PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico
Here is the real “treasure” of the Sierra Madre.
In the 1948 movie, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt & Walter Huston) search for Mexican “oro” hidden in the country’s rugged mountains. The “treasure” they find proves as fleeting as blowing sand.
Maybe that magic yellow sand blew here, depositing itself on the shores of Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags), at the foot of the Sierra Madre.
It is interesting to note that director John Huston, who won an Oscar for “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (actually shot in Durango), later found his own gold in Puerto Vallarta. He would go on to film “Night of the Iguana” here in 1963 with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. And he would buy a secluded estate, Las Caletas, which remains one of the area’s premier tourist attractions.
What would you do, if you had 36 hours here to chase the ghosts of Huston, Bogart, Burton and Elizabeth Taylor? Or find your own “oro” on Puerto Vallarta’s golden beaches or in the jungle-covered mountains of the looming Sierra Madre?
Puerto Vallarta remains remote to get to, though not as remote as it was in that “cinematic” period in the 1960s (for a list of top movies shot in P.V., read this) when Burton and Taylor first called attention to the place with their torrid affair here (for more, see Vanity Fair, July 2010); the splashy “Liz and Dick Romp in Mexico Hideaway” headlines helped put P.V. on the map as a gotta-see tourist destination. Air travel continues to be the best way to get here [update: December 2010] recent bankruptcies of air carriers that formerly served here. Non-stops are harder than ever to find. (Early air travelers to P.V. had to take a boat from the airport, just to reach downtown.) Driving here is a long, tough slog through scorching deserts on winding, two-lane roads; it is too far from points north or south – through country with well-warranted travel advisories. (Canadians nevertheless drive down here, seemingly without fear, in droves.)
Even from the lively capital of Jalisco state, Guadalajara, a car ride can easily take six hours – and is not direct. Cruise ships call here almost daily – Royal Caribbean, Carnival and others – but, regrettably, with lessening regularility. [Further update: Royal Caribbean has announced plans to re-locate its Majesty of the Seas to the Meditteranean. That left Carnival's Splendor as the West Coast's largest cruise ship, but a November fire put it out of action until January 2011.] The ones who still do call here arrive in the morning and leave before sunset; that affords shore-goers little time to do anything but shop for souvenirs.
The best and most memorable treasures here need more time than that to discover.
Puerto Vallarta is scattered along many miles of Banderas Bay’s crescent-shaped shoreline. Generally, the northern end is the modern part; go here if you want to feel like you’re in San Diego.
It should be noted that, for a large part of the hard-partying, Spring Break-type crowd that comes here, an entire 36 hours could be spent just getting blasted on cheap tequila and rum at one of the many Senor Frog’s locations here; if that’s your goal, skip now to the end of the story.
For a more authentic experience, head for the center, or south of town. Farther south, the Mismaloya location in “Night of the Iguana”, is about 10 miles out down the coast – near popular snorkeling islands called Los Arcos. The movie set, El Eden, is still there, but crumbling (as is the old “John Huston Cafe”). Across the highway, Mexico 200, is where much of the movie, “Predator” was filmed in 1986. Two large hotels now dominate the once-quiet cove across from Los Arcos.
A favorite snack stop along the road, at KM 2.5, is La Panadita (the sign on the building says “Deli Baguette”). It boasts the area’s best and freshest ceviche, carnitas, home-baked breads and – an unexpected Irish treat – its own (muy delicioso!) corned beef. Begorrah!
Los Arcos is also the name of an attractive hotel at the southern end of the beach; it also features a pretty restaurant, beautiful dark wood bar, and an unbeatable seaside location. It, like at least 100 other worthy 3 and 4 star hotels here, can be had for under $100 a night.
Los Arcos sits at the far end of the Malecon, a lovingly constructed promenade along the sea (through the Bucerias area and old town). This is a can’t-miss walk at sunset. Many evenings, art shows are set up along it, as well as street vendors, performers and vendors. The trinket vendors swarm here almost as thick as Puerto Vallarta’s mosquitoes.
A signature feature of the Malecon is statuary – dozens of them are located along the route: mermaids, seahorses, dancers, dolphins. These are among the most-photographed landmarks in town. Also in this area are large murals on buildings in the central plaza, and an oddly beautiful cathedral with a unique wrought-iron bell tower shaped like a crown. (The crown is a replica of the one worn by Carlota, wife of Emperor Maximilian, who the Mexicans executed in 1867 s a show of contempt for foreign governance – even though the couple was rather well-liked.)
A diversion off the Malecon is the Rio Cuale area. A rain-forest-like island in the middle of Rio Cuale stretches several blocks inland from a bridge on the Malecon, it contains enormous ficus trees, a scenic craft market and several classy bars and restaurants.
Near the inland end of the island is a quaint restaurant with a bit of history: La Fuente de la Puente (the fountain at the bridge). It features life-sized statues of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; they lived just up the hill in two mansions connected by a pink bridge (the site, Casa Kimberley, has been turned into a bed-and-breakfast that is now being renovated). Consult old movie mags for the scandals they created here.
The restaurant features generously sized margaritas, and an authentic menu of Mexican favorites. It also has two very personable guys playing wooden marimbas. Very “old” Puerto Vallarta stuff, and seldom found anymore.
South of this area is the old town and the precious little Zona Romantica, which can be prowled in search of treasures for days on end. For Mexico’s distinctive blown glassware, dishes and ceramics, you cannot top the selection, craftsmanship or creativity at Mundo de Cristal. Don’t even waste time shopping for these items anywhere else. (They pack purchases sturdily, or they can ship; they also have a website.)
A word or two about shopping: Pharmaceuticals are everywhere, inexpensive, and most are available without the nuisance of needing a doctor’s prescription. Silver jewelry is also everywhere; question the quality before buying. Also be extremely skeptical of any “designer” apparel or accessories; no, you cannot buy a real Louis Vuitton satchel for $30. And all those tequila specialty stores? Expect to pay twice retail, or more. (Airport + duty free = 3X.) If you want a large selection of excellent tequilas, fairly priced, go to – seriously – Sam’s Club or Costco; each has a location here near the marina. Or sign up for a day tour bus to the real thing: the city of Tequila, which is about four hours away.
Worthwhile boutiques, with quality offerings, can be found throughout the Romantic Zone – if you look carefully (Tlaquepaque craftsman David Luna has an Origenes furniture and accessories branch store here).
Dinner and liquid refreshments at any of the dozens of restaurants here will probably be delicious, well-priced and memorable. Daiquiri Dick’s is consistently voted by local ex-pats as best for dinner, desserts and margaritas. Fireworks occur most nights on the beach at precisely 9:17, 10:54, 7:37 or whenever (usually when you least expect it). Hey, it’s Mexico!
Before drifting off to sleep (or passing out), be sure to spray on some mosquito repellent. Even if you think you don’t need to – you do. Believe me.
Pre-Baste the Turkey
Another word to the wise: Sunscreen. The sun is so intense here, white gringos will begin to turn pink (on the way to lobster-colored) in less than 15 minutes. Lather up before leaving; this is going to be your biggest day of sightseeing.
Beach sports are popular here, of course, and along the Malecon there are no shortages of opportunities for parasailing, jet-skiing, kayaking, etc. Not that many swimmers avail themselves of Banderas Bay’s otherwise inviting aquamarine waters; the undertow can be vicious; the surf pounding, and the drop-off extreme. The 28-mile-wide bay – the world’s seventh largest – is a nearly perfect half-moon shape (some say it is an ancient volcano crater), lined with sandy beaches (and lots of rocks), and very deep. A few miles offshore, it plunges to a depth of nearly two miles.
Sport-fishing opportunities abound. Whale-watchers are sure to spot the objects of their affection most winter months, dolphins frolic every day, and schools of fish roil the waters constantly.
Besides half-, full-day and even evening fishing boats, there are snorkeling trips that leave daily from the Malecon area pier and downtown marinas. Flight-seeing tours traverse the bay and venture into the depths of the unspoilt Sierra Madres.
A well-regarded tour company called Vallarta Adventures organizes many of the largest and most popular tours; they seem to have offices everywhere. Allot 6-8 hours for most tours; they usually include lunch or dinner and drinks in the price. Dare to dicker.
The adventurous may wish to try one of the area’s “jungle restaurants” for lunch. There are several. The best and closest to town is El Nogalito (a free shuttle is on call). It is up a canyon from the tony Playa Conchas Chinas area – but light years away in terms of ambiance. The restaurant is built over a lovely little stream and waterfall; the food is good, and the wait staff will dote upon you. There is a tour available of all the rancho’s lush foliage, and hands-on activities such as a zip line (one of many near PV). Farther down the coast are Chino’s Paradise and Chico’s Paradise – two completely different places, so make sure you go to the one you intend to. The scenery is lush and luscious at either one.
There seems to be no angle from which Puerto Vallarta can be photographed that would not be worthy of a postcard. The coastline south of town not only affords endless panoramas, but also unmatched views of downtown.
Big Night Out
The area’s biggest evening attraction (besides perhaps barfing frat boys or flashing coeds at Senor Frog’s) is the production of “Rhythms of the Night“.
This is a sort of combination Mayan fertility ceremony, Polynesian fire show, Navajo Ghost Dance, Cirque de Soleil, gymnastics meet and cruise ship revue. You ride a boat 45 minutes or so to John Huston’s hideaway, Las Caletas, where you are served a bounteous buffet dinner by candlelight in a rustic village setting. You sign up at Vallarta Adventures – and although you might be quoted up to $125 per person, anything under $75 is more like it. For a combination harbor tour, sunset cruise, all-you-can-eat (and drink) dinner, with a floor show, it is an unbeatable value. That is not true, however of the $30 CD of the performance (that’s why they don’t allow your own photography) they try to sell you on the boat ride home. Allow five hours, and try for the earliest sailing (about 5:30 p.m.). Later sailings eat after the show.
Many specialty shops are closed from siesta (2-4 p.m. most days) on Saturday until Monday morning. But the tourist attractions still are going strong Sunday. Brunch is particularly good at most hotels; seafood is hours-old, and beef and pork dishes reliably tasty.
I recommend a hike south along the beach from the Romantic Zone, along Playa Amapas to Conchas Chinas. It is probably no more than a mile; the coast is rocky and wild, and the scenery extraordinary. The payoff at the end of the walk is the buffet at the Hotel Lindo Mar. The restaurant, La Playita, has a beachfront setting that is sublime (so does El Set restaurant, on the hotel’s panoramic top floor); this is authentic old Mexico (the hotel is highly recommended too, and $85 or less more nights). The walk is worth doing again in reverse; and more slowly. Time is running out on your 36 hours here.
I walked back along the road, Mexico highway 200, and happened by just as a huge iguana failed in its attempt to cross the road.
Two boys hopped out of a truck and scooped it up, joyously celebrating an unexpected treat for dinner.
For some, Puerto Vallarta is, like iguana, an acquired taste. I find it a treasure.
March 29, 2010