by Lee Foster
An idyllic 25-mile stretch of sunny and sandy West Mexico Coast, known as Puerto Vallarta, became a popular tourism destination starting in the 1960s.
Until then the magical combination of vibrant jungles, mountain backdrops, blue seas, white sand, and dependable tropical warmth (a balmy 75-90 degrees year-round) remained hidden and unknown, the domain of a few village farmers and fishermen. All the elements of a tropical paradise coalesce here, creating almost a sensory overload on the traveler, effecting an hypnotic state eminently conducive to vacation relaxation.
Guadalupe Sanchez had founded the small village in 1851 as a salt-gathering and agricultural enterprise to support the inland silver mines.
Night of the Iguana
The event that triggered Puerto Vallarta’s transformation, beyond the arrival of the commercial jet age, was the 1963 movie Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton, which was shot on a jungle set that you can still visit today. When Burton’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor, flew in to the movie set, creating a romantic scene, the press followed and foreign journalists began reporting the hallucinatory effect of the region. The movie conveyed the scenic charm of the area to millions of potential visitors, some shivering through the winter while they watched the radiant tropical sun on the silver screen.
Symbol for the mystery and mystique of Puerto Vallarta was the ferocious-looking but harmless iguana. Today, village boys can “rent” you an iguana for a few minutes of photo opportunity during your stay.
Puerto Vallarta’s special combination of elements gradually became known and appreciated. Where else could you find beaches, jungles, and tropical sun, all set before a backdrop of rising mountains, the Sierra Madre? The combination of elements seemed to simmer with passion, then and now. The romance between Burton and Taylor, while making the movie, seems to parallel the later romance between travelers and the region.
When you enter the world of Puerto Vallarta, casualness reigns. The formality of jackets, ties, and fancy dresses disappears. Think casual, even more casual than you would at the other West Mexico coast cities of Mazatlan and Acapulco. Although Puerto Vallarta has changed and developed (now 256,000 people), you still have a small town rather than big city feel here.
Puerto Vallarta is also a place where you can set the pace. That may mean total rest and relaxation, curled up with a good novel on the beach, or it may mean round-the-clock action, parasailing by day and dancing by night. You can vegetate and decompress or lead a frenetic existence here, as you will. You can also find several different Puerto Vallartas, ranging from world-class resorts to cozy, small-town lodgings, depending on where you look.
Beaches and Villages
Beaches are the signature strength of the area. Located on one of West Mexico’s largest protected bays, Bahia de Banderas, Puerto Vallarta boasts numerous lovely strands.
The beach closest to town is Playa Los Muertos (Deadmen’s Beach), due to the legendary past pirate raids on the Indian village here. This is the liveliest of the area’s beaches. Much of the fun in this coastal milieu is watching the parade of people along this beach, as vendors with broiled fish-on-a-stick pass between the tanning bodies of sun worshipers. Good restaurant choices on Playa Los Muertos, in which you can enjoy a Mexican beer and the parade of people, are El Dorado and La Palapa. You can’t go wrong with the culinary bounty of the Pacific here, such as shrimp and red snapper.
Immediately behind Playa Los Muertos you’ll find a lively village life, complete with bakeries exuding an aroma of tortilla and pan dulce (sweet breads), old men doing errands with their burros, and small shops bustling with village life. It is precisely this sense of the village, besides the beach, that distinguishes Puerto Vallarta from other major Mexican resorts, such as Cancun and Ixtapa. Cancun, for example, has no village nearby and Ixtapa is separated completely from the local village.
Besides Playa Los Muertos, the main city beach is the northern beach area called Playa de Oro (Beach of Gold), which extends past the downtown and north toward the major hotels. Clean and spacious, the beach is fringed with palm trees. Surfboards can be rented if you want to try your fortune with the waves. Windsurfing lessons are also offered at some hotels.
A taxi can drive you seven miles south of town to the famous beach at Mismaloya, where the movie Night of the Iguana was filmed. At the hill overlooking this white scimitar of sand are the brick hacienda ruins where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor created their own scenes between filming takes. Seeing the movie set is one of the favorite beach and jungle outings in the region.
Horseback riding on the beaches, especially in Puerto Vallarta at Playa Los Muertos, is an enjoyable sport. A long ride by horse at this meeting of sand and ocean can be a relaxing outing. Horse trips also penetrate the Sierra Madre mountains behind the city.
Water Sports and Activities
With the presence of ample ocean, all the expected water sports can be enjoyed here. Snorkel and scuba gear can be readily rented from dive shops. Snorkelers enjoy the remote stretches of beach, where grey triggerfish and multi-colored rock fish are visible. Diving and snorkeling are excellent at Los Arcos, an underwater National Park near Mismaloya.
Deep sea fishing is popular, especially November to May. The season kicks off in the first week of November with an International Fishing Tournament. Anglers hook trophy sailfish year around from charter boats. Tuna, red snapper, sea bass, and mackerel are part of the catch.
Parasailing is ubiquitous. A distant hum from a motorboat alerts you to yet another hoisting aloft of a rider in a parachute-like harness for an elevated trip around the Bay.
Although one thinks of water sports as the main draw of Puerto Vallarta, there are also other sport facilities. Orange, lemon, and mango trees line the fairway of the 18-hole Club de Golf Los Flamingos, located north of the airport. Tennis courts can be found at most hotels and at several tennis clubs.
The sport of exploring the jungle terrain can also be absorbing. In Puerto Vallarta you can always keep one foot in the sand and the other foot in the jungle. Some jungle enthusiasts go quail, duck, or white-winged dove hunting, or perhaps black bass fishing in the lakes. All hotels have particulars about providers of these sports.
As if an escape to Puerto Vallarta was not sufficiently a liberation in itself, there are getaways to ever more remote places, beyond the reach of the common traveler. Puerto Vallarta’s main deliverance in this category is to the small village of Yelapa, accessible only by boat. Yelapa lies at the south end of the bay and takes you back to an earlier period. Don’t expect to find cell phone service at Yelapa, but anticipate other expatriates, Americans and Canadians, who appreciate tranquility as they pursue their artistic or other leisure visions. Get to Yelapa on a yacht, such as El Sarape, which leave each morning for the two-hour excursion out and return in the afternoon. While at Yelapa, besides savoring the local shrimp, sipping a cool Mexican beer, and sunning or swimming on the remote beaches, be sure to walk into the jungle to see the 150-foot waterfall.
Dining and Touring
However you spend your time in Puerto Vallarta, Mexican cuisine will delight your appetite. Seafood, especially shrimp, lobster, and red snapper, are the culinary glory of Puerto Vallarta. For breakfast, try Las Palomas, downtown, where the locals savor leisurely huevos rancheros, eggs on a tortilla, Mexican style, with hot pepper sauce. The restaurant boasts a huge mural of Puerto Vallarta characters. For lunch, get a second-story view of the action along the seawall promenade, the malecon, while enjoying the food at Mr. Tequila’s, where the house specialties are a pate and a fish/shrimp concoction in olive oil and capers.
Purists will bemoan the changes in Puerto Vallarta. Croissants compete with tortillas on some menus, but that has been the fate of Mexico since the 16th century. Never static, Mexico pepped up the Old World palate with its gifts of corn, tomatoes, and peppers, as starters.
The drink of choice here would be Mexican beer. Partisans get verbose over the merits of Dos Equis, Pacifico, Carta Blanca, and Corona. All the Mexican beers are worth tasting. Close behind beer are margaritas and similar tropical concoctions, consisting of tropical fruit juices fortified with tequila or rum. Mexico also offers its wines, but you’ll find superior wines in other countries.
Allow a day for exploring in the town of Puerto Vallarta, a pleasant place to stroll, especially on the malecon, the concrete promenade paralleling the ocean. A bronze seahorse, standing proudly beside the malecon, is the symbol of the town. The major architectural effort is the cathedral Church of Guadalupe, started in 1918. The church is an eclectic affair with a steeple sometimes interpreted as resembling the crown of Carlotta, the French empress of Mexico in the 1860s. In the City Hall, adjacent to the town square, be sure to see the large mural by the town’s favorite artistic son, primitive painter Manuel Lepe.
While meandering along the cobblestone streets, which the city has pledged to keep, you’ll see white-stucco houses with red-tile roofs, accented by coconut palm trees. (The cobblestone streets, especially after rain, can be slippery, so comfortable rubber-soled shoes are recommended.) The higher streets on the hillside are called Gringo Gulch, the getaway homes of Americans and Canadians who either winter here or live here permanently. Residents will point out the white-balconied former home of Liz Taylor, now a small inn. Any man-made color finds its quick counterpoint in the pervasive jungle green, which comes in many shades. Bougainvillea spill over from the seclusion of courtyard homes. The town is rather narrow and stretched out along the ocean because the mountains rise so steeply behind it.
Shopping is a main pursuit of the stroller here. Most of the shops are located conveniently on Juarez and Morelos Streets, which run parallel to the malecon. Visit the small shopping centers known as Villa Vallarta and Plaza Malecon. There are also clusters of shops on the island in the river that divides the city. Besides the shops, stop in at the small Archaeology Museum, which boasts some pre-Columbian pieces.
Most of the shops specialize in fabrics or arts and crafts. Items offered in Puerto Vallarta range from the latest in resort wear to the full spectrum of Mexican artifacts, dazzling in their array. The Municipal Market, always a colorful local institution in Mexico, sells everything, including all the foods and needs of daily life. The Market lies four blocks back on the north side of town.
The local art world is especially vigorous in Puerto Vallarta. Galleria Bustamente is devoted solely to work in ceramic, bronze, and silver of Sergio Bustamente, whose haunting faces and masks reside in a traveler’s memory. Local sculptor Ramiz Barquet, who died in 2010, showed his work at Galeria Pacifico. Stop by after you have enjoyed his bronze portrait of a couple, called “Nostalgia,” next to the malecon. Also at Galeria Pacifico, see the regional watercolor landscapes of the late Edith Palombi. Devotional art of the local Huichol Indians can be viewed at Pyramid Gallery. Huichol art is a visual prayer to the gods, recalling peyote-induced visions. The prayer is composed of glass beads implanted on edible gourds with beeswax. Galleria Uno, established in 1971, is one of the oldest galleries in town and continues to be an outlet for new artists from throughout Mexico.
Besides fine art, crafts abound here. Part of the pleasure for a traveler is that Puerto Vallarta creates a market for the whole gamut of Mexican artisanry. You don’t have to go to Taxco for silver, or Zihuatanejo for painted wood, or Guaymas to see Seri Indian ironwood carving of animals. You can find them all in Puerto Vallarta. Similarly, you can view the pottery of Tonala, the copper smithing of Michoacan, and the black ceramics of Oaxaca. You can admire hand-embroidered dresses from the Yucatan and leatherwork from remote villages in Baja. Puerto Vallarta’s shops are a bazaar for the whole country.
Several hotels, such as the Hotel Krystal, have special Mexico Fiesta Nights once a week, where you can absorb mariachi music.
North American winter is the prime season for travel to Puerto Vallarta. From May-September the weather is hotter and rains are frequent. Puerto Vallarta is a popular spring-break destination for college students.
When thinking of where to stay in Puerto Vallarta, know that the town offers a full spectrum of lodgings. The luxury resorts desired by most travelers are offered in packages of air-hotel, sold widely by travel agents. Arrangements for smaller hotels must be made locally or via the Internet. The Westin Regina is typical of the deluxe hotels that stretch along the beach north of the city. The Regina is stepped back from the beach, like a pyramid, and boasts lavish, meandering pools for swimmers. Adjacent to the Regina is the Marina Vallarta, with its boat slips, restaurants, and cruise ship dock.
The major hotels are only a short and inexpensive taxi ride from downtown, but confirm the price in advance. You can rent a car, if you wish, but taxis or vans are generally the best plan, even for extended trips to distant beaches such as Mismaloya.
Wherever you stay in Puerto Vallarta and however you choose to spend your time, there is one glorious moment of the day when all visitors and locals partake of the same magic. That is the time of sunset, which is chromatically lavish here. The final hour of light is a leisurely margarita-sipping drama with several kaleidoscopal acts. The finale is the decisive moment when the orange-yellow orb sinks out of sight beneath the bay, which is often glassy smooth. Tropical sunsets here are memories that can sustain a wind-chilled traveler through the long North American winter. Once the seduction of a visit to Puerto Vallarta has occurred, anticipate cravings for a return visit as life proceeds.
Puerto Vallarta: If You Go
Puerto Vallarta’s website is www.visitpuertovallarta.com.