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The Mexico tourist city of Puerto Vallarta: first impressions and highlights
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a popular winter destination for Canadians and Americans. This February I visited for the first time and discovered its appeal. Weather is great. Scenery is beautiful. Food is fantastic. And there is a LOT to do. Still, the city surprised me in a few ways and wasn’t quite what I expected.
The first surprise was the age of the tourists. Although you’ll find people of all ages visiting the city, the baby boomer generation dominates. Many visitors return year after year and spend weeks or months. Some are semi-permanent residents. The other surprise was how busy and touristy the city was. The core area of the city, especially the Romantic Zone and the area around the Malecón, felt like one giant resort. A third surprise was how little Spanish one needs to survive here. Most people dealing with tourists speak English. Menus are often in both Spanish and English. Over the past year, I’ve taken a few Spanish classes. I didn’t really get a chance to find out how useful the little bit I’ve learned and retained might be. However, there were a few times I was happy I understood numbers. A fourth delightful surprise was how safe I felt wherever we walked. People were always friendly and welcoming.
Puerto Vallarta is located along Banderas Bay on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico. It is sometimes referred to simply as Vallarta or P.V. In pre-Hispanic times, the area was home to the Aztatlán culture. The Spanish discovered the bay in the 1500s. The bay was used as a pit stop on long voyages. The bay was also used by smugglers avoiding customs operations at San Blas. It was silver mining in the mountain towns to the east during the mid 1800s that gave birth to the town that eventually became Puerto Vallarta. A small fishing village called Las Peñas had developed along Banderas Bay at the mouth of the Río Cuale. The village became important in supplying items needed for mining operations. Salt was needed to process the metals. Guadalupe Sánchez Torres began importing large quantities of salt from the Marias Islands. People rode mules down the mountain to buy salt from Sanchez. By 1880, Las Peñas had a population of 1,800.
The 1910 revolution and a drop in world silver prices led to the closure of the mines. People moved from the hills to farm the fertile lands just north of Las Peñas. In 1918, Las Peñas was declared a municipality and renamed Puerto Vallarta after former state governor Ignacio Vallarta. Up until the 1940s, the only access to Puerto Vallarta was via sea, air, or mule train. By the 1950s, it had begun to attract American and Mexican artists and writers.
Events occurred in the 1960s and 1970s that shaped Puerto Vallarta’s future as a tourist destination. In 1964, John Huston filmed “Night of the Iguana” starring Richard Burton in Mismaloya, south of Puerto Vallarta. The cast and crew stayed in Puerto Vallarta, which received a great deal of publicity from the coverage of the affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Burton and Taylor eventually bought homes in Puerto Vallarta. The government developed an international airport and improved highway and utility infrastructure. In 1968, Puerto Vallarta was designated a city. In 1970 it showcased its new image by hosting a meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Mexcian President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz. Resort development boomed.
Today, tourism is the major industry with millions of Mexican and international visitors each year. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about things to do in Puerto Vallarta and my experiences there. Right now, I want to give a taste of the city by sharing a jumbled, chaotic mix of impressions and sensations.
First, the views. Views of the water and lush green hillsides dotted with condos and hotels. Brilliant colours of banners decorating streets, handicrafts for sale, and decorative tile work.
Being approached time and again by street vendors offering a variety of products for “almost free” who politely move on after a “no gracias” response. Street entertainers.
Art on the streets and in galleries.
The sounds of the waves, the chirping of the birds, live music, the bangs of fireworks at night. Sand in my toes. Clothes sticking to me in the heat of the afternoon. The refreshing caress of an evening breeze. Pelicans diving for fish.
Strolling the Malecón.
The rough feel of cobblestone streets under my shoes. Navigating hills and stairs. Bouncing inside a suspension-less city bus.
Fish and produce markets. The sweet floury smell that let you know you are nearing a tortilla bakery.
Palm trees, rosy bougainvillea, the yellow blooms of the primavera tree, and the orange blossoms of the tulip tree.
Cooking aromas. Delicious flavours from an overwhelming choice of eateries.
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