Timing can make all the difference when visiting Puerto Vallarta, a wildly popular resort known for its sublime jungle-backed beaches and emerald waters, tucked onto Mexico's Pacific coast.
The pleasantly cool and dry winter and spring months can cost you a pretty peso, but an epic whale-watching experience might warrant the peak-season splurge. The sultry summer months, in contrast, are a bargain hunter's dream, as long as you don't mind the heat and more frequent rainy days.
Autumn brings Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a uniquely atmospheric Mexican tradition in which families pay respect to deceased loved ones by laying out colorful altars decked with offerings for the departed, coinciding with low prices and increasingly sunny weather.
Deciding when to visit Puerto Vallarta will depend on your budget, the experiences on your bucket list and how much sunshine you expect for your peso. When traveling with kids, you may want to consider the drier peak or shoulder seasons to maximize time on Puerto Vallarta's sandy beaches. Whether you're looking to see the wildlife, soak up the sun or experience local culture, here's the lowdown on the best time to go.
High season is the best time for whale-watching (December to April)
Many folks make a point of visiting Puerto Vallarta from December to March when thousands of humpback whales migrate to the warm waters of Banderas Bay for the mating season. There's a definite wow factor in getting up close to these majestic 30-ton creatures as they leap out of the sea. Tour company Ecotours de México runs four-hour whale-watching outings using boats equipped with hydrophones (underwater microphones that let you listen in on the whales’ mesmerizing mating calls). There's even a small chance of spotting a whale shark or gray whale this time of year.
Weather-wise, these are the coolest and driest months, providing ideal conditions for outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. And with warm but not scorching daytime temperatures, this is prime time for lolling on those lovely sandy beaches. A winter visit comes at a price, however: travel can get downright expensive as snowbirds flock from the north, and hotels and airlines hike their rates considerably. The influx turns into a flood for spring break in March.
For the best diving, visit during shoulder season (May to August)
The hot summer months bring warm water temperatures and excellent visibility to Banderas Bay, making it arguably the best time to explore Puerto Vallarta’s prime diving sites, though rain becomes more common from June onwards. Dive shops such as Banderas Scuba Republic run snorkeling excursions to serene palm-fringed coves and scuba outings to remote islands, where you can glide in the company of giant manta rays, hawksbill turtles and pods of wild dolphins.
Once the city gets spring break out of its system in March, prices become more manageable. You can score shoulder-season hotel deals throughout May and June, except for the last week of May, when the spirited Vallarta Pride fest takes over the city. Hotels fill up particularly fast in the LGBTIQ-friendly Zona Romántica, Mexico’s most thriving gay beach destination. In July and August, hotel rates gradually increase over the Mexican vacation period, though they're still well down on the winter peak season.
Low season is the best time to experience Puerto Vallarta like a local (September to November)
Not only is fall one of the most affordable times to visit, but it’s also the most colorful, as Mexicans celebrate the nation's Independence Day on September 16 (and the evening before) and Día de Muertos on the first days of November. Even Halloween on October 31 gets some love in Puerto Vallarta’s gringo-friendly restaurants and bars. Note that inbound flights to Mexico can be more expensive during the celebrations.
The weather remains hot and sticky, but the warm waters and increasingly sunny days are highly conducive to swimming and snorkeling, and best of all, you get to enjoy them without the crowds. Be ready for some disruption to travel as locals switch their attention from catering to tourists to spending time with family during this time.
Here's a monthly guide to what you can expect through the year in Puerto Vallarta (but note that all events are subject to change).
January is expensive, but has great weather
Relatively cool weather makes this one of the best times of the year to visit, with the caveat that it comes with a hefty high-season price tag. Don’t miss the annual fiesta in the nearby mountain town of San Sebastián del Oeste.
Key events: Fiestas Patronales San Sebastián del Oeste, Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day)
February is peak whale-watching season
Temperatures remain delightfully cool (while still warm enough for time on the beach). February marks the height of whale-watching season, as both humpback and gray whales congregate on Banderas Bay for mating.
Key events: Carnaval
March marks the beginning of spring break
The really busy season arrives with the warmer weather as Puerto Vallarta gears up for spring break madness in March and April.
Key events: Banderas Bay Regatta
April has crowds and high prices
The mercury continues to rise, but it remains fairly dry. Semana Santa (Holy Week) sees crowded beaches and exorbitant hotel and airline prices.
Key events: Semana Santa
May hosts a major Pride fiesta
Visitors come from far and wide for Vallarta Pride in late May, a weeklong fiesta with parades, wild street parties and entertaining drag shows. Hotels in the gay-friendly Zona Romántica are often booked out months in advance.
Key events: Vallarta Pride, Festival Cultural de Mayo
June is a good time to find bargain rates
The rainy season begins, bringing heavy afternoon downpours but mostly sunny mornings. A great month to snag bargain hotel deals.
Key events: Día de la Marina (Navy Day)
July sees an increase in local tourism
The muggy summer heat carries over into July as the busy Mexican vacation season starts, bringing many local tourists. From July through December, you can participate in sea turtle releases.
Key events: Sea turtle releases
August is steamy and hot
Ready for some steamy nights? August is one of Vallarta’s hottest and wettest months, and domestic tourists continue to pour in for the summer Mexican vacation period.
Key events: Jardín Botánico Raicilla Festival
September is for celebrations
Always up for a fiesta, Vallarta celebrates Independence Day with a bang as fireworks light up the sky and bars and nightclubs rage into the wee hours on September 16.
Key events: Día de la Independencia (Independence Day)
October is still hot, but less rainy
The heat is still on, but the rainfall begins to diminish. A visit at the end of the month allows you to compare and contrast Halloween on 31 October and the Día de Muertos celebrations on the first few days of November.
Key events: Halloween
November welcomes Día de Muertos
As the rainy season winds down and colorful Día de Muertos altars pop up in plazas and cemeteries across town, it's hard to imagine a better spot to soak up one of Mexico’s richest traditions.
Key events: Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), Festival Gourmet Internacional, Torneo Internacional de Pesca Marlín y Pez Vela
December is busy for the winter holidays
The temperature begins to drop a few notches with the winter holiday season in sight. You can still find decent hotel deals in the first few weeks of December.
Key events: Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe