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ITINERARIES

Bahía de Banderas

The Bay of Flags plunges to around 1800m (5900ft), has 160km (100mi) of sensational shoreline (bar the enormous hotel complexes crowding onto parts of the beach) and comfortably makes it into the list of the 10 biggest bays in the world (it's number seven). Ostensibly the submerged crater of a long-extinguished volcano, Bahía de Banderas is an environmental wonderland populated by giant manta rays, dolphins and (during their birthing season from November through March) humpback whales. It's also inhabited by activity-crazy humans, occupying themselves by diving, fishing, water skiing and generally dipping their collective big toe in the bay's waters.

The highlights for divers and snorkellers are Los Arcos, a grand tangle of environmentally protected rocks just south of Playa Gemelas, and Islas Marietas, a maze of reefs, tunnels and underwater caves at the mouth of the bay that's regularly attended by marine wildlife - fortunately for those who get Steven Spielberg flashbacks and still aren't sure if it's safe to go back in the water, this doesn't include sharks, which are kept out of the bay by resident dolphins intent on protecting their young.

Beaches

Though downtown Puerto Vallarta has its attractions, this resort's prime raison d'être is the sandy stuff sprinkled along the edges of the adjacent Bahía de Banderas. The beautiful local beaches begin in town, south of the Río Cuale, in the guise of the towel-swept Playa Olas Atlas ('Beach of the Big Waves', though to be honest there's nary a big wave to be seen here) and next door at Playa de los Muertos ('Beach of the Dead', a name which apparently harks back to some long-forgotten seaside battle and is more than likely the bane of the local tourist authorities).

North of town, in the aptly titled Zona Hotelera, is a string of beaches dominated by the multi-storey shadows of five-star hotels. Heading up towards the Marina Vallarta, you'll pass Playa Camarones, Las Glorias, Los Tules, Las Palmas and Playa de Oro, while just past where the luxury sloops gather is Playa El Salado. To the south of Puerto Vallarta is another string of pearls: Playa Conchas Chinas, Estacas, Los Venados, Punta Negra, Garza Blanca and Gemelas.


Downtown

Though Puerto Vallarta is now dominated by its modernistic, resort-stacked beaches and cafe-society embellishments, there are enough of the old red-roofed adobe houses lining the streets and cobblestones underfoot to keep alive the spirit of a once-charming seaside village. To get a sense of the more-established parts of the centre, stroll a block east of the pedestrian-tramped Plaza Principal to the towering facade of the city's landmark cathedral, Templo de Guadalupe, built in 1951 and adorned with the replica of a crown worn by an 18th-century Mexican empress. Backtrack across the square to the arches of the outdoor amphitheatre on the bay.

Meandering its way north from the amphitheatre is the Malecón, a long seaside walkway adorned with a larger-than-life seahorse statue, a plethora of drinking dens, and plenty of places catering to la comida (the main meal of the day - taken in the early afternoon) and la cena (the typically lighter evening meal). Those who feel like stuffing a cylindrical wad of tobacco leaves into their craw will find several Cuban cigar bars on this strip that cater to their habit.

Wedged into the mouth of the Río Cuale, the slender river that divides the city into its distinctive northern and southern swathes, is the 2ha (5ac) Isla Cuale. This diminutive island is littered with restaurants and shops, the latter mostly specialising in clothes and local arts - for some good deals on Mexico's outstanding range of artesanías (handicrafts), cross over to the north bank of the Río Cuale where you'll find the 150-stall market called Mercado Municipal. At the island's western, Pacific-viewing end is a tiny, lush botanical garden and the equally tiny Museo del Cuale, which features a collection of pre-Hispanic archaeological artefacts from tombs cracked open throughout Jalisco state, as well as in the neighbouring states of Colima and Nayarit.

Puerto Vallarta garners more cultural credentials with its impressive array of art galleries. Most have an emphasis on contemporary Latin American painting and sculpture, and exhibit local, regional and national artistry - local examples include the angelic portraiture of Manuel Lepe, and the colourful creative toil of Huichol Indians who live in the rangy mountains of the nearby Sierra Madre Occidental.



Off the Beaten Track


Mismaloya

Lizards are not generally noted for their star-pulling power, but when John Huston's 1963 flick The Night of the Iguana was slated to be shot at the then-deserted cove of Mismaloya, 12km (7.5mi) south of Puerto Vallarta, Hollywood-nurtured egos like Richard Burton and Ava Gardner couldn't resist an invitation. Since that fateful shoot, which first put Puerto Vallarta into the tunnel vision of international holidaymakers, Mismaloya has been overtaken by condominiums and a couple of gigantic hotels.

On the cove's southern side are the buildings used in Huston's film, which now set the scene for various restaurants. Those who live vicariously through the cinema will also want to head 7km (4.5mi) upriver to El Edén de Mismaloya, the jungle-wreathed area where Big Arnie's remake of E.T. (Predator) was shot. If neither the wild Mexican setting or walking respectfully in the footprints of celebrities gets your heart racing, head 1.5km (1mi) north of Mismaloya to the clifftop platform from where you can bungee jump towards the sea. Southbound buses depart Puerto Vallarta at regular intervals for the 20-minute trip to Mismaloya.


Sayulita

The small, relaxed beachside village of Sayulita, 35km (22mi) north of Puntas Arenas and just around the rocky claw of Punta (Point) Villeta from Bahía de Banderas, is the place sought out by sand-dwellers and surfers once the exuberant gloss of resort life has rubbed a bit thin. An unobtrusive town on a magnificent shade-soaked beach backed by iconic coconut palms, Sayulita balances out its dearth of city ruckus with a laidback feel and an oversupply of outdoor activities.

Several places in the town centre rent out bicycles and surfboards, and organise regional expeditions to indulge in diving, snorkelling, horse riding and kayaking. You can also go trekking in the authentically exotic jungle that lies along the coast and inland towards Tepic, the capital of Nayarit state in which Sayulita lies. Sayulita is an hour's bus ride from Puerto Vallarta and there are up to 10 services a day between the two destinations.


Yelapa

On the far southern shore of Bahía de Banderas and accessible only by a highly popular two-hour cruise from Puerto Vallarta is the teensy cove of Yelapa, which has a beachload of bright sand (whiter than the teeth of Haight-Ashbury panhandlers) that you may occasionally spot amidst the sprawled bodies of foreign guests. Yelapa also has a number of casual palapa (thatched-roof) restaurants by the bayside and a burgeoning parasailing industry. To the east of Yelapa and also requiring a short boat ride is Quimixto, which has a picturesque waterfall, and Playa de las Animas ('Beach of the Spirits'), arguably the most beautiful beach on the bay. There are regular organised sailings from Puerto Vallarta to Yelapa which take you there and back in one long, leisurely day.



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