By Kara Williams, on October 15, 2013

Puerto Vallarta with kids

I’ll be honest: my family typically vacations on Mexico’s Riviera Maya because of the plentiful flights from Denver to Cancun; the upbeat shopping and dining scene in Playa del Carmen; and its gorgeous white sand beaches and turquoise Caribbean Sea. But to change it up a bit for our tropical vacation a couple years ago, we headed to Mexico’s west coast to get to know Puerto Vallarta.

While I still think the beaches on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are prettier, with much softer sand, I will say that our family trip to Puerto Vallarta didn’t disappoint. The beachfront downtown (“El Centro”) is easy to navigate on foot; locals were friendly and welcoming, especially to my young children; old buildings and churches, as well as cobblestone streets, add to the city’s historic charm; and we found plenty of active things to do in and around the city, which is our modus operandi for most, if not all, of our family vacations. Here’s a peek:

Sunset and seahorse sculpture on the Malecon

Stroll the Malecon

The oceanfront boardwalk in Puerto Vallarta’s downtown is called the Malecon. We chose our Puerto Vallarta all-inclusive resort – Buenaventura Grand – namely because it is only a five-minute walk from the Malecon, a promenade bursting with activity during the day and into the evenings, especially on the weekends. The sculptures along this mile-long walkway are impressive to both kids and adults, and the street performers, entertaining. There are beautiful sunset views over Banderas Bay, and on the “city side” of the boardwalk, a plethora of restaurant and shopping options. If you’re lucky, you might catch some fireworks from a “pirate ship” excursion in the bay.

Viewfinder Tip: Sunday is family day in Puerto Vallarta. You’ll mingle with local residents and their kids along the Malecon and at Playa de los Muertos.

Hit the beach

We spent a lot of time in the waves right in front of our accommodations at the oceanfront Buenaventura Grand (just to the north of downtown), but we also took one afternoon to taxi to one of Puerto Vallarta’s busiest and largest beaches, Playa de los Muertos. (Yep, that’s “beach of the dead.”) Be prepared for crowds and good-sized waves – or at least the ocean was less than tame when we were there, in the north section. My kids also liked the flavored ice and frozen coconut from the plentiful vendors.

PG-rated fun at Senor Frogs in Puerto Vallarta

Eat at restaurants with built-in entertainment

While I am a fan of seeking locally owned restaurants or off-the-beaten-path spots where residents eat, I will say that when I’m in a foreign country with my children, sometimes I go for what’s most convenient. And for us, after a day at the beach in Puerto Vallarta, that place was Señor Frogs. I know what you’re thinking: you really brought your kids to a raucous bar populated by Americans who just want to get drunk? Well, in my defense, we sat down to dinner fairly early, before the really rowdy crowds descended (but not before my husband and I were offered jello shots). All four of us ate filling, Americanized Mexican food, participated in a sing-a-long, and got up and danced in a conga line. Plus, the kids returned to our hotel with balloon toys. My husband might have, too.

Take a day trip to Yelapa

This remote fishing village in the southern part of Banderas Bay is easily accessible by boat. Puerto Vallarta outfitters offer snorkeling excursions en route to the quiet, beachfront setting. On arrival, we walked around the tiny town, played in the ocean, and ate lunch under a thatched-roof hut, whose food was decidedly more authentic than Señor Frogs. One must-do here? Eat some fresh-baked pie, sold by the “pie ladies,” who balance platters of pie slices on their heads; you can’t miss them – the women stroll the beaches and come into many of the open-air restaurants. I’m pretty sure we sampled generous slices of coconut and banana cream. Yum!

Where do you like to vacation in Mexico with kids?