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Puerto Vallarta – Part Paradise, Part Playground…All Good

I was dollared to death in Puerto Vallarta, but when I died I went to heaven. If you’re someone who gets easily irritated by the infamous “hard sell,” Puerto Vallarta may not be for you. Literally the instant we passed through customs into the airport lobby, my boyfriend and I were greeted with a warm, welcoming local who wanted to “give us some advice and tips” for vacationing in PV (slash sign us up for a timeshare presentation). Not quite hip to this game yet, we lucked out in that this particular timeshare salesman just happened to be affiliated with the resort we were already staying at, so we scored a free cab ride from the airport as a result of this conversation.

Having no idea what to expect, my excitement rose as our cab winded up the hill to our accommodations. The Club Regina lobby was picture-perfect and just about took my breath away. The vibrant hot pink and yellow of the open-air lobby complemented the spectacular canvas of multiple pools, countless palms swaying in the wind, green mountains covered in mist and blue ocean as far as the eye could see.

Having been alerted to our arrival by our friend at the airport, another timeshare representative soon made her way over to us as we were checking in. Club Regina is a timeshare property. We were staying here because my boyfriend owned a timeshare at another location and (bless his heart) traded in his week for a week in Puerto Vallarta. But that did not change the fact that Club Regina’s timeshare reps wanted us to see their presentation, because after all, we could switch our timeshare to their property.

Promises of free and discounted tours, and the assurance that the presentation would be only 90 minutes long, encouraged us to appease our friendly greeters and sign up. Now on to bigger and better things – did I hear free drinks? Our room wasn’t quite ready when we arrived, but that didn’t matter since we had an extensive resort activities schedule to study and, of course, I had a free (delicious) pina colada to sip and savor.

Our room was not the type we thought we were getting. Club Regina’s web site boasts that all rooms have balconies equipped with Jacuzzis. Ours was sans Jacuzzi, but it was hard to be too disappointed in such a cutesy room with vibrant Mexican art and an amazing view of the marina. The room was like Disney World meets paradise, which is right up my alley. After a few nights in this room, the hotel staff graciously switched us to a room with a Jacuzzi as soon as one became available. Since the décor was a little different in the second room, I was actually glad I’d gotten to see both.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not always Miss Happy-Go-Lucky. In fact, I’m usually the opposite, but something about Puerto Vallarta really helped me focus on the positive for most of the trip – and positives there are many. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t divulge that there were a few times in PV where I did lose my cool. For instance, the first time we were walking on the gorgeous marina to troll for souvenirs in its plethora of shops, my blood started to boil after we were stopped by the fourth or fifth person trying to sign us up for another timeshare presentation. We actually had a limited amount of time to walk the marina before attending the presentation we’d already signed up for, and I didn’t want to waste it by stopping for a “hey amigos!” and sales pitch every 10 feet. My much more patient boyfriend was able to calm me down, however, by reminding me that we had a whole week in PV and could return to the marina as much as we wanted.

The presentation at Club Regina, I’m sorry to say, did not help my agitation. While the free lunch was tasty, I had wished it was Mexican instead of an American chicken, potato and vegetable spread. And that 90 minute promise was a total joke. After three hours of listening to the sales pitch, I bailed for the pool and let my boyfriend hear the rest of it on our behalf (again, bless his heart).

The ambiance at the pool erased all hard feelings I’d started to form against good, old Regina. The water in all three pools was glistening, the tropical music was pumping and the smell emanating from the poolside bar & grill was tantalizing. I slipped onto one of the built-in lounge chairs in the pool and let all remaining tension float away.

It was at this point that the trip went from enjoyable to amazing. Being in PV in off-season (late spring to early summer when it rains just a bit), we did get extra attention from all of the various salespeople. From timeshare properties and hotels to restaurants, tour guides and souvenir shops, everywhere we went we were beckoned to “come inside” and “look around.” However, the extra attention did work to our advantage on more than one occasion. On our first trip into downtown Puerto Vallarta (about a 15 minute bus ride from the marina area), we were treated to the most spectacular table in the restaurant, Viejo Vallarta.

Munching on a mouth-watering platter of Mexican favorites including tacos, enchiladas and chili rellenos, the view from the second floor of this restaurant down to the bustling malecon (boardwalk), made the food taste even sweeter. The entertainment was non-stop as we watched tourists pose in front of the famous sea horse statue and the “flying pole dancers” climb to the top of a pole equipped with a series of ropes and float back down to the ground maypole style. A twinge of annoyance set in when one of the flyers actually walked into the restaurant to collect tips, but it soon dissipated when my eyes met a stunning, orange sunset transitioning the malecon from a bustling family tourist attraction to a hip nightlife scene with every type of club you could imagine.

Unfortunately for us, we picked the wrong club. The gregarious young men who served as activities directors at Club Regina talked us into buying some tickets from them for “the best club in Puerto Vallarta,” called Christine. Luckily, we did not have cash on us by the pool and arranged to pay them later. This definitely worked in our favor because after 30 minutes of having my eardrums assaulted by Bon Jovi as I watched droves of bikini-clad 19-year-olds pour in, I had no intention of paying the $30 US each we were asked for to enter this “amazing” club. I recommend that these otherwise amiable activities directors stick to their day jobs – leading fun games of poolside trivia and bingo and teaching us how to salsa dance and make piñatas – and leave the nightlife alone.

Despite the excruciating three hours, the timeshare presentation worked in our favor in the long run when we scored perks like free access to the immaculate, well-equipped Club Regina gym (I even worked out once!), as well as free and discounted tours around the city. The free tour was mostly another sales trap that left the paying customers quite disgruntled. Stopping at a series of places to buy things – a candy cart, a high-priced silver purveyor and a ridiculously high-priced lunch stop – there were few individuals who decided to stick with the bus tour for its entirety. For us, though, having not paid for the tour itself, the $70 lunch bill wasn’t quite as mortifying, and I’d be wrong if I didn’t admit that the platter of ribs, tacos, steak and other hearty Mexican fare wasn’t finger-lickin’ good.

The tour was also a great opportunity for a change of pace. In the bus, we were able to ride up to the Romantic Zone, which we otherwise would not have known even existed. It is here where the rich and famous choose to play when they’re in town, and it is also the scene of various movie filmings. Situated high atop a hill overlooking the turquoise ocean and a series of giant stone arches (los arcos) jutting out of the water, I can see why. Having also gotten a free tequila tasting out of this tour (mmmm – chocolate tequila), and paid just 50 cents or so for the sweetest piece of candy I’ve ever tasted (guava flavored), I was a happy camper.

Another entertaining way to spend the day in PV is to do a Canopy Tour (aka, zip lining). It’s hard not to have fun when you are flying through the trees like Tarzan, and the instructors make you feel so comfortable that it’s much more joyous and liberating than frightening.

If you go with the same tour we did – Mountain Adventures – you’ll get a double-dose of thrill riding as you drive to and from the mountain on an ATV with very few rules about speed and traffic protocol. If you’re like me, you’ll choose to just ride on the back while a more daring friend or family member drives, and just enjoy the very real (but slightly depressing) scenes of poor, rural Mexico. Don’t forget to hang on for dear life, though, as you reflect on the state of the countryside. Throw in another tequila tasting and a simple, yet explosively flavorful meal of cheese tacos, chips and salsa as Mountain Adventures did, and I’m once again fully satiated and smiling ear to ear.

Not to be outdone by the other two tours, our last tour was equally jaw-dropping (a nice juxtaposition to the teeth-clenching I was more prone to at the beginning of the trip). This one was your typical free-tropical-drink, party boat trip to some of the more remote areas of Puerto Vallarta. Crunching on the complimentary cucumber and jicama slices with chili sauce, I marveled at the stunning views of the hilly terrain dotted with colorful domiciles, then once again at los arcos as we made our way towards them. It turns out these views were better than our underwater views as we tried to snorkel around los arcos. I’m not sure if it is always like this in PV, or if it was just that time of year, but the water was extremely cloudy. There were plenty of fish down there, but they were very hard to spot.

On to Los Animos beach, I was ready to try something I’d been pining over all week – parasailing. After paying about $60 US total to one of the many parasailing operators on the beach, my boyfriend and I were suspended in mid-air in complete and total silence. This was an experience like no other. The sounds of the beach-goers frolicking below had completely disappeared and the only sounds we could hear were each other. I expected it to be windy and jostling up there, but it didn’t even feel like we were moving. It was literally like we were sitting in the atmosphere quietly observing life below. Simply amazing.

Overall, Los Animos beach was pretty, but it was the parasailing and water sports that were the real draw. Other activities available included jet skiing and banana boat rides. And lastly, while it cost $11 US for two, the lemonade at the little restaurant on this island was by far the best lemonade I’ve ever had in my life. In general, lemonade was dreamy just about everywhere in PV, but this one was kicked up one more notch and served in a gigantic glass. What makes lemonade so special in PV is that it’s actually made with limes, so it’s a lot more tangy, and it’s always cut with a little club soda to mellow it out and give it a hint of fizz – divine!

A trip to Puerto Vallarta is really what you make it. If you let yourself get caught up in its little annoyances, it could easily ruin your trip. But if you’re patient, tolerant and understanding, or lucky enough (like me) to travel with someone who possesses those qualities, the good times are endless.

If you are an active person, there’s no shortage of activities and areas to explore in PV. And if you prefer to relax, you’re also in luck with properties like Club Regina equipped with multiple pools, ocean-side beaches and dining facilities within feet of your room.

How much money you spend in PV is also completely up to you. While opportunities to spend – and spend big – greet you on every corner, there are definitely ways to do this trip on a modest budget. If you spend a little time reviewing the travel brochures available at all the hotels, you can easily find restaurants that accommodate budgets of all sizes. And of course, there’s always great street food available for just a few dollars on the malecon. From tacos and roasted corn to aguas frescas (refreshing beverages made with interesting ingredients like rice and tamarind), the downtown area of PV boasts an enticing array of tasty treats for all palates. Even picky eaters should fare well in PV.

Personally, I don’t know who wouldn’t go gaga over the nice, thick tortilla chips and scorching hot salsa served with just about every meal. But if Mexican food is not you’re thing, there’s also perfectly decent food from other regions to be had in PV. I had a lovely grilled fish and rice meal at a steakhouse on the marina, as well as an excellent Chinese meal a few restaurants down, both extremely affordable in the $20 – $30 range for two.

And the number one tip for saving money in Puerto Vallarta – BARGAIN. While the price of food is usually set in stone, you can pretty much haggle for anything else you want in PV, from activities like parasailing to souvenirs. Never pay the first price offered for such items. Normally if you linger over something long enough without giving in, the salesperson will start the bargaining process for you, offering a lower price so you don’t walk away. After all, for many people in PV, their livelihood and that of their families is dependant upon you buying something from them. And the same goes for waiters and bartenders who heavily depend on tourists’ tips, and will always go the extra mile to increase the money you leave on the table for them.

In a way PV’s dependence on tourism allows those of us with modest budgets to get a taste of the good life we normally wouldn’t experience stateside. This became evident on our last evening in PV when we were relaxing at the outdoor bar, Nikki Beach, at Club Regina, enjoying some delightful tropical beverages followed by chocolate cake (hey, we were on vacation). Overlooking the ocean, we spotted the infamous, authentic-looking pirate ship that continuously traverses PV’s seas. While the ship itself is a tourist attraction geared towards children, we had been hearing that it sets off fireworks over the ocean nightly, but had not yet been lucky enough to see them.

When my boyfriend asked about the fireworks, the bartender joked that if we left a nice tip, he could try to get the boat to light up the sky by Nikki Beach that night. Well, at least we thought he was joking until the ship made its way as close to shore by Nikki Beach as possible and gave us a romantic show of fireworks reflecting over the water. The hotel beach being practically deserted that night, it was my first (and probably only) private fireworks show. The combination of the waves quietly lapping at my feet, the cool breeze in the air, the bright colors lighting up the pitch dark sky and my boyfriend’s warm hand in mine made for a fantasy ending to a charming week.

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