Mexico’s glamorous, tropical beach town should be called Resort-o Vallarta.
It’s easy to indulge Old Hollywood fantasies in Puerto Vallarta, the beach community on Mexico’s Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags) in the western state of Jalisco. After all, this is the mining village turned resort boomtown where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton trysted during their first affair in 1964. It’s the place that so entranced legendary filmmaker John Huston that for many years he made his home here in the secluded paradise of Las Caletas (more on that later). Decades after its Hollywood heyday, Vallarta (as Spanish-speakers abbreviate it; English speakers shorten it to “P.V.”) is home to more than 40 four- and five-star hotels that, thanks to the forgiving currency conversion rate, allow average Americans to live like celebrities, if only for a short vacation.
I am certainly ready to do so when I arrive in early June, just before the rainy season commences. The storms usually hit hardest in July, August and September, but an early rain snap causes drizzling on and off throughout my visit. No matter – this Arizona girl loves rain, and there are enough occasional sunbeams bursting through the overcast sky to sustain a few beach excursions. Plus, the humidity blesses my naturally curly mop with such angelic, defined spirals that I toss my blow-dryer back in my suitcase and contemplate if “hair happiness” should be a quality of living assessment in real estate.
My hotel is a 15-minute drive from Licenciado Gustavo Díaz International Airport (Puerto Vallarta International Airport, aeropuertosgap.com.mx/puerto-vallarta). As soon as I walk through the sultry breezeway entrance to Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa (Paseo La Marina Norte 435, Marina Vallarta, 52-322-226-0000, marriott.com), I’m in vacation mode. There’s a (free!) dessert stand across from the check-in counter, a tequila and ceviche bar adjacent to that, a funny American-style deli (why?), an imposing stone hallway with soaring ceilings leading to the Ohtli Spa and an open path leading to pools, beach and beautiful Pacific Ocean. The resort underwent a renovation after my visit, so the lobby now boasts new furniture, more ocean-view seating, higher ceilings and an ice cream bar. A glass elevator overlooking a courtyard overflowing with tropical greenery makes me feel like I’m in Willy Wonka’s great glass elevator, if it crash-landed in the rainforest.
Like most resorts, the Marriott P.V. is designed to keep guests happy, relaxed and contained, and it would be easy to spend an entire week eating through its restaurants, sunning on the beach, swimming, visiting the fitness center – Why, though? This is vacation, for Pedro’s sake – and luxuriating in Ohtli’s services, many of which include indigenous healing techniques and local herbs, plants and stones. In my fire opal balancing stone therapy session (80 minutes), the therapist begins with a traditional Huichol ensalmo (incantation) to manifest peace. She places Mexican fire opals, charged with healing energy from the sun, all over my body to infuse positivity, followed by a relaxing massage with warm basalt stones. I could stay here all day, but curiosity propels me to get dressed and explore the town.
A stroll along Puerto Vallarta’s mile-long boardwalk (a 20-minute drive from the hotel; inquire with the concierge about cabs and ride services) is essential. The esplanade attracts tons of tourists to its shops, snack huts and cheesy nightclubs, so the people-watching is prime.
It’s also a hub for an incredible variety of street performers. In our hour-long meander, I see a troupe of African dancers outfitted in Coming to America-esque garb, a sorrowful balladeer strumming a guitar, a clumsy mime tumbling about the Malecón’s amphitheater, an aggressively self-promotional caricaturist and a sexy couple dancing the tango to a boom box soundtrack. My favorite of all these oddities is the bronze statue of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Danny DeVito on the Malecón’s cruise ship port. I don’t get a straight answer from any locals about why America’s favorite pint-size tough guy is immortalized in such a way here, of all places, but I pose for a photo with it, anyway.
Stretching from the Malecón in a spokes-like pattern are the streets of Puerto Vallarta’s “old town.” There are shops, pharmacies and restaurants along its stone calles, but they are largely in disrepair. The city grew quickly as a result of the resort boom of the 1970s, but the infrastructure and housing for its citizens did not grow with the same quality and rapidity. Travelers to resort towns are familiar with the sad juxtaposition: The gorgeous hotel properties swarmed with tourists underscore the shabby poverty of many of the people who live there.
I have a guilt hangover from the night before when I embark on a day-long excursion to Las Caletas, the former private home of director and screenwriter John Huston. In 1964, Huston filmed his movie The Night of the Iguana in nearby Mismaloya, a tiny town south of Puerto Vallarta. The set was besieged by paparazzi and the scrutiny of gossip-hungry Americans scandalized by star Richard Burton’s extramarital affair with Elizabeth Taylor. Huston also tangled with the famously dramatic and difficult duo. Emerging from that hot mess was Las Caletas, an elysian tropical sanctuary bordered by a mountainous jungle and accessible only by sea. Huston built a compound on the land and used it as a private retreat for decades.
The cloistered paradise is now owned and operated by Vallarta Adventures (vallarta-adventures.com), which ferries tourists to and from the destination by boat and indulges them in a full day of all-inclusive (and insanely cheap: $139 per adult) entertainment, including kayaking, snorkeling, nature walks, wildlife encounters, cooking classes, mezcal tastings, clay modeling and adventure parks for kids and teens. I realize midway through our journey to Las Caletas that I’m on my first booze cruise and am half horrified, half amused. After a few tropical drinks, I somehow shake my veil of guilt and give in to the escapism. There’s an open bar, thatched-roof ramadas and a beach full of hammocks. I take a guacamole class and a paella class, and read my latest book club pick in a hammock until a siesta overtakes me. This is what vacation is all about.
As fish tacos and cervezas are to Baja California, ceviche and tequila are to Jalisco’s western shore. They are available everywhere I go in Puerto Vallarta, from my hotel’s ceviche and tequila bar (with more than 180 tequilas, including a proprietary one distilled especially for Marriott and available for sale only there) to restaurants in town like El Arrayán (Calle Allende 344, Centro, 52-322-222-7195, elarrayan.com.mx/en).
I munch through a margarita-fueled ceviche flight at Marriott, including traditional, Japanese and Peruvian versions (the latter, with its crunchy, puffed “Inca corn” kernels, is my favorite) and I scoop up El Arrayán’s version (fish, onion, serrano peppers, tomatoes, carrots, capers, olives and cilantro) with thick corn tortilla chips. El Arrayán’s huaraches (oblong discs of masa topped with chorizo and queso), shrimp with peanut mole and crunchy yams, and house-made ice cream (I get a trio of coffee, Mexican chocolate and caramel with cookies) with café de olla (lightly sweetened coffee infused with cinnamon) leave me speechless. This is the kind of regional Mexican cuisine I’d love a lot more of in Phoenix.
In that vein, my last dinner in Puerto Vallarta is a “Dine Around Mexico” tasting menu of regional styles organized by the Marriott food and beverage team, on a jetty overlooking the resort’s little bay. I sample a lime soup representing Yucatán, a crab enchilada from Veracruz, an avocado sorbet repping Michoacán and a dessert cornbread drenched in coffee sauce from Mexico’s coffee capital in Chiapas. It’s a feast worthy of Liz Taylor, and it stokes my wanderlust for these Mexican states I’ve never visited. Maybe next vacation.
Ordinarily, we’d shy away from cheesy group tours, but the hosts of Vallarta Adventures’ excursions are so winning that we’d let them plan every vacation. Here are some other popular tours they offer (priced per person in U.S. dollars; many all-inclusive). vallarta-adventures.com/en
Outdoor Zipline Adventure
Ride a 4×4 Unimog and a mule to zipline through the forest and rappel along waterfalls. Starting at $119.
Rhythms of the Night – Savia
Take in dinner and a show – including dance and acrobatic performances – in an amphitheater in an ancient pyramid on the remote Las Caletas compound. Starting at $139.
Make like Thurston and Lovey on this luxe French sailboat, outfitted with snorkel gear, paddle boards, lunch and a premium open bar.
Starting at $119.
Check the website’s sale page for discounted tours starting at $85. At press time, there was a screaming deal on Islas Marietas Eco Discovery, a boat trip to a marine sanctuary.