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Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta is the pretty, picturesque beach escape cradled in the embrace of a vast, blue sea, and jungle-covered foothills. North of town, Vallarta is a brave new world. World-class deluxe hotels are rising in Punta Mita and Nueva Vallarta. Five new championship golf courses rival the best in Mexico. Million-dollar yachts rub elbows in the high-flying marina. El Centro, is where the city, now a tourist town of 350,000 is trying to pull off the neat trick of retaining its small-town charm-its classic cobblestone streets, red-tile roofs, low-rise skyline-and yet grow more dynamic and innovative by nurturing a mix of high-quality restaurants, fine-art galleries and spirited street life.

During high season, the twice-monthly Art Walk is a major happening, drawing throngs of visitors for a self-guided tour of new exhibitions. There’s a similar openings-and-cocktails evening for marina galleries, as well as a well-attended tour of artists’ studios. The blossoming art scene extends to the city’s Malecon, its kilometer-long seaside promenade that sparkles with a string of bronze sculptures. Ambling along the breezy walkway, you’ll join streams of people noshing on food-grilled corn on the cob, mango-on-a-stick, ice cream-and watch local kids happily climb on the sculptures, much like Italian boys in Rome include famous statues in the piazzas as part of their soccer field.

Paralleling the Malecón, Diaz Ordaz Street hums with taxicabs delivering tourists to bustling outdoor restaurants and nightclubs. Last winter, the city closed off the street to traffic on weekend evenings and transformed it into a walking street.

In 2003, the city commemorated the 40th anniversary of The Night of the Iguana filming by hosting an homage to John Huston, the movie’s director. More than 80 movies and TV programs have been filmed in Vallarta since 1963, when the steamy romance of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana put the town on the map.

While Puerto Vallarta’s city life is on the rise, its major draw still is its natural environs and the variety of adventure activities available on the beach, in the water or in the jungle. In addition to its trip to Mascota and Talpa, Vallarta Adventures, a well-established local company, offers a comprehensive selection of high-quality tours ranging from cultural trips (such as Huichol Indian Village and tours of distilleries in the town of Tequila) to encounters with nature (snorkeling, scuba diving and whale watching). Its most popular offering is its Dolphin Adventures. Dolphin specialists lead visitors in programs that feature swims with dolphins. Open Air Expeditions offers whale-watching tours from December through March on a boat specifically designed for whale-watching. It also has nature-based kayaking, bird-watching, and sea turtle trips.