Puerto Vallarta is a fabulous city filled with haute cuisine, designer shopping, hillside cityscapes and breathtaking beaches, but the real magic is in the hidden details. To truly get to know a place and its people, one must take a walk and absorb the sights and sounds of life around them. For a rich source of history, art and culture, a visit to the Isla Cuale or Cuale Island is in order, and the only way to explore it is on two feet!
The Cuale River splits in half to circumvent two large islands in the middle of the city defining the distinct styles of Puerto Vallarta as it divides Old Town (or the Romantic Zone) from Centro. The two halves of the city are completely different, each offering a unique flavor and pace.
As a silent mediator between the two, the islands sit quietly tucked between rushing waters and lush gardens. Children, couples and individuals stroll the manicured walkways in this city park filled with music, artisanal crafts, quiet dining and community events. It’s also a welcome break from the sun and noise of the city on either side.
Adding to the charm, are the wood planked, suspension bridges that cross at various points from the islands back to the streets. These too are well maintained and provide considerable entertainment to jumping kids and wary dogs. It is a rare opportunity to walk over a riverbed on an old-school swinging bridge under a canopy of tropical trees.
When you explore the islands, take your time on each one for they offer something different.
The eastern island, nestled in the hills, is more intimate and bears the marks of time. You will see lovers on benches, colorful street art, weathered statues and a tall staircase in green and yellow tiles designed to resemble an iguana’s tail headed up into classic homes on cobbled streets. Also, be on the lookout for the many cats peering from windows and trees. This island has affectionately become a cat sanctuary where they are fed and loved by several organizations and the locals of the area. You may see painters at the community center or teenagers practicing a choreographed dance for a quinceañera, a young lady’s coming of age party. You can stop and have a glass of wine at one of the quaint river bistros and watch as people stroll down lit walkways in the evenings.
The second island features colorful stalls filled with local art, knick-knacks, clothes and souvenirs. The vendors can be seen setting up early in the mornings, and they stay all day selling their wares. A simple “no gracias” will often suffice but be patient with their attempts. This is their livelihood. They are accustomed to haggling and expect it, so if you see something you like, it’s worth getting a price that is fair for everyone. Once you leave the vendors, you will see a couple of elegant restaurants and a pizza bar that offer tranquil views and tasty fare.
At the end of the island, a set of stairs takes you up to the Malecon or boardwalk where you can choose to go right to the bustling sounds of street performers, food carts and beach front establishments or left as it comes to an end in the Lazaro Cardenas Plaza. Either way the walk will have been a perfect exploration of the old world hidden within the new.