Over the years, my husband and I have had the good fortune of spending ample leisure time in the Puerto Vallarta area. At one point we were living in Guadalajara, Mexico for a year and used the beach as an excuse to get out of the city almost every other weekend. Each trip to the area yields new discoveries about where to stay, what to do and the best places to eat. By now, I’ve compiled a “best of” Puerto Vallarta list for numerous friends and colleagues but it’s high time to publish it for the rest of the world.

The harbor town of Puerto Vallarta is perched near the center of the enormous Banderas Bay on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The bay is home to portions of two Mexican states (Jalisco and Nayarit) and a handful of lesser known beach towns including Punta Mita, Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerias, Mismaloya and Yelapa but oftentimes the entire area gets lumped together into the “Puerto Vallarta” name.

With its colonial-style dwellings built into the hillside, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a traditional Mexican square and a boardwalk (called the “Malecón”) surrounded on one side by the ocean and the other by hopping restaurants and night clubs, the old town section of Puerto Vallarta itself is as quaint as they come. Nuevo Vallarta or “New Vallarta” is a 20-minute cab ride from Old Town and plays host to an array of resorts and condominiums standing at attention at the edge of the beach. Punta Mita sits at the northernmost tip of the bay and is popular for its seclusion. South of Puerto Vallarta, the luscious jungles are parted only for houses, condominiums and smaller beach resorts. Just off the coast of the area south of Puerto Vallarta proper stands Los Arcos rock formations which serve as both bird sanctuary and excellent place to snorkel and scuba dive.

For the majority of our trips, we have stayed in Nuevo Vallarta because of the vast sandy beaches perfect for running, walking, body surfing and playing in the ocean. We also began our trips to the area in the years when “total incluido” or “all inclusive” was a necessity and we were able to find good all inclusive deals in Nuevo Vallarta at the time. Now we find Nuevo Vallarta to be a great place for bringing our young family. It has been where both of our girls learned about surf and sand and developed an appreciation for the ocean as well as the great country and people of Mexico.

That said, I feel like we’ve missed out on staying in Puerto Vallarta proper. We’ve met loads of people over the years who much prefer to stay close to the downtown area and I can’t say I blame them. Being located in Puerto Vallarta provides visitors with great access to countless restaurant and shopping options within a convenient walking distance. It also gives visitors a better feel for the “real” Mexico as Nuevo Vallarta is tailored to the exact tastes of Americans, Canadians and Europeans. That’s not to say that Puerto Vallarta is not touristy, it is simply more like other towns in Mexico than Nuevo Vallarta. In Puerto Vallarta, many resorts are lacking good beach access so that is the tradeoff.

Truly, the entire area is fabulous and I really do not think you can go wrong, but there are definitely some decisions that will make your stay more fantastic and memorable (in a good way.) I’ve put together a list of hotels, restaurants, excursions and tips for making your stay better and will be sharing them with you in the upcoming weeks.