This is the final installment of my Puerto Vallarta trip report (see also Planning a Vacation to an All-inclusive with the Help of Miles and Points, Las Caletas: Monkeys, Hammocks, Zip Lines and the Perfect Beach, Have I Turned Into a Beach Snob?, Now Amber Resort Review Part 1, Now Amber Resort Review Part 2).
Prior to arriving in Puerto Vallarta, we had only booked one excursion outside of our resort. I decided this would be the trip we would get in the water with a sea lion or dolphin.
Swimming with dolphins is a very popular cruise ship excursion, and everyone I’ve talked to who has done it just raves about the experience. The reason my family has never done it is the cost.
The lowest price I’ve seen for the dolphin encounter on our cruise is over $100 per person. Combined with the price of a Disney Cruise, that’s a lot for a family of five. However, I figured this trip would be a great time to splurge on this experience since most of the rest of our trip was covered by miles and points.
I talked to my kids about our options and showed them videos on YouTube. I let them vote on a sea lion or dolphin encounter. Two out of three picked a sea lion, so that’s what we booked. Based on TripAdvisor reviews, I picked Vallarta Adventures for the experience and was able to book online for 50% off. The cost was only $40 per person.
We took a taxi to Vallarta Adventures in Nuevo Vallarta. It cost around $10 each way and took less than 30 minutes. After we checked in, we got on a boat and took a two-minute ride down a canal to the sea lion place.
Before we got into the water with our sea lion, we were briefed on safety, sea lion anatomy, how water pollution affects them, the company’s rescue efforts, etc.
The pool was cold! There was only one other couple in our group, for a total of seven people.
My daughter wasn’t quite tall enough to stand on the platform in the water, so she got a life jacket. She was also the only one of us who wasn’t quite comfortable around the sea lion.
Our sea lion was named Shannon, and she was a rescue. She was much bigger than I envisioned!
She was quite a character. Her facial expressions were hilarious. She was just like a puppy dog.
The entire time, our guide was telling us about what she eats, how much she weighs, etc. The experience was more educational than I expected.
Our actual time in the pool with Shannon was short, only 30-45 minutes. But it was totally worth the price!
Next, we took the boat back to the main area. We were offered 50% off a dolphin encounter if we wanted to add that on to our day. My son overheard that and started screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” How could I say no? It cost us $45 per person additional for the dolphin encounter. I figured we might not have the opportunity to do something like this again soon (although my husband swears that I will try to sneak in another Disney Cruise sometime in the next few years).
While we waited about an hour for our dolphin encounter, we were entertained with all of the animals roaming around the place. There were many iguanas, so many in fact that we had to watch where we stepped or we would accidentally step on one.
We also had the opportunity to hold a monkey and have parrots sit on our shoulders. We could observe the dolphins in the deep pool through a glass window while we waited for our turn.
Soon enough, it was time for our dolphin encounter. Based on my daughter’s age, we did the encounter (instead of swimming with the dolphins). Everyone had to wear life vests for this experience because the pool was very deep.
My family of five got to have a trainer and a few dolphins all to ourselves. Before we got into the water, we gathered as a large group to review safety and conservation efforts.
For this experience, we got to touch the dolphins, pose for photos and try out hand signals. The entire time, our trainer was educating us about each dolphin, and we learned a lot.
For $85 per person all-in, we got to experience both a sea lion and dolphins. I thought it was a great value, and something we won’t soon forget.
However, the photos and videos were the expensive part, and I was prepared for that based on reviews. The place didn’t allow any cameras in or around the water, so the company can charge whatever it wants for photos. I paid around $250 for all photos and videos for the day. We got 149 pictures and 4 videos. I tried hard to negotiate, but in the end the price remained the same except I got 4 printed photos included in the price.
So which experience would we recommend, the sea lion or dolphin encounter? My family unanimously agreed that we liked the sea lion encounter a little better. Those sea lions just have so much personality!
On our last full day in Puerto Vallarta, we took a taxi to the Malecón (paved walkway in downtown near the ocean). It was a short taxi ride from our hotel, only $5 each way.
(Side note on taxis in Puerto Vallarta—none of them have meters and I’m not sure how they decide how much the rates will be. We always asked our hotel staff how much it would be before we got in, and they were always right. Also, we squished four in the back seat since vans were hard to find).
The Malecón was so pretty and fairly empty on a weekday afternoon. There were shops and restaurants on one side and the ocean and sculptures on the other side. The downtown area near the Malecón was full of boutique hotels.
As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, we were swarmed by vendors. It was overwhelming and a little scary for my youngest. We agreed to have my daughter’s hair braided, and then we started walking to see the shops.
There were a lot of fun bars and restaurants, both chains and local ones. I bet this is a happening night spot. (We wouldn’t know—we have kids!)
Lots of interesting things to see! So colorful!
We bought a few souvenirs in a shop, and then we walked along the ocean. Every few feet there were sculptures.
There were also a few interesting things in the sand.
The Malecón area was very scenic and laid back (except for the initial surge of vendors when we got out of the taxi). We wished that we would have gone there earlier in our trip.
Cruise Ship Excursion Recommendations
If you are going on a cruise that stops in Puerto Vallarta, I don’t recommend just browsing around the port area. There isn’t much of anything there, and if that’s your only impression of Puerto Vallarta you will be sorely disappointed. There is a WalMart across the street, and I see that some people call the city Puerto VaWalMart on cruise message boards. Such a shame, because the city has so much to offer if you leave the port area!
Some cruise lines will let you book Las Caletas. Do it! It’s beautiful and a tremendous value.
If you want to have a dolphin or sea lion encounter, I suggest you book it on your own on the Vallarta Adventures website for 50% off and just take a taxi there from the port. It will be a lot cheaper than booking it through the cruise line.
Check out these other cool excursions from Vallarta Adventures. At the very least, take a taxi to the Malecón to see the beautiful sculptures by the ocean.
Final Thoughts on Puerto Vallarta
Every single person we encountered on our trip was friendly. The hotel staff, taxi drivers, downtown shop owners, etc.
In fact, the airport personnel might have been the friendliest of all. When we went to the airport to fly back to Dallas, I was shocked at how friendly they were. Every security officer and airline employee told us, “Thank you for visiting our city! We hope you will come back!” And they meant it.
Puerto Vallarta has some great views. The mountains as a backdrop are spectacular. Can’t beat the evening sunsets over the water.
I’m glad we had the chance to spend 6 days in a foreign country (as opposed to a few hours on a cruise ship stop). Learning a little Spanish was good for my kids, and they were stretched out of their comfort zone a little bit.
For my family in particular, I feel a cruise vacation is a better fit for us because of all the teen programming. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Puerto Vallarta, especially if we can fly for 7500 British Airways Avios each way from Dallas!
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Nancy is a contributing writer for Miles For Family. She enjoys traveling to the beach and is a big fan of Disney. Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids.