PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO
Story & Photos by Vicki Andersen
Wandering cobblestone streets climbing between white-stuccoed buildings with red-tiled roofs, window boxes overflowing with bougainvillea, I could be in a seaside Mediterranean hamlet. But turning to look at palm trees swaying on the golden-sand beach, and the Bay of Banderas melting into the horizon, I am -- most happily -- on the Mexican Riviera.
I am enamored with Mexico. I thrive on the alluring beaches lapped by gentle surf, the lush mountains filled with exotic wildlife, the fragrant flowers blooming everywhere, the friendly people who welcome their Norte Americano neighbors.
What enthralls me about Puerto Vallarta is the beguiling way it compacts all my favorites into one locale. Noticeably and refreshingly foreign, it is also pleasantly familiar and comfortable because so many Americans and Canadians have relocated here.
What frustrates me about PV, as it is commonly and fondly referred to, are the ever-present hawkers of time-share vacation properties and gringo tours. And the fact that I only speak enough Spanish to get myself into trouble because they think I genuinely comprehend Español. But I'm working on that. And I've also learned to smile, say "no, nada, gracias" in a decisive tone that leaves no doubt about my interest, and keep walking.
Tucked against the Sierra Madre mountains on the east and south, bordered by the fertile Valle de Banderas to the north, PV unfolds along the coastline in a tropical setting where you're never far from jungle or sea. Centered on the shore of Bahía de Banderas, Mexico's largest bay and one of the deepest on the Pacific Ocean, around its sheltering crescent curves 25 miles of beaches. Sweeping coastal views and spectacular sunsets are abundant.
At the northern end of PV is Nuevo Vallarta, an area of sprawling resorts and residential development. Over five miles of river canals and estuary wind past the private docks of luxurious villas and enormous estates. North of the international airport, Marina Vallarta's 445 acres and 500-boat capacity make it the country's largest and most sophisticated, hosting pleasure craft from all over the world.
Spread along the divided main highway south of the airport, a cluster of high-rise accommodations defines Zona Hotelera, providing all the amenities you would expect from such resorts. Numerous restaurants, shops, nightclubs and a couple of shopping centers are within easy walking distance, but little charisma.
The heart of Puerto Vallarta is El Centro, a.k.a. Viejo Vallarta, site of the languid fishing village established in the mid-1800s. Focused around the Plaza and Cathedral of Guadalupe, narrow streets are lined with old-Mexico-style homes boasting tall doors, thick wooden beams, wrought-iron balconies and other Spanish adornments. Many of these house superb restaurants, stylish art galleries and -- to my everlasting delight -- tiny shops brimming with colorful pottery, embroidered clothing, meticulously-crafted décor, and other folkloric treasures.
The Malecón, a mile-long boardwalk separating the traffic on Paseo Diaz Ordas from the sands of Playa de los Muertos, features permanent art exhibits including a 16-piece ensemble of fantasy sea creatures, food vendors and street performers. Local fisherman offer their catch-of-the-day in an open-air fish market at the north end. At the south terminus, an open-air theater, "Los Arcos," draws folks for gratis Sunday evening performances of mariachis, puppet shows and other entertainment.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the heart of PV religious life. Featuring hand-carved columns, ornamental moldings and other rich detailing, the elaborate filigreed crown is said to have been modeled after a tiara worn by Emperor Maximilian's mistress. Wander up the hillside and you'll encounter Gringo Gulch, a neighborhood of expatriates that have built some outrageous homes with dazzling views.
Below this eccentric neighborhood flows the Río Cuale, and in the midst of the small river is the five-acre oasis Isla Cuale. Easy access from the northbound bridge reveals a small botanical garden, museum, children's park, a variety of eateries, and the Mercado Municipal - two sprawling levels of shops where spirited bargaining is part of the experience.
An area that personifies the laid-back charm for which PV is famous, Zona Romantica could be considered the soul of Puerto Vallarta. Stretching south from Río Cuale, this lively section offers wonderful restaurants with many small and unique shops slipped among them. Hotels and condos, seldom topping six stories, line a festive beach where tourists and locals mingle in the surf and the many beachfront palapa-roofed restaurants. There can be no finer ending to a day than sitting along this stretch of sand, boat-drink in hand, watching the sunset's vibrant hues shimmer across the Bay.
Proceeding south, dense jungle creeps down to the beach, with a few small communities nestled between nature's colliding ecosystems. About 500 yards offshore sits Los Arcos, a sea-sculpted arch surrounded by a Federal underwater park, a favorite destination of snorkelers and divers. Mismaloya found fame as the location for director John Houston's 1963 film, "Night of the Iguana." Richard Burton's invitation for his paramour, Elizabeth Taylor, to visit, and their purchase of adjoining homes in Gringo Gulch spearheaded tourism to Puerto Vallarta.
Spread along the remainder of the Bay's southwestern arm are three tiny fishing villages accessible only by boat. With artists and ex-hippies but no phones or electricity, Yelapa snuggles into a picturesque cove shaded by palm trees and rimmed by jungle. Beach vendors coax with fabulous coconut pies and a local moonshine called raicilla.
Along the northern arm of the Bay, Bucerías serves up fresh oysters and an energetic Sunday market. At El Anclote, a 45-minute boat ride delivers you and your snorkeling or diving gear to the protected wildlife sanctuary of El Moro and sister island Las Marietas.
In PV, you can enjoy championship golf courses, off-road adventures, tequila factory tours, parasailing, water- and jet-skiing. The diversity of handicrafts and ubiquitous shopping possibilities make this region a shoppers paradise. Specialties include Huichol Indian beaded masks and yarn paintings, talavera pottery and silver jewelry. Tempt your palate at more than 400 eateries, considered the best on Mexico's Pacific Coast, or indulge in the fresh and abundant seafood. Nearly 35,000 hotel rooms present a wide range of lodging options. For those devoted enough to arrive in their RV, over a half-dozen RV/trailer parks encircle the Bay.
A very walkable city, PV's vast inter-city bus system and plentiful taxis
make commuting easy. Certified-safe-to-drink water and an extraordinarily
low crime rate helps make Puerto Vallarta