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Legendary Mexico

Puerto Vallarta still can charm decades after Liz Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love with it.

May 04, 2003|By Susan Spano

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico -- It seems as if all the trashy old paperback novels end up here, abandoned in cafes and hotels by vacationers whose tans have long since faded. Waves pound Los Muertos beach. At bars on the Malecon, Puerto Vallarta's beloved oceanfront promenade, lost souls drink margaritas in the morning. Boys carry iguanas on their arms, telling tourists they taste like chicken. And if you listen -- and imagine -- you may hear Elizabeth Taylor shrieking at Richard Burton in their house on the hill above town.

All things considered, you'd think Puerto Vallarta would be washed up by now, 40 years after Burton came here with his famous paramour to shoot John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana." It's hardly the quiet, sunstruck Mexican village on wide Banderas Bay that Liz and Dick fell in love with. You'll find a Wal-Mart, Hooters and several McDonald's restaurants; too much traffic on the narrow cobblestone streets; perpetual noise, bare skin and cornrows on people they don't flatter; and authentic Mexican trinkets made in Malaysia.

Besides, other ritzy new resort areas -- Cabo, Ixtapa, Huatulco -- have arrived on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and hotel development in Puerto Vallarta has moved out of town, all the way to the reclusive Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, about 60 miles north. On the south side of Banderas Bay, past the point where Mexican Highway 200 leaves the ocean, several small, luxurious eco-resorts such as Verana have opened. These don't have much to do with Puerto Vallarta because they can be reached only by boat.

As if the indignities of age and the war in Iraq weren't enough, the city was hit by Hurricane Kenna in October. It swept away sand on already eroded downtown beaches, tore up the Malecon and destroyed Los Arcos, the triple-arched sculpture that was the city's symbol.

In the months since the hurricane, though, the town launched a project to lengthen the Malecon, which includes a new pedestrian bridge over the Cuale, the river that separates the northern and southern sections of town. Los Arcos has been rebuilt, as has another Malecon sculpture, "In Search of Reason," by Guadalajara artist Sergio Bustamante. This striking bronze creation consists of a tall ladder with two ghostly figures on it and another watching from below. The hurricane spirited away the biggest figure. But it was salvaged when some boys who found it on the beach came to town trying to sell it as scrap metal.

That's pure Puerto Vallarta, a good-tempered, prosperous city of about 250,000 midway between Mazatlan and Manzanilla, which is not and, I hope, never will be Mexican gold coast scrap metal. Not for me the out-of-town resorts and secluded inns. When I say I love Puerto Vallarta, I mean the city proper. With its ripe smells and collarless dogs, martinis and art galleries, it's the happiest blending of Mexican and gringo culture I know.

When I went there last month, the city was packed with tourists, many of them Mexican families on Easter vacation. Over the years, many foreigners have settled in, staying for the high season from November to May, then flitting back to Northern California or New England.

Having been here before and knowing I wanted to spend my time in the city, not the high-rise hotel zones, I found it easy to choose a place to stay: the Hotel Molino de Agua. It was a mango orchard on the south bank of the Rio Cuale in the early 19th century when the city got its start. Now it's a slightly faded, family-owned enclave surrounded by high wrought-iron fences, with a monkey cage, monster banyan trees, two swimming pools, a restaurant, cottages and two- and three-story motel buildings close to the ocean.

My room on the top floor of one of those had two double beds, an air conditioner, a bathroom with ants and a big terrace overlooking Los Muertos beach. I especially liked the hotel's location, which made it easy to explore downtown on foot.

The Molino de Agua is one of the least exclusive resorts on Banderas Bay. For about $5, outsiders can spend the day at the hotel. I did laps in the morning before the guests arrived and liked hearing kids frolicking in the pool when I returned for siesta in the late afternoon.

A proper party

I arrived on Palm Sunday, checked in to the hotel and went to see whether the town was as I recalled it.

In the Plaza de Armas, just off the Malecon, a 12-piece mariachi band was entertaining passersby with a splendid cacophony of brass. Under primavera trees that had erupted in yellow blossoms, young couples occupied benches; a sole norteamericano couple was fox-trotting.

Then scores of pigeons took flight, wheeling in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe church, with its beautiful bell tower, topped by a wrought-iron crown held aloft by angels. I bought two intricately woven palm fronds from a street vendor and went inside, where Mass was being celebrated. The organ groaned and mold clung to the church's yellow barrel-vaulted ceiling.

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