During my recent five-day visit to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I had a number of worthwhile experiences. I zip lined in the rainforest. I sat on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen and had the best raw oysters I can recall eating. I was introduced to the wonderful world of real tacos, not the product I’ve eaten all my life in the U.S. I also learned how amazingly friendly, warm and genuine the people are. The best part about my time in Mexico was discovering friendly Puerto Vallarta.
The people – that’s my biggest takeaway from my first visit to Mexico. Whether they spoke perfect English or in fits; whether they were serving me in a restaurant or passing by in the street; or whether they were helping me zip line across the forest or selling me a Mexican football jersey in the city market, everyone I encountered was genuinely friendly.
“They’re supposed to be friendly,” you might say. “They are trying to get a tip or sell you something.”
Yeah, I get that. But as a former restaurant server, Americans working in the service industry are also trying to get a tip. That doesn’t mean we always go out of our way to be extra friendly. I live in the American South. We know how to be fake friendly. We’ll kill you with kindness to your face … and then put the knife in your back and twist it until we’re blue in the face. So I have a clue about reading through the B.S.
In Mexico, if their kindness is just an affront to getting a good tip, that’s fine by me. I think Americans could learn a thing or two about how to be hospitable from them. I’d like to think I’m well traveled, but I haven’t experienced much of Central or South America, Asia or Africa. I have traveled a lot in the U.S. and Europe, and while I’ve encountered many friendly faces, there’s just something about Mexico happiness.
If I’m traveling to a beach destination, the heart of the trip is relaxation at the pool or at the beach. I want to feel relaxed, knowing the staff of my hotel, the servers at the restaurants, the bartenders at the bars or anyone else in the service industry I encounter is there to make my trip more enjoyable.
But I’m not a beach bum. I don’t travel to relax, even if that is the heart of the idea of the trip. When I travel, I like to encounter local culture, go where the locals go, eat what the locals eat, drink where the locals drink. And in Puerto Vallarta, I felt that I had the opportunity to encounter a local culture at so many turns.
Yes, Puerto Vallarta is a tourist destination. But it’s also a city where an estimated 300,000 residents call home. The city’s downtown is full of fantastic restaurants and shops. I had the pleasure of taking a taco tour with Vallarta Food Tours, where we experienced nearly 10 local restaurants and taco stands that are making the real deal. I knew I wasn’t at my local Tex-Mex restaurant when I bit into that first shrimp taco of the night.
But I felt like I was experiencing the real Mexico even in the areas trafficked more by tourists, such as the city’s central market and the El Malecon, the boardwalk along the waterfront.
It was a Saturday afternoon when we walked down to the city’s new pier.
There clearly were locals all along the beach below trying to cool off on this brutally hot early June afternoon.
Is Puerto Vallarta a city like Mexico City? No, I don’t guess it is. But everywhere I turned I encountered what I felt was a real Mexico, one where the food was authentic, the people were kind, and the chamber of commerce didn’t control the message.
There were plenty of slums. And as the rain came down in buckets at the end of our taco tour night, I felt bad for these people who live in homes that barely even have a roof.
But from what I could see, the people of Puerto Vallarta are welcoming. If you make your way to this Pacific Ocean paradise, venture beyond your resort and discover the people of this Mexican city. Eat their food, buy their wares and gaze at the beautiful architecture of their city set at the foot of the mountains with lush rainforests all around.
Experience Puerto Vallarta for what it is: a beautiful city next to the Pacific with people who seem genuine. If you’ll open up yourself to them, you’ll go home with a greater appreciation of a people who seem to love life.