The vacation destination that my wife and I were visiting isn’t for everyone. Some beaches are more stones than sand and the ocean in places lacks the clarity and multi-hued colors of the Caribbean Sea. Yet in recent years, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico has grown from a sleepy village into a magnet for people who favor it for a variety of reasons.
Mary and William North told me they travel from Nebraska each year to enjoy the warm weather and friendly people. Portland, Oregon native Beth Taylor explained that she opts for the culture scene and casual lifestyle.
Colorado residents Jim and Arlene Warner praised the city’s location between the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains and Pacific Ocean and the fact that “it’s a walking town.” Then they added, “PV just gets under your skin.”
That seems to be true because PV, as those in the know call it, teems with repeat visitors. Some spend time lounging on beaches, checking out the lively art scene and sampling restaurants that range from continental stylish to laid-back local.
Others participate in the usual choice of activities available at many ocean resorts, plus some – hunting, horseback riding and whale watching — which are welcome surprises.
Another unexpected treat is a gathering of art galleries in the Zona Romantica (Romantic Zone) neighborhood, and proliferation of sculptures that line the Malecon. That 1.5-mile walkway along the seashore serves as an outdoor gallery of clowns, unicorns, animals and other objects ranging from lifelike to laugh-inducing. When people strolling along the esplanade aren’t admiring the bronzes or merchandise in shops that is more fun and funky than the usual beach boardwalk tacky, they’re gazing and gawking at an assemblage of street entertainers, food vendors and others seeking to pry a few pesos out of visitors’ wallet or purse.
Puerto Vallarta (pronounced pwer-toe vah-yar-tuh) was a tiny fishing village with a handful of small hotels until the early 1960s. Then came fame, in the persons of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
In 1963, the well-known director John Huston selected a site just outside of PV to film The Night of the Iguana, which was based on a play by Tennessee Williams. He was attracted by its setting between forest-clad mountains and the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), one of the largest bays in the world.
Richard Burton starred in the movie and Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he was having an extramarital affair, accompanied him to the location. Their tempestuous relationship attracted an influx of Hollywood paparazzi who reported on every detail of their liaison, and PV suddenly became world famous. It soon blossomed into a popular vacation destination different from other resort towns in Mexico that were created specifically to cater to tourists.
The feeling of a “real” town beneath the veneer of a resort is what attracts many people to PV. In places, “real” translates to somewhat threadbare, which only adds to the city’s charm. While locations associated with the Burton-Taylor love affair are high on the must-see list of many first-time visitors, a varied choice of other attractions also awaits discovery. Not surprisingly the beaches are a major appeal, and there’s variety to suit every preference.
Mismaloya Beach is inviting enough for its setting, stretching along a gently curving cove with a backdrop of dense jungle foliage. Adding to its allure is that it’s where much of The Night of the Iguana was filmed.
Other beaches have their own attractions. Playa Gemelas (Twins Beach) fronts some of the clearest water in the bay. Las Animas, Quimixto and Yelapa are isolated stretches of sand accessible only by boat. Playa Conchas Chinas offers shallow pools favored by families with young children or grandchildren, while the offshore reef is popular with snorkelers.
There’s more than one theory about how Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead) got its name. Either Indians or pirates killed the crew of a nearby ship transporting gold and silver, or (the most likely version) the beach was an Indian cemetery.
Those interested in the story of the area’s Indian population also have a menu of alternatives. Touches of native culture include ancient petroglyphs, beadwork made by Tierra Huichol Indians and performances of the ceremonial Pole Dance along the Malecon.
As a man perched atop a pole dances about while playing a flute and drum five others, hanging upside down by one foot attached to ropes, descend in a series of concentric circles to the ground. Legend tells us the ritual was created long ago as a plea to gods to send rain and end a severe drought.
Indian lore also is one focus of a small museum in the heart of Puerto Vallarta.
That archaeological showcase shares the Isla Cuale (Cuale Island) with a smattering of restaurants, souvenir shops and cultural sites. Among exhibits are artifacts found during digs near Ixtapa, which also have uncovered the ruins of a pyramid, remains of a ceremonial ball court and a collection of pottery, jewelry and other relics.
Visitors seeking a different immersion in the life of locals may find it at nearby tiny villages, in settings very different from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta. Boca de Tomatlan combines the opportunity for outstanding snorkeling with a jungle environment teeming with birds, butterflies and tropical foliage.
Sayulita in ways resembles a hipster-surfer setting with rideable waves, an eclectic mix of restaurants and a variety of stores. Those shops face competition from Mexicans of various ages selling hammocks, blankets, pottery and other wares.
Our favorite was Las Palmas, a village of about 1,000 people perched in the Sierra Madre foothills that has hardly been touched by the 21st century, nor in ways by the 20th. This is horse country, and we spotted several steeds carrying Mexican cowboys down the dusty, nearly deserted main street.
Looking for a place to have lunch, we used very broken Spanish and hand signs to ask several people if there was a restaurant in town. Finally a man uttered the word “casa” and pointed to the doorway of a humble house nearby.
As we gingerly entered the open door, a woman inside nodded, led us into a small kitchen and pointed to several earthenware bowls on the counter that were filled with a variety of local fare. Our hostess led out onto the back porch, then served us a bountiful meal of refried beans, rice, string bean casserole, tortillas and potato tostados. The food was good, the three beers we sipped were cold and the total bill came to $12.
The meals that we ate at restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, while reasonably priced, cost more than that simple and memorable lunch. That experience stood out in contrast to the lively city, time spent basking in the sun and reliving the past in tiny villages that time has passed by.
If you go. For information visitpuertovallarta.com