We try to make our regular visit to the Mexican Riviera town of Puerto Vallarta early in the year, when the wintry chill comes to Southern California. Another over-riding reason is to attend the Wednesday night Art Walk in Old Town Vallarta.
Every Wednesday night, from November to May, about 15 art galleries in Viejo Vallarta (Old Town) stay open late to welcome tourists who wander along the cobbled roads from one gallery to another, following self-guided maps. Actually about 30 galleries get into the act by capitalizing on the official participation of their neighbors. Wine and snacks are offered at most, and there are paintings, statues, and other media for everyone’s taste. It’s a great opportunity to meet the artists as well as other tourists.
The large and sprawling city of Puerto Vallarta grew up around Old Town, an area of narrow cobbled streets, numerous craft and jewelry shops, restaurants, a small shady plaza and the Church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, whose ornate tower crown is a Puerto Vallarta icon.
Not only has the town grown in size since my first visit there over 35 years ago, but in class and distinction as well. The widened concrete malecón, or sea wall, extends along the length of Old Town and is interspersed with eye-catching sculptures. Tourists join the locals strolling the broad seaside walkway at dusk, enjoying snacks or buying mementoes from carts, or catching some social activity at the open air theater known as Los Arcos (The Arches). From the malecón, cameras click like mad when the sun sets over beautiful Bandera Bay, the largest on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
In recent years the malecón has been extended south to what is known as the “Romantic Zone.” Now a pedestrian bridge crosses the Rio Cuale along the beach linking the two sections of town. Previously only two one-way automobile bridges linked the town. In the middle of the Rio Cuale with pedestrian access from the bridges is the Isla Cuale, a long narrow island with a path linking a few nice restaurants and lots of handicraft stands wedged in and among immense, shady banyon trees. For those who like a little fun leaving the island, there are two pedestrian rope suspension bridges that really bounce you up and down.
Near the river and fronting the beach, several old garden type hotels have been torn down and replaced with large high-rise condo units.
The Romantic Zone is incredibly popular and is the center of most of the town’s vibrant nightlife, much of it catering to a gay clientele. There are noisy hotels crammed up against one another, lots of restaurants and two small sandy beaches that can get very crowded. Lots of condos and B&Bs for rent in the area, but I’d check the noise factor out first.
While Puerto Vallarta (PV to many) has only been a major tourist destination for less than 40 years, there is evidence of continuous human habitation in the area since about 580 B.C. In 1524 there was a large battle in the area between Hernán Cortes and the Spaniards against over 10,000 Indians. Later the Bay of Banderas served as a refuge for the Spanish Manila galleons.
Puerto Vallarta itself was founded in 1851 as Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe, and became a municipality in 1918 when it was renamed after the former Jalisco governor Ignacio Vallarta. It became a city in 1981 and now has over 175,000 inhabitants.
What put PV on the proverbial map was in 1963 when American director John Huston (There’s a statue of him on Isla Cuale) filmed “The Night of The Iguana” in Mismaloya, a small village to the south. During the filming, the extensive media coverage followed Elizabeth Taylor and her extramarital affair with Richard Burton. Casa Kimberley (actually two small villas in Old Town they shared with a footbridge between them) is still a tourist destination.
By the late 1960s the Mexican government invested in highways and an airport, making PV accessible for the first time. At first most tourists were Mexican. Then the Americans started coming.
Over the years hotels have been added, stretching north to the airport and beyond, into the neighboring state of Nayarit. There is now a huge marina welcoming cruise ships all week long, and a second marina farther north at Nuevo Vallarta.
The surge continues northward and Punta Mita, the point at the far end of the bay has some elaborate five-star resorts. North of Punta Mita along a broad sandy beach called the Costa Azul are a couple of old villages that are slowly being taken over by gringos. The first, Sayulita, still has some charm left, but I was asked to “speak English” in one restaurant apparently owned by expatriates.
The next town north, San Pancho, is still a sleepy little Mexican village, with young girls sweeping the dirt roads in front of shops, dogs sleeping under mango trees, and old men watching the visitors walk by. But not for long. I saw grandiose plans to totally redo the place in American style, adding a whole hillside of condos.
While PV has obviously been discovered, there’s still plenty to do.
In recent trips I’ve gone out fishing for sailfish and dorado, and once went on a snorkeling excursion where we stopped for lunch on a delightful secluded beach; returning to town we slowed to watch some whales.
Puerto Vallarta offers evening dinner cruises, an old galleon cruise with fireworks, whale watching trips, jungle tours, dune buggy adventures, bungee jumping, kayaking, golf, parasailing over the bay, banana boats, swimming, and the most recent addition of zip line adventures taking you out over the jungle canopy.
This past March I finally made the boat trip to Yelapa, something I have been putting off for one reason or another since 1974. Yelapa is on the mainland south of Puerto Vallarta, but it could be on the moon for all its accessibility. The small charming Mexican beach village in recent years finally received electricity to connect with the world.
The only way to get there is by water taxi (about $20 RT.) and there are only two boats round trip each day, each of which gives you about three hours there. From the small dock you can walk around the village paths although some are wide enough for tourists on horses and little golf carts that drop off supplies to the handful of little cafes and shops.
At the top of the village a waterfall tumbles out of the jungle into a rock-lined pool and is a relaxing reward for hiking up the path.
Another hike takes you past a lagoon to a broad sandy beach where three or four restaurants on the sand are open for the lunch time visitors. At the end of the beach is a small rustic hotel, La Lagunita, where thatch-roofed rooms peek out from the jungle. www.hotel-lagunita.com
Yelapa gives one the feeling of stepping back in time, even if it’s only an hour boat ride from Puerto Vallarta.
There are hotels everywhere in PV, depending on your taste. I like to be downtown where I can walk to everything if possible. One time we stayed at the Westin hotel in the Marina and while the amenities are nice, we found we were hopping on busses every day to go downtown. The city busses that cover the main road in front of all the hotels are inexpensive, seemingly safe, and run frequently. Lots of middle-aged gringos ride the busses there.
Closer in, and walking distance of Old Town (About 1 mile) is the Sheraton Bugambilias, and closer yet, the Buenaventura, and next door to it, the Premiere which is a bit more upscale and adults only. www.premiereonline.com.mx.
Fine dining is a PV pastime and I have a few favorites. The Cafe de Artistes is a wonderful restaurant with both a romantic patio and indoor dining. In Old Town, it is across the street from some of the art galleries, so good for Wednesday night.
Two of my favorites are on the Isla Cuale, the River Cafe, and the elegant Le Bistro. Another don’t miss is the La Palapa, on the Playa Los Muertos in the Romantic Zone. Right on the sand, we try to lunch there every trip. The walls are covered with photos as I remembered it from the 1970s.
But Puerto Vallarta is for everyone, and you can cast pretensions aside and dine on the street. I found some excellent shrimp tostadas at a stand called Mariscos del Jefe on the main street about three blocks from the Premiere. The guy’s been doling out great mariscos (seafood) from that stand for 38 years.
While the city has been growing up, it seems that much of the past is retained. b
(Greg Niemann, a long-time San Clemente Journal contributor, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.)