ELIZABETH TAYLOR HAS ALWAYS RELISHED TIME in the spotlight, even when it shone on scandal. In 1962 she was the queen of Hollywood and the Nile too when, fresh from the filming of Cleopatra, she left one husband at home and followed a future groom to the backwater Mexican beach village of Puerto Vallarta. Her new amour, the likewise-wed Richard Burton, had played her lover, Antony, with more-than-Method conviction in the movie epic. Cinema turned to vérité before the eyes of the country as Life, Time, and other popular publications rushed reporters to cover the naughty antics in an exotic, faraway paradise.
Burton went to Puerto Vallarta at the beckoning of director John Huston, who had chosen the rustic fishing hamlet as the setting for the film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. The playwright had personally approved the locale, saying it was “precisely what I meant. This is Acapulco twenty years ago.”
Huston’s film and the star-spangled love affair generated nonstop publicity for Puerto Vallarta for two years. Time tagged it the new “In place” in the tropics, “where everyone is going to warm his bones and taste what the travel folders call the ‘real, unspoiled Mexico.’” Horace Sutton, one of the most respected travel writers of the day, agreed but pointed out that the town “figures to be the most unlikely resort this side of the Hindu Kush.” He noted that few planes could handle Vallarta’s grass airstrip, which doubled as a cow pasture, and that in the total absence of telephones, hotels had to summon taxis by sending out a runner.
That’s exactly what the first adventurous visitors wanted. Primarily Texans and Californians, they relished Vallarta as a somnolent Aegean-style hideaway of whitewashed hillside houses and cobblestone streets, a barefoot retreat with only a handful of homey hotels, restaurants that opened to the breezes under thatched palapa roofs, and miles of sunny, untrampled sand. The village grew over the following decades, of course, as all idyllic places do, and the tourism industry gradually imposed layer upon layer of mass-market gloss, introducing every contemporary resort frill from high-rise towers to par-four holes.
A commercial glaze covers most everything now, but beneath the crass glitter, Vallarta’s original romantic allure survives. Happily, the big international hotels, the fast-food restaurants, the garish shopping malls, and the flashy discos all went to the suburbs, mostly north toward the modern airport and cruise-ship harbor. That’s the main tourist zone, the assembly-line getaway promoted in most package deals to Puerto Vallarta and featured on TV game shows as the consolation prize when you don’t win the Mediterranean vacation. If after landing there you head instead for the vintage village, the resort offers more authentic character and charisma than any comparably developed beach destination in the Americas—and does so for an astonishingly reasonable price.
Reserve a room in one of three areas: the quiet residential hillside above the cathedral, overlooking the Pacific; the bustling town beach, Los Muertos (“the Dead”), named after the casualties of an old pirate battle; or the contemporary Conchas Chinas neighborhood, a short cab ride south of downtown (all prices given are for the winter high season, usually November through April or May). If we’re traveling with friends or family, we opt for a villa in Conchas Chinas, preferably one directly on the beach with a private pool. The three-bedroom Vida Alta, one of a trio of villas in the Casa Tres Vidas compound, will delight any group, providing exquisite Mexican-style accommodations and a magnificent ocean vista from everywhere except the five bathrooms, plus a cook and housekeeping staff ($425 a night for up to three couples, three-night minimum; 800-580-2243 or 281-293-8670).
The other suggested lodging areas offer less in the way of luxury but also cost less and put you within walking distance of the most enticing shores, shops, and restaurants. Up on the village knoll, near the top of “Gringo Gulch,” Burton and Taylor’s former home, Casa Kimberley, now welcomes us common folk in its new guise as a memory-filled but frumpy B&B, old-fashioned in its charms ($85 for basic rooms, $150 for Liz’s “penthouse”; phone or fax 011-52-32-22-13-36). Just around the corner and down the street, Los Cuatro Vientos summons the same period appeal in a more colorful Mexican manner ($55 for rooms, $65 for suites; 011-52-32-22-01-61, fax 011-52-32-22-28-31). Even if you stay elsewhere, visit its rooftop bar, El Nido, for a grand panorama of the city, the broad sweep of Banderas Bay, and flaming sunsets.
Down on Muertos beach, perfect for the active and indolent alike, check in to either the Hotel San Marino Plaza, Playa Los Arcos, or Casa Corazón, all fronting the sand, surf, and sunset. Under its original name (the Delfín), the San Marino hosted a banquet for presidents Nixon and Díaz Ordaz in 1970 and, a few years later, provided us a wonderful roost for our first visit to Vallarta. Among the categories of rooms, the couple-size junior suites, each with an ocean-view balcony, offer the best value ($126 for junior suites; 011-52-32-22-15-55, fax 011-52-32-22-24-31). Playa Los Arcos flaunts a few similar suites (ask for 442 for the prime view), but all the quarters except for the measly “standard” rooms enjoy a pleasant perch, usually overlooking a courtyard pool and garden ($85 for “superior” rooms, $110 for suites; 800-648-2403). Perhaps the least expensive good inn on any beach in the tropics, Casa Corazón gives guests a cozy chamber in a former villa, a large terrace with a Pacific vista, and a full breakfast for little more than what the big resorts charge for breakfast alone. This B&B lacks the air conditioning found in other Muertos hotels, but our twentysomething daughter says the fans kept her and her husband plenty cool even on a July honeymoon ($70 for the biggest room; 505-523-4666). Bear in mind that all these places operate on Mexican priorities and sensibilities, which may mean more attention to fresh flowers than to furnishings or fixtures. If you prefer conventional American trappings, try the Camino Real, near Conchas Chinas ($130 to $200 for an ocean-view room; 800-722-6466), or the Westin Regina, out on the fringes of sanity by the airport and golf course ($125 to $295; rooms with ocean views start at $195; 800-228-3000).
When you’re ready to hit the streets, you’ll discover almost anything you want to see, do, buy, eat, or drink somewhere in the score of short blocks between Casa Corazón and Los Cuatro Vientos. On the whole, Mexican beach towns feature little more than T-shirt shopping and frozen-food dining, shielding tourists from the often startling vibrancy of the crafts and cuisine found in the interior of the country. Puerto Vallarta has its share of schlock, but it also boasts a greater variety of distinctive shops and restaurants than any other beach destination in Mexico. Wander aimlessly in the downtown area and you’ll stumble on at least one major delight a day.
Start your strolling on and just off Ignacio Vallarta, one of the main arteries, along the compact Calle Corona and adjacent streets, and up and down Basilio Badillo, also known as Restaurant Row. Before buying anything, set your standards for shopping by checking out Talavera, Etc., for the namesake pottery and more (Ignacio Vallarta 266), Olinalá for masks and folk art (Lázaro Cárdenas 274), Huarachería “Pistos” for handcrafted huaraches (Lázaro Cárdenas 193), Majolica for ceramics (Corona 191), Galería Uno for fine art (Morelos at Corona), Querubines for Mexican clothes and fabrics (Juárez at Galeana), and La Tienda de María for small folk art pieces (Juárez 182-A). If you just want souvenirs or oddities, head for the stalls on the island in the middle of the Río Cuale, which bisects the old village, or the nearby municipal market at Calle Libertad and A. Rodríguez. The only sellers to avoid completely are the ubiquitous time-share hawkers, who try to corral you with free tourist information and rental-car discounts. When they ask where you’re from, halt them in mid-spiel by saying as you saunter past, “Guadalajara. ¿De dónde es usted?”
You can dine in a different country every night on Basilio Badillo, from Argentina to Thailand, but since the upscale foreign bistros exist primarily for tourists, the varied cuisines end up tasting remarkably American. We stick with Mexican cooking because that’s where we are, and we seek out restaurants that specialize in the finest fresh ingredients of the area—which, in Vallarta, is mainly seafood. Our favorite spots on Basilio Badillo include Balam (No. 425), Las Cazuelas (No. 479), Café de la Olla (No. 168), and Roberto’s (No. 284). Right on Muertos beach, sample the fare at El Dorado, La Palapa, or the Sand Bar. Farther afield, outside the range of most visitors but still within walking distance, we enjoy Los Arbolitos (Lázaro Cárdenas at Calle de la Rivera), Moby Dick (31 de Octubre 128), and for a bountiful $2 bowl of the pork-and-hominy stew called posole, Cenaduría Celia (Lázaro Cárdenas 506). Only a few of these restaurants make the guidebooks, which helps keep their prices inexpensive to moderate, their decor cheerfully simple, and their food authentically hearty in flavor. When we yearn for something more elegant and innovative, we head for Chef Roger (A. Rodríguez 267), which currently has the most talented kitchen of the many top-drawer establishments.
As for offshore diversions, some people like to parasail above the waves while others opt for angling in the deep waters. Everyone will want to take at least one of the numerous excursions offered to other, undeveloped points on Banderas Bay. The best approach, when you can arrange it, is to gather a small group to share the cost, rent a private boat with a driver-guide on Muertos beach (about $30 an hour), and cover several spots in a single day, stopping perhaps at Los Arcos for snorkeling, at Las Animas or Quimixto for secluded sunning on the sand, and at Yelapa for a hike to the splendid waterfall and a relaxing lunch on the beach. If you’re smitten with the quirky tranquillity of Yelapa, so reminiscent of the old Vallarta, stay over for a day or two in one of the palapa cabanas at Hotel Lagunita ($48; phone or fax 011-52-32-98-05-54).
You can also visit the ruins of the set used in The Night of the Iguana, just west of Mismaloya Beach, a few miles outside of town. While you’re there, toast Huston, Burton, and Taylor for appreciating the rustic virtues of Vallarta. Contrary to the first impression, the publicity they generated for the village ultimately did more to preserve its enduring charms than to undermine them. Longtime resident Gustavo Fong, the owner of the festive La Iguana dinner club (Lázaro Cárdenas 311), remembers an elaborate American scheme during the tenure of Mexican president Miguel Alemán (1946—1952) to build a series of new cities and foreign residential enclaves along the entire perimeter of Banderas Bay. Alemán proved too busy overhauling Acapulco to provide the needed support, but other tourism boosters would surely have succeeded with an equally intrusive plan had Hollywood not sold the world a more romantic vision of this radiant spot.
Every night we spend in the still-throbbing heart of Puerto Vallarta, we thank our lucky stars.