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Movie Star Famous Puerto Vallarta Has Much to Offer

Beach with lounge chairs

Puerto Vallarta 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.

By Victor Block

The vacation destination where my wife, Fyllis, and I chose to escape the winter cold may not be 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 for a variety of reasons.

Mary and William North, for example, travel from Nebraska each year to enjoy the warm weather and friendly people. Beth Taylor, a native of Portland, Ore., comes for the culture scene and casual lifestyle. Colorado residents Jim and Arlene Warner praise the city’s location between the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains and Pacific Ocean and the fact that “it’s a walking town.” Then they observe, “PV just gets under your skin.”

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 neighborhood.

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, based on Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name. Huston was attracted by the site’s setting between forest-clad mountains and the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), one of the largest bays in the world.

Burton starred in the movie and Taylor, with whom he was having an extramarital affair, accompanied him to the location. Their tempestuous relationship attracted an influx of Hollywood paparazzi who came to report on every detail of their liaison. 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.

Myriad Beaches

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 are many from which to choose.

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.

Silver vendor on beach

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 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 Mexican natives or pirates killed the crew of a ship transporting gold and silver or, in the more likely version, the beach was once a cemetery.

Those interested in the story of the area’s native population have a menu of alternatives. Touches of native culture include ancient petroglyphs, contemporary beadwork created by the Tierra Huichols, whose name means “walkers in mountains,” and exhibits in a small museum in the heart of Puerto Vallarta.

That archaeological showcase shares the Isla Cuale with a smattering of restaurants, souvenir shops and cultural sites. Among exhibits are artifacts that have been recovered 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.

A Change of Pace

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 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.

My wife and I  agreed that our personal 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 perhaps even the 20th. This is horse country and we spotted animals grazing in corrals, being transported in vans and 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 us 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.

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