In the '60s Puerto Vallarta was a glamorous beach destination, made famous by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton (whose former home has been turned into a suuuuper-swanky hotel. Next time.). The buzz on PV (as the locals call it) quieted down until the past decade or so, as hotel development and attractions have sprung up. It's still among the chillest Mexican beach towns, which is saying something. Plus it's straight-up gorgeous, with spectacular sunsets behind the Bay of Banderas, and lush, jungle-wrapped mountains that tumble down to the water.
Where to stay: El Sunset Hostel, $9/night
What to do: Puerto Vallarta on a budget is a cinch. The vibrant, colorful city is jammed with cheap eats and action. When you're not at the beach in Puerto Vallarta proper, you can take the bus to smaller, less touristy beaches nearby. Consider the beach "hike" from Boca de Tomatlan to Las Animas. This coastal walk is dotted with quiet private beaches that are perfect for secluded swimming and Instagrammable moments. The bus to Boca de Tomatlan from Puerto Vallarta costs 40 cents one way.
A bus will also take you to Sayulita, a bohemian beach town about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta that's equal parts bougie-chic and leathery, unwashed backpacker. It's one of the most visited spots outside Puerto Vallarta these days, which makes it beyond touristy, but it's still worth a trip for more beach bars, art galleries, surfing, and people-watching. The bus to Sayulita costs about $2 one way.
Where to eat: People in PV will argue to your face about the best tacos. You can't go wrong with late-night tacos from the various trucks lining the streets in the more residential section of the Romantic Zone, but if you want an establishment with actual light and chairs, Pancho's Takos is your jam. This nighttime hotspot is best-known for the beautiful, rotating, smoky, dripping hunk of pork that twirls as the cook cuts sensual slices of al pastor all night long. One taco is about 65 cents. If you're sick of tacos (if), you can grab a quesadilla for about $1.60, or a cheese fondue with veggies for $3.60.
In Boca de Tomatlan you are urged to park yourself at Mi Ranchito, an open-air beach bar with thatched palapas on the water. Guacamole costs $4; quesadillas are $3.20; and fish ceviche (a MUST in PV) is about $4.80.
Restaurants and bars tend to be a little more expensive in Sayulita. Still, it is possible to eat on a budget here if you know where to look. Tacos El Ivan is known for its tacos al pastor, which run for about 50 cents. El Metro doles out delicious tortas (Mexican sandwiches), which start at around $3, and are massive so chances are you won't need dinner. (But we know you -- you're eating dinner. And you can still afford to.) For fish tacos you might be tempted to stop at the Real Fish Taco, which is right near the beach. But you'd do better to head straight to Rinconcito, which is far superior and far cheaper (with far fewer tourists). For something sweet head to the Cake Lady, who serves flan and tres leches cake for about $1.15.