It is the best type of disorientation. The sudden realization that the many layers you wore to make the wintry trek to SLC International need to come off, right now(!) as you wait for a cab on the curb outside at the Puerto Vallarta airport. Hastily, stuffing your winter coat into your bag you climb into the car and say, “Velas Vallarta, por favor.” Soon enough, you’re on the hotel balcony, suitably attired in shorts, flip-flops, and a Cabana shirt dotted with tiny margaritas (and a life-sized margarita in hand). What winter?
Puerto Vallarta is a short, less-than-four-hour flight from SLC and January and February boast the destinations’ most temperate and amenable climate. Unlike other green-zoned destinations like Cabo or Cancún, where it can often feel like you have just gone to a gated community in anywhere U.S.A. (with an accent), Puerto Vallarta offers a sense of place and history. Its proximity to shipping, mining and agriculture made Puerto Vallarta a thriving Mexican city long before it became a tourist destination. Simply put, there is more there, there.
The Night of the Iguana
During the 19th century Puerto Vallarta, in the Mexican state of Jalisco, then called El Carrizal or Las Peñas, was an alternative (and at times illegal) port for the agricultural and mining towns of San Sebastián del Oeste, Talpa de Allende and Mascota. Puerto Vallarta transformed itself from a small fishing and pearl-diving village serving small shipping concerns (including smugglers who wished to evade taxes at Jalisco’s larger port, San Blas).
In the 1950s, it became a destination for Americans. Many of whom were counter-cultural writers and artists fleeing the strictures of the McCarthy Era to an expatriate community that was eventually called “Gringo Gulch.” The scene drew director John Huston in 1964 to make the film adaptation of Tenessee Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana. Filmed in the small coastal town of Mismaloya, the production was fodder for international gossip, fueled by infighting between Huston and his cast and the salacious extramarital affair between its star Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who joined Burton on set as his not-so-secret mistress. Burton had bought an elegant home in Puerto Vallarta for his then-wife and also purchased the adjacent casita for Taylor. He connected the two homes with a sky bridge to facilitate midnight liaisons and avoid the paparazzi below on the street. The drama, covered extensively in the U.S. press, put Puerto Vallarta on the map for American travelers (who can dine at Burton and Taylor’s love nest, which is now a hotel and restaurant called Casa Kimberly).
With that romantic background, Puerto Vallarta grew and has become known in travel brochures as “The Friendliest City in the World” and it lives up to that reputation.
Where you stay in Puerto Vallarta will have a lot to do with your experience there. While there is a newer collection of resorts in an area called Nueva Vallarta, do not be lured away. Nueva Vallarta is a planned community and far away from the charm and bustle of the town center. In Puerto Vallarta, there are two more central areas to consider. The first is the Marina area with larger more expansive properties, often with exclusive beach clubs and private beach access. The second is in the heart of the city itself near the Malecón and Zona Romántica (or Old Town).
In the Marina District, one of the oldest and Mexican-family-owned properties is Velas Vallarta, situated with stunning views of Banderas Bay (and very close to the airport). An all-inclusive resort with all the usual trimmings—pools, multiple restaurants, private beach cabanas an adjacent golf course—the resort attracts a loyal collection of American travelers (mainly from the south) who return year after year for longer stays. The resort is owned by Eduardo Vela Ruiz and his brother Juan Vela, who maintain a friendly atmosphere and loyal staff, many of whom have worked there for decades and take personal pride in the property. Velas Vallarta is farther out of the town center, offering a bit more of that get-away-from-it-all vibe but taxis in Puerto Vallarta are safe, inexpensive and plentiful, and you’re just a short 10- or 15-minute cab ride away from the town.
Closer in and within walking distance (or a cheap cab) from the Malecón and Old Town, you’ll find the Buenaventura Grand Hotel
& Great Moment, a smaller (also all-inclusive) resort that attracts more Mexicans traveling from inland for their own beach vacations (which we took as a good sign, based on the quality of the daily breakfast buffet). Either offer a balance of resort relaxation and access to the atmosphere of Puerto Vallarta’s bustling cobblestone streets, food and nightlife.
Now that you’re ensconced in your hotel and have the lay of the land, it’s time to venture out. The best place to start is with a walk along the Malecón into Zona Romántica. The seaside esplanade is lined with shops, galleries, restaurants and bars and dotted with unique and interesting sculptures, including the famed “In Search of Reason” (En Busca de la Razón) by Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante. The bronze sculpture features pillow-headed figures climbing a ladder, which you too can climb (carefully) in search of an Instagram moment. It’s populated by street performers, notably the Voladores de Papantla (Birdmen of Papantla), who enact an indigenous tradition that involves spinning on ropes from atop a high pole. (But don’t just stand there and gawk, put some money in the hat.)
Farther into Zona Romántica, the streets narrow into a labyrinth of shops and restaurants. Stop into the always-hopping Margarita Grill for a huge menu of giant margaritas served in equally huge chalice-like vessels. For a delicious (but not necessarily quick) lunch, brave the never diminishing line at Pancho’s Takos famous for its al pastor tacos. The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the heart of the town and a destination that will take you through the heart of Old Town after lunch.
An excursion that involves both food and adventure can be found by booking one of the two seatings a day at the Ocean Grill. You will first journey to Mismaloya (where The Night of the Iguana was filmed) and board a water taxi that will take you on a short cruise to a small cove with a thatched-roof restaurant that seems like it is growing out of the jungle. Ocean Grill serves serving an amazing menu of oh-so-fresh seafood and guests are encouraged to stay and swim and enjoy the adjacent small beach and excellent off-shore snorkeling.
Perhaps the most sublime dining experience in Puerto Vallarta can be found on the rooftop of Casa Kimberly, the scene of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s torrid romance. A full-service affair (get it) complete with a famous 24-piece mariachi band you’ll enjoy views of the city below and a sumptuous meal. On the Malecón, the lively La Bodeguita del Medio features Cuban food, music and dance with waterfront views from the top deck. Another taco spot, equally as delicious as Pancho’s (above), but less crowded is Pepe’s Taco and it is open all night in case you find yourself, well, out all night.