto (shown above), Majahuitas, and Yelapa - are inaccessible (for the sake of this article) via car.
From Mismaloya or Boca, you can catch a water taxi for a couple bucks that will take you to any of these villages. It is here that you can also rent private boats and a guide to take you out fishing, snorkeling, or simply joy-riding along the coast. We found the prices to be a steal, especially with a group of four, approximately $50/hour total with room for negotiation. Mismaloya and Boca are villages in themselves, and good places for a beer or fish taco on the beach. If you go fishing, bring your catch back to one of these villages and they will cook it for you.
There are plenty of beaches to be found from the south part of the city down to Boca, and most are marked along the highway with public access via stairways down the cliff. We recommend checking out Playa Negra and Playas Gemelas on your first visit, not only because they are beautiful but because there are way less beach vendors than on, say, Mismaloya, Boca, or Vallarta. Bringing your own snorkel goggles, which you can buy in town for a few bucks, is always a good idea.
Renting a car is one option if you have the funds, but those on a budget will do just fine getting around via public bus. While the routes and system may seem irregular (maps of routes are hard to come by), the public transportation in Vallarta is extremely reliable and on-point, not to mention cheap. You can take a bus from Vallarta to Punta Mita for under $3, and local routes within the city and down south to Mismaloya and Boca cost approximately 50 cents. Feel free to write us if you have questions about the bus system, but the best way is to simply ask once you are on the ground, as 9 out of 10 locals will be able to point you in the direction of the nearest stop.
[Photos: Will McGough for Jaunted/Vallarta-Adventures]