Don't Miss: The Southern Beaches

A string of beautiful coves and beaches graces the bay south of central Vallarta, easily accessed by bus. Further around the southern side of the bay are three more isolated beaches – from east to west, Las Ánimas, Quimixto and Yelapa – all accessible by boat but not by road, though you can walk a trail to the first two from Boca de Tomatlán.

Buses marked ‘Boca’ stop at both Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán (M$8); the ‘Mismaloya’ bus only goes as far as Mismaloya. Any of these buses work for Playa Conchas Chinas and Playa Palmares.

Worth a Trip: San Sebastián del Oeste

For a dramatic change of scenery, head for the cool climes of San Sebastián del Oeste, a former mining town (17th-century) with stunning views of the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains and beyond. A two-lane highway to the village winds past old farm houses, coconut stands, roadside birria (lamb) eateries and small distilleries producing raicilla (a mezcal-like agave drink).

With a population of about 700, San Sebastián sits pretty in a cloud forest about 1400m (4600ft) above sea level. From the highest vantage point, lookout Cerro de la Bufa affords a spectacular vista extending all the way to the Vallarta coast when weather permits. The easiest way to reach the lookout is by renting an ATV in town or by hooking up a three-hour tour at Malibrí Turismo, just a block north of the main square. It's best to go on a weekday when the town sees fewer visitors.

There's not a whole lot happening along the cobblestone streets of San Sebastián, but you can pleasantly while away your time over a cup of locally produced coffee, sit down to a homestyle meal on the plaza or set out for a hike in the fresh mountain air. There are several appealing hotels in town that make for a comfortable and relaxing stay, most notably the colonial-style Mansion Real.

San Sebastián del Oeste lies about 70km east of Puerto Vallarta and it's best reached by car. To get there, head north along the Vallarta–Tepic Hwy 200 and veer right (about 3km past the airport) to take Hwy 544. Follow Hwy 544 about 53km east to the town of La Estancia, where you'll find the San Sebastián del Oeste turnoff.