Puerto Vallarta may be a city, but it’s also a place where rivers, mountains, jungle, and the ocean come together. Sitting on the Bay of Banderas with the Sierra Madra mountains as the backdrop, there’s no shortage of breathtaking landscapes and eco-adventures to go on here.
Whether you’re watching humpback whales off the coast, trekking through the tropical jungle, or diving with manta rays underwater, you’re sure to have a fantastic time exploring the protected sites and natural areas.
This guide will help you plan a trip to Puerto Vallarta and experience the best eco-adventures that it has to offer.
Where is Puerto Vallarta?
Puerto Vallarta is a beach city on the west coast of Mexico in the state of Jalisco. It sits on the Pacific Ocean’s stunning Bahía de Banderas, the largest Bay in Mexico and second largest in the world.
When is the best time to visit?
Puerto Vallarta is a year-round destination but the best time to visit for outdoor adventures is during the high season from October to May when the weather is consistently warm and dry.
The rainy season starts in June and goes until September, but many people still visit during this time. The rain typically only downpours for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and you’ll be rewarded with fewer tourists and a much more lush green jungle.
Getting to Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta has an international airport with direct flights to major cities in North America and other parts of Mexico. If you are traveling internationally, you’ll likely have to transfer via Mexico City.
If you are already traveling in Mexico, the country is well connected with a bus network that can take you to Puerto Vallarta. From Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, it’s about a four-hour drive.
Where to stay in Puerto Vallarta
There are a wide variety of accommodations that cater to all budgets. It’s famous for its 5-star luxury beach hotels and all-inclusive family resorts, but don’t worry if you’re visiting on a budget. There are plenty of affordable accommodation options in hostels, locally-run hotels, and Airbnbs.
The best neighborhoods in Puerto Vallarta are Zona Romantica (the gay district), Old Town, 5 De Deciembre, Versailles, and the Marina.
Many people also stay in the neighboring state of Nayarit in Nuevo Vallarta and come to see Puerto Vallarta as a day trip.
Puerto Vallarta is not a big city, so it’s easy to walk or bike between each neighborhood. The Malecon, a mile-long stretch of boardwalk that goes along the coast, is one of Puerto Vallarta’s must-see attractions and also makes a convenient walkway for getting between places.
If you want to go further than walking distance, the city is well connected with a bus network that only costs 50 cents per ride. Taxis, Ubers, and InDriver (local car-sharing app) are readily available and cost less than 5 USD for a 10-minute drive.
Best eco-adventures and things to do in Puerto Vallarta
Given the access to nature, some of the best things to do in Puerto Vallarta revolve around the outdoors. And among them, here are the top eco-adventures that Puerto Vallarta has to offer.
Los Arcos Marine Park
Los Arcos is a fascinating natural rock arch in Los Arcos Marine Park. Although it can be seen from the road, the best way to experience it is to get closer via boat or kayak tour.
This protected area is a natural habitat for many marine birds, such as blue-footed boobies, parrots, and pelicans. As you approach the arch by boat, you’ll see hundreds of birds flying over the turquoise blue water. It’s a stunning sight to see!
The arch provides a natural habitat for marine life and as such, is one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Puerto Vallarta. You can see manta rays, sea turtles, clownfish, pufferfish, stingrays, octopuses, and more underwater.
Kayaking tours are also popular here. This is a great way to get up close to observe the birds and marine animals without much disturbance. You’ll get to paddle through the archways, caves, and craters of Los Arcos, giving you a unique perspective.
One place you cannot miss in Puerto Vallarta is Islas Marietas. These remote islands are home to one of the best eco preserves in Mexico and are just two hours away by boat.
Don’t worry about being bored on the ride over, as you’re likely to encounter dolphins as well as humpback whales during the season from December to March.
At the islands, you can go snorkeling in crystal-clear water, stand up paddle boarding, or simply relax on the golden sand beaches. There’s also an option to take an eco boat tour around the islands to see the 90+ bird species, including blue-footed boobies.
The islands are most famous for their incredible beaches, especially Playa Amour or ‘hidden beach .’After the beach blew up on Instagram, thousands of visitors started coming a day which caused the coral to erode. Now, the government limits the number of visitors to 116 a day, and permits must be secured well in advance.
Visit the Botanical Gardens
Located just 30 minutes from downtown Vallarta, the botanical gardens are one of the best places to go for a walk or hike close to the city. They are dedicated to the conservation and exhibition of exotic plants from Mexico and the world, with hundreds of different species to see.
There are 46 acres of gardens to explore, where you can see orchids, oaks, bromeliads, agave plants, wild palms, and several species of birds. There’s also a beautiful natural crystal water pool that you can swim in after exploring the gardens.
El Estado Sanctuary
Right in the heart of the city’s hotel zone is one of the best nature reserves you can visit, El Salado Estuary. Comprising 169 hectares total, it’s the only urban estuary in the country! There, you’ll find wetlands and varieties of mangroves which in turn provide a home to over 100 species of birds and 29 amphibians and reptiles.
Tours of the channels are given on a small boat, alongside a biologist who will provide you with information about the various animal species, flora, and fauna. Common animals to see are iguanas, crocodiles, crabs, and colorful birds. It’s a beautiful ride to go through the mangroves, and hard to believe it’s so close to the city center.
Take part in a baby sea turtle release
Banderas Bay is home to some of the most important sea turtle nesting sights in the world. Every year, Olive Ridley sea turtles return to the shores of Puerto Vallarta to deposit their eggs. If you’re visiting during the baby turtle hatching season (July to October), you can participate in the conservation efforts to save this species and witness this remarkable wildlife experience.
There are several turtle release camps around Puerto Vallarta where turtle nests are looked after until the eggs hatch. The camps then organize turtle release ceremonies, where visitors and volunteers can join to witness how the baby turtles find their way into the ocean for the first time.
The closest turtle release camp to Puerto Vallarta is Boca de Tomates, right behind the airport. Follow their Facebook page where they announce turtle release events open to the public. If you’re staying longer, consider volunteering.
See wild dolphins and whales
While visiting Puerto Vallarta, you will see many tour operators offering swimming with captive dolphins, but this is unethical animal tourism and should be avoided. The dolphins are taken from the wild and often kept in stressful, poor conditions.
The best way to encounter dolphins in Puerto Vallarta is to see them in the wild from the shore or on a boat with an ethical tour operator that respects the animal’s space.
If you are visiting from December to March, you’ll also have the chance to see humpback whales. Every winter, thousands of whales make their way from the north to the warm waters of Banderas Bay to feed and breed. It’s not uncommon to see whales from shore, but for a closer look, you can take an eco boat tour to see them up close. If you’re lucky, you may even spot orcas!
While there aren’t any surf spots right in the city, just outside are some of the best in Mexico.
Head north up to the coast to the neighboring state of Nayarit, and you’ll find plenty. Two of the most popular places to go are Sayulita and San Pancho, where you can find surf instructors and boards readily available to rent on the beach.
Sayulita is as famous for its parties as it is surf, so if you’re looking for something more chill, then head to San Pancho, which is just 5 minutes up the road. You’ll find equally beautiful beaches but with half the tourists.
Swim in waterfalls
There are several natural waterfalls that you can swim in near Puerto Vallarta. Two of the best places to see them are Quimixto and Yelapa, small beach towns along the coast only accessible by boat.
To get to either, you have to take a water taxi from Boca de Tomatlan, a small fishing village about half an hour away from Puerto Vallarta. If you don’t have a car, busses leave from Zona Romantica every half hour, or you can get an Uber which is just a few dollars if split with a group of friends.
Once you reach Boca, walk down to the pier and tell them you’re going to Quimixto or Yelapa, about half-hour or 45 minutes respectively. The waterfall in Quimixto is just half an hour hike from where the boat drops you off and can be easily done as a day trip.
Yelapa is home to several waterfalls, one of which is a full-day round trip hike. As the last boats go back to Puerto Vallarta just before sunset, many people stay in Yelapa overnight or for the weekend. It’s a great place to relax, with many locally-owned eco-hotels and yoga retreats.
Go hiking along the coast
As far as land adventures go in Puerto Vallarta, one of the top things to do is go hiking along the coast.
One of the best hikes is from Boca De Tomatlan to Playa Las Animas, which takes just two hours. The path follows the coastline, and along the way, you’ll see several secluded beaches. By far the most beautiful is Playa Colomitos with its sparkling emerald green water.
There aren’t any amenities at Playa Colomitos, so this is a perfect place to pack a picnic and detach from the world for a day. Just be sure to take back everything you bring.
You can also continue the hike another hour Las Animas, where several restaurants and beach clubs are. From there, you can get a water taxi back to Boca or Los Muertos Pier in the city center.
This destination may be famous for its party scene and all-inclusive resorts, but there is so much more to the city to experience. Be sure to add some of these Puerto Vallarta eco-adventures to your itinerary for an unforgettable vacation!
Lora Pope is a travel content creator who’s been wandering solo for over a decade. She lives a nomadic lifestyle and is on a quest to visit every country in the world – always on the lookout for new adventures, hidden gems, and dogs to pet. Follow her adventures on Instagram and Explore with Lora.