This article is from the October 1995 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Puerto Vallarta, The Past Lends Soul To the Present

A Sleepy Little Agricultural Village Exploded One Day Fairly Recently Into a Tourist Destination.. .But Something Of Its Timeless Heart Still Beats

In 1524 the first recorded documentation of the "Valle de Las Banderas" was made by a priest who accompanied the Spanish explorers. The party looked down into a beautiful, lush valley from a mountain pass, wended their way downhill and found themselves blocked by 20,000 natives carrying colorful cotton flags. or banderas. This symbolic event thus began the European contact.

Banderas Bay became a destination for Spanish soldiers who landed on the bay's beaches to replenish their supplies of food. firewood and water. It also served as a safe haven from pirates who scourged ships returning from the Philippines. A shipyard was built on the bay (probably where Mismaloya is situated today) in 1664. At that time the bay was called Humpback Bay because of the numerous humpback whales that could be spotted there.

Old Las Penas

In 1855 Puerto Vallarta, which was then known as Las Penas, was settled by Don Guadalupe Sanches Torres who brought his family there to establish a permanent residence. Other families followed and slowly this largely uninhabited area took on a Spanish presence. The families worked in agriculture, cattle ranching and bringing in salt from nearby mines. By 1880 Las Penas had a population of 1500 inhabitants.

The area was not without its mishaps unfortunately, events which served to slow the growth of Las Penas. In March, 1883. a great tidal wave struck Banderas Bay,wiping out several houses and part of the population. Just five years later, continuing the curse, a pot of grease being heated over a charcoal fire in a palapa burst into flames and set a fire that spread to the north and destroyed more than half of the houses in the town. In 1911 a waterspout in Banderas Bay left 100 people homeless. A yellow fever epidemic killed 150 residents in 1922. The original sixteenth century natives with their colorful banderas seemed, in retrospect, to have been giving the Europeans a portent of the future: stay out of this valley.. danger awaits you.

The Birth of Vallarta

Nevertheless, the population wave continued and the village developed into a viable center of commerce. In 1914 both a telegraph and a post office were built, and in 1915 a municipality was established and named in honor of a former governor of Jalisco. Don Ignacio L. Vallarta. By 1925 a railroad was built to bring bananas from plantations owned by the Montgomery Fruit Company to the bay to be shipped to the United States. Employment was plentiful at this point and Puerto Vallarta's population grew substantially. This foreign company ceased operations in 1938 when new agrarian laws came into effect.

Puerto Vallarta remained a small agricultural center until after World War II. Then a few Americans began to sail into the beautiful. calm bay and to dock at the quaint farming town. Eventually a few hotel rooms became available and in 1945 the Rosita Hotel opened its doors, hoping that the trickle of tourists would eventually grow. Hmmm... The first wave of tourists were residents of Guadalajara and Mexico City. In 1954 the first commercial airplane landed on a dirt strip on the south side of the Rio Cuale.

The Iguana

John Huston chose Puerto Vallarta as the site for the filming of 'The Night of the Iguana," based on the play by Tennessee Williams. It was perhaps not the film itself that directed the eyes of the world to Puerto Vallarta as much as the torrid and much publicized love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A mostly forgotten fact about this film is that Elizabeth Taylor was not Richard Burton's co-star: it was actually Ava Gardner, and Miss Taylor did not even appear in the film. But the ambiance of Puerto Vallarta as a place of love, passion and beauty continues to dwell in our imaginations. (There is a showing of this film every night at the La Jolla Mismaloya Spa and Condominiums for those who need to recapture the feel of old Puerto Vallarta.)

In 1964 Puerto Vallarta had a population of 12,500. Today it stands at around 300,000, and P.V. has attained the stature of a world-class tourist destination. In 1970 a new airport and a maritime terminal were opened and since then the high rises and condos have continued to proliferate.

But for those who care, the nearby jungle trails bring us to trees full of parrots... and intrigue.