Iguana and Puerto Vallarta
San Jose Mercury
by Antoinette May


Any village in Mexico that aspires to be more than a wide spot in the road will have one thing. You see them everywhere: statues of Benito Juarez, the father of the revolution, the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, the patron of the down and out.

Puerto Vallarta is the exception. Here, in the center of town, you see instead a larger-than-life sculpture of film producer John Huston, a patron of the rich and famous. The late mogul earned the undying respect of Puerto Vallartans by choosing their sleepy village for a movie.

War and revolution, generals and bandidos count for little in Puerto Vallarta's history. Time literally passed the town by until the early l960s. No highways linked it to the rest of the Mexico; no telephones. Thrice weekly vintage DC-6s flew a few aficionados over the mountains from Guadalajara. Huston was one of them.

Here, the producer discovered his locale. He already had a vehicle, the Tennessee Williams play, "Night of the Iguana." Next he acquired the star that everyone was talking about, bad boy Richard Burton. Added to the mix was a trio of glamorous actresses: sultry Ava Gardner, elegant and enigmatic Deborah Kerr and the blond nymphette, Sue Lyon. Elizabeth Taylor who'd only recently detached Burton from his wife wasn't about to allow him to play in that seaside sandbox

Burton and Taylor weren't married--a scandal in those days. Newsmen flocked to report their daily dallyings. Years later Huston recalled, "There were more reporters on the set than iguanas--I don't know of any film I've made that called forth such interest." Suddenly a village of 5000 was a dateline appearing regularly in newspapers around the world. Puerto Vallarta has never been the same since.

Huston elected to shoot his film in black and white fearing that the kaleidoscope of sea, sky, flowers, birds and beach would overpower his plot line. It hasn't changed. Puerto Vallarta remains a haven where one can explore old world cobblestone streets lined by pastel stucco buildings with terra cotta roofs climbing the cliff sides.

Added to this is the unparalleled beauty of the rugged Pacific coastline where you can enjoy 25 miles of pristine beaches, the best upscale shopping to be found in any Mexican resort and the unique charm of hanging bridges, lazy streams, and quaint alongside luxury resorts. Watch just one blazing sunset from the seaside boardwalk and you'll understand what brings true romantics back year after year.

Day One

Begin with a leisurely breakfast in your hotel, then set out to explore the city. Since this may well be a shop-till-you-drop day, be certain to wear flat, comfortable shoes, for the city's picturesque cobblestone streets were layed out with burros in mind.

Begin your walk along the malecone, a broad promenade along the ocean front. Smell the sea, watch the colors change from hour to hour. Magicians will perform for you. Con artists will hope to lure you into naive games of chance. It's a marvelous place to people watch. Charming

bronze sculptures are scattered about including the seahorse that's almost as much of a Puerto Vallarta icon as Huston.

Directly across the street a series of galleries line the sidewalk. Puerto Vallarta has always attracted artists, now there are discriminating collectors. Possibly the best place to begin is Galeria Uno, Morelos 56l, the prestige gallery owned by a Palo Alto transplant, Jan Lavender. Works by Tamayo, Friedburg, Bickman and Lepe--to name but a few--are displayed in the airy whitewashed building with its lush courtyard.

Arte Magico Huichol at Corona l64, is a must-see gallery for anyone fascinated by the legendary culture of the Huichal Indians where art and psychedelic ritual are linked, each revolving about the sacred peyote plant used as a conduit to the spirit world.

Even when just a village Puerto Vallarta was a mecca for students of serious folk art. Today mask collectors from all over the world consider a visit to Gallery Indigera, Juarez l68, a kind of sacred pilgrimage. This is where the true trophy masks come from. See for yourself.

Enough shopping--for awhile anyway. Time now for lunch. What more more appropriate place than the legendary Hotel Oceana? Burton once made the place his headquarters, consuming vast quantities of raicilla, a mind- bending Mexican moonshine. Today the food's excellent, the bar still lively and the seaside location well centered in the city's hub. (Galeana l03.)

A survey of the shopping scene would be incomplete without a visit to Isla Rio Cuale. Just a short distance from busy downtown streets lies this small island in the middle of the Rio Cuale. Cross the bridge that Huston built so he could film it, or the more adventurous swing bridge to reach this tranquil oasis that encompasses a pretty park, stone walkways, white wrought-iron benches, shade trees, flowers and shops, shops, shops.

Two favorites among many are the elegant Tabu, a chic boutique half hidden by tall trees and lush foliage that carries original designs and colorful accessories; and Katy, specializing in one-of-a-kind handcrafted jewelry and ethnic clothing. Both are original and fun, personal favorites.

Don't forget to pay your respects to the Huston Sculpture at the west entrance to the island before hopping a cab and moving south on the coast road to El Set. Possibly the most romantic restaurant in town, El Set is the place to sip margaritas and watch the sun set. The positioning--terraced on a cliff low enough to enjoy the surf as well--is perfect, and so's the food.

Maybe you'll want to save room for a crepe at Le Bistro Jazz Cafe back on the Isla Rio Cuale. The problem will be to decide which one to order: peaches and cream with peach brandy, banana chocolate, cinnamon apple or double fudge with Kahlua. An accompaniment will be the sounds of splashing water and the syncopated rhythms of Dave Brubeck. But don't be too surprised if an accompanying Mexican coffee puts you back in the mood for shopping. To be expected: the many enticing boutiques stay open in the evening.

Day Two

Power breakfasts are served at Las Palomas, Diaz and Aldama over- looking the boardwalk. Don't be surprised to spot the mayor or the local publisher. Deals are struck here over strong Mexican coffee flavored with cinnamon. Check out the local specialty, divorciados, two eggs separated by a bed of beans.

But don't linger too long. Adventure calls. Are you ready? No visit to Puerto Vallarta is complete without a day trip to Yelapa. Hop the excursion boat to the tiny village seemingly from another time. The time trip begins at the dock for there are no paved roads to Yelapa, no telephones or electricity either--"just" a tropical lifestyle, hidden waterfalls and an enchanting village.

Those who dream of a jungle paradise will love this excursion which can include trekking or horseback riding to a swimming hole that's everything a remote jungle pool should be plus a few amenities--you can buy sodas, beer or the before mentioned raicilla.

Boats bound for Yelapa leave Puerto Vallarta's commercial dock daily at 9 a.m. and return at 4:30 p.m.

After a day of roughing it, however delightfully, you deserve a change of pace, something really special. Chez Elena, a ten-time winner of the holiday fine dining award is located in Puerto Vallarta's most charming hotel, Los Cuatros Vientos (Matamoros 520). The view is breathtaking, the food truly superb.

Day Three

On the sea side of Puente Viejo a stairway leads to Isla Rio Cuale and the Franzi Cafe, a great place to enjoy not only good coffee and a great quiche but live music as well.

Don't linger too long because another adventure calls. Grab your suit, hop a cab and head for Chico's Paradise. Less than four miles from the sea two rivers meet in a spectacular formation of rocks, pools, cliffs and jungle. It's a spectacular drive with delicious specialties waiting that include spareribs, crawfish and fresh coconut pie.

No trip to Puerto Vallarta is complete without a pilgrimage to Mismaloya Beach where "The Night of the Iguana" ruins remain to be explored. Ask your driver to drop you there on your way back. Besides a perfect crescent shaped beach and quaint mini-village, you'll find the movie set virtually in tact--including the bar that Huston constructed and stocked at his star's request. Just down the hill in the bar of the charming La Jolla de Mismaloya, the movie plays every night at 7:30.

Cold beer and Burton at his best can prove beguiling but there's another possibility. The perfect cap to a holiday in Puerto Vallarta is dinner and a mariachi concert at Brazz. Enjoy a juicy steak or queso fundido (mellow melted cheese served hot over crisp chips with spicy chiles then settle back and enjoy the show.

Too much in love with Puerto Vallarta to say goodnight? El Faro, a charming lighthouse cocktail lounge at Marina Vallarta north of town, is the perfect spot for a romantic reprise. The view of city and bay is spectacular. Count every star in the midnight sky while a guitarist strums romantic favorites. Then set the date for your next trip back

Copyright © 2002-2010 Antoinette May