Puerto Vallarta’s Centro
Without a doubt, the heart and soul of Puerto Vallarta can be found in its downtown area, El Centro. In fact, no visit to Puerto Vallarta would be complete without thoroughly exploring the broad diversity of cultural, gastronomic, historic and entertainment options available here. This is where the action is, a sensory and cultural feast never to be forgotten. Eclectic and bohemian in feel with world-class offerings, its dining and art scenes are extraordinary, the nightlife abundant, no visit here complete without a stroll and people-watching session on the popular oceanfront Malecon. Dotted with fascinating monumental public art, one side is lined with intriguing shops, restaurants, and bars, a gorgeous bay vista on the other. The local color here so rich it’s absorbed by osmosis, performances of all stripes take place here every evening, spectacular events frequent at the Los Arcos outdoor amphitheater across from the main plaza — all free of charge. El Centro’s narrow cobblestone streets are great fun and can be challenging to navigate, especially those running east to west up the mountainside in the El Cerro and Gringo Gulch neighborhoods — the latter where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton lived.
El Centro’s southern border is the Rio Cuale river, which splits downtown Vallarta in two, creating the two unique communities of El Centro and, well… there are so many names for the south side of the Cuale River but we refer to it here as Emiliano Zapata. As the Cuale river makes it way into the downtown region it forks, creating the tiny island of Isla Rio Cuale, which offers a flea market, restaurants and shops as well as an interesting museum, an active cultural center, and relaxing green spaces.
El Centro can be easily accessed from points north and south of Puerto Vallarta. Unless you drive through the Libramiento (or overpass), it is impossible to cross the city without passing through El Centro. Street parking is available, although your best bet is to park your vehicle in one of the two parking lots available in the area—the underground parking garage at Parque Hidalgo on the north end, and the Benito Juárez parking lot right before Isla Río Cuale on the north end—and walk to your destination. Public transportation and taxi cabs are readily available, should you prefer to take a short ride within the area. Strolling leisurely from one end of El Centro to the other should take you less than an hour.
Neighborhoods & Neighboring Regions
The area we refer to as El Centro begins right after the Hotel Zone, as you are heading into town from points north. In fact, you know you’ve arrived once the pavement on Francisco Medina Ascencio, Puerto Vallarta’s main thruway, has been replaced by brick roads and cobblestones. It is divided into several colonias, or neighborhoods, one of which is, in fact called El Centro.
As you arrive from points north, you will find yourself in Colonia 5 de Diciembre. Several medium-sized hotels and Teatro Vallarta, the city’s largest dedicated indoor performance space, are located here. Colonia El Centro begins at the city’s historic Malecón and continues south until reaching Isla Río Cuale, a small island accessible by foot that separates El Centro from Colonia Emiliano Zapata further south. East of El Centro, several pedestrian-only stepped streets lead to Colonias El Cerro and Gringo Gulch. Along with Isla Río Cuale, they are delightful to explore by foot.
This exciting district of Puerto Vallarta, is frequently known as either Olas Altas, Romantic Zone, Basilio Badillo, South Side or Old Town. These are, in fact, names of well-known streets and areas in one of Puerto Vallarta’s most happening colonias, or neighborhoods: Emiliano Zapata. And even though the name of a leading figure in Mexico’s 1910 revolution doesn’t have as much allure as some of these other unofficial monickers, we are partial to it, as it is its official name.
An entire city within a city, Emiliano Zapata comprises a 9 x 9-block grid south of the Rio Cuale, waiting to be explored. It encompasses all the areas and streets mentioned above, along with many others. From elementary schools to universities, 24/7 drugstores to hospitals, humble abodes to regrettable high-rises, Emiliano Zapata is as multifaceted as it gets.
Even entering the colonia from points north along I. Vallarta is bound to give you a small thrill if you pay close attention. As the road nears the Isla Rio Cuale bridge, Emiliano Zapata’s northern boundary, it turns and rises, revealing one of the colonia’s busiest thoroughfares, along with the gorgeous Conchas Chinas hills as a backdrop limiting its southern edge. As you descend from the bridge, the topes, or speed bumps, serve a dual purpose, slowing down both your vehicle and your mindset.
Although dynamic and cosmopolitan, enough of Old Vallarta remains in Emiliano Zapata’s soul to encourage you to relax your pace. The Cuale river wraps around Emiliano Zapata and, along with the small Libramiento tunnel, serves as its eastern boundary. On the opposite end, it meets Los Muertos, Puerto Vallarta’s most popular beach.
As urban development progresses north and south of Puerto Vallarta, Emiliano Zapata’s privileged terrain has sheltered it from excessive expansion, for the most part, making this colonia a must-see for anybody visiting Puerto Vallarta for the first time. And for residents and seasoned visitors, a walk through its cobblestoned roads is a perfect way to rejoice and remember the fact that this is, after all, as typical as Mexican neighborhoods get.
Emiliano Zapata is easily accessible from points north of the city. Simply proceed along Francisco Medina Ascencio, Puerto Vallarta’s principal access road, and continue onward. The road will change names as it enters colonia 5 de Diciembre and El Centro, until becoming I. Vallarta, once you cross the Isla Rio Cuale bridge. South of Emiliano Zapata, Carr. 200 Sur continues south toward the South Shore and points beyond, such that anybody driving to Puerto Vallarta along this highway will inevitably pass through Emiliano Zapata.
Public parking is available throughout the entire colonia, and an underground parking lot located at Plaza Lázaro Cárdenas, provides centrally-located access to many of Emiliano Zapata’s attractions.
Emiliano Zapata is well connected as far as public transportation goes, and taxis are very familiar with its streets, as they are home to some of the city’s most popular restaurants, shops and art galleries.
And for folks interested in exploring South Shore destinations such as Mismaloya, Boca de Tomatlán and El Tuito, or landmarks such as the Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens, Emiliano Zapata is the gateway for public transportation companies with routes to these locations. (For points in Costalegre, beyond El Tuito, there are bus companies that depart from Puerto Vallarta’s Bus Terminal.)
Water taxis that serve South Shore destinations only accessible by boat, such as Las Animas, Quimixto, Caletas, or Yelapa, also depart from Emiliano Zapata, at the Los Muertos Pier, presently under construction.
Neighborhoods & Neighboring Regions
Emiliano Zapata is flanked on its northern edge by the Isla Río Cuale, the ocean (Los Muertos Beach) on the west, the Conchas Chinas and Amapas neighborhoods on the south, and the El Caloso neighborhood on the east.
Popular neighborhoods within Emilano Zapata include Olas Altas Street, home to many shops, restaurants and coffee shops with outdoor seating on the sidewalks, making them popular destinations to browse the internet, watch people walk by, and enjoy a nice latte, all at the same time. In fact, Olas Altas’ bustling outdoor cafe scene is the only place in town where you can purchase fine jewelry, find a hot date, sing and dance your heart out, and ride a real donkey, all on the same block.
Basilio Badillo Street is home to more restaurants, art galleries and shops. And thanks to the Puerto Vallarta Garden Club, a local non-profit, its recently-widened sidewalks have been graced with attractive planters, making the area visually stunning. Basilio Badillo is also home to the Southside Shuffle (see above).
Isla Rio Cuale, located between Emiliano Zapata and El Centro, is a destination of its own, one of Puerto Vallarta’s verdant oasis. It stretches several blocks inland from the ocean, is accessible by foot at several access points along the way (including some suspension bridges worth tackling) and features a few restaurants, an outdoor artisan market featuring mexican artifacts, and is also home to Puerto Vallarta’s Cultural Center on its easternmost area.
Puerto Vallarta Old Town Photos
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