Central Pacific Coast
Gigantic aquamarine waves provide the backdrop and pulsating rhythm to any visit to Mexico's central Pacific coast, a land of stunning beaches and giant sunsets. You can indulge in all the tropical clichés here: eating sublime seafood under simple palm-frond roofs, drinking chilled coconut water while lounging in a hammock, and enjoying poolside cocktails at an upmarket resort. The nightlife is great and there's a beach for everyone, whether you prefer yours backed by high-rise hotels or tumbledown cabins.
There's even more going on in the ocean, where you can surf world-class breaks and spot humpback whales breaching on the horizon, battalions of mother turtles arriving to lay their eggs, pelicans flying in formation or pods of dolphins rising from the waves.
Whether your thing is a cushy week of beachside pampering or a budget quest for the perfect wave, the Pacific coast has it covered.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central Pacific Coast.
For a change of scenery from the beach, head for the tropical highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains and wander the well-curated Jardín Botánico de Vallarta (Vallarta Botanical Gardens), home to one of Mexico's most extensive orchid collections and a fascinating variety of native plants and birds. After strolling through wooded grounds colored with bromeliads, succulents and brilliant hummingbirds, make your way down a jungle trail to the tranquil shores of Río Horcones, where you can cap off the visit with a refreshing dip in a boulder-strewn river. Things to do Nature enthusiasts come from far and wide to feast their eyes on the garden’s colorful collection of native orchids, which can be seen flowering along landscaped pathways and inside a large conservatory. Among the scores of orchid species is Mexican vanilla accompanied by displays explaining how the coveted spice is made. You’ll also come across a fair share of cacao trees and learn a thing or two about chocolate, which has been produced in Mexico for thousands of years and played an important role in pre-Hispanic rituals. Visitors can also get an up-close look at the state of Jalisco’s signature blue agave, aka agave tequilana, the base ingredient for making tequila. For a guided tour of the grounds you can book a six-hour nature-and-culinary outing on the garden’s website. It includes round-trip transportation, entrance fee, lunch at the onsite restaurant and a demonstration on how to make vanilla extract. The website also lists upcoming events at the botanical garden, such as flower and garden shows, birding fests and gatherings with a food or drink tie-in. If you get hungry, once inside the only option is the onsite restaurant Hacienda de Oro. The pleasant open-air restaurant and bar serves breakfast dishes, fish tacos and gringo-friendly fare such as burgers and brick-oven pizza; no outside food or beverages are allowed. Alternatively, on the way back to Puerto Vallarta you can grab a late lunch at a waterfront seafood restaurant in Boca de Tomatlán, a fishing village just 8km (5 miles) north of the garden. Journey into Jalisco – Mexico’s heartland History of Jardín Botánico de Vallarta The botanical gardens opened to the public in 2005 to support plant conservation, public education programs and horticulture for native and exotic plants. Formerly a large cattle ranch with overgrazed lands, the property was subsequently reforested with numerous pine, oak and mahogany trees. Today the nature preserve covers some 33 hectares (81 acres) and in addition to its renowned gardens and orchid house, it also features extensive hiking trails and a vitro propagation lab. Founded and curated by Savannah, Georgia transplant Robert Price, the nonprofit receives its funding from donations, admissions and proceeds from the restaurant and store. Practicalities and tips The garden accepts most major credit cards, however, it’s always a good idea to carry cash just in case. Admission is M$200 per person and children under four enter for free. Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit and towel if you’re up for a swim in the river, which swells to its most swimmable level during the rainy season from June to October. Bring insect repellent (or purchase it at the gate) and wear appropriate shoes to hit the hiking trails. The garden closes on Monday throughout most of the year but stays open daily during peak season from December to April. The restaurant area has Wi-Fi. When to go to Puerto Vallarta Getting there To reach the Jardín Botanico by car, from downtown drive about 30km (19 miles) south along Hwy 200; it’s an easy 35-minute ride. If you’re taking a taxi or a more affordable Uber, expect to pay a one-way fare of M$370 to M$450 from the city center. For the cheapest option, buses marked “El Tuito” (M$35) depart every half hour or so from the corner of Carranza and Aguacate, in the Zona Romántica. Around the botanical gardens On your return to Puerto Vallarta, make the most out of the trip with a stop in the fishing village of Boca de Tomatlán, where you can enjoy a late lunch or access a coastal hiking trail that leads to a string of secluded coves and beaches. The scenic Colomitos cove is just a short hike away and the seafood restaurant Ocean Grill affords sweet bayside views. If you're up for seeing more of the inviting emerald coastline, it’s possible to walk as far west as Playa Quimixto. Another option would be to stop 5km (3 miles) east of Boca de Tomatlán in Mismaloya, where director John Huston famously shot his classic drama The Night of the Iguana. A colossal resort dominates Mismaloya’s scenic cove but it makes for a good jumping-off point to visit the nearby islets of Los Arcos, a wildlife-rich snorkeling and diving site that can be reached by motorboat, kayak or stand up paddleboard. You might also like: Best things to do in Puerto Vallarta with kids Puerto Vallarta's best beaches Top 5 day trips from Puerto Vallarta
Home to a small fishing community, the picturesque beach of Yelapa hugs an emerald coastline backed by jungle-shrouded mountains. The remote coastal village, which sits on Puerto Vallarta ’s southernmost cove, is best reached by boat. In recent years Yelapa has seen an ever-increasing stream of day-trippers turning up, but it reveals a much quieter side after the last water taxi returns to Puerto Vallarta and the busy beach empties out in the late afternoon. An overnight stay allows you to appreciate the town with fewer visitors around and the laid-back vibe makes for a refreshing change of pace from bustling downtown Puerto Vallarta. Sleeping Yelapa has some excellent places to stay, many perched on jungle-covered hills overlooking the cove. Accommodations range from budget-friendly apartments and small family-run hotels to luxury guesthouses and wellness retreats tucked away in the surrounding tropical mountains. Rates increase significantly during the high season from December to April and should be reserved months ahead; Casa Vista Magica and Casas Garcia provide good value. Some places have rooms with an open-air setup, meaning you get refreshing ocean breezes but also a fair share of mosquitoes, so don’t forget that insect repellent. Eating and drinking For a small village of just 1,500 inhabitants, Yelapa has an impressive number of eating options. Numerous palapa (thatched-roof) seafood restaurants overlook the beach and river that cuts through town, while west of the river you’ll come across about a dozen hillside cafes, taco joints and family-run eateries serving traditional Mexican cuisine and gringo-friendly fare. Taquería los Abuelos draws praise for its fish tacos served on blue corn tortillas, Ray’s Place does Sunday birria (a local goat stew fave) and Domingo’s grills pescado zarandeado (a regional grilled fish dish), which goes down nicely with a michelada cubana, a Bloody Mary-like beer cocktail. After the meal, look for one of Yelapa’s so-called “pie ladies,” who roam the beach carrying delicious coconut, banana and lime pies on their heads. Sights and activities There’s not a whole lot to do in Yelapa so most people make it a point to visit one of two cascading waterfalls with natural pools. The nearest fall takes just 15 minutes to reach from the beach and it’s a simple uphill walk through town with plenty of signs along the way to point you in the right direction. However, due to its fairly easy access, the Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail) waterfall can get very busy, especially during peak tourist season and even more so when cruise ships roll into Puerto Vallarta. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, set out on a hike to a remote waterfall outside of town. Pick up the trail on the west side of the river and head inland along a path that requires several river crossings. Once you get past the second crossing, the trail is well marked, though you’ll have to do some rock scrambling on the final stretch. Keep in mind that the river may be more difficult to cross during the rainy season from June to October. The hour and a half hike through the tropical jungle leads to a swimming hole with a waterfall, albeit a smaller one than the Cola de Caballo, but with any luck you’ll have the place all to yourself. Bring a bathing suit, hiking sandals, snacks, insect repellent and plenty of water. Both falls can also be reached on horseback. Fannys Restaurant (on the beach) rents horses for outings to Cola de Caballo (US$20) and to the waterfall out of town (US$30). Aside from swimming at the waterfalls and relaxing on the beach, you can keep yourself pleasantly entertained on a stroll through town along hilly paths overlooking the cove, or there’s always the option of renting a kayak and exploring the coast in and around Yelapa. You’ll also find a fair share of yoga studios in the village, but some close during the low season. How to get there Accessible by water taxis or private boats, Yelapa is a 45-minute ride from the Playa de los Muertos pier in downtown’s Zona Romántica. The round-trip water taxi fare costs M$380. The shared motorboats run at least four times daily and often more frequently in the high season. For departure times, inquire at the Yelapa water taxi office in front of the pier. Water taxis also depart from Boca de Tomatlán, a fishing town about 16km (10 miles) south of downtown, where they leave on a more frequent basis (hourly from 8am to 6pm) and are slightly cheaper at M$300 round-trip. Alternatively, you can hire a charter boat to Yelapa, or, if you’re pressed for time, book a tour to the village that makes a diving or snorkeling stop at Los Arcos, a national marine park teeming with tropical fish. Ecotours de México rents private boats and runs wildlife-watching excursions led by English-speaking naturalists.
Graced with golden sands and serene aqua-green shallows, Playa Palmares is one sweet strip of coastline. Hugging an undeveloped shore about 6km (4 miles) south of downtown Puerto Vallarta, eco-friendly Palmares flies the esteemed Blue Flag, meaning it complies with 33 criteria requiring the highest of standards in water quality, environmental management and safety. Onsite facilities and services include umbrella rentals, lifeguards, restrooms, public parking and wheelchair access to the beach. But the main draw, of course, is the clear swimmable waters that can be enjoyed without the crowds of the busy beaches in the city center. Where to stay near Playa Palmares Given its ecological focus and commitment to sustainable development, Playa Palmares has no accommodations. However, you’ll find numerous sleeping options within walking distance of the beach, most of the top-end variety, including a large resort hotel, vacation rentals and luxury villas (some big enough to house entire wedding parties). Hacienda Maria Elena, a tasteful colonial-style villa perched on a hillside jungle about 1km (a half-mile) south of Palmares, makes for an easy 10-minute walk to the beach and it’s one of the better deals in the area. Other nearby places are Garza Blanca, an upscale resort and spa set on a quiet beach, and sister property Mousai Hotel, a chic adults-only setup with a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the bay. Massive oceanside guesthouses in the area cater primarily to visitors traveling in groups. Budget-minded travelers will score the best digs in the city center and with Palmares’ close proximity to downtown, it’s just a short bus ride away. Where to eat Eating options in Palmares are somewhat limited, especially when compared to the wealth of choices in downtown Vallarta, but there’s just enough to nosh on to keep your tummy content. Several roadside stands sell fresh ceviche and chilled coconut water, while on the beach roving vendors hawk tasty grilled fish and shrimp on skewers. The beach’s only restaurant, the oceanfront Canto Palmares, features a menu with the usual suspects (fish tacos, burgers, grilled octopus and seafood tostadas), while the bar there prepares refreshing beer cocktails (micheladas) and mixed drink concoctions made with mezcal or tequila. The restaurant’s covered terrace not only allows you to beat the heat but also serves as the ideal late-afternoon spot to watch the sun disappear into the Pacific. For more eating options, you can always head 1km (a half-mile) south to the Garza Blanca resort and dine in one of several restaurants there, Covid protocols permitting. How to get there Orange-and-white buses marked “Boca de Tomatlán'' (M$10) depart frequently from the corner of Basilio Badillo and Constituyentes in downtown's Zona Romántica. When boarding the bus, tell the driver you want to hop off at the Playa Palmares stop. In a taxi, or a more affordable Uber, the one-way fare from the Centro costs about M$90 to M$130. If you have your own wheels, the beach has ample parking, a rare find along this stretch of coast. It’s possible to hoof it to Palmares from downtown but prepare yourself for a hot hour and 15-minute walk along the coastal highway. Around Playa Palmares If you’ve had your fill of swimming and lazing around on the beach, there are several noteworthy activities you can do in the area that will get you out and about. To explore the coast, rent a stand up paddleboard or a kayak on the beach and then paddle south along the aquamarine shoreline of Playa La Garza Blanca, or for something more challenging, head further south to the islets of Los Arcos, a wildlife-rich national park about 4km (2.5 miles) from Palmares. Another fun activity takes you on a hike along a jungle trail that leads to cascading waterfalls with natural pools surrounded by large boulders. The trailhead lies just north of the Garza Blanca resort (look for the “Puente Palo Maria” sign on the coastal highway and follow the dirt path heading east). It’s a fairly easy hike to reach the first waterfall but reaching the more remote falls requires some rock climbing as you go higher up into the jungle. From Palmares, it’s about a 3km (2 mile) out-and-back hike to the Palo Maria waterfall. Accessible transportation and mobility equipment With designated wheelchair parking and a ramp to the beach, Palmares stands out as one of the most accessible beaches along Vallarta’s rugged southern coast. For people with disabilities, Beach Crossers has several lift vans available for daily transportation (US$40). It also rents amphibious wheelchairs, beach strollers and other mobility equipment. The open-air Canto Palmares restaurant provides a shady wheelchair-accessible terrace affording a view of the sparkling bay.
Acapulco’s most famous tourist attraction, the cliff divers of La Quebrada have been dazzling audiences since 1934. Every night, a team of seven lithe young divers leaps into churning waves before scaling the cliff opposite the viewing platform and then plunging with fearless finesse from heights of 25m to 35m into the narrow ocean cove below. The spectacle lasts for 20 minutes. The last show features divers holding torches. For good road karma, tip the divers on your way out.
With clear turquoise waters and golden sandy beaches, Playa Maruata is arguably the most beautiful beach in Michoacán. The Nahua fishing village has a bit of a hippie reputation, attracting beach bums from all over. It’s a tranquil, friendly place to hang out with your sweetie or a large stack of paperbacks. It’s also a prime nesting site for green turtles (nightly from July to December). Lázaro Cárdenas–bound buses from Manzanillo will leave you at the town entrance on Hwy 200.
Surrounded by forested mountains, this idyllic lake fills a volcanic crater that's over 100m deep and 2km in diameter. You can walk around the lake and in the surrounding mountains, climb to an abandoned gold mine, cycle, swim, kayak, fish and bird-watch (some 250 species) here. By bus, catch a ‘Santa María del Oro’ colectivo (M$35, 45 minutes) on Avenida México in Tepic, then change to a colectivo marked ‘Laguna’ at Santa María’s town square or take a taxi.
Isolated 'Cat Beach' is named – depending on whose story you believe – either after the whiskered nurse sharks that once inhabited its waters, or for the wildcats that lurked in the jungles onshore. It’s a protected beach, crowded with sunbeds and restaurants. It’s good for snorkeling (there’s some coral) and as a swimming spot for children, but beware of sea urchins. Beach shacks and restaurants rent out snorkeling gear for around M$150 per day. Boats depart frequently from Zihuatanejo's pier.
Mazatlán's restored old town is a picturesque compendium of noble 19th-century buildings and pretty plazas. It's set back from Playa Olas Altas, a small cove beach where the waterfront road – with its old-fashioned bars and hotels – strongly evokes the 1950s. Though overlooked by the ugly radio masts of Cerro de la Nevería, this old quarter is delightful, with student life and numerous art galleries, cafes, restaurants and bars.
The gorgeous white-sand expanse of Playa La Ropa (Clothes Beach) was named after a Spanish galleon that was wrecked and had its cargo of silks washed ashore. Bordered by palm trees and seafood restaurants, La Ropa is great for swimming, parasailing and waterskiing; you can also rent sailboards and sailboats. It’s a steep but enjoyable 1.5km walk from Playa Madera along Carretera Escénica, which follows the clifftops and offers fine views over the water.