Puerto Vallarta: Beaches, Tropical Gardens, Catamarans & 'Raicilla'

As I unpacked my bags in my well-appointed room at the luxurious CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta & Spamy eyes wandered towards the view of lush landscape and rolling waves of the Pacific. My thoughts were of all the experiences awaiting me for the next five days.


My trip proved to be amazing, and I want to share some of the exciting adventures I had.


Sites to Make You Love Puerto Vallarta


To start your visit to Puerto Vallarta, Malecón Boardwalk in Old Vallarta will give you an immediate enrichment of the city.  You can travel very easily to the boardwalk from the CasaMagna Marriott by bus, which takes you directly there, where you can meander along the boardwalk and take in all the amazing sculptures, many sculpted by Sergio Bustamante, Alejandro Colunga, and Ramiz Barquet. You will want to take photos with these fascinating, larger than life sculptures.  The large seahorse sculpture washed away during a storm but washed back ashore. It should have sunk because it’s metal; the locals believe this is a sign that the tourists will always return. Shops and clubs border the street on the east side of the boardwalk to add to the festive atmosphere.

A gathering place for all ages is The Plaza de Armas which is just off the boardwalk. When you glance upward in this area, you can’t miss the spectacular Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, showing off in all her glory the wrought iron crown hoisted by carved angels that was placed atop a tower in just 1965.


Take a walk to the south end of the Malecón to Mercado Isle Cuale and Mercado Municipal Cuale along the banks of the Cuale River.  The Isla Cuale (island in the center) has a number of souvenir vendor shops. I was lured onto the island to purchase a brightly colored tablecloth, large carryall bag, and an embroidered dress. Save time for a free tequila tasting at the west end of the Isla Cuale.


One of the highlights of my trip was a bus ride south of Puerto Vallarta to Rancho El Verano, a ranch producing raicilla, a close cousin of tequila made from the agave plant.

Tequila must be made from only blue agave but raicilla can be from either the green or blue agave plant. It takes eight to 12 years for the agave plant to grow and flower before it is ready for harvest. The original name, raicilla, was a name made up in the 1600’s to avoid paying taxes to Spain on tequila.


Chopping the pineapple (the center) off the plant is the first step in the process of making raicilla. It is then further chopped into chunks. After that, the chunks may be put in a wood pit or in clay ovens. The next step after cooking is that the chunks are ground and distilled in crude, primitive stills from a fermented mash. The mash is slow cooked,  the steam condenses on a copper cone and then it is cooled, traditionally, by spring water. To make a liter of raicilla takes 22 pounds of agave.  The bottle tells the region where it was made, the alcohol content, and the brand name.


Learning the correct way to drink tequila and raicilla should be part of your trip. The correct method is to take a deep breath in, then exhale, and swallow the shot in the next inhale; then exhale. I also learned a toast used in that region which is, “Up the hill, down the hill, we drink tequila, so who cares?”


Down the road from Rancho El Verano is the Jardin Botánico de Vallarta, an 11-year old botanical garden in a jungle where it rains every night until November and then is dry for six months. This botanical garden sits on the Cabo Corrientes (Cape of Currents), a mountainous peninsula covered with rivers, waterfalls, pine-oak forests, and even jaguars and macaws.


Strangely enough, the same rhododendron that grows in Hilo, Hawaii also can be found at the Daneri Vireya Rhododendron House.  In addition, I visited the Vallarta Conservatory of Orchids and Native Plants, a conservatory full of 1,200 species of Mexican orchids and a wide variety of native Mexican plants, including bromeliads and magnolias.


Don’t miss the Hacienda de Oro Restaurante located at the botanical gardens. I was greeted with refreshing hibiscus tea and a cool washcloth. The presentation at this open-air restaurant is spectacular — myriad colors and flavors await you at your table. Locally caught fish filled the taco shells, and the Mexican pizzas added an interesting twist to our traditional Mexican meal. I encourage you while admiring the mountain and river views to look below on the open side of the restaurant where baskets of fresh fruit are dropped to draw birds to the area. What a delight!


You can spend an entire day enjoying the quiet and lushness of this tropical place during your visit to the botanical gardens. There are hiking trails, and you can swim in the river. I would recommend wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with bug spray in hand. You will have a day of adventure to long remember.


Boats provide a peaceful and different view of a city, and the best day of my trip was spent aboard the Grand Canuwa, a 62-foot, 120-passenger luxury catamaran. From the moment I boarded this new catamaran until the time I returned back to dock, I was treated to a very special day by Oscar Hildago, director of the catamaran as well as a very happy and attentive crew. This luxury yacht comes with a bartender extraordinaire, able to prepare anything your mind can create, and your glass will never be empty. For me, the opportunity to see Puerto Vallarta from the water was a great opportunity. As a passenger aboard the Grand Canuwa, you have the opportunity to snorkel (with new equipment and knowledgeable instructors) at Los Arcos National Marine Park, a gigantic rock formation where I snorkeled through the center and around it back to the boat. Most trips on this catamaran go to Mike’s Beach Club, a private beach where passengers can kayak, paddle board, zipline or simply relax in hammocks for a few hours.


Because I was with a group of food writers, chefs were on our catamaran to delight the guests with as-fresh-as-you-can-get shrimp aquachile (meaning water chile, the spicy cousin of ceviche) as well as other delicious ceviches. I was lucky enough to have onboard Chef Diego from Tuna Azul, Chef Mauricio Verden of Mauricios, Chef Josué Arana of Lamara, as well as Conner Watts, master brewer from Los Muertos Brewing. All of these chefs participate in the local Ceviche and Aquachile Festival, an event in itself worthy of a trip to Puerto Vallarta.


My trip back to Puerto Vallarta aboard the Grand Canuwa concluded with games and dancing aboard this pleasurable yacht. Guests aboard from ages 20 to 75 danced, played and made the most of a spectacular day.


CasaMagna is home to a Sea Turtle Release Program, running from June to December. It has been held here since 2002. What a special treat! The nursery can hold up to 400 nests to protect the eggs, and guests were able to hold a newborn and release it at sunset. Whether you are a child or an adult, this is a wonderful opportunity to experience a very special connection with nature.


Start planning your own adventures and checking out hotels and flights. I will be posting a second article on Puerto Vallarta to learn about some special places to eat, stay, and some upcoming special events you will want to attend.

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