Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, masterfully plays the part of a remote tropical getaway, even as it grows into a larger city that's connected to the outside world by multinational chain stores and a steady stream of jets and cruise ships.
Puerto Vallarta's success has a lot to do with looks. However, in recent years, unchecked development along every inch of its beach has gradually turned the once-quaint fishing village enjoyed by the moneyed few into a mass-market destination. Still, there remains much beauty in Vallarta (as it is known to the locals and habitues) and the coast to its northwest.
Whitewashed walls and terra-cotta-tiled roofs are nestled along Banderas Bay, with the ornate crown of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe serving as a focal point. The lush, green foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains to the east make for a beautiful and dramatic backdrop.
Puerto Vallarta's style is another key. Even as more and more travelers have arrived, and more and more hotels have been built, it has somehow managed to retain—or at least appears to retain—a cultured grace that's rare in heavily touristed areas.
Artists, architects, writers and chefs flourish in this rarified climate of tropical creativity. The restaurants, galleries and shops there are some of the finest in the country, drawing local talent from Mexico City and Guadalajara, and farther afield from Italy, Switzerland, Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.
Puerto Vallarta lies at the coastal center of Banderas Bay, a large semicircular inlet on Mexico's Pacific coast. The oldest part of the city is El Centro (also referred to as Viejo Vallarta, Old Town or downtown). The malecon
, a bustling mile-long promenade, runs along the waterfront from the Hotel Rosita at its northern end to the South Side's Plaza Lazaro Cardenas. It passes the Plaza Principal (Main Square) and one block east of that is the city's main church. West of the church and several blocks inland, in the hills, is the neighborhood known as Gringo Gulch.
At the southern end of El Centro is Rio Cuale. Isla Rio Cuale is a narrow island at the mouth of the river. South of the river is another old neighborhood called South Side (better known as Zona Romantica or occasionally Emiliano Zapata). That's where you'll find the most popular downtown beaches—Playa los Muertos (which the government and tourist agencies prefer you call by the much less sinister-sounding Playa del Sol, but that sunnier-sounding moniker has never really caught on). Just south of Playa los Muertos is the hillside neighborhood of Conchas Chinas.
Developments, resorts and villages dot the bay's coastline. Heading north of downtown takes you to the oceanfront Zona Hotelera (hotel strip), Marina Vallarta (which contains the cruise-ship and yacht harbors, hotels, shops and restaurants), the airport and the main bus station. Continuing north, you'll find Nuevo Vallarta, which marks the beginning of the state of Nayarit and the area known as the Riviera Nayarit, a separate, traditionally upscale tourist destination running nearly 200 mi/322 km north along the coast and Banderas Bay. Beyond Bucerias lies La Cruz de Huanacaxtle with its 400-vessel-capacity marina and, at the northern tip of the bay, the surfer's paradise of Punta de Mita and the private Punta Mita complex housing luxury resorts, mansions and PGA golf courses.
South of Puerto Vallarta, a region that receives fewer visitors, are several beach areas, including Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan. Farther down the coast, and reachable only by boat, are Las Animas, Quimixto, Las Caletas and Yelapa. The Costalegre region, starting about an hour south and continuing to the next state after Barra de Navidad, has some of the most spectacular beaches in Mexico and is home to several exclusive resorts.
The area around Puerto Vallarta was originally inhabited by Tarascans, Chapalas, Huichol and members of the Aztec confederation of tribes. The first European to visit Puerto Vallarta was Francisco Hernandez de San Buenaventura, a nephew of conqueror Hernan Cortes.
As the story goes—it has likely been embellished over the years—the Spanish explorer and his party were met on the shore by 20,000 Indians, each carrying a flag made of bird feathers. In turn, the Spanish produced four banderas (banners), including one that depicted the Immaculate Conception. This display supposedly subdued the natives, who laid aside their feather flags, while a Spanish priest prayed for their souls. Banderas Bay takes its name from the event.
Centuries later the bay was a favorite of pirates who lurked in its coves and inlets waiting to plunder the richly laden Spanish galleons traveling from the Philippines to Acapulco. Smugglers trying to avoid the custom houses in San Blas also landed their boats in Puerto Vallarta.
Although the flag incident was said to have occurred in 1525, development of the bay didn't begin until the 1850s, when the Sanchez family used the Rio Cuale as a port for transporting silver from the mines in the nearby sierra. The town was called Las Penas then, and for a long time fewer than 2,000 people—mostly farmers and fishermen—lived there. In 1888, half the town was destroyed by fire. According to legend, the damage would have been less if most of the male population were not attending a cockfight. In 1918, Las Penas was renamed to honor Ignacio Luis Vallarta, governor of the state of Jalisco.
By the 1940s, commercial flights began landing on a dirt airstrip outside town. Artists and writers from the U.S., disillusioned with the McCarthy era, started immigrating to Vallarta in the 1950s and built homes in what is now known as Gringo Gulch. By the late 1960s, it was a hideaway for movie stars and other reclusive types, and remained charming and serene.
What really ignited interest in the city was Hollywood. In 1963, director John Huston chose Puerto Vallarta as the location for his film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, which starred Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. Elizabeth Taylor wasn't in the movie, but she accompanied Burton, with whom she was having a torrid affair. Much of the filming was done in the deserted cove of Mismaloya. The antics of Taylor and Burton attracted the international press and gave Vallarta its reputation as a steamy romantic escape; soon, large numbers of travelers went to experience it for themselves.
In 1968, a road was built from Tepic, about 105 mi/169 km northeast of Vallarta, to connect Puerto Vallarta by road to the rest of the world.
As a resort town, Puerto Vallarta's best offerings are recreation, restaurants and seaside relaxation rather than pure sightseeing. The city is expanding rapidly, and in the rush to add more malls and shopping venues, much of the quaint old town and the Zona Romantica have been made over. However, there are a few sites and areas worth visiting.
Start with a walk along the oceanfront promenade known as the malecon. It's the ideal place for people-watching and viewing the sunset, and it also has myriad fascinating sculptural installations, some wonderfully whimsical and created by local artists. Shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and cafes are chock-a-block along this strip. As crowded as it can be, there's nothing else like it in Mexico, and it is an absolute must to take in—especially Sunday evenings, when local families traditionally enjoy it on their one day of rest (a six-day work week is common there).
Strolling through El Centro can also be a treat. The most obvious architectural landmark is the city's main church, La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. After you've admired the interior, climb any of the staircases behind the church: You'll be rewarded with delightful views of the church, the city and the bay.
Two other good spots for a stroll are the quiet Isla Rio Cuale, a small island in the river with good restaurants and quiet nooks for resting, and the lively South Side neighborhood of Conchas Chinas just inland from Los Muertos Beach. The quieter cobblestoned streets there provide a glimpse of the small fishing village Vallarta once was.
The old town in general, and especially the Zona Romantica, also affords some wonderful sights and architectural gems, often hidden away on a side street or resting comfortably alongside a modern edifice. Strolling through the side streets is best done in the early morning to midafternoon, when you're less likely to encounter the hordes of tourists that make Vallarta into a very different place at night.
For Tennessee Williams buffs and travelers smitten with Hollywood history and lore, a minor industry has sprung up around the relics of The Night of the Iguana, which was filmed in Puerto Vallarta in 1963. The Mismaloya area, where much of the location work was shot, continues to draw visitors to its pretty cove dotted with palapa restaurants. Nowadays, a group of privately owned condominiums dominates the beachfront just north of Mismaloya. Some of the original set (vastly reconstructed) initially was maintained by the complex and used for a 50th-anniversary celebration. Some remains of these can be seen from a pathway, but there is no longer any access to them.
Some of the most beautiful scenery along Banderas Bay is just south of the city, where tropical rain-forest-blanketed mountains actually reach the shores of sandy beaches and the Los Arcos rock formations add a dramatic touch. Day trips by taxi or bus to Mismaloya or by water taxi to Yelapa will reward you with wonderful views and pleasant beaches. If boutiques, galleries, cafes and restaurants are more your thing, you'll find plenty from El Centro to Marina Vallarta—a yacht marina and development north of the Zona Hotelera.
With Mexico's national liquor originating in Jalisco, tequila tastings are ubiquitous in Puerto Vallarta, with dozens of labels offered. It is important to note, however, that many shops that call you in off the street to sample their tequila are tied into time-share sales. Buyer beware.
The scenery gets more spectacular the farther north or south you go from the hotel zone. Small fishing villages such as La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and San Francisco (better known as San Pancho) to the north in Nayarit are beautiful vestiges of what the area was like only a few years ago, and often tours can be arranged to see part of this region, which was once rarely visited by anyone but ecotourists. Punta de Mita and Sayulita are more upscale, with resorts and expensive villas outnumbering taco stands and cantinas. The southern Costalegre is sparsely populated as well, with long stretches of empty beaches and a few exclusive resorts favored by celebrities and business titans.
Tourists flock to Puerto Vallarta for its gorgeous beaches and cobblestoned streets, but when the stars come out, this resort town turns into one of the liveliest nightspots in Mexico. It has all of the bars and nightclubs one would expect—or demand—of a tropical resort city, ranging from the truly awful to the truly chic.
A word to the wise: Especially in a party town like Vallarta, choose your destination wisely and ahead of time. Never allow a taxi to take you to a "recommended" spot, and always know exactly where you're going before you set foot out the door.
If you're going to a disco, be prepared to dress up and arrive late. Most of the top clubs have a dress code, and locals like to get dolled up for a night on the town. There is an enormous number of bars along the malecon, many of which stay open until the early hours of the morning. As for live music, lesser-known places can offer wonderful experiences. Puerto Vallarta also attracts many gay tourists, and a number of gay bars have sprung up in the South Side in recent years.
Be sure to ask before you enter a bar what the drinks will cost you, or you may be in for a rude shock when it comes time to pay the bill. Also, unless you want to pay M$200-$300 for the privilege, do not permit the scantily clad "shot girls" to pour your drinks for you.
Nightlife generally gets going around 11 pm and continues till 5 am.
Thanks to the talents of local and expatriate chefs, Puerto Vallarta stands out as one of the most food-savvy cities in Mexico. Travelers with a yen for a fine Continental, Italian, Indian, French, Asian, Spanish or (of course) Mexican dish will be surprised by the options. In the more innovative establishments, traditional Mexico is artfully blended with the cuisine and flair of foreign lands, making for an exceptional and exotic dining experience. Adding to the roster of Vallarta restaurants are home-style American joints, vegetarian cafes, pancake houses and good seafood eateries serving what the local fishermen bring in that day.
Although quality eateries can be found all over Puerto Vallarta, Calle Basilio Badillo on the South Side has become known as Restaurant Row, thanks to its many excellent spots. Other dining hot spots are Olas Altas, Los Muertos Beach (where the emphasis is on quaint, intimate dining) and the restaurants that line the malecon, which run the gamut from cheap and boisterous watering holes to expensive seafood places. Some of the beach clubs on Los Muertos Beach have their own fine restaurants only open to club guests.
Wherever you eat, we recommend calling ahead for reservations during peak season. Traditionally, locals eat meals much later than their northern neighbors in the U.S. and Canada: Lunch starts at 2 pm and dinner at 8 pm. However, most restaurants cater to earlier eaters. Some restaurants close during the rainiest summer months for the low season.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$200; $$ = M$200-$300; $$$ = M$301-$550; and $$$$ = more than M$550.
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