Puerto Vallarta Earns the Hype

It’s been a long time since I experienced a case of visitor’s melancholia upon departure from a city I’ve visited. I remember feeling it when leaving Buenos Aires years ago and, more recently, Paris. I felt it after spending several weeks in the Canadian Gulf Islands and after swimming in the Mediterranean off Malaga. But Puerto Vallarta? This was unexpected! After all, Puerto Vallarta, or P.V. as it’s often referred to, ranks up there with the most-visited tourist spots in the world and is hardly considered either exotic, remote or even an especially culturally significant part of amazing Mexico. But on this, my first visit, it was all that…and more. I was smitten.

Here’s a bit of business you won’t read in tourist magazines. Did you know that Banderas Bay, the huge, 62 mile bite out of the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit, is where they believe the landmass of Baja California broke off of millenniums ago to form the Gulf of California? It is, indeed, a huge natural bay and among the largest in North America. Here’s a link to more indepth info: Facts – Banderas Bay. Puerto Vallarta sits in the middle of this large arc of land, a geographic advantage that protects it from much of the worst aspects of the annual hurricane season.

The city’s growth began in earnest in the 1950’s as an escape from McCarthyism by Hollywood’s writers, actors and directors under investigation during that dark time in U.S. history.  It took off internationally, of course, as the site of the filming of The Night of the Iguana and the quixotic and well-publicized love affair of its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Their oft-photographed homes, with the “love bridge” between them, are still occupied today in the “Gringo Gulch” residential area of the Zona Centro, in the hills above the church. Taylor’s home, Casa Kimberly, just reopened as an upscale B & B. More about that here: Facts – Casa Kimberly

North of the city lies the newer and what some might term, more “upscale” areas of the city, including the Marina complex of hotels, condos, restaurants and shops. I found the area a bit detached physically and emotionally from the city itself. It could as well be situated in Florida or California, as American hospitality chains are abundant. The huge, luxurious CasaMagna Marriott, where I spent one night during my stay before relocating to a venue in town, is a prime example.

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To the south of the city are numerous resorts, private villas and condominium projects that dot the landscape for miles. It is a gorgeous area and includes views of Los Arcos de Mismaloya,  a photog’s delight, known officially as Los Arcos Marine Park.

The heart and soul of P.V. lies in the older neighbourhoods of Colonia El Centro and Zona Romantica, which neighbor each other, separated by the River Cuale. This is where one can get a true “picture” and feel for what made the Hollywood elite and international tourists fall in love with the city decades ago.

Notice the crown on the top of the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, above center. This is actually a new rendition made of fiberglass that replaced the original stone and concrete structure destroyed by an earthquake that hit the area in the 90’s.

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The Malecon is the seaside promenade most tourists will be directed to at some point by their hotel concierge or tour guide. It is eminently walkable, scenic and filled with the usual plethora of mostly tchotchke shops and themed restaurants. It is lovely and worth a few hours, but obviously designed for the cruise ship and packaged tour market. Visitors beware! Timeshare sales people are omnipresent at every corner and are known to introduce themselves in a variety of guises in order to trap you into hearing their pitch. The artwork along the bay and the amphitheater ensure that your time will be well spent, however.

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As I mentioned earlier, the River Cuale runs down through the mountains and empties into the bay between the two original neighborhoods of the town. Pedestrian and vehicle bridges cross it at several points. It is even used by locals as a freshwater source for recreation and is a reminder that this area is so geographically diverse.

In the center of the river is a tourist hotspot, the Isla del Rio Cuale, with its serpentine walkway that allows casual strolling through shops, restaurants and vendor stalls of all types.

I was charmed along the route by this little “pocket park” that combined the historic with the whimsical, a common occurrence here in Mexico.

One afternoon I hired a boat to take me down the coast south of the city center to the Los Arcos rock islands, seen so often in photos of the area. The tour allowed me to see villas and resorts not visible from the roadway.

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And how about bungee jumping from a stony outcrop into the depths of Banderas Bay? Anyone? I can’t even imagine….

Here’s the actual site for the filing of Night of the Iguana, now lying in sad disrepair surrounded by wire fencing and graffiti. You’ll have to rent the film and compare, as it is a stunning site overlooking the water in Mismaloya, a former fishing village about eight miles south of P.V. Liz, Dick and John Houston would be horrified! Interesting read here about that film, btw: Facts – The Night of the Iguana.

The islands themselves are simply breathtaking. They are a prime area for scuba diving and snorkeling – and obviously, for photographers from the world over.

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Off-limits to animals of the human kind, they are home to an enormously abundant variety of tropical fish and birds, including huge Pelicans and the colorful, but egregiously named, Blue Footed Booby. I wasn’t able to catch a photo of any boobies.

As with all things, the boat trip came to an end and we returned to the bustling Zona Romantica.

Of course, most tourist come to P.V. for the beaches, and they are seriously among the most beautiful in the world. These photos are the “money shots” for tourist magazines and are the hook that generates the millions of visitors who come here annually.

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After five days in Puerto Vallarta, it dawned on me that I was smitten, awash in the indulgent charms of the area and determined to go back soon. Describing it is difficult, but the words and phrases that come to mind include: timeless, something for everyone, food!, colors, seabreeze, sophisticated but uncomplicated, unexpectedly charming, sensual and romantic, playful, surprising, quirky and diverse. It’s one of those places that gets better every day you spend there and offers an array of activities that take full advantage of the natural beauty of this portion of Mexico’s vast Pacific coastline. As a visitor, it’s your choice whether to party till dawn, or spend hours reading, eating and taking early morning and sunset strolls along often secluded strands of beach. It is, after all, one the country’s most successful destinations, but as my “departure melancholia” inferred, unlike many beach destinations touted as all that by the local tourist board, this one actually lives up to its hype. I can’t wait to experience its memorable and idiosyncratic vibe again soon.