Exotic and unspoiled, Puerto Vallarta offers tradition and beaches

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Aficionados consider Puerto Vallarta -- unspoiled by the recent sweep of development that has changed so much of Mexico's traditional tempo and appearance -- the purest of its popular beach resorts.

And by far the most exotic.

A favorite location site of Hollywood filmmakers, Puerto Vallarta most recently served as the sultry backdrop for the Anthony Quinn-Kevin Costner film "Revenge."

The late John Huston had a home there. In his films, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Night of the Iguana" and "Under the Volcano," he created a tapestry of Mexico that was relentlessly beautiful even at its seamiest.

It was "The Night of the Iguana," which was shot in Puerto Vallarta, that is generally credited with putting the town on the map. Plundered by souvenir hunters and pounded by tropical storms, little of the movie set remains, but daylong excursions to nearby Mismaloya, where it was located, are popular.

Indeed, it's part history -- pirates and explorers came here as early as the 1500s, later Sir Francis Drake and treasure ships from the Orient -- and part Hollywood legend that makes Puerto Vallarta more than just another pretty string of beaches and boulevards, discos and nightclubs. The popular Christine's, Carlos O'Brien's and Friday Lopez could be anywhere. The fact that they're located here within the shadow of legends makes them especially appealing.

Ava Gardner cavorting with beach boys; Burton and Ms. Taylor, each married to someone else at the time, scandalizing everybody; Huston, pouring another Herradura tequila, all have woven a kind of forbidden magic, a scintillating decadence that remains today. For many, it's very much a part of Puerto Vallarta's attraction.

The city's main focal point is the Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The ornate crown on its steeple is Puerto Vallarta's best known landmark and is a replica of the one worn by the Virgin of Guadalupe -- the patron saint of Mexico -- in Mexico City's basilica.

Framed by a combination of mountains, terraces and fast-shifting cloud masses, Puerto Vallarta's latitude is precisely that of Hawaii's. In the lush outlying foothills,terraced gardens suggest Bali. Everywhere, the air is heavy with a sense of intrigue and mystery.

Swiss-born Chris Schlittler, general manager of the Fiesta America, one of Puerto Vallarta's two premier hotels (the other is the Krystal Vallarta) spent three years as managing director of the Holiday Inn in Tibet before being transferred to Puerto Vallarta. He says he finds an odd, almost mystical similarity between the two places, particularly in the unhurried gentleness of the people.

This is also evident in the work of Puerto Vallarta's best-known painter, the late Manuel Lepe. He won international fame through his whimsical paintings of Puerto Vallarta children.

Hundreds of little round-faced boys and girls, angels mostly, are found in his paintings. They pilot planes, climb trees, drive buses and bakery trucks, float in the air or peek happily out of windows at the world.

Lepe's oil paintings cost thousands of dollars, but prints and silk-screen posters are available and affordable -- a find for collectors and a keepsake of the magic of Mexico.

A large Lepe mural can be seen inside the Municipal City Hall, near the bay. Lepe began the mural in 1982, but it was completed by another artist when he died the following year at the age of 46.

Puerto Vallarta, located in the state of Jalisco (Guadalajara is the capital), was named after Ignacio Luis Vallarta, governor of the state in 1918 when the town became a municipality. It's situated in the curve of Bahia de Banderas, the bay of flags.

The first thing visitors see when they arrive at the airport in Puerto Vallarta is a sign, saying "Bienvenidos a este alegre lugar," or "Welcome to this happy place."

Longtime visitors are inevitably surprised. The more Puerto Vallarta grows, the more it stays the same. The once-drowsy seaside village now has a population of nearly 200,000. It's hardly a village anymore.

Yet donkey carts still clip-clop along cobblestone roads. Many downtown streets are still unpaved. Women wash their clothes as they've done forever, on the banks of the Rio Cuale, drying them on flat stones.

By law, all homes must be painted white. Most are topped with red clay tiled roofs. Even the local supermarket, Gigante, has a cobblestone parking lot, preserving the old-time flavor of the seaside jungle setting. Brilliant clusters of bougainvillea are everywhere, tumbling over patio walls and along hotel walkways.

In the late afternoon, the local gentry still meets downtown over cups of good, dark Mexican coffee or icy bottles of Carta Blanca beer. The bar in the old Oceanic Hotel is now called Tequila's, and the nearby traffic light, designed in the shape of a small lighthouse that used to blink stop and go, stands abandoned on the side of the road. Cars traveling along the waterfront rarely paid attention to it anyway.

Hemmed in by thickly forested mountains, Puerto Vallarta's urge to develop inland is kept in check. Instead, it sprawls out, up and down the coast, resulting in a well-defined downtown area and two distinct residential districts.

Never far away is a beach, with cool sea breezes moving across the land. It is the temperament of the sea that sets the tone of each individual day.

If you go . . .

Getting there: Mexicana flies to most of Mexico's major coastal resorts from U.S. gateways. Other airlines serving these resorts include Aeromexico, American, Continental, Delta and Pan Am.

Staying there: Fiesta Americana, Mexico's largest hotel chain, has two side-by-side properties in Puerto Vallarta. The Fiesta Americana Puerto Vallarta is a deluxe hotel with beautiful grounds and a view of the bay. (A mere $800 a night off-season will get you the penthouse Presidential Suite, all wall-to-wall marble, with an indoor Jacuzzi and outdoor hot tub.) The Plaza Vallarta, for a younger, more casual crowd, is known for its John Newcombe Tennis Center. For reservations at either, call (800) FIESTA-1.

The Condesa Vallarta, an Omni property, features one of Mexico's top spas and offers massages, body wraps, facials, manicures and complete physical programs. Call (800) 843-6664. The Krystal Vallarta, at (800) 231-9860, offers 500 rooms, suites and villas; each villa has its own swimming pool. Hacienda-style, the hotel has no part taller than the palm trees around it. The Buganvilias Sheraton, (800) 325-3535, is comprised of six contiguous 14-story towers, forming Puerto Vallarta's most spectacular complex. Westin's Camino Real is a self-contained complex on secluded Playa de las Estacas, south of the city; call (800) 228-3000. It's pleasant and posh, with swim-up bars and terraced restaurants.

Shopping centers: Plaza Genova (Kilometer 14, Carreterra) is near the Centro Commercial Villa Vallarta and sports its own Hard Rock Cafe. Plaza Malecon (corner Diaz Ordaz and Allende) is a hacienda-style mall with a gazebo and a bandstand in the center plaza and plenty of small shops.

Pueblo Viejo (Rio Cuale Bridge) is a little more touristy than Plaza Malecon, but near the Isla Cuale, a peaceful park toward the ocean. There's also Centro Comercial Villa Vallarta, near the Fiesta Americana Hotel, and Comercial Mexicana, a grocery store next to La Fiesta souvenir warehouse that sells dry goods, beach toys, and health and beauty aids.

Dining and night life: Chez Elena (Matamoros 520) is located in the 10-room, cliff-top Hotel Los Cautros Vientos. This romantic restaurant affords good views of downtown and the bay, and offers Indonesian specialties as well as traditional Mexican dishes. At El Manatial (Allende 168), order the prawns diablo and admire the decor of this lovely Puerto Vallarta favorite, with its lush greenery and pretty pink walls. El Set (Highway 200), just outside town and perched on a cliff overhanging the ocean, is popular with sunset watchers, who arrive early and stay for dinner of seafood, lobster or steak. Luncheon guests may swim in the pool below. Las Margaritas (Juarez 592), with mariachi music from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., turns dinner into a nightly fiesta. It's expensive, and the service is slow, but it's not to be missed.

If you're in the mood for disco, you can throw both your wallet and your hip out of joint at Christine's (Hotel Krystal), Friday Lopez (Fiesta Americana), Capriccio's and the City Dump.

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