As this issue went to press, all airline passengers returning to the U.S. ages 2 and older must provide a negative COVID-19 test upon reentry taken within three days of travel. Visit mx.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/covid-19-information for updates.
Find that old spark for Mexican travel at the Conrad Punta de Mita.
Even at the absolute height of the pandemic, U.S. travel to Mexico – including the nonessential fun kind – never fully stopped. Like lovers carrying on a furtive affair, American tourists and Mexican hospitality companies stubbornly kept the action going while most global travel enthusiasts exercised celibate self-denial.
Consequently, I have to confess savoring a thrill of forbidden liaison as I touch down in Puerto Vallarta on a late February afternoon – my first flight anywhere in a year.
At least my partner – Mexico itself, in this case – is taking precautions. From the jetway to the resort shuttle and the mob of airport hucksters in between, I don’t see a single unmasked soul. And for the next three days, I soak up the sun and surf at the Conrad Punta de Mita resort in what amounts to a very large, very beautiful, very well-staffed bubble. Strict distancing, no riffraff, ubiquitous masks.
With many international travel restrictions still in place, it appears this hunkered-down, resort-centric version of Latin American travel will have a bit of staying power in 2021. Consequently, airlines are leaning hard into Mexico, adding flights and expanding services (see sidebar) for spring and summer vacation travel.
Staked out on a broad, pleasant beach in the western state of Nayarit, about a 30-minute drive from Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport, the Conrad Punta de Mita is one of the newest resort options in greater Puerto Vallarta, having opened last fall to service family and mid-to-upper-budget travelers (summer rates starting at $368/night).
Part of the Hilton hotel chain, it’s also one of the region’s most insulated and varied properties, with plenty of hidden charms and amenities – perfect for a three- or four-day pandemic dalliance.
Punta Pleasure No. 1: Litibu Beach
Quick geography lesson: North of Puerto Vallarta is a 200-mile stretch of coastline known as the Riviera Nayarit, speckled with funky surf villages and fishing towns. The Conrad resides just south of that, cradled between the Riviera and the picturesque Punta Mita peninsula in a beachy cove known as Litibu.
For ocean-oriented vacationers who actually prefer to get in the water and splash around a bit, Litibu is ideal, and makes the Conrad an arguably superior option to the scores of resorts – including high-end imprints of the Four Seasons and St. Regis chains – located on Punta Mita itself. The views are often better there, more panoramic, but the beach here is much more swimmable and walkable.
Litibu also has a very distinct look: about 2 miles of unbroken sandy coastline that extends about 200 feet inland before immediately resolving into a marshy, shallow jungle. Part of the Sierra Madre wildlife area and protected by the Mexican government, the jungle is replete with coatimundis and other interesting critters and makes for fascinating scrutiny on your morning walk.
Punta Pleasure No. 2: Sea-to-Table Cuisine
The Pacific Ocean, with its abundance of red snapper, mahi mahi, yellowfin tuna and Spanish mackerel, is right there, so why not exploit the opportunity? So followed the reasoning of Conrad chef Victor Palma when he launched the sea-to-table program at Mezquite, the resort’s beachside outdoor restaurant and bar.
Every day, Palma and his team handpick a few of the better specimens speared from the water by the resort’s dedicated fisherman and submit them to zarandeado – a 500-year-old cooking method in which the chef butterflies the fish and presses it into a wide metal basket that he flips repeatedly over hot coals, basting the crackling flesh with a mayonnaise-chile concoction all the while. To the say the least, it makes for a superior taco.
Punta Pleasure No. 3: More Wonderful Uses for the Agave Plant
Though it sits slightly outside Mexico’s main designated tequila growing region in the state of Jalisco, Riviera Nayarit is not completely barred from the agave spirit conversation. Locals sing the praises of raicilla, a smoky, faintly herbal spirit that’s made in nearby Bahía de Banderas by roasting agave hearts (like mezcal) instead of steaming them (like tequila) before distillation. You can learn all about these nuances – and those of Mexico’s other great spirts, like sotol and bacanora – at Árbol, the resort’s Latin fusion fine-dining restaurant, which has an entire room dedicated to agave spirits. Tours by appointment.
Punta Pleasure No. 4: Cart-Path Bicycle Tour
For prospective vacationers with security concerns, take comfort in this: The gated Conrad Punta de Mita sits within a larger, also-gated Litibu community with few neighbors, aside from a condominium development and the magnificent, 18-hole, Greg Norman-designed Litibu Golf Course, which encircles the resort like a gentle hug, elbowing over the beach on the front nine before diving back in to the jungle.
The resort also provides complimentary 3-speed bicycles as loaners to guests. Do you see where this is going? After 3 p.m., the cart-paths that girdle the golf course generally empty out, allowing any motivated guest to use the paths as a fantastically picturesque bike trail. It’s an exquisite way to end the day, and a good scheme to burn calories in anticipation of your agave spirit tasting.
Punta Pleasure No. 5: Sweating for Enlightenment
In addition to its three swimming pools (one for loungers, one for families, one for swimmers), the Conrad boasts a gorgeous spa, its trophy feature an outdoor serenity area comprising several wooden cabanas and a shady warren formed by walls of flowers and creeping vine plants, perfect for reading and napping. The outdoor area has another notable feature: a squat dome-shaped lodge in which a pair of local spirit guides lead participants through an hour-long odyssey of heat, steam, chanting and song in an approximation of a traditional temazcal sweat lodge ceremony.
Sensually, it’s something you won’t forget: the scent of burning sage, the blinding white of the steam and the disembodied intonations of the shaman. You emerge, if not fully enlightened, then pleasantly disoriented.
What it isn’t: particularly well-distanced. Lasting enlightenment often comes in two doses these days.
Mexico Por Aire
New and expanded air routes from Sky Harbor Airport.
American Airlines doubled its flights to Puerto Vallarta in March, now offering two nonstops daily (starting at $381). aa.com
Southwest Airlines added nonstop routes to Cancún, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, also in March. southwest.com
In October, American launched nonstop routes to the Baja California towns of La Paz, with three weekly flights; and Loreto, with four weekly flights. aa.com