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Take Me To The River - Exploring Puerto Vallarta's Isla Rio Cuale

Oct 24, 2007
Flowing from the jungle-filled mountains above Puerto Vallarta, the Rio Cuale cuts right through the heart of this majestic city. Before emptying into Banderas Bay, this river provides several unique activities to Puerto Vallarta's visitors. One of the most overlooked sites in Puerto Vallarta is Isla Rio Cuale, a natural island in the middle of the river near the city's downtown area. Though Isla Rio Cuale is only six blocks long and one block wide, there is much to do and see any time of year.

Though Isla Cuale might not receive much more than passing mentions in travel guides, the island has become an integral part of Vallartan culture. It is believed the island was created many years ago after a strong rainy season caused the river to overflow and sediment to collect in its center. As Puerto Vallarta developed in the mid-20th century, the island came to serve as the unofficial center of the city's casual pedestrian culture. Bridges were constructed off nearly every side of the island, connecting Isla Rio Cuale to several of the city's most desirable neighborhoods. Today, the island boasts numerous shops and restaurants, an archeological museum, a popular nightclub, miles of peaceful trails, amazing scenery and one of Mexico's largest public markets - the Rio Cuale Flea Market. Besides being a distinctive tourist destination, the island and its unspoiled nature serve as an urban oasis for the city's residents.

On the western side of the island, bordering the bay and Insurgentes Street, you will find the incredibly popular Rio Cuale Flea Market. With two stories of vendors selling everything from locally-made leather goods and blankets to pottery and jewelry, this market is the best place to find a bargain in Puerto Vallarta. As you browse the stalls, feel free to try out your best bargaining tactics. You might be surprised to find that most sellers are friendly and receptive. After you have finished shopping at the flea market, you can dine at one of the small cafes located nearby on the island's western shore.

While the western side of the island seems to match the energy and excitement of the city, the eastern end of Isla Rio Cuale serves as a quiet sanctuary. The narrow paths that wind through the trees are perfect for bike riding and peaceful strolls. Local families are known to relax and picnic in the shade of Isla Rio Cuale's large trees. As the island also serves as a refuge for plants and animals, tourists often try to spot the families of iguanas that reside in the treetops. On the easternmost tip of the island, you will find the Centro Cultural Cuale - a popular destination for outdoor performances, film screenings and art classes.

In the middle of the island's botanical garden, you will find the Museum Rio Cuale - a charming archeological museum devoted to local cultures. If possible, try to visit the museum on a Tuesday at 1 pm when the director offers her free weekly lecture in English. If you are more interested in the recent history of Puerto Vallarta, stop by the John Huston Plaza - the city's dedication to the director of "Night of the Iguana." Credited for putting Puerto Vallarta on the international tourism map, Huston and his film are revered to this day, several decades after its release.

With a handful of narrow suspension bridges connecting Isla Rio Cuale to the mainland, getting to the island is considered by many visitors as one of the most exciting activities. Beyond Isla Rio Cuale, you will find the Zona Romantica - a popular place for upscale dining and entertainment - and the Downtown Puerto Vallarta neighborhoods. The island also connects to El Malecon, the city's famed boardwalk along Banderas Bay.
Besides being at the heart of the action in Puerto Vallarta, Isla Rio Cuale is often referred to by locals as "el lugar mas bonito" (the most beautiful place in Puerto Vallarta). Come experience the market and the cafes, but stay for the natural beauty and solitude.
About the Author
This article was written by Justin Burch. Justin writes select pieces about vacationing in the Caribbean for the Puerto Vallarta Resorts.
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