Mexico ALL DESTINATIONS Acapulco Cozumel Los Cabos Cancun Guadalajara Mexico City Caribbean Coast Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo Oaxaca Puerto Vallarta Acapulco Overview You've got to give Acapulco credit for staying power. After falling out of favour with the international jet set, this not-so-hot spot is heating up again. Its high-rise hotels are being restored to their former grandeur, its restaurants are getting noticed by the critics, its famous nightlife scene is jumping again, and its pollution-plagued beaches have been given a thorough scrubbing. Worlds more sophisticated than Cancún, Acapulco draws a wide range of people, though you're bound to find more party animals than fresh-faced families here. But most people who make their way to this undeniably beautiful bay spend their days lying around on colourful towels or napping in hammocks, a fruit-flavoured drink nearby. For those who can rouse themselves to do some sightseeing, the nearby silver city of Taxco beckons. Sights & Activities The city centre is on the western edge of the bay. The streets run inland, forming a grid that's easy to explore on foot. Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán, a wide coastal boulevard, runs the length of the bay and is lined with hotels, restaurants, and malls. You can explore the strip by taxi, bus, or rental car, stopping along the way to shop. You'll also need a vehicle to get to Acapulco Diamante, farther east along the coast. Running from Las Brisas Hotel to Barra Vieja beach, this 3,000-acre expanse encompasses exclusive Playa Diamante and Playa Revolcadero, with upscale hotels and residential developments, private clubs, beautiful views, and pounding surf. Pie de la Cuesta, 10 km (6.2 mi) northwest of Acapulco, is famous for its fabulous sunsets, small family-run hotels, and some of the wildest surf in Mexico. The village remains the flip side to the Acapulco coin -- a welcome respite from the disco-driven big city. Only the main road is paved, and the town has no major resorts or late-night clubs. A beach chair, a bucket of cold beers, and a good book is about as much excitement as you'll get here. For a break from beach life you can travel north 300 km (185 mi) to the old silver-mining town of Taxco, a lovely example of life away from the coast, not to mention a great place to buy silver from the country's finest metalwork artisans. Cancún Overview Cancún is a great place to experience 21st-century Mexico. There isn't much that's "quaint" or "historical" in this distinctively modern city; the people living here have eagerly embraced all the accoutrements of urban middle-class life -- cell phones, cable TV -- that are found all over the world. Most locals live on the mainland, in the part of the city known an El Centro -- but many of them work in the posh Zona Hotelera, the barrier island where Cancún's most popular resorts are located. Boulevard Kukulcán is the main drag in the Zona Hotelera, and because the island is so narrow -- less than 1 km (½ mi) wide -- you would be able to see both the Caribbean and the lagoons on either side if it weren't for the hotels. Regularly placed kilometer markers alongside Boulevard Kukulcán indicate where you are. The first marker (Km 1) is near downtown on the mainland; Km 20 lies at the south end of the Zone at Punta Nizuc. The area in between consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time- share condominiums. It's not the sort of place you can get to know by walking, although there's a bicycle-walking path that starts downtown at the beginning of the Zona Hotelera and continues through to Punta Nizuc. The beginning of the path parallels a grassy strip of Boulevard Kukulcán decorated with reproductions of ancient Mexican art, including the Aztec calendar stone, a giant Olmec head, the Atlantids of Tula, and a Maya Chacmool (reclining rain god). South of Punta Cancún, Boulevard Kukulcán becomes a busy road, difficult to cross on foot. It's also punctuated by steeply inclined driveways that turn into the hotels, most of which are set at least 100 yards from the road. The lagoon side of the boulevard consists of scrubby stretches of land alternating with marinas, shopping centers, and restaurants. Because there are so few sights, there are no orientation tours of Cancún: just do the local bus circuit to get a feel for the island's layout. When you first visit El Centro, the downtown layout might not be self-evident. It's not based on a grid but rather on a circular pattern. The whole city is divided into districts called Super Manzanas (abbreviated Sm in this book), each with its own central square or park. The main streets curve around the manzanas, and the smaller neighbourhood streets curl around the parks in horseshoe shapes. Avenida Tulum is the main street -- actually a four-lane road with two northbound and two southbound lanes. The inner north and south lanes, separated by a meridian of grass, are the express lanes. Along the express lanes, smaller roads lead to the outer lanes, where local shops and services are. This setup makes for some amazing traffic snarls, and it can be quite dangerous crossing at the side roads. Instead, cross at the speed bumps placed along the express lanes that act as pedestrian walkways. Avenidas Bonampak and Yaxchilán are the other two major north-south streets that parallel Tulum. The three major east-west streets are Avenidas Cobá, Uxmal, and Chichén. They are marked along Tulum by huge traffic circles, each set with a piece of sculpture. Sights & Activities The Zona Hotelera is a numeral 7-shape island 4 km (2 mi) east of El Centro. It consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time-share condominiums, with few residential areas. It's not the sort of place you can get to know by walking or biking, although there is path that starts in Punta Nizuc and ends in El Centro. Cancún's scenery consists mostly of beautiful beaches and crystal-clear waters, but there are also a few intriguing historical sites tucked away among the modern hotels. Cozumel Overview The 490-square-km (189-square-mi) island of Cozumel hangs 19 km (12 mi) off the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. Calm waters wash the white sandy beaches on its leeward side, which is fringed by a spectacular reef system. On the windward Caribbean side, powerful surf and rocky strands are broken at intervals by calm bays and hidden coves. Aside from the 3% of the island that has been developed, Cozumel is made up of expanses of sandy or rocky beaches, quiet little coves, palm groves, scrubby jungle, lagoons and swamps, and a few low hills (the maximum elevation is 45 ft). A few Maya ruins provide what limited sightseeing there is aside from the island's glorious natural attractions. The island's name comes from the Maya word Ah-Cuzamil-Peten, which means "land of the swallows." For the Maya, Cozumel was the sacred site of the fertility goddess Ixchel, as well as a key centre of trade and navigation. For the Spanish, it was useful as a naval base in the late 16th century. For pirates, its safe harbors and the catacombs and tunnels the Maya dug were ideal for their treasure-gathering and -storing needs. Despite the inevitable effects of cruise ships that dock here, the island's earthy charm remains largely intact, and the relaxing atmosphere remains typically Mexican -- friendly and unpretentious. A mainstay of Cozumel's mood is the isleños, descendents of the Maya who have inhabited the island for centuries. Isla Mujeres The minute you step off the boat, you'll get a sense of how small Isla is. The sights and properties on the island are strung along the coasts; there's not much to the interior except the two saltwater marshes, Salina Chica and Salina Grande, where Maya inhabitants harvested salt centuries ago. The main road is Avenida Rueda Medina, which runs the length of the island; southeast of a village known as El Colonia, it turns into Carretera El Garrafón. Smaller street names and other address details don't really matter much here. Top 5 Reasons to Go Scuba diving the world-famous 20-mi Maya Reef, where the technicolor profusion of fish coral and other underwater creatures reside. Swing lazily in a hamaca at Mr. Sancho's, Nachi Cocom, or any of the other western beach clubs. Watching beribboned traditional dancers at the annual Feria del Cedral festival. Joining the locals at the Plaza Central in San Miguel on Sunday nights for music and dancing. Riding a jeep along the wild, undeveloped eastern coast, and picnicking at secluded beaches. Guadalajara Overview Mexico's second-largest city has plenty to offer. Although not the most colourful of colonial capitals, its carefully preserved Centro Histórico is lined with many beautiful buildings. The rest of the city is thoroughly modern, which means it can be just as chaotic as its big sister, but it offers many of the same urban diversions, in particular good restaurants and nightlife. Guadalajara is the birthplace of Mexico's most famous traditions: tequila (here you can sample more than 200 kinds), charredas (the ubiquitous Mexican-style rodeo), and mariachi music. The sights outside the city aren't as interesting as those near Mexico City, limiting your day-trip options, but the suburbs of Tonalá and Tlaquepaque have some of the country's best crafts. Guadalajara is reasonably close to Puerto Vallarta (about a four-hour drive), so it's a good option if you want to see a bit of the countryside before heading to the beach. Best in 3-5 Days Itinerary Spend your first day in the Centro Histórico. The next day, spend the morning and have lunch in Tlaquepaque, and visit Tonalá in the afternoon. These two towns are the best places in Guadalajara to shop. On your third day, see some of the city sights outside the Centro Histórico and take in a show. Tour the Centro Histórico on your first day, and then devote a day to Tlaquepaque and another to Tonalá. Visit Lago de Chapala on Day 4. Spend your final day back in Guadalajara, perhaps visiting the Zoológico Guadalajara, or the Basílica de la Virgen de Zapopan and nearby sights, for which several hours are required. Plan an afternoon of strolling past the mansions that were built by Guadalajara's upper classes in the glorious twilight before the 1910 revolution; the best area is in a six-block radius around Avenida Vallarta west of Avenida Chapultepec. If you'd like to get your feet on the ground in more natural surroundings, hike in the nearby Barranca de Oblatos. Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo Overview Although they couldn't be more different, Ixtapa (eesh-tah-pa) and Zihuatanejo (zee-wha-ta- NEH-ho) are marketed together as a single resort destination. Zihua, as it's often called, was a remote fishing village with minimal tourist traffic for hundreds of years. Ixtapa was created in the 1970s when Mexico's National Fund for Tourism Development (FONOTUR) cleared away a coconut plantation and constructed hotels, shops, and a marina. Although Ixtapa is quite self-sufficient in terms of services, its designers were unable to give the place a soul. Many visitors wander 7 km (4 mi) south to enjoy the authentic ambience of Zihua, which has been steadily adding its own restaurants and beachfront hotels -- so far doing so without destroying its small-town essence. Neither Zihuatenejo nor Ixtapa have much in the way of must-see attractions, but both are pleasant places to stroll and have gorgeous bays and marvellous beaches. Zihuatenejo's bay was a retreat for indigenous nobility long before Columbus and Cortés sailed to the Americas. Figurines, ceramics, and stone carvings found in the area verify the presence of civilizations dating as far back as the Olmec (3000 BC). Weaving was likely the dominant industry. The original Nahuatl name, Cihuatlán, means "place of women." Ixtapa, originally spelled Iztapa, means "white sands," and was ceded to (but not used by) one of the Spanish conquistadors. In 1527 Spain launched a trade route from Zihuatanejo Bay to the Orient. Galleons returned with silks, spices, and, according to some historians, the Americas' first coconut palms, brought from the Philippines. But the Spaniards did little colonizing here. A scout sent by Cortés reported back to the conquistador that the place was nothing great, tagging the name Cihuatlán with the less-than-flattering suffix "ejo" -- hence "Zihuatanejo." Sights & Activities Ixtapa The Zona Hotelera extends along a 3-km (2-mi) strip of sandy beach called Playa del Palmar. It's fun to walk along the shore to check out the various hotel scenes and water-sports activities. Swimming is so-so because of how the small waves break close to shore. You can walk the length of the same zone on the landward side of the hotels, along Paseo Ixtapa. This landscaped thoroughfare -- essentially, Ixtapa's only street -- is an access road that feeds the hotels on one side and strip malls filled with chain restaurants on the other. It's nicely landscaped and includes a broad path for pedestrians and cyclists. Entering Ixtapa along this road from the south you'll see a large handicrafts market, Mercado de Artesanía Turístico. Ixtapa's law against roving vendors confines local artisans -- from painters and sculptors to sellers of tank tops and key chains -- to this group of stalls. The Zona Hotelera's southerly end is also home to the 18-hole Palma Real Golf Club; at the resort's northwest end is the anemic Marina Ixtapa development. Although it has a 600-slip yacht marina, the 18-hole Marina Golf Course, and a small enclave of pretty good restaurants and shops, it bustles only in high season. Zihuatenejo Everything in Zihuatenejo radiates out from the main beach. Although this stretch of sand is probably the worst in town for swimming, it's the best place to get a sense of the timeless local rhythm. Fishermen still set off in outboard-motorized skiffs and return a few hours later to sell their daily catch to villagers. From the adjacent municipal muelle (pier), a group of waterfront companies take tourists on hours-long fishing adventures of their own, or on a 10- minute trip across the bay to one of the best swimming and snorkeling beaches, Playa Las Gatas. The pier also marks the beginning of the Paseo del Pescador (Fishermen's Walk), or malecón. Follow this seaside path, which is only ½ km (1/3 mi), along the main beach and is fronted by small restaurants and shops. Along the way you'll pass the basketball court that doubles as the town square. Most of the budget accommodations are in downtown Zihuatanejo; the glamorous hotels are on or overlooking Playa la Ropa. For more seclusion, venture to the growing beach town of Troncones, a 20-minute drive northwest of Zihuatanejo. Los Cabos Overview If humans pulled out of Baja it would rapidly regress to its natural dry, brown, uninhabitable state. But man has wrought wonders here. Enormous swaths of desert and coast are carved into exclusive developments, and the demand for more marinas, golf courses, and private homes seems never-ending. In some places hotels command $500 or more a night for their enormous suites, restaurants and spas charge L.A. prices, and million-dollar vacation villas are all the rage. With the completion in 1973 of the Carretera Transpeninsular (Mexico Carretera 1), travelers gradually started finding their way down the 1,708-km (1,059-mi) road, drawn by the wild terrain and the pristine beaches of both coastlines. Baja California Sur became Mexico's 30th state in 1974, and the population and tourism have been growing ever since. Still, Baja Sur remains a rugged, largely undeveloped land. Many people opt to fly to the region rather than brave the often desolate Carretera 1. Whale-watching in Scammon's Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon, Magdalena Bay, and throughout the Mar de Cortés is a main attraction in winter. History buffs enjoy Loreto, where the first mission in the Californias was established. La Paz, today a busy state capital and sportfishing hub, was the first Spanish settlement in Baja. At the peninsula's southernmost tip fishing aficionados, golfers, and sun worshippers gather in Los Cabos, which sits like a sun-splashed movie set where the desert and ocean collide. Connected by a 28-km (17-mi) stretch of highway called the Corridor, the two towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo were distinct until the late 1970s, when the Mexican government targeted Baja's southern tip for resort development and dubbed the area Los Cabos. The setting is both foreign and familiar, an easy getaway with all the comforts of home. Today the population is about 100,000, an unofficial estimate that includes the growing number of Mexicans migrating from the mainland in search of jobs as well as foreigners who've bought vacation homes. New towns are rising inland, and the infrastructure is stretched to its limits. San José del Cabo is the government center and traditional Mexican town, albeit with a strong foreign influence. Massive all-inclusives have consumed much of its coastline, making San José the favored destination for families who just want to stay put on a safe, self- contained vacation. Outrageous, action-packed Cabo San Lucas is the Cabo you see on MTV. It's spring break here year-round, making it the preferred home base for the let-it-all- hang-out crowd. Connecting the two towns is the Corridor -- a strip of designer golf courses and super-luxe resorts set in a desert landscape. Celebrities lounge poolside at Corridor hideaways, their privacy ensured by exorbitant room rates. Sights & Activities The best way to sight see in Los Cabos is on foot. Downtown San José and Cabo San Lucas are compact. Buses run between the towns, with stops along the Corridor. You only need to rent a car if you plan to dine a lot in the Corridor hotels or travel frequently between the two towns. San José's downtown is lovely, with adobe houses and jacaranda trees. Entrepreneurs have converted old homes into stylish restaurants and shops, and the government has enlarged and beautified the main plaza. A nine-hole golf course and residential community are south of Centro (town centre); a little farther south the ever-expanding Zona Hotelera (hotel zone) faces a long beach on the Sea of Cortez. Despite the development -- and weekday traffic jams -- San José is relatively peaceful. Quite the opposite is true of Cabo San Lucas -- famous for its rowdy nightlife, its slew of trendy restaurants, and its lively beaches. The sportfishing fleet is headquartered here, cruise ships anchor off the marina, and there's a massive hotel on every available plot of waterfront turf. A pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants, bars, and shops anchored by the sleek Puerto Paraíso mall curves around Cabo San Lucas harbour, itself packed with yachts. A five-story hotel complex at the edge of the harbour blocks the water view and sea breezes from the town's side streets, which are filled with a jarring jumble of structures. The most popular restaurants, clubs, and shops are along Avenida Cárdenas (the extension of Highway 1 from the Corridor) and Boulevard Marina, paralleling the waterfront. The side streets closest to the marina are clogged with traffic, and their uneven, crumbling sidewalks front more tourist traps jammed side-by-side. At Playa Médano, tanned bodies lie shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, with every possible form of entertainment close at hand. The short Pacific coast beach in downtown San Lucas is more peaceful, though humongous hotels have gobbled up much of the sand. An entire new tourism area dubbed Cabo Pacifica by developers has blossomed on the Pacific, west of downtown. There's talk of a new international airport in San Lucas, along with golf courses and more resorts. The way things are going, San Lucas will soon rival Cancún as Mexico's gaudiest tourism capital. Mexico City Overview Mexico's sprawling capital is making headlines as the newest urban playground for hip globe- trotters. Its trendy (and affordable) restaurants, freewheeling nightlife, and outstanding museums are just a few of the things responsible for this buzz. Nowhere is the transformation more obvious than around the central square, where long-neglected streets have been repaved with cobblestones and lined with trees. New hotels and high-rise apartments are drawing executives and families downtown and people even stroll here at night -- unheard of a few years ago. Some people are daunted by the city's size, but the clean, speedy subway system makes it easy to get to even the most distant neighbourhoods. Or you can hop on the Turibus, which is the easiest way to visit many of the main sights. But what about the old problems, like the crime? It's a little better, but you still need to keep your wits about you. Traffic? About the same. Smog? Dramatically better. This Mexico City is a breath of fresh air. Founded by the Aztecs as Tenochtitlán in 1325, Mexico City is both the oldest and the highest (7,347 ft) metropolis on the North American continent. And with nearly 22 million inhabitants, it is the most populous city in the world. It is Mexico's cultural, political, and financial core -- braving the 21st century but clinging to its deeply entrenched Aztec heritage. Sights & Activities Most of Mexico City is aligned on two major intersecting thoroughfares: Paseo de la Reforma and Avenida Insurgentes -- at 34 km (21 mi), the longest avenue in the city. Administratively, Mexico City is divided into 16 delegaciones (districts) and about 400 colonias (neighborhoods), many with street names fitting a given theme, such as a river, philosopher, or revolutionary hero. The same street can change names as it goes through different colonias. So, most street addresses include their colonia (abbreviated as Col.). Unless you're going to a landmark, it's important to tell your taxi driver the name of the colonia and, whenever possible, the cross street. Mexico City's principal sights fall into three areas. Allow a full day to cover each thoroughly, although you could race through them in four or five hours apiece. You can generally cover the first area -- the Zócalo and Alameda Central -- on foot. Getting around Zona Rosa, Bosque de Chapultepec, and Colonia Condesa may require a taxi ride or two (though the Chapultepec metro stop is conveniently close to the park and museums), as will Coyoacán and San Angel in southern Mexico City. Mexico's Caribbean coast Overview Above all else, beaches are what define the Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula - - soft, blinding white strands of sand embracing clear turquoise waters; shores that curve into calm lagoons, coves, and inlets; waves that crash against cliffs. Mexico's Caribbean coast is in the state of Quintana Roo (pronounced keen-tah-nah roh-oh), bordered on the northwest by the state of Yucatán, on the west by Campeche, and on the south by Belize. Quintana Roo existed as only a territory of the country until politicians decided to develop the area for tourism. It officially became a state in 1974 -- the same year the first two hotels popped up in Cancún, where development was first focused. Coastal destinations are varied and eccentric. Puerto Morelos has the relaxed atmosphere of a Mexican fishing village. Playa del Carmen is filled with resorts -- some of them all-inclusive - - that are as glitzy and hectic as those in Cancún and Cozumel, embodying the coast's vida loca (crazy life). The beaches here, from Punta Tanchacté to Tulum, are beloved by scuba divers, snorkelers, bird-watchers, and beachcombers. Against this backdrop is Maya culture. Although the modern Maya live in the cities and villages along the coast, their history can be seen at the ruins. At Tulum, dramatic ruins sit on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean, welcoming the sunrise each morning. Cobá, a short distance inland, has towering jungle-shrouded pyramids, testaments to its importance as a centre of commerce in the ancient Maya world. Farther south, digs at Kohunlich have unearthed temples, palaces, and pyramids that have vestiges of the distinct Río Bec architectural style mixed with other styles. These structures have been restored but are still largely unvisited. At the Belizean border is the capital of Quintana Roo -- Chetumal. Although it's a modern city, a sprinkling of brightly painted wooden houses left over from an earlier era combine with the sultry sea air to make it seem more Central American than Mexican. Top 5 Reasons to Go: Visiting the stunning ruins of Tulum -- the only Maya site that overlooks the Caribbean. Casting for bonefish off the Chinchorro Reef near the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka'an. Indulging in a decadent massage or body treatment at one of the Riviera Maya's luxurious spa resorts. Diving or snorkeling at Puerto Morelo's Natural Reef Park, a preserve filled with parrot fish, spotted eagle rays, and other sealife. Exploring the inland jungle south of Rio Bec, where you might glimpse howler monkeys, coatimundi, and Yucatán parrots. Oaxaca City Overview Of the hottest 21st-century tourist destinations in Mexico, Oaxaca City, officially called Oaxaca de Juárez, is also the most urban. This vibrant city of about 260,000 still feels surprisingly authentic for a place that has been so "discovered" of late. Perhaps no small city better embodies the bundle of contrasts that is modern Mexico, with a commingling of sights, smells, and sounds both ancient and new. You'll hear the singsong strains of Zapotec, Mixtec, and other native languages in the markets, Spanish rock in the bars and restaurants, and hip- hop in English blaring from passing cars. Scions of affluent families sip tea or tequila in classy restaurants; out on the streets, men, women, and children of significantly more modest means sell pencils, sweets, and ears of delicious grilled elote (corn) -- and let's not forget the plethora of often bohemian, savvier-than-average American tourists who roam the streets. Spreading south and east from Oaxaca City, the Valles Centrales, or Central Valleys, are well worth exploring. You could easily fill a week visiting the dozens of villages here. Looking for colonial-era splendor? There are charming squares dominated by graceful churches in Ocotlán and Santa Ana del Valle, to name but two. Unique crafts? San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for its beautiful barro negro, or black pottery, made without the benefit of a pottery wheel, while in Teotitlán del Valle the streets are lined with shops selling tapetes, the woven wool rugs that are known all around Mexico. Colourful markets? Take your pick. There are outdoor markets each day of the week, and each is different. In Zaachila, for example, you could pick up some animals -- either small carvings or the real thing. Best of all, most markets are geared toward locals, so you really get a sense of each village. Oaxaca's 520-km (322-mi) coastline is one of Mexico's last Pacific frontiers. The town of Puerto Escondido has long been prime territory for international surfers. Its pedestrian walkways, crowded with open-air seafood restaurants, shops, and cafés, is indeed lively, but also incredibly relaxed. Fishing boats pull double duty as water taxis, ferrying folks to lovely scallops of sand up the coast. Across the highway, the "real" town above provides a look at local life and a dazzling view of the coast. No matter where you hole up along Mexico's southern Pacific coast, you'll find that it's all about the beach, the water, and the waves. Surfers and bodysurfers whoop it up at Zicatela and less famous breaks; snorkelers hug rocky coves in search of new and unusual specimens; and divers share the depths with dolphins, rays, eels, and schools of fish instead of shoals of other humans. Friendly locals, superb vistas, and first-rate beaches combine to make Oaxaca's coast a stunner. Budgeting Your Time in Oaxaca Though the state of Oaxaca may not look that big on paper, tackling both city and coast in less than a week isn't possible without exhausting yourself in the process. Driving from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido, for example, takes a minimum of six hours. Flying is a better option, but can be extremely expensive. If your time is limited, you should choose one or the other. Many people love Oaxaca City, but it's pretty small, so you really won't need more than two days to explore the whole thing. However, you could easily round out a week by using it as a base to explore the Oaxaca Valley. Keep in mind that Oaxaca casts its spell easily. You may head out into Oaxaca Valley for an obligatory day trip and find yourself wishing that you'd factored in more time to explore the countryside. Make sure to build some flexibility into your schedule. Bus tickets and car rentals can usually be arranged at the last minute, and, unless you're visiting during one of Oaxaca City's many festivals accommodations are usually easy to come by. Puerto Vallarta Overview The second most popular destination in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta occupies a nice niche between the other big resort cities -- it's more sophisticated than Cancún, but more laid-back than Acapulco. Part of its popularity is owed to the fact that development has left its Old Town unscathed, so there are cobblestone streets and graceful churches in the city center instead of glass and concrete towers. Moreover, the city has the best dining and shopping on the coast. Although Puerto Vallarta has spread north and south over the years, every attempt has been made to keep its character intact. City ordinances prohibit neon signs, require houses to be painted white, and dictate other architectural details downtown, where pack mules still occasionally clomp along the streets. Above downtown, steep roads twist through jungles of pines and palms, and rivers rush down to meet fine sand beaches and rocky coves. The beautiful Bahía de Banderas (Banderas, or Flags, Bay) provides shelter from storms at sea and has been attracting outsiders since the 16th century. Pirates and explorers paused here to relax -- or maybe plunder and pillage -- during long trips. Sir Francis Drake apparently stopped here. In the mid-1850s, Don Guadalupe Sánchez Carrillo developed the bay as a port for the silver mines by the Río Cuale. Then it was known as Puerto de Peñas (Rocky Port) and had about 1,500 inhabitants. In 1918 it was made a municipality and renamed for Ignacio L. Vallarta, a governor of Jalisco State. In the 1950s Puerto Vallarta was essentially a hideaway for those in the know -- the wealthy and a few hardy escapists. When it first entered the general public's consciousness, with John Huston's 1964 movie The Night of the Iguana, it was a quiet fishing and farming community. After the movie was released, tourism boomed, and today PV has some 300,000 residents. Airports, hotels, and highways have supplanted palm groves and fishing shacks. About 2 million people visit each year, and from November through April the cobblestone streets are clogged with pedestrians and cars. 5 Reasons to Go to Puerto Vallarta 1. Legendary restaurants: Eat barbecued snapper with your feet in the sand or chateaubriand with a killer ocean view. 2. Adventure and indulgence: Ride a horse, mountain bike or go four-wheeling into the mountains, dive into the sea, and relax at an elegant spa -- all in one day. 3. Natural beauty: Enjoy the physical beauty of Pacific Mexico's prettiest resort town, with cobblestone streets to climb to emerald green hills, and the big, sparkling bay below. 4. Authentic art: PV's artists and artisans -- from Huichol Indians to expats -- produce a huge diversity of exceptional folk treasures and fine art. 5. Diverse nightlife: Whether you're old, young, gay, straight, mild, or wild, PV's casual and unpretentious party scene has something to entice you after dark.