PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico —
This Pacific resort city rides on an undercurrent of edginess, one that may not be readily discovered by those who remain within the safe confines of their hotel compounds.
This is not the United States. There are a variety of issues — safety and security among them — that should remind American tourists they’re not going to a beach resort in Hawaii or Florida.
Now, I like to travel just outside my comfort zone. I thrive on this tension.
And I love this city on the coast of Mexico’s Jalisco state. I love broad Banderas Bay, 26 miles across, its gentle surf washing Pacific beaches from Punta Mita to Yelapa. Every sort of vessel, from cruise liners and navy ships to re-created pirate galleons, plies its waters.
I love the Old Town area, where colorful fishing boats cast off each morning within sight of the historic Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe; where visitors parade beside local families down the broad Malecón promenade; where the ’60s romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton blossomed beside the Rio Cuale.
I love the outlying resort areas, especially vibrant Sayulita, home of the 2015 world stand-up paddling championships. Here, palm-fringed cobblestone lanes, flanked by shops selling handmade beachwear and Huichol folk crafts, turn to golden sand as they approach the beach, where fresh ceviche is served in shaded palapa huts to scores of surf watchers.
Mostly, I love the people of Vallarta, their friendly smiles accenting each sunny day. I love their restaurants, their shops, their willingness to attempt to speak English even when their language ability is no better than that of Americans struggling with Spanish.
But there is an unease here, one that is underscored by the constant presence of armed militia. Earlier this year, Mayor Javier Pelayo Mendez announced, in a letter to the North American Travel Journalists Association, that he was implementing “an intense safety and security campaign,” and that Puerto Vallarta had “recently completed a city-wide tourism security training program for our police force and tourism industry partners.”
If there’s nothing to worry about, one might indeed ask: Why is this necessary?
A majority of tourists who come to this city of 300,000 (it is properly pronounced “PWAYR-toe-vah-YAR-tah”) stay in hotel zones, where they need never experience the seedier parts of town. Security guards allow taxis, tour buses and airport shuttles to pass through the gates that defend hotel grounds, but precious few others may approach.
The Fiesta Americana Puerto Vallarta is one of these. Located midway between downtown and the international airport in the Zona Hotelera Norte, its 291 ocean-side rooms overlook a tropical garden theater and a large freshwater swimming pool with a swim-up bar. In all, the resort hotel has 10 restaurants and bars; a full-service spa; special programs for kids and teens, and a full slate of ocean activities from its beach center, including jet-skiing and parasailing. The English-speaking staff is well-trained in luxury hospitality and service.
Guests who don’t want to leave the hotel grounds really have no reason to do so. Others may book a package sightseeing tour to take them safely through downtown Vallarta; south along the coast to Mismaloya, where Burton starred in director John Huston’s 1963 movie, “The Night of the Iguana”; or north to the Riviera Nayarit, another modern beach resort strip.
Those of a more adventurous bent can join Vallarta Adventures, truly an excellent tour company, to swim with dolphins, dive in the offshore Islas Marietas or zip-line through the jungles at Canopy River. There are also sunset sails, a tequila-tasting trip and an impressive folkloric music-and-dance production called “Rhythms of the Night.”
Of course, that’s not the real Mexico. It never is. It’s the Mexico that has been molded and reinvented to the delight of gringos, who frankly wouldn’t have to leave the Estados Unidos (United States) to enjoy most of these activities. And it supports the local economy with muchos pesos turisticos (many tourist pesos).
Indeed, pesos are one of the best reasons to visit Mexico: With a current exchange rate of 16.8 pesos to the U.S. dollar, up about 25 percent from this time a year ago, travelers’ money goes a lot further than it would in Southern California or Hawaii. A 350-peso dinner of duck with octopus risotto from chef Alfonso Cadeña at La Leche, one of the city’s finest restaurants, would cost you only about $21 in U.S. currency, far less than you would pay in a major American restaurant. You could enjoy the catch of the day at the more Rivercafe, on Isla Cuale, for pennies on your dollar.
The Rio Cuale, which flows from the Sierra Madre del Sur into the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Puerto Vallarta, divides Vallarta Centro (downtown) from the Zona Romantica, a favored address for many of the 40,000 Americans and Europeans who make their homes in and around this city. In fact, a lot of the romance in the latter neighborhood is of the gay and lesbian variety, as this subculture is widely accepted here. Budget cafés are so tightly stacked with small hotels along the sands of Playa los Muertos (“Beach of the Dead”) that the main street here, Olas Altas, is often known as “Restaurant Row.”
Wooded Isla Cuale, which may be approached by swaying suspension bridges across its namesake river, is home to the colorful Mercado Municipal, a market whose merchants sell both food and crafts. Near the Puente (Bridge) de la Iguana, at its eastern end, you might spy a stylized statue of Taylor and Burton in an embrace. Indeed, the pair appears to be more idolized in Vallarta, 50 years after their famous romance, than they ever were in Hollywood.
El Malecón (literally “the breakwater”) extends north along the Pacific shore for nearly a mile. Lined with statues and modern sculptures — most notably, the evocative “The Boy on the Seahorse” (“El Caballito”) by Rafael Zamarripa — the pedestrian promenade, remodeled in 2011, draws tourists and locals alike. Fork-tailed frigate birds soar overhead.
At the walkway’s widest point, the Plaza de Armas extends two blocks east to the city’s landmark church, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Although the church was built in the early 20th century, the crown atop its steeple is said to have been designed after a tiara worn by Carlota, royal consort of Emperor Maximilian, in the mid-1860s. On weekends, when English-language services are offered along with Spanish in the church, municipal bands perform concerts in the square.
Mindful of tourist traffic, many galleries, bars and restaurants are concentrated along the east side of the Malecón. Among them are the insipid Señor Frog’s, whose Kermit-like trademark can be seen at souvenir shops throughout the city. I recommend against this and any other establishment that serves umbrella drinks. Instead, head for places like the rustic La Bodeguita del Medio, a café whose original Havana, Cuba, tables were once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, or La Dolce Vita, an authentic Italian restaurant.
Then and now
Puerto Vallarta is a young community by Mexican standards. Once inhabited mainly by crocodiles — which can still be found amid the mangrove-throttled waterways of Estero el Salado, a nature preserve near the airport on the city’s north side — Banderas Bay served Spanish navigators of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries as a safe haven to replenish their fresh water and food.
No permanent settlement was established until 1851, when an enterprising salt trader began using the site, then called Las Peñas, as a supply junction. Silver mines in the Sierra Madre required large amounts of salt in the refining process, so Don Guadalupe Sanchez Torres collected it up the coast, unloaded it from his boat here and transferred the salt to donkeys.
On Dec. 12, 1851, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Torres brought his family to join him. Other families followed and began farming or cattle ranching. A maritime customs office was established in 1885; the first post office opened in 1914; and in 1918, the community was formally incorporated as Puerto Vallarta, honoring a past governor of Jalisco.
Tourism grew slowly beginning in the 1930s, picking up substantially after a Guadalajara-to-Puerto Vallarta air route was established in 1954. Pan American began flying from Los Angeles to Vallarta and Mazatlán eight years later. Soon, Huston arrived with Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr to film “The Night of the Iguana,” and Puerto Vallarta went Hollywood.
Since that time, and especially since the mid-1980s, tourism has exploded. The local tourism board estimates annual visitor numbers at 1.5 million. Most new hotel construction has been north of the city, especially around the beautiful marina and planned community of Nuevo Vallarta, in adjacent Nayarit state. A few more intimate modern hotels are on the south side of Banderas Bay, beneath such hillside enclaves as Conchas Chinas, where many of the city’s expatriate community live.
Still more head to charming Sayulita, 25 miles north of Vallarta. Once enveloped by thick jungle, the town of about 5,000 was discovered by surfers in the late 1960s. Its eclectic nature has made it a magnet for adventuresome younger people and gallery lovers. Besides surfing and stand-up paddling, visitors enjoy snorkeling, fishing and horseback riding; although it remains small, the community has budget lodging, an English-speaking doctor and several Internet cafés.
But part of the recent history of Mexico’s coastal resorts also involves the drug culture and the power of its cartels, trafficking syndicates that have long dominated the illegal export of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines to the United States. Beginning in 2006, the Mexican government launched an offensive to stop drug-related violence, which had taken more than 100,000 lives through 2013, according to The Washington Post.
In April and May of this year, the emerging Jalisco New Generation Cartel staged violent attacks in 40 communities in Jalisco state, from the metropolis of Guadalajara all the way to Puerto Vallarta. Tour companies canceled excursions to colonial towns like San Sebastian del Oeste, high in the Sierra Madre, and convoys of the Policía Federal established checkpoints at key highway locations such as on the bridge that separates Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, from suburban Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit.
Mexican gun-control laws, while guaranteeing individuals’ rights to bear arms, are much stricter than those in the United States. Still, automatic weapons are important elements of police arsenals. Nothing brought this more to my attention than one early evening, when I found myself face-to-face with a machine gun.
I was returning to Puerto Vallarta, after a visit to Sayulita, when I heard a radio alert about the crash of a small aircraft. A skydiving plane had gone down over Banderas Bay, within sight of many leading resort hotels, after a parachute became tangled in the undercarriage. Two of the five passengers died. As a travel journalist, I sped to the crash site, or as near as could be reached along the urban coastline. It turned out that this was not in the best part of town.
I ventured down a neglected road to a scene straight out of a “Mad Max” movie. Beside a putrid open sewage canal was a traffic circle that may once have been intended as the hub of a luxury resort complex. A towering classical statue at the heart of the circle was now adorned with spray paint and pink lingerie. Behind it, the shell of an unfinished high-rise hotel, its construction long ago abandoned, was a magnet for homeless squatters who made their entry through breaches in a chain-link fence. Nearby, tattered sheets of plastic sufficed as roofs above the mud floors of a colony of residential hovels.
In the heart of this post-apocalyptic scene, a skydiving company’s shuttle van was parked to the side of the rutted lane, along with a company of Federales. No fewer than nine heavy-duty police vehicles, including several SUVs, were lined up from the circle to the beach, a distance of only a couple of hundred yards.
At the rear, beside the traffic circle, what appeared to be an M2 Browning (a .50-caliber machine gun) was mounted in the bed of a pickup truck. I identified myself to the officer in charge as international press, but he was not impressed. I confess to having been intimidated by the weapon upon which he leaned, unsmiling — especially as the barrel of the gun was aimed directly at my head. Local media may have been allowed past, but he didn’t know me from a drug runner.
I left the scene with much less bravado than I had mustered for my arrival.
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org