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If your vacation budget doesn’t allow staying in one of the big full-service resort hotels, you’ll find that it’s easy to enjoy the paradise of Vallarta. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to experience the REAL Mexico that many tourists miss!

Lodging is one of the biggest budget-breakers, but there are plenty of inexpensive accommodations here for people who believe a room is for sleeping and the remaining hours are for exploring the area. The majority of these bargains are found in the area known as Viejo Vallarta (‘Old Town’) south of the Cuale River. In the ten square blocks bounded by Insurgentes, Jacarandas, Basilio Badillo, and the River (see map below) are over a dozen smaller hotels with clean rooms, private baths, and rates starting as low as $20 (usd) per night. You’ll find that you’re only a few blocks from the beach, and in the middle of lots of activity.

Getting completely out of the city is another alternative if you’re primary goal is peace and quiet. Punta Mita is at the North tip of the bay, and while the luxurious Four Seasons Resort occupies the actual point, the town itself is a fairly sleepy town with miles of incredible beaches, good surfing, multiple opportunities for fishing and snorkeling, and LOTS of time and space for simple relaxation. There are a couple small hotels here, and several vacation-rental apartments. Posada Paraiso is a cute Bed-and-Breakfast with private casitas, a lush garden, and large common living room and kitchen, all just a couple blocks from the beach. Getting to Punta Mita by bus is inexpensive (about $2 (usd)) per person, one way, and takes about an hour.

Which brings us to transportation expenses. Vallarta, like most Mexican towns and cities, has an extensive, effective, and inexpensive bus system. Taxis are not expensive compared to U:S. standards…a ride from one end of town to the other might only be about $7 or $8 (usd). But bus fares for most ‘local’ rides are just 4-1/2 pesos (about 42 cents, usd), and can take you nearly anywhere in the city. A worthwhile budget city tour involves just getting on a bus (ANY bus), paying your fare, and sitting back to enjoy the sights along the way. You’ll see neighborhoods and authentic Mexican lifestyles that most tourists miss. You may even be entertained along the way by bus-riding musicians who will belt out a few songs with the hope of a few pesos from the passengers. When you get to the end of the line, simply pay the fare again, and enjoy the trip back in reverse order.

Nearly all the local buses initiate and terminate their runs from Viejo Vallarta, and make their ‘turn-around’ at the East side of Cardenas Park, just a block from the beach. Buses marked “El Centro” travel directly through the downtown area, while buses marked “Tunel” (‘Tunnel’) by-pass the downtown area via Basilio Badillo and a trip up the hill to the East of the city and through a tunnel in the mountains above it. Each bus has a sign on the windshield identifying its destination neighborhood, and written on the windshield are major landmarks passed along the way, such as names of hotels (or simply ‘Zona Hoteles’, meaning the Hotel Zone), large stores, schools, etc. If you have a specific destination and aren’t sure which bus to take, your best bet is to ask on the street at the terminus, Cardenas Park.

On the subject of eating, you’ll find that most of the ‘tourist’ restaurants charge ‘tourist’ prices, and while you’ll certainly want to try to include a few in your budget, you can save a lot of money by eating like the locals do. Again, get off the beaten tourist track, and look for where the locals are eating.

Many small cafes offer ‘desayuno economico’ (economical breakfast), ranging from 20 to 35 pesos (about $2-3.50 usd), which will include eggs, tortillas, beans, and coffee. Restaurant La Tia, next to the Hotel Eloise in Viejo Vallarta, is an excellent example, and it’s only ½ block to the beach. Try the chillaquiles, tortillas cooked in a mildly-spicy sauce and sprinkled with cheese, served with eggs, beans, and coffee. Another 20-peos 'desayuno economico' can be found at the Hotel Gilmore, on Madero just east of Insurgentes.

The economical choice for lunch is the typical “Comida Corida”. Remember that Mexicans typically have their biggest meal in the afternoon, usually after about 2pm. Look for the comida corida signs and you’ll find your choice of 3 or 4 main dishes served with beans, vegetables, rice, tortillas, soup or salad, and ‘agua fresca’, a tall glass of delicious fruit juice-flavored ice water. The selection of main dishes will likely include one each of chicken, beer or pork, or fish, and it’s usually served from a buffet-like steam table so you can take a look at each one before deciding. Only 35 to 40 pesos (about $3.50 - $4.00 usd) is a common price for this very filling meal. Again, La Tia is a good choice, but there are many options.

One of the better lunch bargains in town is at a tiny bar and restaurant called "Monchi's", just west of Vallarta Street on Carranza. The daily lunch is usually just 25 pesos, and it might be anything from spaghetti to enchiladas, whatever the staff decides they want to eat that day. Perhaps the best deal in town!

As you wander the city, you will find food carts in almost every neighborhood, but especially in Viejo Vallarta. Eating fresh-made tacos, enchiladas, or quesadillas on the street is a way of life here for dinner, lunch, or snacks…and an economical choice as well. Again, look for where the locals are eating…they’ve probably tried many different carts and have decided this one is the best. If your knowledge of the language isn’t quite perfect, don’t worry. Hold up 3 fingers, point to which type of meat you want on the grill, and you’ll get three perfect, fresh tacos.

We’re aware of many guidebooks that advise against eating from the food carts on the basis of health and sanitation reasons, but feel that their views are a tad over paranoid. All the carts are regularly inspected for sanitation, and carts serving poor quality food don’t stay in business long. There are a few things you might want to do if you’re concerned. Squeeze some lime (“limon”) on your tacos before eating them…every cart has limes, and the juice is a natural anti-bacterial, and adds a flavorful ‘zing’ to your food. Also, if your stomach tends to be sensitive, take some Pepto-Bismal before your meal. Finally, most stomach problems aren’t from the food itself, but rather the excessive use of spicy sauces the diner is not familiar with. You can ask in advance which sauces are spicy/not spicy by pointing and asking: “Picante?” or “No picante?”

Another favorite breakfast or snack for the budget traveler is the fruit cart, where you can buy plastic cups filled with fresh sliced melon, papaya, coconut, pineapple, watermelon, etc. Usually about 10 pesos ($1 usd), this is a very healthy and tasty deal. One very popular cart is Alejandro's at the corner of Madero and Insurgentes in Viejo Vallarta.

Beer and cocktail prices vary widely, primarily depending on the location and corresponding rents the bar or restaurant needs to cover. Four notable good values for the beer drinker are: Los Burros Bar, at the end of Cardenas Street (right on the beach!); Cactus, at the corner of Cardenas and I.L. Vallarta (Good pool table, jukebox, live music, and people-watching); El Torito at the corner of I.L. Vallarta and Carranza (big sports-themed bar with dozens of televisions), and La Escondida next to the Hotel Villa del Mar at the corner of Jacarandas and Fco. I Madero (Nice friendly ‘neighborhood’ bar with good jukeboxes and televised sports…ice-cold beer just 12 lousy pesos!).

Finally for the budget traveler, you’ll want to bring some things home to remember your trip by, and Vallarta has lots of beautiful shops filled with hand-crafted treasures. Prices tend to be lower south of the Cuale River in Viejo Vallarta, and there you’ll find nearly anything you could think of and lots of things you had no idea existed. If a store’s wares have marked prices, then generally these are ‘fixed’ prices. It won’t hurt to ask about a lower price though, especially if you are buying several items. If prices are not marked, then it’s time to begin the game of bargaining. This can be one of the most enjoyable parts of shopping for some people, and for the Mexican shop-keeper, it’s an enjoyable tradition.

Here’s how it works: You start admiring an object, and the shop-keeper asks you if you like it. You ask how much it costs, and he replies that it is 200 pesos. At this point you tell him that this is far too much money, and he replies by explaining about the fine quality of the item, how many days it took the craftsman to create this piece of art, and then asks how much you want to pay. You suggest that you might like to take it home with you if it were 75 pesos. He laughs and tells you that this is simply not possible, as he has children to feed, but allows that he could bring his price down to 180 pesos. You in turn offer to pay 100 pesos, and on and on.

This can, if you like, go on for quite some time, until you reach a price at which you can both agree. Or, you can simply put the item back on the shelf at any time and say that it’s just more than you can afford. Be aware that the shopkeeper may, as you are leaving the store, agree finally to sell it to you at your last-offered price (which you are rather obligated to now accept), but to “please don’t tell anybody else”. This can be a way for both of you to save face and complete the transaction. This is the way business is and has been done in Mexico for years and years, and how friends are made as well!

www.VallartaSource.com - your ONE source for EVERYTHING Vallarta!