Choosing where to stay in Puerto Vallarta can be daunting. Different from nearby Sayulita, there are large all-inclusive resorts and then there are huge all-inclusive resorts. It is almost impossible to discern which one is the right option for you and where is the best place to stay or the right area in Puerto Vallarta. I have put together a guide to help you decide about the best accommodation for you, but I also wanted to share a more detailed account of the place I stayed at, a review of Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa.
Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa is, as the name indicates, a preserve of mostly birds which you will see flying and enjoying the greenery around the resort. The resort is located about 15 minutes from downtown Puerto Vallarta by car so it pays to have your own mode of transportation to explore the city and the surroundings, unless you came to Mexico simply to enjoy the beach and the facilities at the resort. This, although rather strange to me, seemed to be the main reason why thousands of Americans descend on the Mexican beaches, especially around the Pacific Coast of Puerto Vallarta. The 250,000 inhabitant city is well connected to the US with over 80 flights landing on Saturday from a variety of origins. The closest is no doubt California. At just two and a half hours flight from San Francisco no easier way to escape the fog and constant winds than to get on a flight to beautiful Jalisco or Nayarit, the two Mexican provinces in the area.
Puerto Vallarta is a bit schizophrenic with a crowded very touristy sea-facing part with nightclubs and loud music and a quaint, though equally busy, downtown historical area. Garza Blanca is close enough that it can be a quick drive to town and far enough to feel removed and paradisiacal. Continue to read my unbiased Garza Blanca review for more in-depth information.
Arrival and check in
As a resort that is mostly patronised by Americans, the entire facility has the same feel and modus operandi as most hotels in the US. There is a valet service that will park your car and bring it back and whom you need to tip every time. After dropping the car at the entrance, you can head to the main lobby for check-in.
Garza Blanca is mostly all-inclusive and also has timeshare/vacation membership options and a fair amount of the guests are on all inclusive plans or using their membership points to stay. Therefore, most of them spend their time in Puerto Vallarta at the resort. Check in and guest management is all organised with that in mind. As we were coming on what they call “European Plan”, meaning that we were only on bed and breakfast plan, we were allocated a sort of butler that would help us organise anything. If we wanted to book one of the restaurants for dinner or a spa appointment, she would help us. But if we wanted to book an excursion, we had to wait for the “Expedia Man” as he was described to us, to come the next day, from 3-5pm with all the tour options. As I had booked my stay with Hotels. com, an Expedia company, I could only book tours with them, we could not make use of the hotel’s tour booking desk. Another oddity and example of how developed and deeply segmented and targeted their marketing efforts are.
After we had checked in, our butler sat us down on comfortable sofas still in the lobby, gave us a glass of bubbly and walked us through the facilities at the resort and the various options for our stay, including the odd tour booking process, and we were also offered the chance to attend a sales presentation on their Vacation Club Membership. Curious about an idea that is so foreign in Europe or Asia, we took the offer. If we had not been staying at the resort, that would have given us a free breakfast. For our time, we were also offered two massages for the price of one and a discount on excursions. At that point, I was already terrified and fascinated by the Mexican sales strategies and professionalism. Compare to the hustling and harassment of many Asian cities, this was top-notch white glove selling, a much more refined and sophisticated way to sell us upscale tours, or a $70,000 holiday membership. This was another world.
After the talk and out lack of clarity about what we were going to do and reluctance to book anything, we were told what way our room was located and left to get there on our own. Sales efforts for selling, taking us to our room would not have generated any sales, so it was up to us to find the way. It is fair to say that it easy fairly easy.
Our room was on one of the three sea front buildings. All rooms have sea facing balconies located right above the sea waves. The sound of the waves crashing on the shore was loud and clear from our beds. It was mesmerising and beautiful and, still holding on to our glass of bubbly, we enjoyed the hammock hanging from the balcony. It was a treat.
The rooms were new, rather generic high-end hotel standard. Nice, spacious, well maintained and will all the facilities we needed, plus a charge for everything. Coffee amenities were there, but only free for one serving, then they were charged at $5 a pop for a coffee drip contraption. A rather odd thing to see in a luxury hotel. We did not plan on spend any time in the room but the sound and smell of the sea and the rocking of the hammock made for a great welcome.
Aside from the three sea facing buildings, Garza Blanca also has two newer cliff buildings and the adults-only over the top Mousai Hotel, part of the same resort but built exclusively with couples in mind. The rooms on the mountain side of the resort were even larger, newer and slightly tacky, in my opinion, especially in the Mousai side. Picture gold with red and black and cheap Asian furniture. Maybe it is because I live in Asia that I found the splashes of Indian/Thai decor a bit off against the backdrop of the Mexican Pacific Coast and the gold and black of the rest. Don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic rooms, especially on the regular Garza Blanca buildings, but felt a bit like I was in a decent but uninspired furniture store. On the impressive side, they were extremely large and most of them had all-around balconies wrapping around the rooms with stunning views of the sea and the coast, as well as the sunset. The position elevated on the hill, only added to the breathtaking vista.
There are three pools available for guests. The main pool is at the beach level, right above the sand, and it is the most popular of them. Located between the main lobby and the two seafront buildings, this pool provides an infinity feel and enjoys great sunset reflections. There is a bar on one end and the beach is just a few steps down. Being more popular with kids this one can be a bit crowded at times. There is a jacuzzi on one end, slightly secluded and peaceful, which comes with an artificial fireplace at nights for couples looking for a romantic moment.
A second pool between the hill buildings added peace and calm. It was hotter though, as there was less breeze, but it had nice views and it was more frequented by adults.
A third pool, only accessible by guests of Garza Blanca after 6pm is the rooftop pool at Hotel Mousai. With breathtaking views over the Bay, Puerto Vallarta and the sunset, this infinity pool was worth mention and even a trip if you are staying elsewhere. The white theme, the flowing sun umbrellas and the comfy loungers only added to the Ibiza feel of the place. A sunset margarita is a must. Needless to say, no children are to be seen here.
Aside from the pools and the beach area, the hotel has a well equipped gym and a spa.
Foodies will be catered for in the International, Japanese or Italian restaurants. Beware, there is no Mexican food in the resort so I highly recommend that you explore the area (hence why you need a car) and head to Puerto Vallarta to enjoy some yummy, delicious and fabulous local Mexican food. You are in Mexico, what is the point of eating the same food you would back home?
Breakfast could be had in two locations, either by the beach or up in the hills by the side of the two pools. It included an international spread and some Mexican favourites. Coffee to be charge aside, unless you like the black diluted option, and I found the breakfast pastries and breads to be rather dull and bland. The breakfast spread did not match the cache of the place.
I would not say the service was bad, but I did find the very sales oriented staff and approach rather uninspiring. Once we made it clear that we were on “European plan”, that we were not going to book any excursions or tours because we wanted to explore the area by car (and I am a native Spanish speaker) and that we would eat out because we had come to Mexico also for the food, it was almost as if we were invisible.
I constantly felt like information was being withdrawn and that, unless we were going to generate some money (by booking activities or restaurants) we would not be helped in any way. At check in, we realised I had made the booking for one person rather than two and they announced we would be charged $60 for the extra person per night. What hotel books a room and charges more if there are two people? I would understand there could be an extra charge for the second breakfast but their online rates were the same whether the room was occupied by one or two people so that was an attempt at charging us more.
When we requested two beds, they changed our booking from a hilltop building to the beach ones. Although I repeatedly asked if the new option they were suggesting with two beds was better or the same as the original booking, they insisted they were the same and both were good. But, after attending the sales pitch to their vacation club and seeing all the various rooms, I realised that was not the case and the hilltop rooms were indeed way bigger, newer and of a higher category. I felt they had purposely downgraded us without any justification, or even without admitting it. We would have still chosen the lower category with two beds, but it was only fair of them to be upfront about it.
A couple of other surprising things (at least to non-US guests). There is room service, but only from 7am to 11pm, so if you want any late night drinks or food you will have to wait until the morning or go down to the bar. You cannot self-park, so the valet tips are unavoidable. Plan to tip the maids and the breakfast staff, even if you are in a B&B or all-inclusive package.
I found the hotel to be pleasant. The views were great, the facilities and pool very enjoyable and the location good because we had a car to move around. But I also found the resort to be pretentious and entirely focused on convincing people to join their Vacation Club. We were an oddity, and we were made to feel like that. The food was ok, but I never understood why one would travel to a country with such amazing cuisine as Mexico and eat poor international food. Garza Blanca is a good option if you want so spend a few hours a day enjoying the peace of your resort and then go out an explore the area. I still think that, from all the large all-inclusive resorts, this is indeed one of the best in the area. My reservations were probably more related to the overall tourism approach in Puerto Vallarta than in Garza Blanca, who I am sure followed market trends. If you do book, don’t miss a drink at Mousai rooftop pool.
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