Puerto Vallarta Redux
by Robert Simmonds
Robert B. Simmonds, Ph.D., publishes The Mexico File and is the brother of David Simmonds, the editor and creator of MF. He is a psychologist in San Diego. Bob wrote articles on Cabo and Oaxaca in recent issues of MF.
A recent survey shows that Puerto Vallarta is the fifth most visited tourist destination in the world – the world! It outdoes both the Mexican cruises and Cabo San Lucas. Way back in the sixties, Elizabeth Taylor knew what she liked, and now thousands upon thousands of people flock to the very same beaches and jungle-enveloped hillsides that she and Richard Burton and John Huston (and let’s not forget Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr) adored forty years ago.
I know we’ve covered Puerto Vallarta in The Mexico File many times before, but I just had to see this place that Dave, my brother, has been obsessed with for so many years. Dave has been going to PV for decades – he estimated that he’s been there something like 30 or 40 times. He talks about the times he used to camp on the beach in a VW van in the very same spots that now sport major resort hotels, the places that the parasailing boats take off from now. But I think that even Dave is getting tired of the busy-ness of contemporary Puerto Vallarta. He now talks more blissfully about Sayulita, half an hour up the coast, thinking that it reflects the old Vallarta that he knew way back when. Hotels now line the Bay of Banduras, all the way from the north point of the bay, down to the airport, and then from the airport down to just south of the Rio Cuale, the river that runs through the center of the old city of Puerto Vallarta – miles and miles of resort hotels. And many people, I would guess, from these resort hotels never make it into the old city. They just lay on the beach and drink margaritas and shop from the beach vendors and hope to make their return flight on time.
I had an email from my old, dear friend, Carmel (a nurse who now lives in Staten Island), saying she wanted to meet up in Mexico again. And coincidentally, Dave’s old buddy from college, Lyneer Turner, and his wife Penny, were spending a month in Puerto Vallarta just down the beach from the B&B hotel that Carmel and I had booked. So, it was PV that we decided on, and, quite frankly, I don’t think I could have made a better choice. I loved PV (despite the many hotels).
I loved the tropical air in the month of December. I loved the cobble-stone streets. The tropical flora was like staying in a conservatory. The people, both the Mexican natives and the tourists, were as friendly as I’ve ever seen. You could buy crafts from nearby areas – jewelry, scarves, Huichol beaded figures and yarn paintings. And the food, in places, is clearly gourmet quality. I loved hearing the surf all night. I loved seeing a fiesta celebrating the Virgen de Guadelupe where I got my much needed taste of Mexican culture. This city is the beach and a straight uphill climb into jungle, one of the most scenic places on the planet. I got my fill of shrimp. I liked riding the bus down to Mismaloya where I had a foot reflexology treatment. It was even fun avoiding the time-share vendors, who seemed to comprise about half of the population. I loved seeing the manta rays jumping into the air in schools some distance from the shore, and of course we saw dolphins as well. Puerto Vallarta is filled with riches for the hungry traveler.
There is a hotel for every taste in Puerto Vallarta, ranging from major resorts (like the Hotel Fiesta Americana Puerto Vallarta and Quinta Real Puerto Vallarta) to cheap hotels meant for sleeping if the noise isn’t too bad, like Dave’s old hangout, Posada de Roger at Basilio Badillo 245. We lucked out in finding Casa Corazon.
Casa Corazon (Amapas 326) is built on a cliffside right on the Playa de Los Muertos, the nicest beach in Puerto Vallarta. The newer section is an eight-story building with rooms overlooking the Bay of Banderas, so you get to hear the breaking of the waves all night long. Carmel and I had adjacent rooms and we shared a long patio with tables, chairs, and plants, overlooking the ocean. The sunsets were magnificent from our rooms. You walk down brick steps and patios smothered in tropical foliage to get to the beach down below – and there, on a sunny day, you sit in beach chairs under umbrellas ordering margaritas and food while beach vendors come by with surprisingly high quality wares (make sure that Pedro is your waitperson). Oh, and I forgot to mention the band on the beach that plays some of the best music you can imagine. (One of my high points from the trip was when virtually everyone on the beach was singing along to their version of “A Horse With No Name.”) (It’s amazing what margaritas do.)
Casa Corazon is a smallish B&B hotel, small enough for the guests to meet and chat during their free breakfasts that feature a different dish every morning (ranging from scrambled eggs to chilequiles, and always with fresh fruit and good coffee). We met an airline steward (who did his yoga everyday on the patio), a couple on their honeymoon, a female tattoo artist, and a variety of other travelers on weeklong visits. And the price is right. Their balcony rooms go for $65 a night during the low season, although we got ours for $45 a night since they made a mistake in quoting us a low price and we held them to it. Interestingly, the people who paid full price got a TV, microwave, and refrigerator in their rooms, and we found nothing of the sort in our rooms – the price of penury. There is a drawback or two to Casa Corazon, but we adapted quickly. In the first place, even though there is an elevator that goes from floors 4 through 11 (the penthouse suite usually reserved for the owner, George Tune), you still have to climb those first four floors from the street down below – and it’s quite a hike up Amapas Street to the upper entrance on the seventh floor. The climbing in Puerto Vallarta got better by the time we were ready to leave, but those first few days were quite the challenge. (When I saw my doctor after the trip, he said I was “deconditioned.”) The other drawback was the music in the adjacent hotels that went on, loudly, until 10:30 PM. Every night we heard, as loudly as if we were on the dance floor, the music from the hotel to the left, which was good for some balcony dancing. And two nights a week, Wednesdays and Sundays, you get to hear the music from the drag shows at the Blue Chairs Hotel just to the right of Casa Corazon. I wondered why “Cabaret” still held people’s interest after all these decades, and why all these beautiful women were coming in and out of the door to the disco on the top floor, until I found out that these were major drag shows. (One drag show that we missed, but wanted to go see, held elsewhere in town, was the one featuring Ida Slapter.) Blessedly, the music always stopped at 10:30 PM, and then it was just the lull of the surf and a beautiful night’s sleep. You can book a room at Casa Corazon, which I recommend, by calling the owner in Las Cruces, New Mexico, at 505-523-4666 or 505-523-7694.
One of the most pleasant experiences of Puerto Vallarta is the food. I always prefer street tacos and seafood cocktails in Mexico (as well as, of course, the shrimp, which is always fresh, firm, plump and tasty as the sea), and there’s plenty of that fare around in Puerto Vallarta, especially at the beach palapas. But there were three restaurants in Vallarta that sent me swooning. The first is La Tia Catrina. It was Lyneer and Penny who, on the first night I met them, who took me over to this place, which was a real find for them. It’s located at 202 Francisco I. Madero at Pino Suarez (firstname.lastname@example.org). The decor is beautiful, and the tables fill early for dinner. I liked the French onion soup with chile rellenos. And I usually like Mexican food when I’m in Mexico, but I went out on a limb this time and tried two other restaurants that specialized in other fare, and both were among the best I’ve ever had. One was La Piazzetta Ristorante Italiano, which had an outstanding offering of antipasto and spaghetti. It outdoes anything in San Diego’s Little Italy, or any other Italian section of any major US city I know. (Or maybe I was just starving that night.) This restaurant is located at Olas Altas and Rodolfo Gomez and you can call for reservations at (322) 222-0650 (website at www.lapiazzettapv.com). And a restaurant that’s been around for decades is Archie’s Wok at Francisca Rodriguez 130; reservations at (322) 222-0411. This restaurant was founded by John Huston’s personal chef, Archie, who is now deceased, but it carries on through his widow, Cindy Alpenia. This restaurant has mastered intricate flavors with mostly Asian cuisine – but you’ve got to try their panang curry (which they call, simply, curry). Other restaurants that are in the list of Puerto Vallarta’s very best include The Agave Grill, Barcelona Tapas, Boca Bento, Daiquiri Dick’s, Trio, and Vitea.
La Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadelupe
Carmel and I met with Lyneer and Penny nearly every night at a beachside bar, Cuates y Cuetes, right on Los Muertos Beach, just north of the pier. (They have a two for one happy hour, and Lyneer and Penny, we noticed, had made friends with quite a few of patrons and staff by the week Carmel and I showed up.)
One night they suggested that we have dinner at the Fiesta of the Virgin of Guadelupe that was taking place nightly at the Church of the Virgen de Guadelupe a few blocks north of the Rio Cuale. Amazingly, little parades originated from all over the city of Puerto Vallarta with participants in costume or just in groups dressed in white and holding candles as they marched toward the church. We got to a street booth just about straight in front of the church and sat down for a bowl of pozole. Not only did this bowl of soup make me think I had died and gone to heaven, but as we were eating it, magnificent voices, choirs, came pealing out of the church singing religious music – and I felt fully on the brink of ascending. That very moment was the high point of my trip to PV – good broth, cascading music, in a sea of Mexican folk culture. Afterward we went on an art walk to galleries that were open that night – and Lyneer found a mesmerizing Huichol yarn painting by the master of this art form, Benito Sanchez, a shaman who creates paintings based on the themes of peyote ceremonies. I ended up, once I got back to San Diego, buying one of these myself – and Lyneer bought three.
Every Puerto Vallarta travel article has to give at least some space to Casa Kimberly, the former home of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Gringo Gulch. But, I’m sorry. There was no way I was going to climb the hill up to this museum. What was very pleasant, however, was a walk from the Malecon down Isla Mujeres to the bridge at the other end. The Isla used to be jungle, and now it’s filled with restaurants and craft shops. I even saw a $10,000 sculpture for sale there. The crafts are excellent, but perhaps a bit higher priced than you can find at the Mercado Municipal, which has booths selling virtually everything (but take a look at the silver jewelry...and there’s good food on the top floor).
Puerto Vallarta, yes, may be overgrown now – too much of a tourist destination maybe. But you can find what you need to find there. And for me, that meant a happy, warm breath of tropical air among friends.
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