News & Information

What's Doing In Puerto Vallarta

By TIM WEINER
October 7, 2001

Puerto Vallarta first appeared as a dot on the map of Mexico in 1918, and for two generations thereafter remained a little village. Then Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton showed up.

They quickly became the world's hottest couple. He was starring in John Huston's film of Tennessee Williams's ''Night of the Iguana,'' and Huston, who loved Mexico, brought cast and crew down here in 1964 -- followed by the paparazzi. They put Puerto Vallarta on the map of the world, and it has been booming ever since -- so much so that it is close to bursting at the seams.

It sits at the center of one of the hemisphere's biggest and deepest bays, Bahía de Banderas, with 100 miles of beaches and coves, and some of its side streets are as charming as any on Mexico's west coast. But with success have come the Hard Rock Cafe, hamburger chains and a host of cookie-cutter monuments to the hospitality industry. ''Puerto Vallarta is still a very beautiful place, but it's growing so much that if we don't watch it we could destroy the place,'' said John McCarthy, who heads Mexico's national tourism board, Fonatur.

There are two ways to enjoy Puerto Vallarta: to spend a few days picking and choosing the culinary, artistic and sensory pleasures the town offers, which are considerable, and to use it as a jumping-off point for the untrammeled beaches an hour or more away. Puerto Vallarta's center has, among other things, one of Mexico's best restaurants, one of its finer selections of Huichol Indian art, an extremely pleasant jazz cafe and other trappings of civilization to soothe and stimulate the senses of those with only a day or two to spend. One can even stay at the pleasure dome that Dick bought for Liz in 1964, now a bed-and-breakfast overlooking the bay, with rooms named for the films they made together -- though the ''Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?'' suite is recommended only for secure couples.

Those seeking total tranquillity can head along the coast to any number of beachfront bungalows or cabanas in towns so far unmarred by tourism, like Sayulita, a hour north of Puerto Vallarta, or Chamela, two hours south. Several rather more sophisticated lodgings within fairly easy reach offer peace and quiet in an untouched setting. Either way, you'll be on Mexico's Pacific coast, which despite the pressures of development remains pretty exquisite -- at least where the hand of man is not in your face. The fishing is legendary, the sunsets are sublime.

The city's tourist office, (52-3) 223-2500, in the Plaza Principal in the heart of old Vallarta, open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., is an indispensable source of information, maps and guides, and a place to book spur-of-the-moment sightseeing trips. The state tourist office has an equally useful Web site, puertovallarta.net. Two others are www.vallartaonline .com and www.go2vallarta.com.

Events

The main events in Puerto Vallarta involve the sun, the sea and the food. The city's gourmet festival (52-3) 222-3228, runs from Nov. 9 to 17, and serious eaters are advised to book now. The festival will feature 22 chefs from around the world working out of 22 hotels and restaurants, cooking classes, wine tastings and the immense culinary energy of the festival's president, Thierry Blouet, a Frenchman born in Puerto Rico whose restaurant, Café des Artistes, is sensational. Tickets are available at www.festivalgourmet.com.

The International Sailfishing Tournament runs from Nov. 16 to 19. The waters of the Bahía de Banderas have a reputation for excellent sportfishing; the big ones include black marlin and tuna. The tournament's Web site offers reservations: www .fishvallarta.com, or call the Club de Pesca de Puerto Vallarta at (52-3) 225-5467. Fishing information can also be found through the state and city tourist offices.

Another Hemingwayesque attraction, bullfighting (the bull is spared in the Mexican version), is staged every Wednesday at 5 p.m. from Nov. 7 through June. The bullring, La Paloma, is on the main highway midway between the airport and the center of town; (52-3) 224-2457. Tickets, $26.50 at 9.4 pesos to the dollar.

Nov. 22 is St. Cecilia's Day, and she happens to be the patron saint of mariachis. The best bands from many miles around congregate all day at the Plaza Principal and the Templo de Guadalupe, the lovely church opposite the plaza. And that is where Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, is celebrated as fervently as anywhere in the country. Her day is Dec. 12, but the processions, parades and celebrations in Puerto Vallarta begin Dec. 1 and grow in intensity for two weeks.

Sightseeing

The city tourist office offers a wide array of generally reputable day cruises on vessels ranging from water taxis to private yachts. An ecologically minded group, Sierra Madre, operates an outlet at 732 Paseo Díaz Ordaz, the main beachfront street, and offers advice on how to see the sights without trashing them. E-mail: asmupc@infosel.net.mx.

The most attractive and isolated beaches are on the south side of the bay and can be reached by bus and water taxi. They include Playa de las Ánimas (Beach of the Spirits) and Quimixto, where one can hire a pony or hike up trails into the hills.

The most popular cruise destination is Yelapa, a cove with many restaurants and tourist attractions such as parasailing.

Horseback riding has a lot less impact on the land than jeeps and vans, and several stables offer trips ranging from a stroll along the beach, suitable for children, to a trot up and down a jungle trail or an all-day ride up into the mountains. They include Rancho El Charro, Calle Vicente Guerrero 499, Colonia Playa Grande, (52-3) 224-0114; Rancho Palma Real, Calle Juárez 20, Las Palmas, (52-3) 221-1236; and Rancho Manolo, Carretera Barra Navidad, kilometro 12, Mis Malloya, (52-3) 228-0018. The rate is $12 an hour and up.

Mexico's Huichol Indians, most of whom live to the north in the state of Nayarit, have an artistic style that might be described as psychedelic. Done in traditional media including beads and yarn, their graphic art creates a magical animistic world, and one does not have to have been a Deadhead to appreciate it. Two of the best places showing and selling Huichol art in the center of town are Arte Mágico Huichol, at Corona 179, (52-3) 222-3077, and the Huichol Collection Gallery, Morelos 490, (52-3) 223-2141. Each is usually open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. .

A thriving arts community supports a number of galleries in town. Among the better ones are Galería Uno, Morelos 561, (52-3) 222-0908, in an old adobe house in the center of town; Galería Rosas Blancas, Juárez 523, (52-3) 222-1168, just off the central plaza downtown; and Galería Pacífico, in the old town at Aldama 174, (52-3) 222-1982 just up from the Malecón's new ''fantasy'' sculptures.

Where to Stay

High season usually starts in October or November and continues through April

Casa Kimberley, Zaragoza 445, telephone and fax (52-3) 222-1336, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Burton's love nest, was the scene of epic drinking and brawling in those days, a guest house to Hollywood luminaries from John Wayne to Rock Hudson. The casa is still a temple of cinematic high camp on a quiet bend of road in the neighborhood known as Gringo Gulch, five minutes from the center of town and its beaches, Playa Olas Altas and Playa de los Muertos. The Cleopatra suite, with a commanding view of the ocean and a pink whirlpool bath, is the most expensive of the nine bedrooms, $100 off season, $200 in high season..

The 291-room Fiesta Americana, Carretera Francisco Medina Ascencio, kilometer 2.5, (52-3) 224-2010, fax (52-3) 224-2108, fiestaamericana .com, part of the Fiesta chain with hotels throughout Mexico, is near the center, with six restaurants and bars, volleyball and basketball courts, and 24-hour physician service. The décor is Mexican. Doubles, $86 off season, $168 high season.

Hotel Molino de Agua, Ignacio L. Vallarta 130, (52-3) 222-1907, fax (52-3) 222-6056, www.molinodeagua.com, is one block from the bay on the south bank of the Río Cuale. It is quiet and calm, with pleasant gardens shielding its 58 simple but attractive rooms. Suites range from $150 in high season, $95 in low season.

Budget: Hotel Alegre, Francisca Rodríguez 168, telephone and fax (52-3) 222-4793, www.alegre-pv.com. It's a block from the beach, with 27 clean, functional, family-friendly rooms and two necessities: a pool and air-conditioning. Double in high season, $60, low season $50.

Luxury: The new Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, (52-3) 291-6000, (53-3) 291-6015, www.fourseasons .com/puntamita, 25 miles north of the airport, has a spa, golf and the usual deluxe features. The 140 stylish rooms feature eye-pleasing handicrafts. Because tourism slowed down after the terrorist attacks in the United States last month, the hotel has extended its summer rates -- $360 for an ocean-view double, $700 and up for a suite -- through Dec. 21.

Where to Eat

Café des Artistes, Guadalupe Sánchez 740, (52-3) 222-3229, is a sumptuous, elegant place. The grandfather of Thierry Blouet, the proprietor, managed the Hotel George V in Paris; Mr. Blouet's parents were also hoteliers in France, and these bloodlines show. The marriage of classic French cuisine and Mexican ingredients includes prawn and pumpkin soup, shrimp and lobster risotto with wild mushrooms, filet mignon wrapped in blue agave with foie gras, shallots and a pasilla chile sauce; superb cheeses and desserts. A three-course dinner for two, with wine, is about $90. Reservations, which can be made online at www .cafedesartistes.com, are suggested.

Los Arbolitos, Lázaro Cárdenas and Camino de la Rivera 184, (52-3) 222-4725, perched three flights up on a veranda overlooking the Río Cuale, is a good place for breakfast, lunch or dinner. A $45 seafood platter for two, the costliest dish on the menu, included red snapper, lobster, grilled shrimp, prawns, oysters and the bay's superb octopus. A hearty Mexican combination plate was $12 with a beer. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Archie's Wok, (52-3) 222-0411, Francisca Rodríguez 130, is south of the Río Cuale near the Playa de los Muertos pier. Like Puerto Vallarta's fame, Archie's Wok dates back to ''The Night of the Iguana.'' Founded by John Huston's personal chef, Archie Alpenia, this popular pan-Asian place is strongest on Chinese, Thai and Philippine dishes, such as stir-fried vegetables or fish in a red chilie curry. Dinner for two with beer, about $25. Closed Sunday.

At Le Bistro Jazz Café, (52-3) 222-0283, on the tiny island in the Río Cuale near the heart of town, the setting is lush and tropical, a lovely place to relax with a drink, listen to traditional jazz and have a light meal or dessert. Shrimp cocktail, $9; Irish coffee, $7, a fresh-fruit daiquiri, $4. Reopening for the season Oct. 15.

La Bodeguita del Medio, Paseo Díaz Ordáz 858, (52-3) 223-1585, is a son of the original in Havana, with cousins in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Paris and Milan. With the live music, usually Cuban and first rate, minty mojitos ($4), the world's best rum, the Malecón (the beachfront promenade) and the ocean right outside the door, focusing on the plate before you may be difficult. A Cuban paella, with shrimp, pork and chicken, at $12, is the priciest item on the menu, except for the cigars.

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What's Doing In Puerto Vallarta
By TIM WEINER
Published: October 7, 2001
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