Puerto Vallarta: Mexico's trendy resort is also mindful of tradition TWO SIDES OF Paradise

September 25, 1994|By Jay Clarke | Jay Clarke,Knight-Ridder News Service

Thirty years after Liz Taylor and Richard Burton put Puerto Vallarta on the map with a torrid romance, this once-placid little seaside village on the west coast of Mexico has become a major resort.

In what used to be a fishing hole, a half-dozen mega-hotels now rise, each with enormous pools set amid forests of coconut palms. As fat yachts ride at anchor in the marina, vacationers from all over the world stroll on the harbor's boardwalk, pausing to browse in boutiques or sip a cool drink at an outdoor cafe.

This is the new Puerto Vallarta, a clone of the glitzy developments in Ixtapa and Cancun, two other of Mexico's made-to-order resorts.

But the old Puerto Vallarta still exists, thank goodness, and despite 30 years of commercialism since Ms. Taylor and Burton trysted during the 1963-1964 filming of John Huston's "Night of the Iguana," it has retained much of its charm.

Downtown streets remain cobbled, making a taxi ride seem more like a tank attack through a rock-strewn field. But a stroll under the palms along the beach-hugging promenade known as the Malecon is pure pleasure.

During the day, close to the famous sea-horse bronze that has become an unofficial symbol of Vallarta, Malecon strollers can pop in and out of boutiques, pause for refreshment and sea views at a sidewalk cafe, and watch parasailers take off and land on the beach.

Another enjoyable part of town lies on an island in the Cuale River, which bisects Puerto Vallarta. Restaurants, shops and a museum stand on the small island, along with a memorial statue to John Huston.

A couple blocks away from the main plaza stands the remarkable Guadalupe cathedral, whose concrete crown, completed in 1963, is a replica of one worn by Empress Carlota in the 1860s.

A block or so up the hill is Gringo Gulch, so named because a number of American expatriates have bought homes there. Most prominent were Burton and Ms. Taylor, whose former home is easily distinguished by its pedestrian bridge over the road.

In the late afternoon, when the sinking sun glistens on the Pacific rollers and bathes the crown of the cathedral in gold, hundreds gather to sit at seaside cafes along the Malecon to toast the coming of another enchanted evening.

Sunset watching is almost a ritual here. While tourists often head for places like El Set, American and Canadian expatriates living here prefer Daiquiri Dick's.

"We sit in palapas [open, thatched-roof structures] on the beach, play cards, drink and feed the cats," said Carolyn Holstein, who in 1990 bought the Taylor-Burton home, Casa Kimberly, and converted it into a bed and breakfast.

Most visitors, however, hang out in the bars and cafes that run the length of the Malecon. Carlos O'Brian's, a hangout since the turn of the century, with photos of Zapata and Pancho Villa on the walls, is particularly popular with the young crowd.

A good many Americans have bought time-share apartments here, becoming part-time expatriates.

One of them, Manny Sahim of Napa, Calif., has been coming here for years. "There were only two hotels here when I came for the first time 18 years ago," he noted.

What does he like best about Puerto Vallarta? "It's a lively place. You can do anything you want -- not just shopping."

Indeed, while shopping is a major activity, Puerto Vallarta also is known for its many excellent restaurants, an active night life and its variety of outdoor activities -- everything from horseback riding and jungle excursions to deep-sea fishing and windsurfing.

Two other frequent visitors, Mike and Ginger Jacobs of Dallas, find Puerto Vallarta on the expensive side, but they like it anyway.

To stretch their dollars, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs take buses rather than taxis, as do many other expatriates and savvy visitors. "You can go all the way from the marina [several miles north of town] to Mismaloya [several miles south of town] for just a peso [about 35 cents]," he said.

Not only is the taxi fare from downtown to the marina more expensive at $7, the bus gets there just about as fast.

The Jacobs also keep an eye out for bargains. "At Bayou Brazil, you can get a five-course meal for $10," Mr. Jacobs pointed out. Another reasonably priced restaurant favored by some locals is Cafe de Olla.

Dining here runs the gamut from inexpensive to very expensive, and the cuisines range from native Mexican to haute French.

Ever since "The Love Boat" television show made Puerto Vallarta a major port of call, cruise ships have brought a substantial number of visitors to the city. During the winter months, about 35 ships a month stop here.

For such short-term visitors, Puerto Vallarta's romantic reputation is part of the town's allure.

"It's so clean and gorgeous. Much cleaner than Mazatlan [another cruise port of call on the Mexican Riviera]," said Doug and Terry Chapman of Las Vegas, in town only for a few hours off the cruise ship Nordic Prince. "We're definitely coming back."

That's the kind of love talk Puerto Vallarta likes to hear.

IF YOU GO . . .

Information: Mexican Government Tourist Office, 128 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, Fla. 33134; (305) 443-9160, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; or (800) 446-3942 any time.

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