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Cruising: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, isn’t just a destination for resort-based tourists. It’s also a great place for cruisers and an ideal base from which to explore the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
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The fabled seaside resort isn’t just a destination for tourists: it’s also a great place for sailors 

We were enjoying local margaritas—mixed with tequila that was distilled nearby—at sunset on the beach at a restaurant called La Palapa, the same place that Elizabeth and Richard Burton dined when she was making Night of the Iguana. A towering sail-like sculpture on a newly renovated pier nearby attested to the area’s love for the sea, as did the many statues of dolphins and seahorses, which are the official symbol of the city. Could life get any better?

During a recent visit, we were discovering that fabled Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, isn’t just a destination for resort-based tourists. It’s a great place for cruisers and an ideal base from which to explore the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It’s the terminus for the biannual San Diego to Puerto Vallarta, and the eventual destination for many of the boats that sail from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas in the annual Baja Ha Ha, then continue 300 miles farther to Puerto Vallarta.

A Sailing Paradise on the Pacific

Puerto Vallarta lies on the large, sheltered Bahia de las Banderas, which we discovered to be a sailing paradise. The city itself has grown rapidly as a tourist destination, but the old part of town retains its fishing-village charm, with crowded and colorful restaurants, bars and shops. Nestled near a busy cruise ship terminal is Marina Vallarta with over 350 slips and a capable shipyard. The marina is ringed by a wide walkway lined with restaurants, entertainment, stores and services aimed at visitors. It’s also close to many shops, including Walmart and Costco.

The real gem of the area, however, lies 20 miles north along Banderas Bay. It’s the small fishing village of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, known locally as simply “La Cruz,” and its Marina Riviera Nayarit, popularly dubbed Marina La Cruz. The marina and town are a cruiser’s idea of paradise. La Cruz itself is an unspoiled small Mexican fishing town with restaurants, markets and cheap ($1.25) but clean buses into Puerto Vallarta. The modern marina is completely protected by a seawall, so when you’re there, it feels more like anchoring in a reef-ringed atoll than tying up in an urban marina surrounded by tall buildings.

I met several cruisers during my visit, including Rick and Lynn Bradshaw who live in the marina on La Vita, a 1987 Hans Christian 33. The Bradshaws arrived here in 2011 on Valentine’s Day and were instantly swept away by the great live music scene. Every night, they say, you can find street musicians lining the streets—a welcome alternative to the street vendors that pester tourists in most Mexican hot spots. They also say they stayed for the sunrise and sunset views—both of which are unencumbered by high-rise hotels or condos.

In town, you’ll find the locals have preserved the feel of a rural fishing village. The fish market is open year round with a constant supply of fresh fish caught by local fishermen, serving everything from the family-run sidewalk taco stands to the high-end restaurants.

If you sail in and end up staying for a season or two, you’ll find there is plenty to do. In addition to a vibrant local racing scene, La Cruz is a popular location for seminars that reach out to those hoping to sail farther south or west. Kenneth Fairbarn, for example, came to Marina Riviera Nayarit in 2010 on his 42-foot Hunter, Sangria, and hasn’t left yet. He sticks around for the lively social scene—movies, games, events and plenty of fiestas—as well as the cool vibe of La Cruz, which he much prefers to the bustle of Puerto Vallarta.

Once you’re settled, you’ll want to set sail to some nearby and delightful destinations. There are plenty of great day sails around Banderas Bay: Yelapa, Las Animas and Quimixto lie just across the bay, and the south shore is lined with jungle-covered coves. You can also sail to Punta Mita or the Marietta Islands at the mouth of the bay, or cruise to Los Arcos for swimming and diving. For longer trips, sail north into the Sea of Cortez to La Paz, Santa Rosalia, Bahia de los Angeles on the Baja side or Mazatlan Guaymas on the mainland. Going south, it’s generally no more than a two-day sail from one anchorage to the next down to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.

The ideal months to visit are December through April. After that, the temperatures and humidity climb quickly, and most folks leave during hurricane season from May through October. This year, hurricanes Nobert, Odile and Polo passed nearby in the early fall and did heavy damage to Cabo San Lucas 300 miles away, but Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding coast along sheltered Banderas Bay didn’t suffer more than swells and high surf that did no damage.

Perhaps what keeps this region so wonderful is the fact that it’s just far enough from the States to ensure it will never be overrun. Whereas so much of Mexico’s coast is lined with resorts, Banderas Bay and La Cruz remain a cruisers’ paradise—and I believe they will for a long time.

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