This destination my wife Fyllis and I were visiting isn't for everyone. Some beaches (but not all) consist of more pebbles than sand, and the ocean in places lacks the clarity and multi-hued colors of the Caribbean Sea.
Despite these drawbacks, in recent years, the Mexican seaside resort of Puerto Vallarta (pronounced pwer-toe vuh-yahr-tuh) has grown from a sleepy village into a magnet for people who favor it for a variety of reasons.
When I asked fellow vacationers what attractions the place holds for them, I received various responses. Mary and William North said the warm weather and friendly people persuade them to travel there each year from their home in Nebraska. Portland, Oregon native Beth Taylor explained that she enjoys the culture scene and casual lifestyle.
The place's mystique was best summarized by New Hampshire residents Jim and Arlene Warner. They praised the city's location between the rugged Sierra Madre Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and the fact that “it's a walking town." Then they added, “PV just gets under your skin."
That seems to be the case because PV attracts countless repeat visitors, as those in the know call it.
Sun, Sand, and Scintillating Surprises
The town and its surroundings offer the usual activities expected at oceanfront resort communities. In addition, they throw in a few surprises – like a graffiti tour, hunting excursions, climbing a mountain, and rappelling down waterfalls.
An unexpected treat for many first-time visitors is a gathering of art galleries in the Zona Romantica (romantic zone) neighborhood and the proliferation of eclectic sculptures that line the Malecon -- a walkway along the seashore. It teems with street entertainers, food vendors, and others seeking to pry a few pesos out of a visitor’s wallet or purse.
Given the almost around-the-clock activity in the town, it can be hard to imagine that Puerto Vallarta was a tiny fishing village with only a handful of small hotels until the early 1960s. Then came fame in the persons of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
A True Hollywood Romance Story
In 1963, the well-known director John Huston selected a site just outside of PV to film “The Night of the Iguana,” a movie based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Huston was attracted by the location’s then-tranquil setting between forest-clad mountains and the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), one of the largest ocean inlets in the world.
Richard Burton starred in the movie, and Elizabeth Taylor, having an extra-marital affair, accompanied him to the area. Their tempestuous relationship attracted an influx of Hollywood paparazzi who reported on every detail, and PV suddenly became world-famous.
Based on that publicity, the town blossomed into a popular vacation destination that offers different vibes from other resort developments in Mexico created specifically to cater to tourists.
The feeling of a “real” town beneath the veneer of a resort community is welcomed by many visitors. That’s true even though, in places, “real" translates to somewhat threadbare. In a way, that only adds to the city's charm for those who love it.
While locations associated with the Burton-Taylor love affair are high on the must-see list of many first-time visitors, they soon discover other attractions worth seeing. Not surprisingly, beaches are a major draw, and there’s plenty of variety to suit every preference.
Mismaloya beach is inviting enough for its setting alone, fronting a gently curving cove with a verdant backdrop of dense jungle foliage. An added allure is that much of the “Night of the Iguana” was filmed there.
Other beaches also have their attractions. Playa Gemelas (twin beach) overlooks some of the clearest water in the bay. Las Animas, Quimixto, and Yelapa are isolated stretches of sand accessible only by boat.
More than one theory about how Playa de Los Muertos (beach of the dead) got its name. Some stories suggest that either Indians or pirates killed the crew of a ship passing by that was transporting gold and silver. Another more likely, version is that the beach once served as a burial place for the Huichol natives.
The Huichol people were there when the Spanish arrived, and they continue to be a presence in the region. Among touches of native Huichol culture to explore are ancient petroglyphs etched into even more ancient stones, lovely beadwork made and offered for sale by Huichol women, and performances of a ceremonial pole dance along the Malecon.
Indian lore also is one focus of a small museum in the heart of Puerto Vallarta. That archaeological showcase shares TheIsla Cuale (Cuale Island) with a smattering of restaurants, souvenir shops, and cultural sites.
Among exhibits at the museum are artifacts found during archaeological digs.
Visitors seeking to immerse themselves in the present-day life of locals and the area’s inviting natural setting may find it at tiny villages not far from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta.
Tiny Towns with Big Attractions
The hamlet of Boca de Tomatlan is set amid a tropical jungle environment teeming with birds and butterflies. Sayulita, in ways, resembles a hipster-surfer setting with reliable waves, an eclectic mix of restaurants, and a variety of stores.
Fyllis and I preferred Las Palmas, a village perched in the Sierra Madre foothills that has changed little over centuries. The dusty streets are uncrowded, and pushcart vendors go house to house offering their wares.
This is horse country, and we spotted several steeds walking down the dusty, nearly deserted streets ridden by Mexican cowboys fitted out in full regalia.
This setting contrasted with the lively city of Puerto Vallarta, time spent basking in the sun and taking part in the long list of things to do and see there. It's that something-for-everyone variety that tempts most people to visit PV, then convinces many to return.
For more information about PV, log onto visit-vallarta.com.
I officially became a resident of Mexico in April, and I have been in Vallarta for about a year. I live just outside the touristy part of town. My life is pretty simple here, and I love it.