Thanks to its mesmerizing sunsets, kilometres of sandy beaches and a laidback, colonial centre, PUERTO VALLARTA is a small city dependent almost entirely on tourism; it attracts a mixed bag of North American retirees, Mexican families, spring breakers, cruise-ship day-trippers and gay visitors taking advantage of its emergence as one of the gay centres of Mexico. If you’re looking for traditional Mexico you might find this wholly unappealing, but while it’s true that PV (as it’s known) can be more expensive and certainly more touristy than the average Mexican town, it can also be lots of fun. It’s smaller and more relaxed than Cancún and Acapulco, and its location, surrounded by lofty mountains, is spectacular. Behind the beaches there’s a vibrant Mexican city, largely undisturbed by the flow of visitors, which means that the choice of tasty, cheap street food – especially tacos – is some of the best on the coast, and in between the souvenir shops and chi-chi boutiques are some exceptionally good art galleries. The beach remains the primary attraction however, with the less crowded resorts and villages of the Bahía de Banderas fringed by endless stretches of sand and backed by the jungle-covered slopes of the Sierra Madre.
The town was officially founded in the 1850s (when it was known as Las Peñas – it was renamed in 1918, after Ignacio L. Vallarta, former governor of Jalisco), but there had been a small fishing and smuggling village located where the Río Cuale spills out into the bay for years. Initially developed by the Union en Cuale mining company, it remained a sleepy place until the 1950s, when Mexican airlines started promoting the town as a resort (the first hotel opened in 1948). Their efforts received a shot in the arm in 1963, when John Huston chose Mismaloya, 10km south, as the setting for his film of Tennessee Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton. The scandal-mongering that surrounded Burton’s romance with Elizabeth Taylor – who was not part of the cast but came along – is often deemed responsible for putting Puerto Vallarta firmly in the international spotlight: “a mixed blessing” according to Huston, who stayed on here until his death in 1987, and whose bronze image stands on the Isla Río Cuale in town. Over the last decade, especially, frantic development has mostly overwhelmed the tropical-village atmosphere, though the historic town centre at least retains its charming cobbled streets and white-walled, terracotta-roofed houses.