There is a Latin American saying that is particularly popular in Mexico around vacation time, “En el mar la vida es más sabrosa” or life tastes better in the sea (or at the beach). When people in Guadalajara use the saying they are probably talking about Puerto Vallarta. Guadalajara is the capital of the State of Jalisco and Puerto Vallarta is Jalisco’s principal beach destination.
Getting from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta can be a little time-consuming. Manzanillo and San Blas are actually closer to Guadalajara but there is no comparison. Puerto Vallarta is worth the extra hour you are going to spend on the road to get there.
Ever since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shacked up here in the 1960’s Puerto Vallarta has been the epitome of cool. From the isolated beaches of Mismaloya to the restaurants and nightclubs on the boardwalk, there is something for everyone. Old Town Puerto Vallarta still preserves that retro, mid-century Mexican magic that lets you step back in time.
Getting from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta
Essentially it breaks down to three options for getting from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta: fly, take the bus or drive. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
We prefer to drive because we like to have the car in Puerto Vallarta to move about as we please. If the surf is firing I may want to drive up to Punta Mita or Sayulita for a day trip. I like to stay just south of Puerto Vallarta in Conchas Chinas, Playa Gemelas, or Mismaloya and having a car makes transportation a little easier.
The drive from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta is pretty long. Taking the bus is very comfortable with big plush seats and airconditioning the entire way. I have no problems sleeping on the bus, especially the luxury busses, and five hours is over in an instant.
Some close friends came down last year and they had three kids with them. When I mentioned the bus they said there was no way in hell that they were going to manage three kids on the bus for five hours and insisted on flying. The flight is 45 minutes rather than five hours. Even when you add up the check-in, security and boarding lines, flying gets you there quicker, and your kids are much happier.
Driving from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta
There are two options when it comes to driving to Puerto Vallarta (three actually but I am not going to talk about coming in from the south by way of Manzanillo and Barra de Navidad). You can take the freeway or you can take the highway. The freeway is not complete yet but the half that is complete makes the drive much faster than taking the old mountain highway.
Toll Freeway vs. Free Highway
There is a major difference between the free roads and the toll roads in Mexico. First off, the toll roads are in much better condition than the free roads are. The number of potholes and speed bumps along the free roads is staggering.
The toll freeway is usually four lanes (two lanes in each direction) with an emergency shoulder and a center divider. The free road or free highways do not have those luxuries. You need to drive very carefully on the free roads because there are a lot of hidden dangers. You never know when you are going to come around a corner and see a flock of goats taking up most of your lane.
Expect to drive much slower on the free highways than on the toll freeways. The highway usually goes through the downtown of each pueblo and hits traffic, while the toll freeways now go around the pueblos, thus skipping rush hour traffic. However, the scenery on free highways is usually much more enjoyable.
The Toll Freeway From Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta
5 hours (much longer when there is traffic)
~$500 pesos in tolls from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta
The freeway heads out to Nayarit, arches over to the coast, and comes into the Bay of Banderas from the north. There is another section of freeway that is scheduled to be completed very soon but there is still a lot of sinuous two-lane-highway driving from Compostela all the way into Puerto Vallarta.
Leaving Guadalajara the landscapes are all agave fields and lush, high-altitude forest with some large cacti. You will pass two extinct volcanos and beautiful scenery as you descend from the highlands.
Just before you get to Jala, Nayarit, there is a turn-off for Compostela and the beach. Jala, Nayarit is a little out of the way but the town has Pueblo Magico status and they have a great corn festival every year in August. If you need to get gas or use the bathroom, it is worth cruising the downtown to take a photo. The mountain above the town is especially striking after the rains when everything is electric green.
The new toll highway runs from Jala to Compostela. As you get close to Compostela the toll freeway ends and you have to get back on the free highway (Sept 2019). There is another section of toll freeway is almost done (Compostela to Las Varas) but nobody knows when it will actually be completed. It is already two years behind schedule.
I am very excited about the completion of the section of toll freeway that runs from Compostela to Las Varas. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous section of the free highway because of the mountainous curves. Doing 10 mph behind a big-rig truck is excruciating, but passing big trucks on a two-lane highway is nerve-wracking. The new section of the freeway is going to save a lot of time getting to the beach and make the drive much safer.
The new toll freeway will eventually run all the way from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, but we are still many years away from the final completion of that project.
The Free Road to Puerto Vallarta by way of Mascota and San Sebastian del Oeste
The slowest yet most beautiful way to get from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta is to take the old highway through Mascota and San Sebastian del Oeste. The highway is slow, mountainous, and curvy but has spectacular scenery. There are three Pueblos Magicos along the way and you are going to want to stop and visit at least one.
Taking the Bus to Puerto Vallarta
In my opinion, taking the bus to Puerto Vallarta is the best way to go. It is cheap, comfortable, and the busses leave 24 hours a day. Guadalajara has several bus stops but the best places to catch a bus to Puerto Vallarta are the two terminals in Zapopon on Avenida Vallarta and Avenida Aviación. The two terminals are 100 yards/meters apart. They both have busses going to Puerto Vallarta almost every hour of the day.
Terminal Vallarta Plus, Tequila, and Tepic
The Vallarta Plus terminal serves Puerto Vallarta, Tequila and Tepic with busses leaving just about every hour. The bus from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta costs $585 pesos (9/13/2019) and usually takes five hours.
The busses are very clean and have men’s and women’s restrooms.
Most of the year you do not need a reservation. During the holidays you will need to make a reservation well in advance. Honestly, you don’t want anything to do with Puerto Vallarta during Semana Santa. It is a zoo.
Vallarta Plus runs a free shuttle from the Glorieta Minerva to the Zapopan Bus Station. It is extremely cost-effective to take this shuttle because the Uber ride is probably going to cost you $100 pesos or more.
Terminal ETN and Primera Plus
The Terminal de Autobuses Nuevo Milenio de Zapopan is literally 100 meters/yards from the Vallarta Plus Terminal, crossing Avenida Aviación. This bus station is a little bit bigger with different operations and destinations.
Primera Plus and ETN are considered to be the ‘luxury’ bus lines and cost a hair more than Vallarta Plus. The seats are so well padded they feel like Lazy Boy recliners.
The busses leave for Puerto Vallarta just about every hour. If you buy your ticket from Primera Plus at the bus station it will cost you $650 pesos. If you buy your ticket online it will cost you $585 pesos (9/13/2019).
The bus has more departures than the airlines do.
Flying From Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta
There are plenty of flights from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta but not all of them are direct. The major airlines add a layover in Mexico City which makes the flight time similar to taking the bus. Look for direct flights so you can enjoy the beach rather than a Starbucks in the Mexico City Airport.
The airline with the most direct flights from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta is called AeroMar and they operate a fleet of turboprop airplanes, as opposed to jet engines. The planes are smaller than planes that most people are used to.
AeroMar has been operating since the 1980s, mostly local routes around Mexico City. The AeroMar fleet has a better on-time record than the big international airlines and operates with a smaller carbon footprint.
It is going to cost somewhere between $1000 and $2000 pesos to fly from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta for most of the year. The price is going to skyrocket during Semana Santa and Christmas holidays.
No matter how you decide to get to Puerto Vallarta, you will enjoy your time there. I am a member of a number of expat in Mexico groups and the Puerto Vallarta group is particularly rewarding. The amount of love that people have for this place reminds me of Hawaii. I like hearing stories of parents taking their kids, those kids growing up, and taking their kids. Puerto Vallarta is a very special place.
I am very excited because I will be there next week introducing my one-year-old son to Puerto Vallarta for the first time. Let’s hope this kid likes the beach enough to withstand a 5-hour drive. There is going to be some surf a couple of those days and I will need the car to get to the north shore of the Banderas Bay.