In the Path of Stars
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Thanks to film director, John Huston’s “Night of the Iguana” (1964) with Richard Burton, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico has transformed itself into one of the most attractive beach getaways on the Mexican Pacific. Vallarta’s penchant for art and consciousness of the nuances of finer living set it apart from places like Acapulco. In the sixties, there were only 1,000 people living in Vallarta; now, there are more than 350,000 and three million visitors a year. It has become the home away from home for celebrities, filmmakers and the Mexican elite. Once I arrived, I was determined to glimpse what all the hoopla was about.
I started by walking around the marina where pelicans flew overhead as crews polished the sterns of yachts. Many yacht owners leave such grandeur docked in the harbor for most of the year, taking them out only occasionally. I passed by one of the boat owners on a pay phone as he said, “Put a million down, then talk to me.” Was I was on the set of a movie? Then again, films and T.V. shows were shot on Puerto Vallarta.
Top-end resort hotels radiate out along the coastline from the center of town. Some were built on cliffs for the spectacular views. Yet, Vallarta hosts a number of lower priced hotels in the center of the city that are quite reasonable for families. Even a low priced hotel in Vallarta isn’t bad, and they can be in Mexico.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path bed and breakfast, Casa Kimberley is certainly that. After Elizabeth Taylor and Burton fell in love on the set of Cleopatra in Italy, they worked on Huston’s film in Vallarta. The couple purchased a house called Casa Kimberley on a winding cobblestone street in Gringo Gulch overlooking the Rio Cuale Valley and Alta Vista mountainside. Similar to the bridge at the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, Taylor and Burton built a “lover’s arch” known by the Mexicans as “El Puente de Reconciliation,” which was based on “Bridge of Sighs” the couple had seen in Venice, Italy.
Burton’s alcoholism, drinking sometimes three bottles of vodka a day, five packs of cigarettes and obsessively reading up to five books a day, made him often a difficult character to live with. When the couple fought, Taylor would send Burton to the other house, which also served as a poker club, when Peter O’Toole, Huston or John Wayne came to town. Though Taylor sold it after Burton’s death, the mysticism surrounding their romance and their love of Vallarta still resonate at the home.
Huston’s former house, which is only accessible by sea, is available for an affordable romantic evening outside of the city. Vallarta Adventure’s Tour “Rhythms of the Night,” is a one-hour sail in the Bay of Banderas and departs near the marina. Sea birds meander on the evening air currents as you pass into the cove of Las Caletas with the sky illuminated in the fiery reds and oranges of the setting sun. Amid tropical palms, music and dance, a candlelight dinner is served on the torched lit beach.
The best place to admire the view of the Bay of Banderas is from Le Kliff Restaurant off the highway leading to Barra de Navidad. Le Kliff was built before the set of the film scene, in which Ava Gardner lusts after Reverend Burton. Situated on a rocky shelf, with a series of terraces protected from the sun by thatched roofs, it is a great place to catch humpback whales mating and giving birth between December and March.
To be less of a tourist, I went out to explore the local culture and ended up in a hip club called Santos. Clubs, cafés, galleries and restaurants are booming despite the stifled Mexican economy. Santos is a triple decked bar – on the first floor, food and lounging are in a chic want-to-be-seen atmosphere. On your way upstairs you pass by a chill, ambient/techno room with a dance floor. If you are able to make it to the top étage, you can enjoy mojitos on the roof among a young, energetic crowd.
The fact that Vallarta is in Mexico sometimes surprised me. There’s a Wal-Mart where families do their shopping on Friday nights. The lines are a bit longer than in the U.S. and there are children everywhere. The Mexican population is exploding which makes it a very young culture. The average age in Mexico is 26.
I was reminded of the difference between Mexico and the States while strolling along the Malecon, the main drag. I purchased a shawl and struck up a conversation with a local vender, a small, middle-aged woman with a wide smile. The first thing she did was to offer advice – “marriage doesn’t make things get better.” Later, I asked her what her life was like in Mexico. “I make $9.00 a week, and my children tell me they want to eat at McDonalds,” she replied dryly. “I know that if we eat there they will starve for three days afterwards.”
Locals work hard to keep the place a popular tourist destination. New sculptures by Alejandro Colunga will be erected at the Pier Rotunda to restore his lost work, which was blasted by 66-feet waves and swallowed up by the sea in the hurricane on October 25, 2002, when winds reached up to 130 miles per hour. Colunga’s other projects are in Long Island, where he plans to build a labyrinth measuring 490 feet in diameter, and Havana, where he will erect a series of sculptures devoted to the deities of Cuba.
From the Malecon, you can see the spires of Café des Artists, which rivals restaurants in Paris and New York City. The chef happens to be French. Thierry Blouet’s roasted filet mignon wrapped in blue agaves and sautéed in foie gras pasilla sauce with French green beans is to die for. Top it off with the “Montezuma” bitter chocolate fondant and a cup of the best espresso in town.
The décor inside is inspiring, with glass teardrops hanging from the ceiling accentuated by the white modernist architecture. Ask to sit outside in the backyard terracey – you’ll be glad you did. If you’re not interested in the town life and prefer nature, Islas Marietas is known for its variety of birds – penguins, scissor-tails, ducks and pelicans. For the more adventurous, snorkeling among the coral reefs of Playa del Amor will take you to the shores of the sparkling white sand beach. To get there you cross a wide rock tunnel hewn out by centuries and then swim the rest of the way.
Even with secluded beaches like the one on Islas Marietas, people still tend to congregate at crowded beaches, as if to say crowds mean the beach is better. Playa los Muertos is no different, but it is the home of El Dorado – an authentic Mexican restaurant, spacious with a clear view of the amalgam of beachgoers. Children dive into the sea from a nearby pier and the local jazz singer at the Club Le Bistro segues into a spot on the sand as if the sand were an impromptu stage. The owner of El Dorado, who died last year, was responsible for inviting Huston to Vallarta. Open since 1961, El Dorado underwent renovations recently and it is usually packed. An older, fit, gay American man announces in Spanish and English that happy hour is about to begin. Two free drinks show up and I’m well on my way to a pleasant afternoon in the shade.
Continental, Delta, Alaska Air, United, AirMexico all offer direct flights to Vallarta.
KM 17.5 Can. A Manzanillo, South Zone
Telephone: 52 + (322) 222-3675
Playa el Anclote, Punta Mita
Telephone: 52 + (329) 291-6332
Olas Altas 38-B,
zona romantica (Old Vallarta)
Tellephone: 52+ (322) 223-0760
Le Bistro Jazz Café
Isla Rio Cuale Local 16-A
Telephone: 52 + (322) 222 0283,
52 + (322) 223 1084
Hotel Weston Regina
Paeo de la Marina sur 205
($185-$300 for a single or double)
Designed by Javier Sordo Madaleno
Café Oro Verde
Av Juarez No. 728 Altos
Centro Puerto Vallarta, Jal
For reading and partaking in the local art scene
Telephone: 52 + (322) 222-31 59
Patricia Maire cel: 044 322 20 503 92
La Bodeguita des Medio
Paseo Diaz Ordaz 858, Malecon,
Puerto Vallarta, Jal
(Cuban restaurant with live music)
Telephone: (322) 223 15 84
Restaurant (322) 223 1585
Telephone: (322) 223-3052
“Rhythms of the Night” Tour of John Huston’s jungle hideout
(M-S 6:30 from the PU Maritime Terminal, $30.)