This article is from the August 2000 - September 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Bernie’s Notes: Living in Puerto Vallarta

by Bernie Santos 

Bernie (Bernardo) Santos, Jr., and his wife Angela, live in Puerto Vallarta full time. Moving from the San Francisco Bay Area, they started a web page devoted to Vallarta ( and maintain a popular online newsletter called the Tucan News. Bernie contributed an article in the April 2000 issue of Mexico File on moving south of the border.  

Driving in Mexico is what I call “free-style” driving. The phrase, “drive defensively,” takes on much more meaning, for not only must you watch out for the other driver but also wayward taxis, buses and four legged animals, all of which abide by their own rules of the road. As mentioned in my previous article, a heavy dose of patience is needed. The famed cobblestone streets of Vallarta, so charming and quaint, play havoc on a car’s suspension and are dangerously slick during the rainy periods. One starts to look at things differently when living in, as opposed to visiting, a new homeland. 

We arrived in Vallarta in mid-July. Definitely off-season! Extreme mugginess! A light tropical rain was falling. The road to our new home was a bad one, consisting of a very steep hill and a dirt (or rather, mud) path spotted with potholes now hidden by pools of rainwater. The four-wheel drive kicked in as our Explorer easily ascended the slick terrain. Upon arrival we rested, slowly unpacked and rested some more – changing our sweaty clothes often. The moving company, Bekins, did a great job of hauling the bulk of our items from the SF Bay area to PV via Guadalajara. 

Once settled we started on the essentials. We had much to do and not really anyone to turn to. Insurance, utilities and banks had to be set up or transferred into our name. Again a good realtor is invaluable. They were able to provide the name of a “gofer,” – someone who spoke fluent Spanish and could cut through the red tape...for a price, of course. Nothing moves in Vallarta without “dinero.” Of course, if you have the time, the patience, and can speak fluent Spanish, you can do it all yourself! Even speaking fluent Spanish, a monopoly such as TelMex is difficult to deal with. A changeover of account or new lines can take weeks before functioning. The good news is that a large Guadalajara competitor looms on the horizon, which may give TelMex a jolt. 

Similar to TelMex is CFE (Comision Federal de Electricidad) which requires a deposit before turning on your electricity and returning the prior deposit to the previous owner. This latter fact is often overlooked, giving CFE an extra nibble. Another monopoly, Seapal, the PV water provider, is easy to work with and water is super cheap! Other utilities such as Telecable and Internet are in abundance. Vallarta is more ‘wired’ than many US cities. We personally use AcNet, but hear PVNet is equally as good – they just weren’t available to us initially. We have accessed our email accounts, both hotmail and acnet, from anywhere in the world. 

It takes much longer to accomplish routine things such as banking, and, say, finding the right store that sells the replacement parts for your ceiling fan – not the obvious – chores that we take for granted in the US. There is not a Home Depot here – as yet! And it all takes patience. The mañana syndrome is alive and well, even though the latest saying in Mexico is Hoy! (not mañana), courtesy of newly elected PAN president-to-be Vincente Fox. Waiting for service persons to appear at the appointed time is one of the most frustrating experiences. Many times we have ‘wasted’ a whole day waiting for such people only to find they were busy and didn’t arrive until several hours or even days later. Excuses are as common as tequila. Better get used to it. After two years we have encountered only one professional service person who was on time for the appointment he set. Of course if it’s money to be paid out, they are there in a microflash!

Not many local people carry insurance, whether it is for health, life or auto because of its high cost. Medicare is not effective outside the US, though currently Congress is being pressed to extend the Medicare coverage to Americans living in Mexico. Medical programs such as COBRA are very costly. Car coverage, by a major Mexico group, was approximately $900US per year for our 1994 SUV. My wife insisted upon earthquake coverage for the house so that brought the price up to approximately $900US for that as well. Health coverage (for major injuries only) was a little higher and is age-related. Increasing the deductible and such can probably lower all of these costs. My point is that insurance is not cheap. 

However, medical services are inexpensive compared to USA costs. A visit to a top notch English speaking doctor will cost approximately $20. An x-ray and blood test(s) run approx. $70US. A CAT scan about $200US. Some prescriptions are ‘controlled’ and not easy to obtain without a doctor’s prescription. These latter costs can mount up. Word of mouth is the best way to find a good maid/cook/mozo, doctor, dentist, hospital or lawyer. It’s very common to find people enjoying their vacation in Vallarta while visiting a dentist to take care of their dental work, and thus avoiding the high dental costs in the U.S. Please note that your experience may vary. 

Puerto Vallarta is probably one of the most expensive cities in Mexico, to wine and dine, to visit or to live in. Even tortillas and tequila price hikes have recently occurred. Of course Mexico is cheaper than the US –  however, some items such as real estate are just as high if not higher than some places in California. Properties with a scenic view command a premium, driving prices continuously upward. 

Most folks keep a home in the USA and buy a second vacation home in Vallarta. Others, such as us, sell their residence in the US and move lock, stock and barrel to PV. In either case we found it best to maintain a US base. Before retiring we had beefed up our credit accounts and later set them up for automatic payments – in full. We also set up a message center to use for USA phone calls; a box at Mail Boxes Etc in Vallarta, which uses an USA address for deliveries and expedites mail quicker than the Mexican service; and a generic email address such as Hotmail. All of this maintains one’s USA presence, and helps considerably with any business dealings. DHL, FedEx and UPS work great. However, keep in mind that many items are not permitted into Mexico without having to pay duty. 

Once the essentials have been taken care of, it’s time to discover PV as a local.  Off-season is a great time to do so. Prices are down, numerous discounts exist, and not too many tourists out and about. Restaurants that remain open in the off season use their creativity to entertain the locals and maintain a business level, e.g., Christmas in July at Really Rosie’s Restaurant where customers enjoy a turkey dinner and bring gifts for a worthy charity –  and where two cold beers can be had for $15pesos (approx. $1.50US)! 

Vallarta is a vibrant city on Jalisco’s pacific shoreline. The Sierra Madre Mountains provide a magnificent backdrop to the graceful palms and sandy beaches. The deep Bay of Banderas and the mountains provide a natural barrier against threats of hurricanes and storms. Over 350,000 people call PV home. A very large American and Canadian population exists, together with French, German, Dutch and other Europeans. Many reside in the popular “Gringo Gulch” area made famous by the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton torrid affair while Burton was filming the 1963 movie directed by John Huston, “Night of the Iguana.” Generally the Rio Cuale divides the town in two – the north side made up of the Hotel Zone, Marina, airport, Malecon, City Hall, Cathedral, Gringo Gulch, Flea market, golf courses and points north such as Nuevo Vallarta and Nayarit. The south side, often referred to as “the Old Town” or “Zona Romantica” has Mismaloya beach, Conchas Chinas (the Beverly Hills of PV), tons of fine restaurants and dance spots, popular beaches and an older more quaint atmosphere. Many ex-patriots have branched outward to choice homes further south. And with the advent of the new highway, to blossoming locations to the north, such as Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerias, Punta de Mita and Sayulita, and other areas.

Vallarta has much to offer. Something for everyone. We live in the south side and spend the bulk of our time there. Living here, as opposed to being fun-seeking tourists, required us to apply the brakes to our lifestyle in order to avoid a physical as well as financial burnout. Prior to coming to PV we had worked out a tentative budget. After living here six months we found ourselves living beyond our means. We had underestimated the high summer electric costs, the needed monthly fumigation, telephone costs, items requiring repair, and the fun! We were stepping out on the town too often. A very enjoyable but expensive habit! Once again, homework is vital. 

Vallarta has more than 40 galleries, over 600 restaurants, 26 miles of beaches and a very vibrant nightlife. There are numerous fine newspapers and magazines. The PV Tribune is free and published weekly in several languages. Vallarta Today is a good daily English paper – free or for a low price. Vallarta Lifestyles, a very popular and excellent magazine published in Spanish and English, is sold in numerous stores, and can be obtained by subscription anywhere in the world. The Vallarta (Guadalajara) Reporter is a weekly newspaper published in English and sells for $10 pesos. Among others, it features numerous articles written by our good friend and neighbor, Angela Corelis. All of these and more can be found around town in realty offices, museums, galleries, supermarkets and travel offices. All have great local information, maps and dining and nightlife sections. The tourist office, located in the main plaza near the cathedral, is an invaluable source of information. Use them often. 

Vallarta is easily transgressed. Basically there exists one main way in and one way out.

(The Calle Libremiento does skirt the outside of the town but comes out to the same point in the south part of town.) From the airport you take the Airport Highway (aka Bolevar Francisco Medina) south past the Zona Hotelera as it changes name four times. The road narrows and hits the famed cobblestoned streets becoming Ave. Mexico, and then Paseo Diaz Ordaz along the Malecon (seawall) and then changing to Morelos as it passes the central Plaza. Once you cross the southbound bridge at the Rio Cuale the road becomes Ignacio Vallarta. Continue through the older sections of town where folks enjoy leisurely strolls. No real need to pay attention to the street signs, as your journey is almost a straight shot south. Follow this road to the large green traffic sign that states “Barra de Navidad” and eventually hooks up once again with the main Highway 200 and points father south such as Conchas Chinas, Mismaloya and Manzanillo/Ixtapa. Prior to heading farther south take the road west towards the popular Los Muertos beach area. Hang out here for a day. Many fine restaurants and lively bars are located here. Try the ‘Sand Bar’ or ‘Cuates y Cuetes’ or the ‘El Dorado.’ The nearby Hotel Playa Los Arcos has a great happy hour and free show nightly. The popular ‘Blue Chairs’ for the gay crowd are located on the south end of the beach. 

Here’s my “Best” list:


Gigante is well stocked, popular, and located north of the Sheraton Hotel in Plaza Caracol. Rizo’s, popular for its well-stocked American items; located in South Central on Calle Constitution near the Molino de Agua Hotel. Sam’s Club, a bulk wholesale outlet with great meats and veggies.

Best Shops & Galleries: Walk along the areas of the Marina, and the streets darting out from the Cathedral area such as Juarez, Libertad, Insurgentes, Ave. Vallarta and Basilio Badillo (in the south). Honorable mentions are galleries: Galeria Vallarta, Rosas Blancas, Latinoamericano, Pacifico and Uno. Unique shops such as Puerco Azul at the Marina and Lucy’s Cucu Cabana and Zoo. Chic shops such as Viva, Mango Too, and Maria de Guadalajara. Stroll the Isla Rio Cuale and the nearby flea market. Nuevo Vallarta now has an excellent new shopping mall.

Best Beaches:

Los Muertos located in the Zona Romantica; the beaches along the hotel zone; Mismaloya and Conchas Chinas located a few miles south of town.

Best Sights:

The Main Cathedral de Guadalupe (La Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe), the Malecon promenade, Gringo Gulch, Isla de Rio Cuale and Mismaloya.

Best Dining:

Trio, Daiquiri Dick’s, De Santos, Really Rosie’s, La Nube, Remembranzas, La Petite France, La Fiesta Grill, Archie’s Wok, Texas Grill, Red Cabbage. Walk along “restaurant row” – Basilio Badillo for much more¼Best Steaks: Rincon de Buenos Aires, Full of Bull and Los Pibes.Best Burger: Archi’s, Jupiter and Cheeseburgers in Paradise (though pricey).Best Mexican: Café de Olla.Definitely noteworthy but very pricey are: Café des Artistes and La Perla.

Best Breakfast:

Memo’s Pancake house, El Dorado, and the Lindo Mar.

Best Nightlife:

Stroll the Malecon; visit Club Roxy, Andale’s, De Santos, and Freddy’s Tucan.

Stroll Olas Altas in the south and Basilio Badillo.

Favorite watering holes: Apaches, The Sand Bar, Cuates y Cuetes, Rosie’s, Viejo Vallarta, Las Palomas, and Fidencio’s.

For Jazz aficionados hang out at Le Bistro or Ibiza to catch the popular duet Beverly and Willow and also The Navigante. Paco Paco for alternative lifestyles.

Best Mexican Fiestas:

The Hotel Krystal, the Iguana and the Hotel Sheraton.

Best Freebies: First Thursday of every month attend the concert at the Hotel Camino Real; every third Thursday, the concert at the Hotel Buenaventura; in December catch the numerous street parades; from November to March, whale/dolphin watching; in September the Mexican national celebration; the short fireworks display off the Malecon nightly at approximately 9pm; and not least, the fantastic sunsets – catch the ‘green flash.’ Note that several months of the year the sun sets behind the south ridge of the Sierra Madre Mountains or behind the Islas Marietta.

If you are the type who loves the off-season, you’ll witness spectacular lightning/thunder storms and torrential rains at times and bugs to rival any country!

Best Money Exchange:

American Express on Morelos; ATMs. Check the rates at larger banks such as Bancomer, Bital, Bancopromex, and BBV. Monex and Intercam.

Best Realty Companies: PV Realty; Also Tropicasa, The Property Shop and Applegate.

Best Vallarta Web Sites:;;; and

Some Best Cyber Cafes:

The ‘Net House’ on Ave.Vallarta; ‘Café.com’ on Olas Altas; ‘Eclipse’ on Juarez.

Some Best Hotels:

Sheraton, Camino Real, Melia, Westin Regina, Krystal, Playa Los Arcos, Molino de Agua. (Note: choice is made by location, ambience, friendliness, and value.)

Best Tour companies:

‘Vallarta Adventure’ 22-10657, ‘Open-Air’ 22-23310, ‘Vivatours’ 22-40410.Best Horseback Riding:Rancho Ojo de Agua 22-40607. Rancho Charro 22-40114.

Best Biking: B-B-Bikes 22-30008.Best Diving: Chico’s 22-21895.

Best Kiddy Fun: Splash, an aquatic park, just opened. Also Go-Karts. Both are located

just north of the Airport. Cinemas offer newly released movies for about $3 dollars. 

Some Do’s:

Register with your Consulate for emergency purposes. Both USA and Canadian consul agencies are located in the main plaza across from the City Hall and the Cathedral.

Do keep your FM3 current (renew annually). It’s just as important as your passport.   If you have your own vehicle, keeping your FM3 current will save you a trip to the   border for annual renewals.

Keep copies of your FM3 and insurance in your vehicle.Make multiple copies of all your important documents.

Set up accounts with the larger money exchange houses such as Monex and Intercam. This enables you to cash third-party checks or exchange bills at a good exchange rate – usually a little higher than Banks or even American Express.

Consider a mailbox at Mail Boxes Etc or similar to expedite your postal mailings.

Do use surge protectors on sensitive electronic devices. If you have a computer, remember to do backups and, if possible, install a backup power supply. Power outages are common and can last microseconds to days!

Invest in a cellular phone for emergency purposes, whether it is at home or traveling.

Also have a good portable radio and spare batteries on hand, also candles and canned foods.

Think about getting involved in the community. You are going to have lots of free time, so why not volunteer with one or more of the many charitable organizations such as: The International Friendship Club, The Mexico-American Association, The Animal Protection Association, The Make a Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and more, all of whom do such wonderful work.

Think about relaxing. As Vallarta is very much an artisan city, start a hobby such as painting or sculpting. It’s your time to enjoy life to the fullest!   

DO REMEMBER that you are in Mexico. We need to remind ourselves of this when things are good, and when they turn bad!  

After living in Vallarta for one year our little paradise was disrupted by loud hammering. Construction had started in front of our home, on a neighboring parcel. Our scenic ocean view was being invaded. Next article – The good, the bad, and the ugly!