THE young girl in the shop was helping. "We-CHOL," she instructed, the second syllable sliding off her tongue.
Hundreds of Huichol ornaments, gourd bowls and animals filled the small shop near the Cuale River Bridge. The Huichol Indians, who live high in the Sierra Madre not far from Puerto Vallarta, are said to get the inspiration for their symbolic yarn paintings and beadwork from peyote.
I pointed to a table filled with distinctively painted winged animals and asked what they were called. "Alebrijes," the girl replied. I later learned that the tradition of carving and painting this style of fantasy animal had originated with a Mexican man who had seen them in a dream.
My most vivid recurring dream -- nightmare, really -- is one in which my plane is about to leave Puerto Vallarta and I haven't bought a single item. Fortunately, this was not the case on a November shopping expedition when my sister, Lynda, and I emerged from a three-day spree with more than 50 treasures.
After selecting several items at Arte Huichol Decolores, I found I was already running low on cash and didn't have enough to cover the purchase. And the shop didn't take credit cards.
"No problem," the girl assured me, gesturing to a boy of 10 or so. He trotted ahead of me over the Rio Cuale Bridge to an ATM and waited politely while I extracted pesos from my bank back home. He not only had change for me, but he also pointed me in the direction my sister had wandered.
This was Lynda's first trip to a place I had fallen in love with 25 years earlier. I can't speak more than a few words of Spanish, but this city is tourist-friendly. Modern high-rise hotels lining the beaches to the north and south of the city provide a comfort zone for first-time visitors. From there, it's an easy cab or bus ride to the downtown area, El Centro, with its narrow one-way cobblestone streets.
El Centro is split by the Cuale River; it's along the river and to the south where some of the best shopping bargains along Mexico's Pacific Coast can be found. Many tourists, however, never stray from the north side of the river, preferring to stay along the Malecon, the city's scenic oceanfront promenade.
After our arrival, we headed south of the river to Daiquiri Dick's, a beach-side restaurant where shopping comes tableside if you show the slightest interest in any of the roving vendors' wares.
While nibbling on a shrimp appetizer, I made my first purchase -- a hand-carved elk -- and the shopping marathon had officially begun.
After leaving Daiquiri Dick's, we walked along Olas Altas street, a block from the beach in the Romantic Zone, as this part of South Vallarta is called.
We picked up momentum at several street stalls, purchasing a cloth purse, hand-painted dishes and delicate papier-mache animals. Two blocks inland, some trays crafted of colorful fused glass caught my eye at Galeria Serendipity, and the manager explained they were made in Tonola, a small market town outside Guadalajara.
The next morning, we caught a bus with El Centro painted on its front windshield, intent on breakfast at Le Bistro along the river. (The bus route is easy to navigate, and a ride is only 45 cents.) Distracted by stalls lining both sides of Cuale Island, which is in the river, we didn't make it to Le Bistro until almost lunchtime.
Its Casablanca-meets-Mexico decor of zebra-skin chairs and monkey sculptures in an open-air setting under bamboo trees along the river created an exotic oasis. The array of dessert coffees was tempting, but we were on a mission.
Next up was the gantlet known as the Mercado Municipal, a block-long two-story maze of stalls on the northern edge of the river.
We emerged with silver bookmarks, hand-painted Christmas ornaments and amethyst earrings, just the sort of treasures a shopping spree in Puerto Vallarta can offer.
South of the river
Mundo de Cristal: If you have only one place to shop in Puerto Vallarta, this is it. It offers a wide selection of artistic glass and pottery at reasonable prices. (333 Insurgentes; 222-1426. Closed Sundays.)
Arte Huichol Decolores: This shop offers a wide assortment of Huichol beaded art at affordable prices. (109-A Ignacio L. Vallarta, 222-3490.)
Galeria Serendipity: At this shop, all items are handpicked by the owner in Merida, Mazatlan, Leon, San Miguel and other Mexican towns. (228-A Ignatio L. Vallarta; 223-1828.)
Galeria Alpacora: Steps away, you'll find gourds, mirrors, jewelry and tapestries. (236 Ignacio Vallarta; 222-4179.)
Joyeria Guse: The family-owned store offers a variety of handmade gold and silver jewelry. Although some shops south of the river post "fair and fixed prices" signs, Joyeria Guse allowed negotiating, and we agreed on $20 for a pendant with pieces of lapis, pink coral and turquoise inlaid into black onyx and edged in silver. (413 Olas Altas; 222-9051.)
Along the river
Angel's Bazar: In business for 12 years, owner Angelica Godoy Lomeli offers a tasteful selection of Mexican folk art and pewter a block from the city market. (294 Agustin Rodriguez, 222-0740.)
D'paola: This shop specializes in handmade Mexican clothes and decor items. (289 Agustin Rodriguez, 222-1120.)
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The port is calling
From LAX, Delta and Alaska have nonstop flights to Puerto Vallarta. America West has connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $284.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico), 322 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Sheraton Buganvilias, 999 Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascencio; (800) 942 6155, www.sheratonvallarta.com. Modern beach-front accommodations close to downtown and on the bus route. Doubles from $215.
Los Arcos, 380 Olas Altas; (800) 648-2403, www.playalosarcos.com. A small pool with a waterfall looks out onto the ocean. Doubles $105 to $149.
WHERE TO EAT:
El Arrayan, 344 Allende; 222-7195, www.elarrayan.com.mx. An easy walk from the Malecon. Proprietress Carmen Porras is known for her contemporary takes on traditional dishes. An arrayan tree -- a fond memory of her childhood -- grows in the courtyard. Open Wednesdays to Mondays 6 to 11 p.m. Entrees $7-$19.
Le Bistro Jazz Cafe, 16-A Isla Rio Cuale, 222-0283, www.lebistro.com.mx. Excellent food and atmosphere for a welcome respite from shopping along the river. Entrees $6-25. Open 9 a.m.-midnight. Closed Sundays.
TO LEARN MORE:
Mexico Tourism Board, (800) 446-3942 (for brochures) or (310) 282-9112, www.visitmexico.com.
-- Cynthia Mines