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Once a sleepy fishing village hiding on the remote Mexican shoreline and accessible only by boat, Puerto Vallarta has turned into a beloved vacation destination. But unlike resort cities whose laurels rest solely on great beaches, Puerto Vallarta has grown into a full-fledged cultural and dining destination thanks to its unusual history. This coastal town in the state of Jalisco (where tequila was invented) rose to stardom in the 1960s, when Hollywood came here to shoot The Night of the Iguana starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The two stars (and couple) enjoyed the city so much they built themselves a little love nest downtown, linking two separate homes into one with a white bridge above the street (which is still there today). A well-rounded tourist attraction, Puerto Vallarta boasts a charming downtown, an arts and crafts market, nature reserves and talented chefs churning out specialty dishes and drinks native to Jalisco. Here is how to enjoy it all to the fullest.

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All photos by the author

Even if you aren’t a morning person, Puerto Vallarta’s view will get you out of bed quick.

If you’re staying at oceanfront resort Velas Vallarta, your wake-up call won’t be a rooster’s crow, but rather a peacock’s cry. They roam the property freely—posing happily for photos.

The best way to start your day is to stroll el Malecón—the 12-block promenade along the water.

Along the way, grab a taco or two for breakfast!

Then wash it down with an ice-laden tejuino drink made from fermented corn.

Walk up to Casa Kimberly—the former love nest of Hollywood stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Today, Casa Kimberly is a luxury boutique hotel that still has Burton’s azure pool and Taylor’s heart-shaped Jacuzzi.

It still retains the famous white bridge connecting the two properties above the street—an exact replica of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

Now off to explore the city, its streets, its shops and its markets—and meet its wonderful inhabitants!

Try some fresh fruit, picked only hours ago by local farmers. The Old Town Farmers Market is where Puerto Vallarta chefs come to buy produce for their restaurants.

Mexican mountain hens make mega eggs! Award-winning Chef Hugo Ahumada (Maia restaurant) wouldn’t go for any other. You really can tell the difference—they’re delicious!

So are local-caught shrimp. But peeling them is a tricky procedure, requiring a certain sleight of hand.

Food shopping makes you hungry; time for a snack, prepared in a lovely courtyard at the Villa Mercedes Hotel.

Now it’s time for a shopping spree! No vacation is complete without souvenirs.

Stock up souvenirs at the Municipal Market where you’ll find arts and crafts and jewelry that won’t break the bank.

It’s time for wildlife photo ops. Snap that baby-croc pic before it snaps off your finger!

Iguanas are a safer bet, albeit they can be quite heavy!

Meanwhile in the mountains…a new type of mezcal is brewing.

“Oh, raicilla! How much do we love thee?” Distiller Lallo Sanchez explains the making of this distilled spirit, a close cousin of tequila, yet arguably packing a stronger punch.

It’s all in the grassroots. Tequila is made from the blue agave, raicilla from the green one. Grown in cooler mountain weather, raicilla has a more intense flavor—clean crispy and irresistible, just like the fresh mountain air!

It comes in multiple flavors—grab a bottle or two before you go!

Next up: All aboard Mike’s Fishing Boat to explore Puerto Vallarta’s beautiful Bay of Banderas and its coves, caves and beaches.

Grilled sea bass with popular spice red achiote powder—a local delicacy served at Mike’s Beach Club restaurant.

The achiote spice: This brightly colored ingredient tastes both peppery and nutty—kind of like paprika.

RELATED: Spice up your next trip with Orbitz Rewards!

A turtle release party! Baby turtles that hatched earlier that morning are about to be released into their permanent home—the ocean. Turtle nests often get decimated by predators and people so big hotels, like CasaMagna Marriott and Velas Vallarta, keep turtle hatcheries and run release programs to improve survival numbers.

They are so tiny and they already have to fend for themselves in this big hostile world.

Good luck, little turtle. Off you go! Swim safely into the beautiful sunset!

And now it’s time for the adults to party! The night is still young!

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Tagged: Mexico

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich

Lina shimmied with belly dancers in Turkey, took kimono-wearing lessons from geishas in Japan and read poetry with drunken bards at the Russian Woodstock. She’s written about her wanderings for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Hemispheres, Alaska Airlines, TravelAge West and BBC, among others.

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