Although a “best” beach for some folks might be horrible for others, many people would agree that a good, all-purpose beach should have convenient bus or car access, somewhere to stay and eat, gentle surf with no more than mild undertow, and also be safe for boogie boarding and swimming.
Best All-Purpose Beaches
Beginning on Puerto Vallarta’s south side, Playa los Muertos is the hands-down favorite. It’s long enough that you can spread out if you don’t wish to join the throngs of beachgoers, but it also has all of the amenities you could want, including beach clubs, restaurants, and bars.
Out of town, the south-side best beaches are at Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlán. On the north side of town, the best beach is made up of the Hotel Zone strip between the Hotel Sheraton and the Hotel Krystal, ending just before the Terminal Maritima (cruise-ship terminal). There’s plenty of public access spots, all marked with signs on the main highway. You are usually welcome to grab a chair in front of any hotel or restaurant as long as you plan on ordering from their bar or restaurant.
On the bay’s northwest side, Playa Bucerías is a favorite for calm surf and family-friendly conditions. The beach gets more crowded at the southern end due to the presence of an oversized resort complex. Farther away, on the Bay of Banderas’s northwest side, are petite and very busy Playa Manzanillo (at the Hotel Piedra Blanca) and Playa Anclote at Punta Mita, with good palapa restaurants, snorkeling and surfing nearby, and excursions to offshore Islas Marietas. If you don’t mind carrying a surfboard in (nonsurfers are not allowed under current Punta Mita Development Corporation policy), La Lancha is one of the prettiest beaches in all of Banderas Bay. You can also get there by boat from Playa Anclote.
Another favorite beach, on the Nayarit Coast, is gemlike Playa Chacala, whose golden sand curves gently around its intimate, palm-tufted half-moon bay.
The first best beach south on the Jalisco Coast is at family-friendly Perula, on islet-decorated Chamela Bay. Farther south, find Playa Boca de Iguanas (trailer park). Finally, those who want it all—good hotels, restaurants, and drowsy, country-Mexico tranquility—choose Melaque.
Best Wildlife Beaches
On the Nayarit Coast, the beaches at San Francisco and Punta Raza both are fed by estuaries. This means superb bird-watching, and you may even get to see some of the indigenous species, like crocodiles, turtles, or coatis. The beaches are steep, often with thunderous waves and strong undertow. San Francisco has beach restaurants and amenities, but Punta Raza only has just one small hotel near the south end.
For pristine isolation, wildlife-watching (egg-laying turtles in the fall), surf fishing, tent camping, and a small hotel with restaurant and clean facilities, no place could be finer than Playa Platanitos, just north of Las Varas on the way to San Blas.
Also very lovely and worthwhile is the local country beach haven of Playa El Naranjo, north of Rincón de Guayabitos-La Peñita. It offers palapa restaurants, a near-level beach with little undertow, surfing breaks, a mangrove lagoon, crocodiles, plenty of birds, and lots of palm-shaded room for RV or tent camping. This beach is not accessible during the rainy season, as the road turns into a mud wallow.
Best Hidden Beaches
South of Puerto Vallarta, venture off-road to Playa Mayto, accessible from Highway 200 at El Tuito. You’ll need a Jeep or a public minivan to navigate the 3 miles of paved road followed by 15 or so miles of dirt road. Playa Mayto is a three-mile-long golden-sand beach good for virtually all beach diversions and is home to a pair of comfortable, moderately priced hotels, both with restaurants and one with a pool.
Alternatively, go a mile farther south to Tehualmixtle fishing cove, with restaurants and a rustic hotel; add fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving (with your own equipment) to the family-friendly beach activities.
Most Beautiful Beaches
Gem of gems, Playa Careyes sits on its own petite half-moon bay and offers palapa restaurants, turtle-watching, surf fishing, fishing trips, and more. A few miles farther, de facto wildlife refuge Playa el Tecuán offers everything: a long pristine strand perfect for beachcombing, powerful rollers for advanced surfers, great surf fishing, and even bird- and wildlife-watching in your own kayak on the Tecuán lagoon. The beach has no facilities, however, so bring everything.
Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Puerto Vallarta.