Travelling the world on a budget is tough! And I’m not even being sarcastic. Sure, it’s easy in small towns and budget-friendly cities but it can be a challenge the second you arrive at a popular tourist hot spot. It’s a challenge we experienced a lot in Mexico especially visiting places like Cabo, Cancun and even Puerto Vallarta. We try not to let this stop us from exploring these cities because we enjoy the task of finding cheap (and even free!) things to do so that we can share what we learn with other travellers. And since we’ve come to know this resort town quite well, here are 20 cheap things to do in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
My favourite part of this coastal city is definitely the old town or Old Vallarta. It always amazes me to hear that people visit Puerto Vallarta and somehow never make it out to see (what I consider to be) the heart of it all. The cobblestone roads, colourful markets and great beaches of the ‘Romantic Zone’ are only some of my favourite things that will always keep me coming back. Oh, and the food! We’re probably going to end up writing an entirely separate post dedicated to our favourite budget restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. There are tons of hidden gems and just thinking about these restaurants and the great food has me excited for my next visit.
The reason I travel to Vallarta regularly is because my family and I have been going there since I was a teenager. Despite the recent growth of crowds, I still love the city and now I enjoy sharing ‘my second home’ with Wes, too. Anyways, back to our list of cheap things to do in Puerto Vallarta! We’ve made sure to include a range of foods to eat, budget activities to try and some beaches to enjoy.
CHEAP THINGS TO DO IN PUERTO VALLARTA
1. Visit the Botanical Gardens
Vallarta’s Botanical Gardens may be one of the most underrated attractions of the city. Here you’ll find all of the beauty you can expect in a botanical garden but with lush jungle trails, amazing bird watching and a river to swim in. Admission is $100 pesos ($7 CAD) and the garden is open Tuesday through to Sunday. The gardens are a bit outside of the Old Town but are still accessible by bus (about 40 mins away). You can take the bus from Aquacate and Carranza in Old Town at about $22 pesos each way.
2. Hire a Taxi as a Tour Guide
A taxi driver as a tour guide?! Yes! After all, aren’t they the ones who know a place best? In most touristy cities in Mexico, you’ll find that taxi drivers are happy to offer you an hourly rate. This lets you tour some of the hot spots in the city without having to take multiple buses, taxis or expensive guided tours. It would also be beneficial for someone travelling in a group of 4 (helps split the costs) and is great if you’re pressed for time and want to maximize your day. Our driver took us south along the coast to some beautiful lookout points and we were able to hop off, snap some photos (or buy a fresh coconut!) and then hop back in. We hired a taxi for an hour and it came to $250 pesos (Winter, 2016).
3. Take the Bus to Mismaloya Beach
Mismaloya is essentially what put Vallarta on the map in the first place. If it weren’t for the 1964 film ‘The Night of the Iguana’, Puerto Vallarta just might have remained a sleepy fisherman’s village. The film was mostly set at Mismaloya Beach which is a short bus ride away from the Old Town. Hop on an orange bus headed to Boca de Tomatlan and hold on tight. The ride alone is sure to be entertaining, especially if you’ve never taken a local bus in Mexico before. The beach at Mismaloya is quieter than Playa Los Muertos and you can enjoy some freshly caught fish at one of the beachfront restaurants. Expect (very) basic washroom facilities at the beach and there’s no wifi here either!
4. Tour the Marina
A short bus ride from the Old Town will take you to Marina Vallarta (not to be confused with the loading dock where most tours depart from). Two great points of reference for this part of Vallarta are the giant whale sculpture and the King Neptune statue that are found on the main strip right by Plaza Neptuno. There has been a fair bit of development around the marina in recent years and there are tons of shops, trendy restaurants and great photo ops. Shopping here is not for the budget savvy traveller but there is a great boardwalk and it’s a nice place to enjoy a walk and admire the huge yachts docked at the marina.
5. Walk the Malecon – Day & Night
Don’t miss the chance to walk Vallarta’s iconic Malecon. On one side of the boardwalk you’ve got the beautiful bay and the other side is lined with shops, restaurants and bars spanning nearly 12 blocks! It’s a great area to explore during the day but be sure to come back at night once the streets are lit up, the bars have their music blaring and the street performers are out in full force. Keep your eyes peeled for the nightly fireworks that go off from the Marigalante pirate ship on the water (usually around 9:30-10pm depending on the season).
6. Explore Las Marietas
I hear you already, “Las Marietas tours are so expensive! How could this be on your list of cheap things to do in Puerto Vallarta?!” I swear, it’s possible. We wrote a whole post sharing our tips on how to do Las Marietas on a budget. By taking a ‘panga’ from Punta de Mita, we were able to save some pesos and our tour of the islands came out to less than $30 CAD each.
May 2017 Update: We’ve learned that visits to Las Marietas are a lot more restricted now than when we visited in 2016. Thanks to one of our readers, we were able to update our post and it is still possible to tour the islands for under $40 CAD.
An alternative to the Marietas excursion would be to take a day trip to the nearby beach town of Sayulita. Its colourful roads and local surf vibe will give you a completely different feeling than Vallarta and it only takes a few dollars to get to Sayulita by local bus.
Read More: 6 Reasons to visit Sayulita, Mexico
7. Tequila Tasting
For a true tequila tasting experience, it would be ideal to travel straight to the source: Tequila, Jalisco. If you’re not up for the 4+ hour drive, you’ve still got plenty of opportunities to taste tequila in Puerto Vallarta. A budget suggestion? Avoid the tours and visit one of the many tequila shops in town and along the malecon. You’ll get your fair share of samples and inevitably learn a thing or two about how the stuff is made from the chatty salesmen. It’s also cheaper to buy a bottle here to last for all the happy hours of your trip instead of racking up a tab at the bar.
8. Learn About Huichol
Huichol art is unique to the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Durango. It is very symbolic for the indigenous Huichol people and is commonly expressed through yarn paintings or intricate bead work. You’ll find that some markets, shops or galleries in Vallarta have people demonstrating the art of Huichol so you can take a peak and learn about this important Mexican tradition.
9. Shopping at Rio Cuale
If your budget allows for some shopping, avoid the touristy shops on the malecon and head straight to the market at the River Cuale. Remember that you’re in Mexico and bargaining is expected (something that I still struggle with!). Most market stalls don’t open until about 10am but there are indoor and outdoor stands with everything from tacky souvenirs to authentic tapestries. My favourite part about the River Cuale area is walking across the shaky foot bridge that still makes me nervous!
10. Try Some Mexican Beach Food
Sometimes Playa Los Muertos can get a bit crowded, especially during the high season. But there’s something about the constant music, happy crowds and fun atmosphere that makes the beach so enjoyable. One of the things I love most here is that it’s only a matter of minutes before a vendor comes by with delicious treats to satisfy your cravings. Keep your eyes peeled for the colourful candy cart!
11. Self-Guided Food Tour
Sure, you can pay upwards of $60 CAD for an English guide to take you around to some of the local restaurants in town. But a budget traveller wouldn’t. Brush up on your Spanish and visit these places yourself. Wander the streets and follow your nose. Order something you’ve never heard of. Point at the food when you don’t know what it’s called. Have fun! We wrote an entire Mexican food guide here and think Puerto Vallarta is a great place to try foods outside of your comfort zone. Some of my favourite budget eats in the old town are: the taco stands outside of the Guadalajara drugstore on Insurgentes, Cenaderia Celia on Lazaro Cardenas or any place that is busy (+ looks clean) and has a sign out front advertising ‘Comida Corrida.’
12. Try Jalisco’s Pozole
You can’t leave Mexico without trying pozole and don’t leave Vallarta without trying the Jalisco version! This traditional Mexican soup is made with hominy and is prepared in many different ways across the country. In Jalisco, red pozole is most common and the soup is cooked with chicken, pork and served with a variety of fresh toppings. SO good.
13. Visit the Local Fish Market
The fish market in Puerto Vallarta is definitely worth a visit. Especially if you come at the right time and get to see the day’s catch being brought it. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! Even if you’re not able to cook fresh fish at your hotel or hostel, it’s quite an experience to see all the action that goes on. The market is at Col. 5 de Diciembre and there are also fruits and veggies for sale. If you here a squeaky mechanical sound, you’re likely close to a tortilleria where you can see/taste/buy some fresh tortillas.
14. Experience the Nightlife
If you’re eager to experience a night out, Puerto Vallarta has no shortage of bars and clubs for tons of drinking and dancing. Many places along the Malecon have great 2×1 drink specials, happy hour deals and even free drinks for ladies. You can get 1 litre of your favourite mixed drink in a styrofoam cup (follow the locals), swing over the Malecon at La Vaquita or simply enjoy the nightly food stalls lined up by the infamous Los Arcos.
FREE THINGS TO DO IN PUERTO VALLARTA
For an up to date calendar of new and ongoing events in Puerto Vallarta, take a look at the Events Calendar here.
15. FREE Sculpture Walking Tour on the Malecon
Every Tuesday at 9:30 am, a group gathers at the Malecon sculpture called “Millennium” next to the Hotel Rosita. These guided sculpture tours are in English, about 2 hours long and give a very informative tour about the history and importance of the sculptures along the Malecon. The free tour ends with refreshments at the guide’s gallery, Galeria Pacifico. Donations are encouraged.
16. FREE Voladores de Papantla
Each evening, starting from 6pm, catch a free performance on the Malecon of the brave ‘voladores de Papantla’ as they spin around a 50 foot pole and perform a traditional flying ritual.
FREE Naval History Museum
It’s easy to miss – the Naval History Museum is hidden in plain sight at the main square near Los Arcos. Here you’ll learn about the origins of the Navy in Mexico and the history of settlement in Puerto Vallarta. Entrance and tours are available to visitors for free and the museum is open Tuesday to Sunday.
EDIT: The Naval History Museum is no longer free. Admission is 45 pesos for adults and 30 pesos for students and seniors with valid ID.
18. FREE Vallarta Art Walk
Wednesdays from 6 to 10pm, several galleries open late for tourists to enjoy the weekly self-guided Art Walk. Many galleries serve snacks or refreshments and it’s nice to enjoy the art when the streets are quieter and the crowds are few.
19. FREE Salsa Lessons
At La Bodeguita del Medio, you can experience a bit of Cuba in Mexico. Every night a live Cuban band plays around 10pm and twice weekly the club hosts free salsa lessons. Those with two left feet can sit back, grab a mojito and enjoy the entertainment at this authentic salsa club.
20. FREE Live Music
Every Thursday and Saturday at around 6pm, the Municipal Band plays live music in the gazebo at the main plaza (near the central church). This is a great time of day to take in the sights and sounds of the city, especially on weekends when crowds gather to be entertained by the comical street performers at the stage near Los Arcos.
We hope our list of cheap things to do in Puerto Vallarta gives you some ideas for your holidays! If you’re interested in a custom itinerary for this city, contact us to learn more about our travel planning services.