FOR a city’s whose fame as a tourist destination was built on a Hollywood infidelity, Puerto Vallarta has evolved into a destination with a loyal following.
The infidelity in question is the story of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who -- although married to others -- were having a not-so-secret love affair. Burton was starring with Ava Gardner in John Huston's Night of the Iguana on the edge of what was then a sleepy Mexican town on the Bay of Banderas. Taylor came to town to be close to Burton, whom she would later marry. Long after the production of Huston's film end, the couple kept returning to this tourist town.
Titillated by the Burton/Taylor story, North Americans came to Puerto Vallarta. They're still coming today.
In the 40-plus years since Liz and Dick shone the spotlight on PV, the town has expanded both north, with the addition of Nuevo Vallarta, and farther south, where you'll find many luxury resorts, condos and the best beaches. But at the core it has stayed true to its Mexican roots.
It's a living and working city of 350,000 people, where you're just as likely to see men with their fishing nets at the water's edge hauling in the daily catch for the restaurants and resorts, as you are an American burger joint.
But it's easy enough to steer clear of the tourist traps and get immersed in the Puerto Vallarta of yesterday and glimpse the old Mexico.
Here are five ways how to discover the town:
1. STROLL THE MALECON: Puerto Vallarta's beachfront boardwalk takes on a new life after the sun goes down. The ocean breeze carries in the artists, acrobats and musicians who entertain (and make a few pesos) from the tourists and the locals. Grab a fruit Popsicle or roasted corn cob and walk south, stopping along the way for a look at the contemporary and quirky public sculptures that take on a magical look in the dusk.
2. HOP ON THE BUS: For under a dollar, you can get anywhere in the downtown on the buses that say "Centro." To venture out of PV and farther south to beaches such as Mismaloya and Boca, you'll have to catch one from the south terminal.
3. BEACHES: Vallarta's beaches are hubs of activity for the usual array of water sports, sunbathing, swimming or lounging under a palapa for a siesta. All beaches in Mexico are public, giving Mexicans the right to free beach access. That also means you might be approached dozens of times by people trying to sell you everything from jewelry to blankets.
There are many great beaches, but favourites include Los Muertos, just a few blocks from Old Town, and Mismaloya, south of PV. To escape the crowds and find your inner hippie, take a day trip Yelapa, only accessible by boat. To get there, take a water taxi from Los Muertos beach or the Boca/Mismaloya bus and catch a water taxi at Boca beach for around six dollars. Boats leave about every two hours and return around 4 p.m. Gringo hippies discovered Yelapa about 30 years ago and set up a community of thatch huts near the beach. There was no electricity until the mid-90s. It's a groovy place to spend the day tripping around the town, poking around the shops and meeting the locals. In the afternoon, head to the beach for a swim or snorkel in the calm waters. Be sure to treat yourself to freshly caught red snapper, fresh guacamole and a cold Pacifico.
4. MOUNTAIN TIME: The Sierra Madres mountains nestled above Puerto Vallarta are easily accessed by rental car, jeep or van. What lies along the bumpy roads are sleepy towns, where life slowly carries on far from the pulse of the city. Tours include jungle adventures, some making stops at a typical home to watch the matriarch of the family make tortillas. Most tours end the day at a secluded beach, such as Los Caletas, where Huston once owned a home and where a number of films were shot.
5. TEQUILA TASTING: For many, tequila comes in a shot glass at one of the tourist bars downtown. But for a more authentic sampling, take the south bus to Mismaloya, a 30-minute ride. As you enter the dusty road into town, you'll find Mama Lucia's Tequila mill: It's a family-owned operation that offers hand-made tequila and it can't be bought anywhere else. Free tours are conducted every day except Sundays. Be sure to stop into the boutique where you can buy traditional tequila as well as chocolate- and coffee-flavoured tequilas.
For more information on tours, activities and resorts go to visitpuertovallarta.com
-- Canwest News Service
IF YOU GO
A number of airlines and carriers service Puerto Vallarta from Vancouver and Abbotsford airports, including AirTransat, Air Canada, Alaska Airways, American Airways, US Airways and WestJet.
Where to stay
Like most Mexican resorts, PV offers numerous choices in accommodations, from five-star luxury all-inclusive resorts, to modest hotels to small inns and B&Bs.
The best place to start is at www.visitpuertovallarta.com, an exhaustive Tourism Mexico website providing information and contacts required to plan your trip. And be sure to search out some discounts, as what is bad for the global economy seems good for the traveller's wallet at the moment.
San Sebastian day trip
In addition to Vallarta Adventures (www.vallartaadventures.com), a number of tour operators offer day trips to San Sebastian via minivan. And if you're really looking for a day trip to remember, check out the handful of operators that fly into San Sebastián's airstrip each day.
Sea Turtle Camp
Operated August through December by Ecotourism de Mexico (www.ecotoursvallarta.com), this evening adventure includes a visit to a crocodile habitat followed by a visit to the beach and the remarkable birth of hundreds of sea turtles.