Puerto Vallarta. You probably know that Elizabeth Taylor started the whole thing. It was after she arrived in the 1960’s to be with Richard Burton, who was filming “Night of the Iguana” that the word got out. Puerto Vallarta became not just the scene of a movie, but the scene of a glamorous love affair. They built their own love nest, Casa Kimberly, and continued to return to spend time there
But all the credit can’t go to Miss Taylor. With travel to Mexico becoming easier, PV couldn’t have remained a “sleepy fishing village” for very long. It’s location alone makes it a jewel among beach towns. It sits on a deep, wide bay, protected from the raging surfs found a bit farther north of it and facing due west into the sunsets. As places go, it is a pretty perfect picture of paradise.
For many years it was our stop-off place between the airport and the water taxi to Yelapa, the small little beach a few miles south, that can still only be reached by boat. We discovered Yelapa by accident the first time we visited Puerto Vallarta, about 19 years ago. We took a day trip and missed the boat back. We ended up spending the night in a palapa topped beach hut and realized we had found a place we would return to many times.
Whenever we stayed in PV we always preferred to be on the south side of the river that divides the town, so that is where we wanted to go when we drove over for a couple of days and a night this past Monday.
There was so much new development that we saw as we drove in from the north side of town. It had been 13 years since we were there and a lot had changed. So many high rises, condos, and resort hotels. There was no sign of the three-story time share where we had stayed on our first visit.
I didn’t know what to expect as we crossed the River Cuale on our way to our familiar beach, Playa Los Muertos. I was happy to see that even though there are now condos that go all the way up the hills and to the end of the bay, that part of town seems to have changed the least.
We managed to get a pretty nice room in a dog-tolerant hotel right smack in the middle of the beach. Oceanfront view and king-sized bed….where we spent the morning. We spent our afternoons sitting right about where we used to sit all those years ago. Our favorite beach restaurant, La Palapa, hadn’t changed a lot. If anything, it’s gotten better. After our afternoon 2 x 1 Margaritas (it’s always Happy Hour in PV), we saw what might have been the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.
The beach itself was packed with people. By the way, this is not the beach where “the beautiful people” go. These are the middle-aged, middle-class vacationers happy to be escaping from the frozen north. There are families, gay couples (PV is the Ptown of Mexico), groups of friends, and quite a few Mexicans, who are having a little holiday in their own country. Everyone seems happy to be there–yes to guacamole, yes to Margaritas, yes to beach vendors (or “no, gracias), and yes to wearing as few clothes as possible and enjoying the sun on their less than beautiful bodies. As for the beautiful people, they are probably in the swell resorts at the north end of town, or farther south of the bay in more exclusive spots. That’s one thing I love about Playa Los Muertos…it is definitely not exclusive. Everyone is welcome.
They have built a new pier where the rickety one was where we used to catch the Yelapa Water Taxi. The new one is quite fancy with a crowning structure that looks like a spinnaker and lights up at night. A real landmark suitable for the growing city. I was comforted to see that the water taxi still leaves every morning…..and it looks exactly the same. And even though Miss Taylor’s Casa Kimberly is now a B&B and so much in this town has changed, I was glad that I can still see the magic in PV, even though I see it through much different eyes.
This is a picture from a few years ago in Isla Mujeres.
I have been having a serious love affair with Mexico for a very long time. It started about 25 years ago when Fred and I went to Acapulco. We left Acapulco after the first night and went to Pie de la Cuesta, a tiny beach community that was a short bus ride – yet very far away – from Acapulco. We rented a little room right on the beach for $12 a night. It was very basic, but the main hacienda had a lot of charm, and the dogs on the beach were quite friendly. Every day was sheer bliss.
A few years later we started going to Mexico regularly, starting with Puerto Vallarta, where missing the boat back from a day trip to Yelapa led to many wintertime returns to this remote little village that could only be reached by water. When we were there we stayed in palapa-roofed cabanas, again right on the beach. I started to notice that when the plane landed in Mexico I felt an extreme feeling of happiness. The only way to describe this feeling is that whenever I land in Mexico I feel that I am right where I need to be. And when I leave, it always seems too soon.
When we finally decided we needed to explore somewhere else, we headed to the Yucatan. At that time, the mid-1990’s, Tulum wasn’t quite so hip and expensive as it is now, and we loved it. Playa del Carmen also hadn’t completely turned into “little Cancun,” and we spent some fun days there. We did a lot of traveling in the Yucatan and saw Merida, Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and many miles of interesting roadside and little villages, where life seemed to move at a far different pace than anything we were used to. One of my favorite days involved a ride in an old VW that we drove to the end of the Boca Paila Peninsula, which seemed like a ride to the end of the earth, to a little town called Punta Allen. The road was like driving in a dry, rocky creek bed and we had to frequently stop to chase huge iguanas out of the way of the car. Fred’s memory of this day is different from mine as he had to do the driving. He was very concerned that the ancient VW was going to completely fall apart, leaving us stranded in the jungle.
We spent some time in Isla Mujeres, Isla Holbox (where a friendly bartender introduced me to the wonderful world of good tequila), Mahahual, at the end of the Yucatan, and visited Xcalak, the community that is as far as you can go without entering Belize. We visited Chetumal, the capitol of the state of Quintana Roo, and Lake Bacalar, called the lake of many colors for good reason.
When we realized we had pretty much covered the Yucatan and Quintana Roo, we decided to return to the Pacific Coast. Crossing the mountains by van from Oaxaca City, we ended up San Agustinillo, a tiny and very quiet fishing community. We loved Punta Placer, the hotel we found in San Agustinillo. While we were there we spent some time in the larger beach town of Zipolite, where we made friends with Javier Huesca, who runs La Providencia, the most wonderful restaurant we’ve found in Mexico. We spent some time in the beautiful colonial town of Oaxaca City as well. (Where another friendly bartender introduced us to the wonderful world of good mescal). Oaxaca is the state in Mexico that is famous for its cuisine and for its crafts. Pottery, weaving, painted wooden animales…and for its artisan mescal, another product of the agave plant.
About three years ago we started taking two trips a year to Mexico, spending some summer time in San Miguel de Allende. There are really no words to describe the beauty of this little city, which sits right in the center of the country. It is literally close to Heaven, way up in the mountains, where the weather all year is wonderful. It is an artist’s city. It is very clean, and the people are very nice. It is the kind of place I could see us settling down in, not for a vacation but for life.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Fred and I both “retired” last year. We are now free to go wherever, whenever, as long as we can budget it. That already means more time South of the Border. Last winter we again decided we needed to try something new, and went to Costa Rica for 6 weeks. Nothing against Costa Rica, but that trip pretty much sealed the deal for us. Mexico it is. So this coming year we are planning for six months in Mexico, spending time in both Zipolite and San Miguel. Then it may be time to decide what to do next. There is one more place in Mexico I am curious to explore, San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. I don’t know when we’ll take that trip. Since I am an obsessive planner, I want to see the whole picture right now. I also know that no matter how much planning you do, life is best when lived one day at a time. (But of course, you do have to book tickets and secure rentals). So, we’ll see. We leave for Zipolite on December 14 so for the next few weeks I’ll be spending lots of time working on my Spanish. I have no gift for languages, but I am very determined. I’ve always heard that the best way to learn a foreign language is when you are motivated by love.