This article narrates our experiences staying in Puerto Vallarta during five weeks of fall 2020. Our trip was planned and kicked off before the third wave of Coronavirus hit the United States. We want to share our experiences in Mexico with the hope that you will find it interesting and informative.
At the outset, let me state that we are and have been avid covid prevention stalwarts. We haven't left our home and backyard since March, except for buying groceries or meeting one or two friends or neighbors for socially regulated outdoor dinners. We passed on invitations to family weddings and funerals of loved ones. We kept in mind mask wearing and social distancing, hand washing and all of the recommendations. An annual health check and in-person voting seemed like a trip to the moon after a summer at home.
It was probably this strict adherence to the lockdown, combined with stress over the election and fatigue from the politics of the day, that got us to our knees. We consulted with our family doctor and, at a very vulnerable moment in late August, we decided to book our flight to Mexico, the only country accepting tourists from the US at that time, way before the US was hammered with its third brutal wave of Covid-19.
There was a lot of hand-wringing after taking the plunge and buying our tickets. As an extra layer of security we upgraded to business class for peace of mind. We watched videos on YouTube about travel in Puerto Vallarta during the pandemic, weighing the decision of which neighborhood to stay in. As the date of travel started approaching, we booked our apartment on Airbnb, deciding it would be safer from a COVID perspective in the hotel zone rather than the romantic zone. In retrospect, this was a great decision for us and we are happy with our choice.
We left the US for Puerto Vallarta on the morning of Halloween. O'Hare Airport was almost empty and there was no wait at security and immigration. We breezed through and reached our gate in less than 15 mins. On our way, we noticed that the food court in terminal 3 was surprisingly busy. We hadn't seen large groups of people for a long time. This and the fact that some were not wearing masks caused us to make the call to skip our morning coffee. We headed right to the gate and carefully had a quick bite from the sandwiches and snacks we had packed.
The American Airlines boarding process felt reassuringly safe, with every passenger wearing at least one mouth covering. Our plane was almost full except for the middle seats. Some of the passengers were enthusiastically getting hammered, elated with the idea of escaping cold weather and the restrictions of lockdown. We were served with alchoholic beverages and some lackluster pre-packed meals (turkey sandwich or fruit and cheese plate) in business class, but the peace of mind was worth it, and after a quick 3.5 hour flight we arrived in sunny Puerto Vallarta.
Arrival in Puerto Vallarta
Once we were on the ground, we quickly deplaned and headed for the immigration line. We were pleasantly surprised to find little if any wait. The agent gave us each a paper with our information on it which we were advised not to lose as it would be necessary to bring back for our return flight. Evidently there is a big fine if lost, so we locked it up as soon as we got to our Airbnb. The whole process took about 15 minutes end to end, during which we were temperature checked multiple times. Stepping out of the terminal to 90 degree heat and dozens of cab drivers trying to get our attention was a little overwhelming, but that was partly due to being in a new place for the first time. Knowing what we know now, I think it would have made sense to have our transportation pre-arranged. Prices to book a car are amazingly cheap.
We quickly got away from the melee to search for an Uber, our bags in tow, unaware that the strong cab lobby in Mexico has made it difficult for them to do airport pickups. We ended up jumping in a cab from the airport to the hotel district, a short 10 minute ride which cost around $150 pesos or $7.00.
Our destination was The Grand Venetian, a collection of three high-rise towers with multiple pools located right on the beach. As with most of the resorts in the area, there was a guarded entry where we presented the paperwork with our names and information given to us by the unit owner. After verifying our info we were sent on to Tower Three, our home away from home for the next few weeks.
We arrived with a few hours to spare before check-in time and had planned on just leaving our bags and coming back, but when we went up to unit the owner was there with the cleaners. She was very kind and helpful, allowing us do a quick change into cooler clothes, and advising us to go enjoy the poolside restaurant while they finished up. We had a quick look around the airbnb and were amazed with the ocean views from the 20th floor before heading downstairs.
Once we were out of our cold weather clothes, we were happy to find the open air cafe/restaurant and adjoining pools mostly empty. Occupancy seemed to be only around 10/20%, and social distancing guidelines were observed fastidiously. The temperature checks, accurate mask wearing, and hand sanitizer availability were impressive.
We felt very comfortable right away, observing that the welcoming staff and patrons were masked and observing safety measures better than in the US. Evidently, the PV mayor had just introduced the "emergency button" -a sort of intensive lockdown- to control spread of covid for two weeks starting the day of our arrival, so the beach was almost empty. The emergency button required beach closure at 3pm and bars/restaurants to close at 8pm. We weren't there to party or bar hop so this suited us just fine.
First two weeks
For the first week we tried to quarantine as much as possible in order to show social responsibility. Working remotely kept us busy much of the time. Having perfect weather- sunny days with highs in 80s during the day and cooler nights in 70s- made it easier. Almost everything was outdoors or open air with very few people around us. Our only indoor activity was grocery shopping, with multiple options within walking distance. We mostly shopped at Soriano's or Chedraui for groceries (10 mins walk) and cooked at home since we had a full kitchen. When we didn't feel like cooking, we felt guilt-free going to the on-site restaurant at the Grand Venetian since it was well managed and fully open air... AND it was very reasonably priced! Although we never tried it they even offered room service.
We chose our pool time carefully, going down when we were most likely to have the pool to ourselves. During weekends when the pool area was busier we stayed away, instead hanging out on our balcony or at the beach which we knew would be mostly empty.
We were located on 20th floor of Tower Three, in a one bedroom unit with two balconies, one on the ocean side for sunsets and the other off the bedroom with a mountain and city view which was great to watch the sunrise in the morning. The ocean side also overlooked a small river opening into the sea where an upscale beach club, Chicabal, is located... we had read many reviews on Airbnb which complained about this place being loud and open late, but Covid definitely spared us as it was mostly closed during our stay.
The next three weeks.
As our return to the States crept closer, the idea of going back was making us more and more uneasy. The news from home was increasingly bleak, with Covid numbers climbing and more severe lockdowns looming large. Friends from home were all saying "Don't come back if you dont have to!" Fortunately, we are digital nomads so we had the flexibility to make it happen. Our only major concern was the availability of quality healthcare in Mexico should we fall sick. But the PROs far outweighed the CONs, so we started looking into possibility of extending our stay.
The first hurdle was cleared after several calls to American Airlines. We ended up being able to change our flights easily with no fee, so no problem there. But then we found that the unit we were staying in was already booked. We were very comfortable with The Grand Venetian in terms of safety and had gotten to know the staff so well that we didn't want to say goodbye. Then we stumbled upon another unit that was available in Tower One (a plus!) that had a better daily rate. We called immediately and were able to go over and see it the next morning. To our surprise, it had much nicer views of the ocean, the pools, and the lights of downtown across the bay at night. To us it seemed to have the perfect mix of the tranquility of the Venetian with front row seats to the events and weddings going on at the resort next door. While there was only one balcony in this unit, this one was larger and more comfortably furnished, almost like a second living room - spacious and very comfortable. We booked it immediately, at first just for a week--- then, after shifting to our new digs, we decided to make it three!
Our host Shelly took us out for lunch and showed us some great local spots a tourist would never find. We fell in love with her place, which she had stocked with every possible thing that you would need. The kitchen was fully equipped, there were plenty of towels and linens, and even supplies for a day at the beach: chairs, an umbrella, and floaties for the pool.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta and the Zona Romantica
Now that we had more time to explore, the first thing on our agenda to explore was old Puerto Vallarta and the Zona Romantica, located about 10 minutes drive south from the hotel zone where we stayed. The Romantic Zone is a like an old bourbon: it takes some time, but it to grows on you... Why? Mainly due to it being more crowded. Especially during the pandemic, if you are a risk averse person like me with high barriers for social activities the Zona Romantica can get a little tricky. Our first visit was poorly timed. We chose a late Saturday morning just after the "emergency button" was lifted and people were ready to step out. As we discovered, weekends can be crazy, the beaches get crowded, the restaurants are busy. It's not that social distancing is completely ignored, but for someone who is observing safety protocols like a religion it can come as a bit of a shock. We soon got overwhelmed and hightailed it back to the our safe zone at The Grand Venetian.
The following week we decided to give it another try, this time on a week day during the lunch hour. The Malecon, a waterside promenade lined with shops and restaurants, was much less chaotic, we practically had it to ourselves. We found a favorite spot, La Chata, a restaurant located on the second level overlooking the Malecon and the sea from tables set on terraces with large open french doors. They had great authentic Mexican food and masked mariachis strolling around taking requests from us and the only other occupied table.
Nightshot of malecon with Christmas lights.
The Zona Romantica is bordered on the north by the river Cuale, with a large island in the middle filled with restaurants and shops selling local arts and crafts and souveniers. We strolled through enjoying the shade and cool breezes from the river before climbing up the stairs to Gringo Gulch. This neighborhood got its name in the early 60's during the filming of the famous movie "The Night of the Iguana". Hollywood luminaries John Huston, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor stayed here, putting the small fishing village of Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination. The beautiful narrow alleys and houses are reminscent of the steep streets of Lisbon. By that time we had walked off our big Mexican lunch and were ready to head to home and the pool. We returned again in the last week to do some shopping for local specialties to take home: artisinal vanilla, tequila and a few art pieces from the local artists.
Sunsets, weddings and entertainment
One of the things we especially enjoyed at our second Airbnb at the Grand Venetian was the almost limitless stream of entertainment we enjoyed just sitting on the balcony. The resort next to us to the south had a variety of shows nightly. We saw fire shows, native dancers, and local musical groups perform. Most weekends we watched with anticipation as they set up elaborate beach weddings, feeling like wedding crashers as we toasted to the bride and groom from the comfort of our sixth floor perch. We happily noted that most of these events were accompanied by some fairy elaborate fireworks! Every day offered a unique and beautiful sunset. In our 5 weeks we only had 2 rainy days, both of them just before leaving.
What Didn't We Do?
Although it might seem like we did a lot, the main things we avoided were tours/sight-seeing and eating at indoor restaurants. We tried not to mix and mingle, keeping to ourselves the whole time and avoiding crowds as much as possible, wearing masks and following protocols along the way. This was easy because at every turn there were temperature checks, hand sanitizer and mats to disinfect shoes. We can't wait to go back when all of this is over to enjoy all the things we missed, but nevertheless this trip was worth the extra effort.
Coming Home Again
December brought with it our first feelings of homesickness. We were finally feeling ready to return back to Chicago and celebrate Christmas in our own home. Continuous rain over the last two days of our stay made it easier for us to say "Hasta luego" to Puerto Vallarta.
We arrived to a deserted airport with plenty of time to spare, so we stopped in at the Amex lounge (also completely empty) and had breakfast before heading to our boarding gate. There were two flights to Chicago, as well as flights heading to Dallas and Houston at that hour. Our flight was probably 20% full in economy and 80% in the business class so on the whole it was very socially distanced.
Once on the ground back in Chicago, O'Hare Airport was a bit of a shock to the system after so long... for some reason that defied all logic they had temporarily discontinued mobile passport lines, leading to long waits at Immigration. While there were markers on the floor six feet apart, no one really used them, and to some extent they were pointless considering the fact that even if you were 6 ft. from the person in front and back, you still were right next to those on either side. No temperature checks or people giving hand sanitizer like we had seen in Mexico. After about 20-30 minutes, we picked up the bags and headed out of the terminals.
We are now on our second day of self quarantine and (knock on wood) symptom free as of yet. We will be ordering all our groceries from Amazon and staying home for 7 to 10 more days before we get back to our "regular" covid life. With the approach of the shortest day of the year, we will keep sunny Puerto Vallarta in mind to brighten our cold winter days until we can return again.