Exotic and unspoiled, Puerto Vallarta offers tradition and beaches

January 26, 1992|By Ron Butler

Aficionados consider Puerto Vallarta -- unspoiled by the recent sweep of development that has changed so much of Mexico's traditional tempo and appearance -- the purest of its popular beach resorts.

And by far the most exotic.

A favorite location site of Hollywood filmmakers, Puerto Vallarta most recently served as the sultry backdrop for the Anthony Quinn-Kevin Costner film "Revenge."

The late John Huston had a home there. In his films, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Night of the Iguana" and "Under the Volcano," he created a tapestry of Mexico that was relentlessly beautiful even at its seamiest.

It was "The Night of the Iguana," which was shot in Puerto Vallarta, that is generally credited with putting the town on the map. Plundered by souvenir hunters and pounded by tropical storms, little of the movie set remains, but daylong excursions to nearby Mismaloya, where it was located, are popular.

Indeed, it's part history -- pirates and explorers came here as early as the 1500s, later Sir Francis Drake and treasure ships from the Orient -- and part Hollywood legend that makes Puerto Vallarta more than just another pretty string of beaches and boulevards, discos and nightclubs. The popular Christine's, Carlos O'Brien's and Friday Lopez could be anywhere. The fact that they're located here within the shadow of legends makes them especially appealing.

Ava Gardner cavorting with beach boys; Burton and Ms. Taylor, each married to someone else at the time, scandalizing everybody; Huston, pouring another Herradura tequila, all have woven a kind of forbidden magic, a scintillating decadence that remains today. For many, it's very much a part of Puerto Vallarta's attraction.

The city's main focal point is the Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The ornate crown on its steeple is Puerto Vallarta's best known landmark and is a replica of the one worn by the Virgin of Guadalupe -- the patron saint of Mexico -- in Mexico City's basilica.

Framed by a combination of mountains, terraces and fast-shifting cloud masses, Puerto Vallarta's latitude is precisely that of Hawaii's. In the lush outlying foothills,terraced gardens suggest Bali. Everywhere, the air is heavy with a sense of intrigue and mystery.

Swiss-born Chris Schlittler, general manager of the Fiesta America, one of Puerto Vallarta's two premier hotels (the other is the Krystal Vallarta) spent three years as managing director of the Holiday Inn in Tibet before being transferred to Puerto Vallarta. He says he finds an odd, almost mystical similarity between the two places, particularly in the unhurried gentleness of the people.

This is also evident in the work of Puerto Vallarta's best-known painter, the late Manuel Lepe. He won international fame through his whimsical paintings of Puerto Vallarta children.

Hundreds of little round-faced boys and girls, angels mostly, are found in his paintings. They pilot planes, climb trees, drive buses and bakery trucks, float in the air or peek happily out of windows at the world.

Lepe's oil paintings cost thousands of dollars, but prints and silk-screen posters are available and affordable -- a find for collectors and a keepsake of the magic of Mexico.

A large Lepe mural can be seen inside the Municipal City Hall, near the bay. Lepe began the mural in 1982, but it was completed by another artist when he died the following year at the age of 46.

Puerto Vallarta, located in the state of Jalisco (Guadalajara is the capital), was named after Ignacio Luis Vallarta, governor of the state in 1918 when the town became a municipality. It's situated in the curve of Bahia de Banderas, the bay of flags.

The first thing visitors see when they arrive at the airport in Puerto Vallarta is a sign, saying "Bienvenidos a este alegre lugar," or "Welcome to this happy place."

Longtime visitors are inevitably surprised. The more Puerto Vallarta grows, the more it stays the same. The once-drowsy seaside village now has a population of nearly 200,000. It's hardly a village anymore.

Yet donkey carts still clip-clop along cobblestone roads. Many downtown streets are still unpaved. Women wash their clothes as they've done forever, on the banks of the Rio Cuale, drying them on flat stones.

By law, all homes must be painted white. Most are topped with red clay tiled roofs. Even the local supermarket, Gigante, has a cobblestone parking lot, preserving the old-time flavor of the seaside jungle setting. Brilliant clusters of bougainvillea are everywhere, tumbling over patio walls and along hotel walkways.

In the late afternoon, the local gentry still meets downtown over cups of good, dark Mexican coffee or icy bottles of Carta Blanca beer. The bar in the old Oceanic Hotel is now called Tequila's, and the nearby traffic light, designed in the shape of a small lighthouse that used to blink stop and go, stands abandoned on the side of the road. Cars traveling along the waterfront rarely paid attention to it anyway.

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