Strung out along the coast of Mexico in a straggle of palm trees, gleaming white hotels and blond sand, Puerto Vallarta is the pride of the Pacific Coast. From the iconic profile of the Playa de los Muertos pier and the seafront malecón (boardwalk) to the neat grid of terracotta-tiled buildings in the old town, this friendly beach resort is set up for holiday fun, but costs can quickly mount up.

Fear not – whether you're here to doze on the beach or dive into the famously spirited, LGBTQ-friendly nightlife beyond the sands, there are plenty of activities to enjoy that won't cost you a single peso. As a first step, seek out an inexpensive place to stay inland from the beach – there are cheap guesthouses and hostels on both sides of the Río Cuale at the south end of the Zona Romántica.

While Puerto Vallarta lays on plenty of water sports and organized activities to keep visitors busy, there are lots of ways to pass the time that don't require a wedge of cash. Whether it's an intriguing street art tour or a peaceful hike along the jungle-backed coastline, here are our favorite free things to do while visiting Puerto Vallarta.

Take a boardwalk stroll

If you are on a mission to get the best out of Puerto Vallarta, get things started with a walk along downtown's broad seaside malecón (promenade). The boardwalk comes alive at dusk as sun-worshippers retreat from the beach to take sunset strolls and street performers work their magic on the crowds as the sun sinks behind the sail-like profile of the Playa de los Muertos pier.

Dotted with bronze sculptures created by national and foreign artists (including a surreal ladder to nowhere by famed Mexican designer, Sergio Bustamante) this seafront promenade takes in some of Vallarta's most emblematic public art. At the south end of the malecón, you can often catch gratis concerts and dance performances at the Romanesque Los Arcos amphitheater.

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Take a free city tour

For some in-depth background on the artists behind the boardwalk sculptures, free tours led by a local gallery owner run along the malecón from mid-November to mid-April, kicking off from the Municipal Tourist Office on Plaza Principal (check with the tourist office for timings). The privately-run tourism site also has useful information on city tours.

Alternatively, you can join a free two-hour city tour led by English-speaking guides, taking in Vallarta's iconic parish church, the boardwalk and Gringo Gulch, an upscale neighborhood that was home to Hollywood stars and renowned artists in the 1960s and 70s. Again, tours start from the Municipal Tourist Office during the holiday season. As with free tours anywhere, tips for guides are appreciated.

I belive I can Fly
The Voladores de Papantla put on an impressive show © Daniel Cardenas / Getty Images

Be amazed by the antics of the Voladores de Papantla

One of Vallarta's most impressive spectacles takes place at the north end of the boardwalk. Every half-hour, the Voladores de Papantla (Papantla Flyers) enact a pre-Hispanic ritual in which four men swing upside down from ropes attached to a 20m (65ft) pole, while a fifth performer perches on a tiny platform atop the pole playing the flute.

Rooted in an ancient religious ceremony performed by Veracruz's indigenous Totonac people, the flyers represent the four elements as they enact this ancient rainmaking ritual – which seems to be working out just fine in showery Vallarta! The high-flying act is free to watch but the birdmen welcome any tips.

Take a self-guided street art tour

The art doesn't stop at the boardwalk. Dozens of colorful murals have been painted throughout the tourist center in recent years, transforming downtown Vallarta into an outdoor tropical gallery. The good folks at family travel blog The Whole World or Nothing have laid out a detailed DIY route that even includes some eating recommendations along the way. The 3-mile (5km) walk takes you to numerous ocean-themed murals, many backed by a crowdfunded Mexican coral restoration project.

Beachgoers at Playa Las Animas near Puerto Vallarta
The hike to Playa Las Ánimas takes in a string of scenic coves © boggy22 / Getty Images

Enjoy the sea breezes on a coastal hike

The 7km (4.5-mile) out-and-back jungle trail from Boca de Tomatlán (a small beach town south of Vallarta) to Playa Las Ánimas hugs a spectacular stretch of coastline, lined with secluded coves. Along the way, you can stop to cool off with a refreshing swim or nosh on fresh seafood at rustic beachfront palapa (thatched-roof) restaurants.

The path leads to relatively busy Playa Las Ánimas (where most beachgoers arrive by water taxi) and then continues westward to the quieter spray of sand at Playa Quimixto, where a half-hour hike inland leads to a jungle waterfall.  The path along the coast is easy to follow but expect a hot and humid walk.

There is a small investment required – you'll have to splurge one dollar for the local bus from Vallarta to Boca de Tomatlán. Buses depart from the Zona Romántica at the corner of Constitución and Basilio Badillo. If you don't mind digging deep for the M$340 (US$16) boat fare, you can return to Vallarta by water taxi directly from Playa Las Ánimas or Playa Quimixto, bypassing Boca de Tomatlán.

Make some shapes on a salsa dancing class

Feeling a bit awkward when you see the elegant moves locals are making on the dance floor? Get your dancing up to speed with a free salsa class at La Bodeguita del Medio, a Cuban-style bar covered in wall-to-wall graffiti. For the rhythmically inexperienced, the one-hour lesson (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm) just might be a game-changer. After class, hang around for the live music, knock back a few of La Bodeguita's signature mojitos and strut your freshly learned dance moves.

Kick back on the sand at Playa de los Muertos

No trip to Vallarta would be complete without some indulgent beach-bumming in the sun, and although this busy spot pales in comparison to the more secluded sands on the bay's gorgeous southern curve, Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) is one of the most easily accessible beaches in town.

It's right in front of the Zona Romántica, the calm water is good for swimming and the southern end of the beach is known for its laid-back LGBTQ scene. The yellow sands of the Beach of the Dead cover what is said to be an ancient cemetery, hence the slightly spooky-sounding name.

Beautiful sunset in Puerto Vallarta
The sunsets from the lookout at Cerro de la Cruz will linger in your memory © Ron Bailey / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Take in the views from the Cerro de la Cruz lookout

For a bird's-eye view of the city, hike up to Cerro de la Cruz lookout, which unveils a panoramic vista of downtown Vallarta and the broad sweep of Banderas Bay. To get here from the malecón, walk uphill along cobbled Calle Abasolo, then climb a series of stairs and follow a sloped path leading up to this spacious observation deck. Head out about 40 minutes before dusk and you'll be treated to a memorable sunset, not to mention a much cooler ascent.

Go art gallery-hopping for free

Every Wednesday evening from June through October, Vallarta hosts a free downtown art walk with 15 local art and craft galleries opening their doors for browsing. Among the standouts are Galería de Ollas, which showcases intricately crafted pottery from Chihuahua, Peyote People (known for its psychedelic bead and yarn art made by indigenous Huichol artisans), and Galería Alpacora, where you'll find alebrijes (wood sculptures of mythical creatures) and brilliant hand-woven textiles.

Head over to Gringo Gulch for movie memories

For a little taste of Vallarta's cinematic past, take a trip out to Gringo Gulch, a one-time hangout for such Hollywood legends as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who filmed Night of the Iguana here together in 1963). Start off on Isla Río Cuale, a traffic-free sand island lined with shady rubber trees, riverside restaurants and cafes and a flea market selling everything from colorful Huichol crafts to touristy knick-knacks.

At the halfway point you'll see a rickety suspension bridge that leads to a municipal market selling more crafts and very affordable snacks. At the east end of the island, look for the tiled Iguana Bridge and cross over into Gringo Gulch to admire the grand homes that were once playgrounds for silver screen luminaries such as Burton, Taylor and director John Huston.

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This article was first published Mar 11, 2021 and updated Mar 10, 2022.

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