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Puerto Vallarta: Getting to know the city

Susan Schroeder

The Rio Cuale, the main river running through today's Puerto Vallarta, empties into the 7th largest bay in the world, the Bay of Banderas. The area is a tropical paradise, blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and resources. The Bay is ringed by approximately 160 kilometers of shoreline. It is home to migrating gray whales and a plethora of sea life. The surrounding mountains diminish hurricane forces, keeping the area safe from their devastating effects.

In 1851, the Sanchez family relocated south of the Rio Cuale, establishing a large farmstead in the productive, lush land. The Sanchezes would probably not have believed that eighty-one years later their homestead would become a major international tourist destination.

Gradually more people immigrated to this pueblito, centering their activities on fishing, transportation of salt and silver, farming and agriculture. By 1918, the community had grown large enough to become a pueblo named Puerto Vallarta, after Ignacio Luis Vallarta, a former governor. This sleepy fishing village of cobblestone streets and white stucco homes with Spanish-style terra cotta red-tiled roofs remained peaceful for many years. In the 1960's, the town was thrust into the world spotlight by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the paparazzi.

The colonial heritage and cultural perspectives stand steadfast, despite the changes brought about by tourists and international residents. Mexico's penchant for modernization and the fascination with all things American is absorbed, yet sifted and changed in a unique Vallartense manner.

Puerto Vallarta has several distinct zones, each with its own ambiance. International residents and Mexican locals live side-by-side with no thought of class distinction - a very special and seldom-found cultural acceptance. Throughout the city, it is this friendliness, openness and acceptance by the local people that is so endearing.

Marina Vallarta

Only five minutes from the Gustavo Diez Ordaz international airport, Marina Vallarta is a new area yet comfortably close to downtown Puerto Vallarta. The tidal lands, local wildlife and crocodiles have given way to progress and the area has become an international focal point for fishing, yachting, art and relaxation. El Salado Beach stretches for nearly two miles along the Marina basin. Here, one can windsurf, swim, relax and watch incredible sunsets. This master-planned community boasts a 355-slip marina, golf course, residential units, hotels, vacation clubs, and a broad selection of fine dining establishments, shops, marine facilities, and other services to accommodate the vacationer or resident. The area is very popular because it looks and feels like a yacht club "back home" with a splash of Mexican flora and design. There are year-round activities taking place such as The Mexico Boat Show, the International Sailfish Tournament, the MEXORC sailboat race, a PROAM Golf Tournament, Fine Arts Festival, and much more.

Hotel Zone

Going into downtown, the Hotel Zone stretches from Marina Vallarta to Parque Hildalgo (located at the beginning of the Malecon (boardwalk)), a short 10-minute taxi ride or an invigorating walk. It is here that the original mega-resorts first made their mark: the Sheraton, Fiesta Americana, Krystal, Velas Vallarta, Los Tules and Plaza Las Glorias. Here, also, are major shopping centers, restaurants, nightclubs, service shops from A to Z, the John Newcombe tennis facilities, the Qualton spa and the residential area of Las Gaviotas. For many first-time visitors and residents, this is the first stop whether it's for vacation or repairing the car after a long drive from the States. The resorts are self-contained with tennis, spas, discos, and beach access. Beaches front the whole sector for those wanting to ride horses, participate in water sports, or casually stroll along breaking waves. Sunsets are spectacular from every angle.

"Viejo Vallarta" (Downtown)

Fifteen minutes from the airport, starting at Parque Hildalgo, "Viejo Vallarta" is where the nightlife starts and many of Puerto Vallarta's landmarks are located. This zone runs from Parque Hildalgo south to the Rio Cuale Bridge. Hotel Rosita, one of the very first resort hotels in Puerto Vallarta, celebrated its 50th birthday this year (1999) and has become a landmark. The Malecon is one of the best in all of Mexico, fronting the Bay of Banderas along which are boutiques, restaurants, and nightclubs. Encounters of the magical kind take place here: sculptures by local international sculptor Ramiz Barquet, flower and balloon vendors, nightly stone sculpture gallery presentations, tourists and locals strolling, and all with an audio backdrop of rock and disco music from the bars. One of the best places to people-watch is from Las Palomas, a Puerto Vallarta traditional meeting place, located right in the middle of the Malecon.

Just off the Malecon are many special finds: the best art and sculpture galleries, fine dining restaurants from French to International Cuisine, the artisan market bordering River Cuale, "Gringo Gulch" where Elizabeth Taylor's and Richard Burton's adjoining houses are located, Guadalupe Church, and the lush garden walks and swinging bridges on Cuale Island. It is here that visitors can savor the truly unique architectural style of Puerto Vallarta and it's unique cobblestone winding streets.

To many though, "Zona Romantica" is the essence of Puerto Vallarta's charm, warmth and romance. Starting south just over the River Cuale bridge, the area is changing through regentrification and the the spirit of the Sanchez family lives on. A colorful blend of the old and the new, here are some the best fine dining establishments in all of Puerto Vallarta, art and sculpture galleries, sidewalk and Internet cafes, artisan handicraft boutiques, discos and night life.

Playa Los Muertos

Playa Los Muertos ("Beach of the Dead") is the focal point for sun worshiping, vollyball, parasailing, listening to jazz concerts, eating at one of the beach restaurants, and watching Puerto Vallarta's magnificent sunsets. Here, vacationers have a myriad of choices, from the hacienda-like Molino de Agua to deluxe rental condominiums and villas overlooking the beach and Bay of Banderas. Adjacent to this area is the Conchas Chinas portion of the city, which has some of the most beautiful villas in all of Mexico. This area from the rocky southern tip of Los Muertos Beach south and winding up into the hills, is probably the most coveted in all of Puerto Vallarta for deluxe residential properties.


Travelling out of town, south to Mismaloya, the flora, fauna, and natural beauty of the terrain is lush and rich, the most tropical and alluring of any place around the Bay of Banderas. This area is purely residential and is a protected ecological zone. The two-lane highway winds its way to Mismaloya and beyond. On one side, stretching to the horizon, is the clear dark blue of the ocean. Captivating the viewer's attention are the Los Arcos rock formations and the Bay with waves washing up on uncrowded beaches, or crashing against rocky jetties. On the other side is lush tropical jungle dropping to the very pavement. Breathtaking villas are located along the ocean and high in the lush mountain, along with beach-side condominiums. Tucked away, in the Garza Blanca area, is the hide-away of El Nogalito, a favorite with film crews who use the jungle, restaurant and rustic residential homes as backdrops.

For many, Mismaloya (located 25 minutes south of downtown) epitomizes paradise. This area was made famous by "Night of the Iguana" and "Predator," which were filmed in the jungle overlooking the protected cove below. Hollywood continues to return and film crews are regularly setting up for shots. The cove is small, sheltered and tranquil. Beach palapa restaurants, with their smoky fires, emit smells of pescado entero, carne asada, tacos and other delicacies to lure beachcombers. Lanchas are available to take guests to Yelapa and Quimixto, two beach areas accessible only by boat. Boats are also available to snorkle or dive the Los Arcos rock formations, which is now a National Underwater Park. The sunsets are magnificent and romantic. One of the very best cruises in Puerto Vallarta nightly brings visitors to enjoy a mystical show under starry nighttime skies.

The La Jolla de Mismaloya condominiums are set on an outlook promontory with the five-star La Jolla de Mismaloya Hotel alongside on the beach. Set high above on the hillside, is a residential community of homes and villas. The views from the condominiums, hotel and residences are commanding. However, the true essence of Mismaloya is in the pueblito itself, situated across from the cove along a river's clear pure water. Local children catch shrimp and play in the bends and twists of the river. Many visitors rent a jeep to visit the pueblito and follow the road past casitas, the local tortilleria, the cantina and up into the tropical jungle. Others choose to wind their way through the mountainside on horseback. Located up the river is the famous Chico's Paradise, a restaurant and bar where local children jump off large boulders into the rushing river. Somewhat further on is the restaurant, El Eden, made famous because it was the actual setting of "Predator." Uniquely, these restaurants must be visited during the day because there is no electricity.

Future Vistas de Puerto Vallarta will explore this fascinating city in more depth.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 1999 by Susan Schroeder © 1999
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