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Changes in food habits in Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

Ricardo Avila and Martín Tena


Puerto Vallarta, located on the Mexican Pacific coast, is now a prestigious tourist destination. It is also considered a venue for gourmet cooks, due to the elaborate variety of gastronomy available. Nevertheless, what meets the eye is only part of a motley crowd of culinary possibilities that emerge simultaneously in this port, which in turn is the result of giddy social changes over the last three decades. The following text gives a brief explanation of the historic evolution of Puerto Vallarta regarding the introduction of different culinary traditions; it explores the perceptions of local inhabitants of these gastronomic innovations; these perceptions are duly related to a supposed local cultural ethos; and finally it proposes that the juxtaposition of what is on offer gastronomically is an extension of certain ‘food models’ and the development of a new socio-cultural identity.

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Setting and context

1Puerto Vallarta is a port-city located in western Mexico, in the Bahía de las Banderas, one of the largest bays in the world. From the point of view of its economy, we could say that it is the third most important tourist destination in the country, following Acapulco and Cancun, in that order1. Nevertheless, only half a century ago, Puerto Vallarta was a modest shipping port and a tourist paradise for a handful of pioneering travellers. The transformation that Puerto Vallarta has undergone in recent decades is impressive. Thanks to the growth of tourism, it has gone from being a minor port, inhabited by commercial businessmen and fishermen, to one of the most visited spots in Mexico. This dramatic metamorphosis into a centre of tourism has brought changes to its inhabitants’ food habits. Although they continue to follow food patterns that might be labelled ‘traditional’, there have also been major modifications to these habits.

2This text is based on direct or indirect information about Puerto Vallarta. It is also based on participant observation, open-ended interviews and a questionnaire about food available there. It covers Puerto Vallarta and its people; supply and workings of its markets; eating manners and rhythms; traditional cooking and external influences on local food. Finally, some reflections will be made on Puerto Vallarta’s ‘food model’, and the article ends with an attempt to answer the list of questions included below. These questions focus on the evolution of food in Puerto Vallarta; inhabitants’ perceptions of the food that is consumed there; on the possible existence of a Vallarta identity linked to the food; and the juxtaposition of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of eating in Puerto Vallarta in relation to the supposed local ‘food model’.

Eating in Puerto Vallarta

3Barely four or five decades ago, Puerto Vallarta inhabitants lived a quiet life and had a diet free of industrialized and imported products. Those natural foods were produced locally and in the surrounding vicinity, although they also came from the countryside, from nearby mountain ranges, traditional and conservative areas, which the majority of inhabitants or their predecessors had left decades before. Their diet was composed of maize, beans and chilli -the ancient Mexican trinity- some locally grown vegetables and milk products, as well as domesticated cattle and game, deer, porcupine or armadillo, in addition to winged fowl from the coast and nearby mountains. Fish and seafood was also consumed, since it was found in abundance, but never exceeded meat in quantity, since, like all good Mexicans, both ancient and modern inhabitants of Puerto Vallarta were, and are, compulsive carnivores.

4The availability of natural products consumed in those days was limited by the seasons, an aspect that few people remember today. The only exotic addition to this ancient diet was colored, sweetened and carbonated soft drinks, especially Coca Cola, which entered commercial establishments and popular taste, though still in an isolated fashion. The former inhabitants of Puerto Vallarta used to eat at home. However, following a time-honoured Mexican custom, they also ate in the street, by evening attending the cenadurías (night-time eating establishments), where the classic dish, pozolli (meat and maize stew), was served, as well as others derived from pre-Hispanic ingredients, enriched and transformed by the Spanish-indigenous merging of cultures. Memories of this way of eating are still nostalgic among older inhabitants.

5In the 1960’s, as part of the unstoppable growth of U.S. trade, Puerto Vallarta began to take on the guise of a tourist destination. With the burgeoning of foreign arrivals, as well as Mexican tourists, this small port of local businessmen and fishermen underwent a radical transformation. Its population rose from 5,000 inhabitants in 1950 to more than 180,000 in 2000, according to official statistics2. This means a dramatic increase equivalent to 3,600 % in just five decades. Still, reliable sources, including municipal authorities, estimate that the real population of the port and the surrounding town easily surpasses 300,000, not including the floating population that arrives during the tourist season3. During those years of increasing population, started the construction of enormous hotels to accommodate growing numbers of tourists, especially international ones, and a large number of restaurants and food establishments began to appear, offering numerous styles of food to satisfy every kind of consumer and newer social patterns of behaviour4. However, not to be outdone by these innovations, there was also an increase in traditional eating places, cenadurías, taco stands and seafood joints. Today, in Puerto Vallarta, it is said, one can find food for ‘every taste and every purse’5.


6Puerto Vallarta currently has 219 districts. Their food supply comes from different sources. Certain perishable goods come from local suppliers, but most of them - over 70% - come from the wholesale market in the huge city of Guadalajara, 340 kilometres away. Meat and fish products are generally from local sources. Small scale producers and some distributors provide a wide variety of goods to specialist suppliers or directly to restaurants and food establishments. Large scale operators supply goods directly to warehouses where municipal markets and retailers obtain them: fruit, vegetables and groceries.

7People who attend municipal markets daily do so not only to obtain the freshest of perishable goods, but, while such visits form a daily ritual within their pattern of social interaction, they also provide the means to manage their scant budgets - which is the general rule. One advantage of making use of local markets, by far the most traditional form of shopping, is that the price of perishable goods tends to fall, since they lose their quality and freshness over time. Supermarkets, on the other hand, mainly held by transnational corporations, do not lower prices. The commercial principle here is standardization and selling large volumes of produce. Besides, the monopolistic nature of supermarkets enables them to handle roughly 80% of perishable goods that previously were handled by municipal markets. It is also the case that the pressures of modern life force many people - especially those who work during normal business hours, from eight in the morning till seven in the afternoon - to do their food shopping at regular intervals, usually once a week. By stocking in their refrigerators, they reduce daily visits to the market. As a last resort, they might visit the shop around the corner to obtain something they lack: some fruit or vegetables or pricey items from international monopolies of dubious nutritional value, or indeed local ones, as is the case of ‘Milpa Real’ tortillas (a packaged commercial brand), instead of the regular ones.

8Another tendency is to consume, especially at night and during holiday periods, food that is prefabricated (pizzas, fried or roast chicken, hamburgers or even tacos usually sold in the street) perhaps adapted to local tastes by the addition of spicy sauce or some other ingredients. This is by no means cheap and is of dubious nutritional value. However, the change of food items and their quality constitute a change in the food model.

9Apart from this, in lower income districts, there are no municipal markets. Inhabitants do their shopping in the few retail stores to be found, at inflated prices, and with very little choice available. Food items are for fast preparation, expensive and not very nutritious: fruit and vegetables of poor quality, maize and beans, and of course the ubiquitous soft drinks and beer.

Rhythms of eating and health

10Current patterns of work in large urban conglomerations force people to spend a great deal of time away from home. This is more than obvious in a place like Puerto Vallarta, where a large share of the employment is in the area of services. Work rhythms in this tourist destination make the majority of working people eat at least one of their two principal meals, around midday or in the afternoon, away from home. The third daily meal tends to be frugal and is eaten rapidly at home, either in the morning or in the evening. On the other hand, it must be said that Mexicans have a deeply rooted tradition of eating food in the street, which is not only regarded as a habit caused by work patterns, but is also due to ingrained habits6. The majority of establishments which cater are the classic taco stands and seafood places. There are also a number of loncherías (a name derived from the English word ‘lunch’) and these are based on an eclectic variety of styles of food. In these, which generally open during the morning, a large number of dishes and drinks are offered. They offer items ranging from soft drinks to grilled meat, crisp fried tacos, hot cakes, ‘Cuban’ sandwiches, fruit milkshakes, hamburgers, orange juice and a plethora of dishes and drinks that belong to different cultural traditions now incorporated into Mexican taste. Apart from these establishments and restaurants registered as such, there are others such as the cenadurías, sellers of cheap take-away home cooking, lunch-time establishments, roast meat stalls and pizza vendors, as well as those of Mexican style fast food, imitating McDonald’s or Pizza Hut.

11A fair number of these establishments stick to regional culinary tradition; the rest have succumbed to external influence. Mixtures of various culinary traditions to be found: there are largely substitutes for what is known as ‘international food’, tex-mex, fast food and, more recently, those of Asiatic origin, entirely adapted to suit customers with limited resources. These are places where inhabitants of Puerto Vallarta eat, but also many visitors who venture beyond their hotel restaurants or those considered to be gastronomic ones. It would be worthwhile doing a follow-up study by mapping out the distribution of every type of eating places to try to establish patterns of development, as it was done by Monnet (1990) in Mexico City7. It would help understand the commercial logics of food consuming and the availability offered to people who have to eat out in Puerto Vallarta.

12Changes in eating habits of Puerto Vallarta inhabitants affect not only where they eat (public or private), but also what they eat: breaded or grilled chicken, pizzas, hamburgers, hot dogs or raw fish, Japanese style. All these foods are adjusted to the local palate, i.e. with an added touch of chilli. On the other hand, some typical Mexican dishes receive new spices or are accompanied by imported products such as soy sauce, fish sauce or fruits and vegetables that were previously unknown. Outside influences are not only from other countries, but also from other regions of Mexico. For example, seafood tacos in the style of Baja California, which, apart from introducing new flavours, contribute to reducing the cost for vendors and consumers, as well as providing food for those who have lived in those regions or had contact with them8.

13Thus in Puerto Vallarta we find both in the public and private domains the juxtaposition of culinary traditions which are the result of the town’s dramatic transformation. Nevertheless, this juxtaposition is not conservative nowadays, since it is possible to taste mixtures that are perhaps, for traditionalists, too daring. On the other hand, whether Puerto Vallarta inhabitants have greater or lesser access to this juxtaposition - mixing depends naturally on their buying power, their social status and their resistance to change9. This explains why time-honoured taco stands and cenadurías remain the same, preserving their version of local-regional Mexican culinary tradition - that of the west of Mexico- which reflects their taste and promotes consumption, in addition to keeping the food readily affordable.

14Parallel with this trend for traditional food is a proliferation of fast food of American origin, but adapted to local taste10. There seems to be a constant tension between traditional taste and curiosity about new ones. Still, the innovative food tends to be more expensive than the former. These two types of food, along with junk food and soft drinks - and one should remember that Mexico is the greatest consumer of these worldwide - has had an influence not only on the transformation of taste, which is the lesser of two evils, but also on the health of the population. Excessive intake of starch fat and carbohydrates both in Mexican food and so-called fast or  junk food, in addition to a change in life-style, involving less physical activity, has produced a significant and growing number of obese people, similarly to the USA. This has turned into a serious problem for public health (Olaiz et al., 2006).

A food model for Puerto Vallarta?

15Discussing a food model needs above all to take into account the products available, whether access to them is easy or difficult, as well as their seasonal availabilit. Next, one must establish the question of food habits and rhythms, as well as eating styles, both public and private. The ritual and festive calendar must also be taken into consideration. Finally, economic resources and the social status of actors operating within this model need to be factored into the equation.

16Following this scheme, one may observe that the food model in Puerto Vallarta is in the process of redeveloping itself, in which local-regional culinary traditions are mixed and combined with powerful external influences by the adoption of new paradigms, while not abandoning completely the old ones11. Nevertheless, in Puerto Vallarta such influences are significantly more evident and forceful due to the fact that it is a tourist beach resort of international stature, in which there are influxes of global currents of behaviour that have passed through the filter of American social culture.

17To conclude, persistent culinary continuity is noticeable in Puerto Vallarta’s food model, yet it is subjected to a significant process of change. However, this continuity and change have pernicious effects for the majority of the population, not only because they lack financial resources to feed themselves with better products, but also because there is a tendency to do so in a poor and unbalanced manner. In other words, there is almost no awareness of the relationship between food consumption and health.

Final reflections

181-The food model of Puerto Vallarta fifty years ago was based on traditional Mexican foods of the region. This originated in the interior, specifically in the valleys of the western Sierra Madre with its strong cattle tradition, but incorporated some sea products into its repertoire.

192-Vallarta inhabitants in general perceive the type of food they prepare and sell there as both Mexican and international. What is more, some of them assume that fast food, such as hamburgers, can be considered to be Mexican when spiced with chilli. Nevertheless, the majority cannot afford elite food, except in popularized versions when available. This is the case with certain food of Japanese origin, pizzas originating from New York or fried chicken, American Deep South style.

203-In contrast with other places, the identity of the inhabitants of Puerto Vallarta is not rooted in local culinary tradition. If ever such perceptions of identity could be established at a mundane level, they would take the form of imagining that their port is ‘paradise’12, an earthly paradise they can offer their visitors. (At the spiritual level, its identity would be linked to the Virgin of Guadalupe.)

214-In its ambition to promote tourism, Puerto Vallarta has become a place where there is a juxtaposition of culinary tendencies that are mixed or mediated by certain traditions, although Mexican tradition continues to be the dominant one. Since this juxtaposition resists conservatism, food patterns encourage the appearance of mixed culinary products, adapted to Mexican taste and spiced with chilli, of dubious nutritional quality.

225-Despite all this, people with limited resources, which constitute the majority, have limited access to these juxtaposed culinary traditions or even to their by-products, and as a result are accumulating increasing dietary problems.

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2 Conteo de población de 1995, México, Consejo Nacional de Población, 1999.
3 Interview with Ana Gómez, economist (University of Guadalajara), Puerto Vallarta, January 12th, 2006.
4 According to Collaço (2005: 21), restaurants are a meeting point between cuisines of different regions, give access to new tastes and bring a change in ways of socializing.
5 Interview with Héctor Pérez, President of the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Restaurantera y de Alimentos Condimentados (National Chamber of the Restaurant Industry and Spiced Food), Puerto Vallarta, January 14th, 2006.
6 However, Collaço (2003: 173) suggests that food changes result from modernization, urban life styles and contacts with new ideas about food, but are always ingrained in local representations of food and food habits.
7 Monnet (1990: 337-346) found out that location of the eating places was related to the profile of the potential customers. Places offering a cheap menu concentrated in middle class quarters, close to offices and shops, while cafés and formal restaurants were predominantly located in high class quarters. He considered taquerías as a separate case, as they were spread out all over the city, and were less numerous only in areas where they were competing with other types of eating places.
8 As it occurred in São Paulo (Ricciardi, 2004: 4), in Puerto Vallarta, tourism expansion has been stimulating the creation of ethnic restaurants not so much for local inhabitants but for visitors from specific regions.
9 According to Collaço (2003: 172-173), food production and distribution as well as symbolical aspects determine whether people innovate in their cooking or not.
10 The fast food restaurants offer a variety of new tastes that are progressively incorporated by the consumers until becoming familiar (Collaço, 2005: 4)
11 The « typical » restaurants for tourists constantly adapt the original cooking to the local taste and culinary fashion, thus maintaining a specificity without looking too strange (Collaço, 2005: 7).
12 The name « Paraíso Escondido » (Hidden Paradise) was given to Puerto Vallarta by the poet Eduardo Enríquez Ríos in 1948.
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Electronic reference

Ricardo Avila and Martín Tena, “Changes in food habits in Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)”Anthropology of food [Online], S4 | May 2008, Online since 30 May 2008, connection on 21 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Ricardo Avila

Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico, ,

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Martín Tena

Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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