This month, David and I are celebrating our third anniversary, so I thought I’d share the very first trip we took together: four days in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
- Dates visited: December 12-16, 2011
- Base of Operations: Vamar Vallarta Resort, Marina Vallarta
- Currency: MXN peso ($1 to about MXN 14 at this time)
- Major attractions: El Malecon, Zona Romantica, Marina Vallarta
We weren’t “official” at the time, and living in different states: I was in Washington, he was in California. He had just got rehired with the airline. We’d known each other a while, but two months ago I invited him to my birthday party, at which events started that caused us to spend a lot of time flying up and down the west coast to see each other. We then decided on the perfect arrangement — we would be travel buddies! So, to test the waters, we picked Mexico.
In hindsight, it was rather brave for us both to jump into a four-day international trip together. Sure, we had pretty much spent the previous month’s weekends hanging out together. But a trip is something different.
- Constant contact, all day, everyday.
- An unfamiliar place where neither of us would be in our comfort zone.
- Cultural and linguistic barriers in our chosen location.
Granted, everyone pretty much speaks English in Mexico and it’s not that far, but I don’t think either of us were consciously considering those things. In many ways, that trip was the litmus test of our relationship. And many things about the way it went have defined how we travel together today.
Where we stayed
We chose the Marina Vallarta as our base for two reasons that are generally still how we choose our hotels: price and location. The Marina is one of many “resort centrals” in Puerto Vallarta, but it was easily accessible by bus. The marina itself is also one of the popular locations in Puerto Vallarta, with its lighthouse, restaurants and boats.
Here’s the important bit: we did not stay at an all-inclusive. Yes, Vamar Vallarta is an all-inclusive resort, but for some reason I was able to book a room plus breakfast deal on hotels.com. We didn’t want to just hang out at the resort the whole time. We wanted to explore, run around town, maybe even go outside of the “touristy” areas. This remains the way we’ve most enjoyed our travels.
Getting to and from the airport
Here’s a cool trick to getting a taxi from the airport: don’t catch one from the airport! Of course, this will only work if you’re not carrying a lot of baggage (yet another thing that’s true until now: we just don’t ever check bags!).
Once you’ve cleared customs and escaped the hordes of timeshare booths (do not stop for any of them unless you really want a timeshare), head to the end of the airport when you get outside, in the direction of the main highway. Cross the footbridge to the other side of the road. Usually you can catch a cab here for much less than you would at the airport. Tripadvisor has an update list of zones and fares here.
If you are concerned about safety, take photos of the cab’s license plate. Haggle over prices before getting in. Also be polite but firm, keep your money in a safe place, and be observant. If anything seems shady at all, don’t get in. In short, all the usual things you should be doing when you’re taking a cab somewhere unfamiliar.
Getting back to the airport is pretty much the same: catch a cab from your hotel or hail one from the road.
Another awesome tip, and you’re welcome: right after crossing the footbridge from the airport is a wonderful place called Tacon de Marlin. They have the best tacos I’ve ever had in my life. We spent our last pesos here on food to bring on the plane home, and yeah, we were those people everyone hated because our food smelled (and tasted!) so much better than theirs.
No doubt, the easiest way to get around is by bus (camion or autobus to the locals). Do not be afraid. There are all kinds, and all sizes, and they go everywhere. Just pay attention to the signage on the front to figure out where they go. When in doubt, ask the locals! The buses are also super inexpensive, at less than 10 pesos from Marina to downtown. Note that late at night the buses may not run, so you may have to take a taxi if you’re planning on partying.
We even took the bus to Bucerias, a small town about ten miles north of Puerto Vallarta. It was about 50 pesos for the two of us, each way. If you feel like getting away from people, Bucerias is an excellent choice — the beach is prettier and the town quieter. You can mingle with the locals, shop at a street market, and check out galleries and restaurants. It was an excellent day trip.
Where we ate
Um, where did we not eat? We had breakfast at the hotel, since it was part of the deal. But lunch and dinner was wherever we happened to be at the time. Sometimes, it was at some taco place. Sometimes, it was all kinds of random street food. And our last night, we decided that we needed to go find a more authentic Mexican place: surely, Mexicans don’t just eat tacos all the time? So we walked around Old Town and found a restaurant with barely a sign and a menu all in Spanish. We enjoyed some delicious chicken knuckle pozole as a reward.
What we did
We did end up spending one day hanging out at the resort pool, drinking at the pool bar and then walking along the beach. The rest of the time, we walked a lot. For two days, we just strolled along El Malecon, Puerto Vallarta’s main beach boardwalk. We checked out the cool sand art and the sculptures. We chilled by the beach and had a margarita or two. We browsed the shops and went tequila tasting (and brought home some chocolate and amaretto tequila).
Old Town was fun to explore too, with its art galleries and shops and OXXO’s (their version of 7-11) on practically every corner. By a stroke of luck, we happened to be there during the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe — definitely one of Puerto Vallarta’s biggest celebrations. Roads downtown were closed to vehicles, and there were parades and all kinds of street vendors.
Then and now
On our first journey, we learned that we travel well together. We found out that we both love beaches and relaxing in warm climates. We both like to explore and step out of our comfort zone — to an extent. We chose street food over fancy dinners. He saw me drunk as f*ck and took it all in stride, and I trusted him to get me home when I wasn’t at my best. At the end of four days, we were glad to go home, but looking forward to the next adventure.
We’ve refined things too since that first trip. Usually, I book hotels and flights in advance, since my credit card gets points for travel. Then when we get to our destination, he’ll take care of the cash that we spend, and we even it all out in the end. Depending on where we’re going, we do a little more research because we know we may never return. But we always keep it fairly loose: a list of places to see and things to do, but never too structured so that when we get there, we can adjust to the weather, the mood, the myriad offerings of the invariably interesting destination.
You learn things when you travel: about yourself, and about each other. Traveling together requires teamwork, adjusting to the circumstances, being sensitive to your partner’s needs and not being selfish. It is the two of you against the world, and also the two of you among the world. If you can do it, and do it well, there’s no better partnership.