If you’re looking for a relaxing resort vacation, this post isn’t for you. My main goal when travelling is to integrate with the local tapestry of life and experience the culture like a resident as much as possible. Instead of booze cruises and adventure tours, I’m grocery shopping and going for long walks. I stay away from resorts in favour of AirBNBs and low-key hotels frequented by local travellers. (Fortunately, my family is on same page.)
With that disclaimer out of the way, as far as I’m concerned the ONLY place to stay in Puerto Vallarta is Old Town / Viejo Vallarta / Downtown. The streets are cobblestone, the architecture classically Mexican, and the vibe relaxed. Small hotels mix with residential homes, shops, street vendors, and restaurants. Mexicans vacationing from inland share the beach with international travellers. You'll be able to get fruit sprinkled with lime and salt from a curb-side stall, eat tortillas still warm from a tortilleria, and sip orange juice squeezed by hand on the street to order.
Normally we opt for AirBNBs, but since we have a bit of a thing for open-air Mexican hotels, we stayed at the Hotel Encino. Co-incidentally, I found out after booking, this is where I stayed with my parents when I went with my family 20+ years ago. Also co-incidentally, Encino happens to be a super short walk to some incredible veg restaurants. (I'd also had my eye on Hotel Rio Malecon, but we'd had trouble with their booking system.)
Our first stop after landing was Planeta Vegetariana, tucked into the hillside up a charming set of stairs. They do breakfast and dinner, all buffet style, with a cold side, a hot side, and various beverages. This was classic vegetarian comfort food with a Mexican twist, and it completely hit the spot after a long flight.
Nearby, Veggie Table does incredible tacos, burritos, bowls, and sandwiches, using seitan, TVP, jackfruit, and of course lots of veggies. My absolute top pick was the pibil-style taco (pibil is bitter orange with achiote/annatto). Arden's top pick was the taco al pastor, a seitan-based version of the classic complete with pineapple.
It's not hard to find fresh fruit and juices in Vallarta, but the one most convenient to us happened to be Malibu Jugos Y Café. The kids loved their fresh fruit popsicles and Arden and I had big green juices every day. Most mornings, we also got fruit or fresh drinks from the various street vendors.
We also had breakfast at Salud Super Food, which was a beautiful short walk along the Malecon (ocean-side boardwalk) from our hotel. Salud isn't a vegan or even vegetarian restaurant, but it is focused on healthy eating and is very vegan friendly. The kids enjoyed blueberry oatmeal with soymilk and a smoothie (just like at home!) Arden and I LOVED the brekkie burritos with soyrizo, tofu, avocado, black beans, potatoes, and house tomatillo salsa.
We also found that pretty much anywhere can accommodate vegans because beans and veggies are part of the cuisine anyway. We at our weight in guacamole, pico de gallo, and tacos with beans, salad, and other veggies. Just learn how to say a few words in Spanish and you can order from any street vendor or hole-in-the-wall restaurant that catches your eye ("Somos veganos. Puedes hacer tacos con solo frijoles y ensalada/verduras--sin carne y sin queso?")
We didn't make it to Veggitalia because we wanted Mexican food all day every day, but this downtown vegetarian Italian restaurant with killer reviews is 100% on the list for next time. Kinda kicking myself that we didn't check it out, actually! Learn from my mistakes and put it on your must-try list, then please let me know what you ordered and loved. :)
It's a good problem to have when there are just too many vegan options to try. Other places we didn't get to but you may want to check out in Vallarta: Cafe Des Artistes has an upscale-looking vegan menu (although they also serve foie gras, so.) And friends on Instagram also recommended Archie's Wok, 100% Natural, Hotel San Tropico, and The Yogi Bar.
Other things to do in Vallarta:
- stroll up the Isla Cuale, sip a margarita in a hammock at Babel Bar, check out the (tiny) art gallery and the (tiny) museum, feed the friendly cats, and try to keep your balance on the rope bridges.
- walk the Malecon, especially the northern end that has lots of cool and even interactive statutes.
- find a tortilleria, watch the tortilla-making process, and eat fresh hot tortillas.
- pick up groceries where the locals do, at Mercado Emiliano Zapata.
- check out the weekend entertainment at Plaza Principal. We were captivated by some dancing there one evening. People watchers paradise!
- bring your kids to the (small) colourful playground on the south side of the river at Aguacate.
- do some shopping at the Saturday farmers market.
- soak up the busy beach vibe at Playa de los Muertos.
- when the kids are older, we'll snorkel and whale watch at Los Arcos.
- go fishing. JUST KIDDING! Please leave the fishes in their underwater home and have bean tacos for dinner.
- we met a woman who told us you can take a city bus just south of town to a hot springs that's a short hike in. Although we didn't get a chance to do this, maybe you'd like to? We'd definitely do that on a future trip.
Sayulita is a cute little surfer town that ironically feels busier than Vallarta. The streets are vibrant with surfers, empty nesters, young families, dogs, cats, chickens, and everyone else you can imagine. We found vegan options at a tonne of places, from coffee shops with vegan bliss balls to the tiny organic grocer carrying products like local coconut yogurt.
We had some seriously delicious meals here, especially at Veganda and Veggie Land, both of which are newer and run by local families.
Veganda is tucked into a patch of jungle within a bungalows compound, so you'll have to pass through gates marked "guests only." Keep going! You'll see it up ahead just off the main path, whether you're coming from the beach or the street. It's well worth the effort because the setting is absolutely magical.
The potato omelet and corn omelet are both OMG good, so innovative, flavourful and delicious. Everyone raved about the cauliflower ceviche with chipotle cream. I couldn't get enough of the tacos with made-to-order tortillas and perfectly seasoned mushrooms, jackfruit, and tofu. I wish I could go here regularly.
We also had two incredible brunches at Veggie Land. They serve one of the best tofu scrambles I've ever had, the French toast was 10/10, and every table gets this creamy garlic-parsley sauce that I absolutely have to recreate because I need it in my life. We couldn't get there for dinner but these guys know what they're doing and do it with love, so I'm sure it's equally delish. You can see their full menu on my IG post.
One day we were craving a little taste of home (smoothies and bowls!) so we checked out Organi-K, which is right off the main square. They also have a location in nearby San Pancho. All of their six lunch bowls are vegan or can be veganized. They also have smoothies, acai bowls, and fresh juices. (Full menu here.) I was also happy to see that they're making efforts to minimize waste, including by selling bamboo utensils and reusable metal straws. When I asked for the rest of one of our bowls to-go, they asked if I wanted a lid instead of adding it automatically (high five, guys! Love that.)
As with Vallarta, there are so many vegan and vegan-friendly spots that we couldn't possibly try them all, but here are a few others that caught my eye and I'll be checking out on future visits *IF* I ever want to eat something other than tacos (you never know, it could happen). (Actually one of these below is also tacos. Have I mentioned I love tacos?)
Nearby San Pancho is just a few kilometres up the coast and much smaller and quieter than Sayulita but with a similar vibe. We did a day trip there but will definitely spend more time there on future trips since the pace and energy level is more up our alley.
Make sure to check out the incredible EntreAmigos, the most innovative community centre I've ever seen, with a bilingual library, recycling program, thrift store, technology centre, upcycled and local artisan goods market, children's play area, and daily classes. Sometimes I worry that international travellers will move to these amazing beach communities, enjoy what they have to offer, but fail to reciprocate to the locals. Well, EntreAmigos is one of the best examples I've ever encountered of an expat creating a beautiful gift for the community she settled in. Bravo! What an inspiration.
Annnyways, back to the food. We hopped out of our cab at Bistro Organico, in the (relatively) upscale Hotel Cielo Rojo, which focuses on local and organic cuisine with vegan options. However, we got sidetracked by the newly opened Cilantro across the street, an all-vegan street-side cafe. All-vegan and street-side are my dual kryptonites, so we couldn't resist going there instead.
And One More Thing...
It was interesting to be in Mexico in the Trump era. I saw young Mexicans wearing t-shirts with the words "Fuck Trump. And if you voted for Trump, fuck you too." The point was also made a little more lightly on various signs and shirts with slogans like "Make Tacos, Not Walls" and "Relax, You're on the Fun Side of Trump's Wall." The rage and the humour belie the country's full awareness of not only Trump's hateful rhetoric, but the large segment of the American public backing these sentiments.
You don't have to go out of your way to find Mexicans serving white tourists. It's apparent that Mexicans work extraordinarily hard for relatively little income, while their white demographic counterparts can afford a yearly vacation on the beach. This unfair situation isn't the result of hard work, or merit, but of the dumb luck of where someone is born.
Can you imagine how it would be feel to be waiting on tourists from a country that has said it wants to BUILD A WALL to keep you away from it? To have loved ones in this situation? To leave your family and home, be willing to do crappy jobs with long hours and little pay amongst a country of extraordinary riches, only to be treated like a loathsome enemy? To absorb a message that your life, your happiness, your security, and your family don't matter?
Not for the first time, I felt deeply ashamed of humanity watching this dynamic unfold. Yet I know we humans are capable of so much better. The world we could create if we could all let go of fear and greed would be infinitely more satisfying and joyful for all of our planet's inhabitants. Earth is abundant. May we all water the seeds of love, kindness, understanding, compassion, and generosity that we all contain within us.