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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Magical Puerto Vallarta

There is a magic to Puerto Vallarta, which defies explanation. You just have to spend some time there and soak up its unique atmosphere to understand.

Whether it was this mystique that fueled the fiery attraction between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton when he was filming “The Night of the Iguana” here in 1963 - and what prompted director John Huston to claim it as home until his final years - is hard to say. Yet, the torrid affair and the onslaught of paparazzi that came with it, carved this scenic haven onto the international map forever, drawing Hollywood types and savvy sybarites ever since.

Long before the adulterous duo made Puerto Vallarta their favorite trysting place, the Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags) was a refuge for ships seeking shelter from Pacific storms and marauding pirates preying on Spanish galleons.

Nowadays, this sultry area straddling the bay in the state of Jalisco has a cachet all of its own. And unlike other beach resorts in Mexico – downtown PV (as it's known to English speakers) – has managed to escape the inevitable “gringo-ization” of other Mexican resorts and has retained the unmistakable flavor of “old” Mexico…the real deal.

Colorful facades highlight buildings in Zona Romantica
(photos: Michelle Richmond)

North of downtown, the Marina Vallarta area has blossomed in recent years into a strip of all-inclusive resorts, internationally renowned properties and large retail chains – many of them, US favorites. Further north, in the state of Nayarit, newcomers like Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita, add a totally different feel to the overall destination, which people tend to list under the general heading “Puerto Vallarta.”

A short taxi ride into town lands me in the center of this colonial gem by the sea. I’ve chosen the Hacienda San Angel to be my home away from home. An enclave of five Mexican villas, one of which was given by Richard Burton to his then wife Susan as a Valentine’s Day gift, its colonial tiles, fine woodwork and rich antiques, lend credence to the Mexican adage, “mi casa es su casa,” (my home is your home). Hidden gardens and stunning views of the Bay and the landmark crown atop PV’s Basilica are exceptional perks, while its location, just steps from downtown affords easy access to PV’s activities.

Around the corner Casa Kimberley, given by Burton to Taylor long ago sits in silent tribute to their shattered marriage. Burton subsequently purchased the house across the street and a bridge links the two to this day.

The original downtown area – the heart of PV - with its small white-washed adobe buildings, red-tiled roofs and steep cobblestone streets winds its way from the lush Sierra Madres, spilling out onto the seafront making it easy to explore on foot.

La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is the heart of Puerto Vallarta religious life and the focal point of an elaborate 12-day festival each December. Construction was carried out over a 12-year period beginning in 1929. It boasts hand-carved columns, decorative moldings and other rich detailing. Its ornate crown was replaced after it was damaged in a 1995 earthquake.

Iconic crown is symbol of PV

On Sunday nights the small main square comes to life with a concert band and dancing in the park and elote (grilled ears of corn slathered with mayo and sprinkled with chile powder) served for "fortification."

There are two distinct neighborhoods downtown: Viejo Vallarta (Old Town Vallarta) and the Zona Romantica, (Romantic Zone) also known as Playa los Muertos (named for an alleged bloody battle between pirates and local Indians hundreds of years ago).

The recently refurbished seafront promenade, known as the malecón, is the focal point of local life here. Whimsical sculptures by local artists line the 11-block strip of boutiques, cafes and cozy bistros which provide activity all day and late into the night. At its southern end, a series of lighted arches act as the stage for live music or performances by jugglers, dancers, comedians and art exhibits.

Culturally and gastronomically speaking, PV ranks second to Mexico City. Each year, in November, the International Gourmet Festival draws award-winning local chefs and more than 20 guest chefs from around the world, to showcase their skills at venues around town. Throughout the year there are cooking classes, wine, tequila and beer tasting events and an annual film festival.

Whimsical sculptures on Malecón

Some of Mexico’s top chefs and numerous chefs from around the world have settled in Puerto Vallarta and opened restaurants here.

One of the most popular - El Arrayán - is tucked into an old house and serves traditional Mexican fare. The Margarita El Arrayán is legendary. Owner Carmen Porras is hospitable and very proud of her establishment. During the low season, she offers cooking classes, which include a visit to the local market with the chef to purchase the ingredients.

Café des Artistes is part art gallery, part gastronomic haven and a total class act with the distinction of being one of the best restaurants in Mexico. Owner Chef Thierry Blouet is one of only 340 chefs admitted into the inner circle of the “Maîtres Cuisiniers de France,” the highest qualification in the world of gastronomy. With a selection of more than 350 wines and cuisine which is not only pleasing to the palate, but is a visual feast, Café des Artistes has been dubbed, “French with Mexican touches.”

Art galleries run the gamut in Puerto Vallarta, from those representing pottery from all over Mexico to individual artists selling their own works. During the high season, from November to mid-April, the art galleries of both Marina Vallarta and Vallarta Viejo offer art walks.

Once a month each area’s numerous art galleries host evening cocktail inaugurations to exhibit the latest work of their honored artists. Maps are given to attendees to find the galleries - all within an easy walk from each other. These “Art Openings” are the highlight of the season and have a large following.

If You Go:


  1. Great post and recommendations! I absolutely love Hacienda San Angel - it's surely one of the most romantic spots in the world.

  2. Thanks so much for posting. I couldn't agree more....Hda San Miguel is one of my favorites!

  3. I love this- so unique- thank you for sharing!

  4. Thanks for your informative article about Puerto Vallarta. Based on your recommendation, it seems that I should add it to my list of places to visit in Mexico. Last year we spent two weeks in Mexico, visiting the Bajio (San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretero) and Mexico City. I hadn't been there since I lived in San Miguel in 1963-64 as a child. We felt quite safe in those places. I've read about some cartel violence around Puerto Vallarta. Did you feel secure there? (I come from Philadelphia--a/k/a Killadelphia--but, I know how to live here and feel more or less secure.) In your opinion, is that the same situation in Puerto Vallarta?

    1. I wouldn't hesitate to visit PV. I saw no evidence of any kind of violence anywhere I went. And, as always, Mexicans are more than willing to share the warmth of Mexico. I hope you do plan to visit soon. You'll see a lot of changes, but the colonial area, the "heart" of PV still maintains that wonderful flavor of the "real" Mexico.

  5. I'd love to visit Mexico some time - this looks like the sort of town I'd want to stay in :)