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Travelling to Puerto Vallarta: Curiosity and adventure will serve you well in this Mexican city. Back: The BCBusiness Guide to World Travel

Travel away from the bright lights and big noise to discover an authenic Puerto Vallarta.

The highway into Puerto Vallarta plays out like a Mexican version of a Richard Scarry storybook – a flash-card flip deck of dazed street dogs, brass-buttoned police, square white buildings and children in school uniforms. Tourists pass a parade of giant American landmarks – a Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Costco and a fading Chuck E. Cheese’s – that seem slightly incongruous for anyone expecting mango groves and terracotta roofs. But this is Mexico, land of contradictions, and beneath the corporate facade of Puerto Vallarta lies a fierce local culture that thrives amidst sprawling development. It’s still small enough to explore by foot in a day, and the Pacific town’s mojo has everything to do with its remarkable natural landscape. Cobblestone streets zigzag past churches and cigar shops in the historic zona comercial, while the hills above downtown slide out of the surrounding Sierra de Cuale range and run belly first toward the placid Banderas Bay. The hills are dotted these days with pink and white colonial palaces, owned by the quasi-retired U.S. and Canadian expats who have been flocking here for decades – lured by the sun and sea, yes, but also by the enduringly cheap Mexican peso.

Weather  Other than the rainy season (mid-June to mid-October), expect sun and plus-27-degree-Celsius days.

Can’t Miss  The drag shows at Rancho Pacos, one of Puerto Vallarta’s most popular gay clubs. club-pacopaco.com

Cool Eats  River Cafe, under the bridge on the banks of the Rio Cuale, serves up international and Mexican cuisine ($8 to $14) with a side of live evening jazz.

Best Bed  For a comfortable room in the middle of vibrant Playa los Muertos, try Hotel San Marino, with its panoramic views. hotelsanmarino.com

In the pre-1960 era, Puerto Vallarta was a town that slept under a spell of fishnets, lobster traps and little else; its sunlit shoreline was unfamiliar to outsiders. Everything changed in 1963 when playwright Tennessee Williams and director John Huston used its southern reaches, called Mismaloya, as the setting for The Night of the Iguana, a film starring Hollywood icons Ava Gardner and Richard Burton. Soon the tourists started coming in droves, Puerto Vallarta’s population exploded – from 55,000 in 1980 to 350,000 in 2008 – and the whole idea of what it meant to be a “local” changed forever. Just past Puerto Vallarta’s waterfront Malecón – the boardwalk stroll where businesses and restaurants are tricked out and jacked up like circus ponies for the tourist trade – a town-within-a-town ekes out a less frivolous existence. Walk eight bocks east of the smooth-talking vendors and parrot-coloured jewelry stalls to the Emiliano Zapata Market, parked next to a crumbling brick building held together by vines, gum and luck. There you’ll find towers of limes, cukes and melons slung from worn wooden crates, as well as big-bottomed abuelas hustling over dried chiles and tamarinds and pouring the morning’s grievances into the well-worn ear of market owner Baca (who quietly slices rich blocks of guava candy and nods). Cracked and mossy sidewalks lead westward, past alleyways with families in various states of routine – pressing tortillas, washing clothes, feeding babies and sleeping in hammocks. Though Puerto Vallarta’s dining scene is increasingly celebrated – the city now hosts an international gourmet food festival every November – the most authentic comida can still be found at the cluster of taco and quesadilla stands at the corner of Calle Lázaro Cárdenas and Avenida Insurgentes; a balanced diet is crucial, so don’t skimp on the palette of primary-coloured salsas and condiments served with the tender slices of marinated, flame-broiled beef. As for booze, beer and tequila can be purchased at “specialty” liquor stores all over Puerto Vallarta, but pick up the same brands at any of the local tiendas for considerably less and walk out feeling local. As in many tourism-based towns in developing countries, a travel ethos of curiosity and adventure will serve you well in this idiosyncratic Mexican city. My Secret Place Who: Sue Paish, CEO, Pharmasave Drugs Ltd. Where: Per Gynt Trail (near the top of Mount Fromme) Why: A great place to shed the stress of day-to-day life. Head to the top of St. Georges Avenue in North Vancouver, cross a small bridge and then follow the Baden Powell trail. Soon you will find a small sign nailed to a tree – Per Gynt. Breathe. Watch a squirrel scurry to the protective enclave of a fallen log – then breathe again. Life’s problems are much easier to solve with the clear mind that comes from the Per Gynt Trail.