Monday, November 8, 2010

Puerto Vallarta Part 1: The Malecon

Beach view along Puerto Vallarta's Zona Romantica, looking south. Last winter, Carole and I visited Puerto Vallarta (or PV as some know it). For a Google map of Puerto Vallarta, click here. Carole was eager for some beach warmth after weeks of chilly weather at Lake Chapala in Jalisco State, where we live. I must confess that my expectations of Puerto Vallarta were very low. I had never visited, but I had been to other Mexican beach resort towns such as Cancun. I expected to find myself enclosed in a similar foreigner-oriented "bubble," with little of the ancient history and deep authentic culture for which we so love Mexico. To my somewhat grudging surprise, I came to like the place. I still don't care much for the glitzy high rises that dominate the northern end of town, but we stayed on the south end. Our hotel, the Tropicana, lies within the Zona Romantica, which contains some of the older and more charming establishments. It also turned out to be adjacent to the gay section of PV, lending it an additional level of interest. I decided to devote the first of my series on Puerto Vallarta to its centerpiece, the Malecon. This long cement and stone walkway along the beach provides a wonderful way to get an initial feel for this coastal community.

Statue of indigenous woman washing clothes on beach rocks. Ironically, this statue sits on the Malecon in front of one of the larger and more ostentatious of the beachfront hotels. It provides a reminder of what all this wealth and ostentation is based upon. Little is known about the pre-hispanic history of the Puerto Vallarta area. Archaeological evidence indicates that the early indigenous people were part of the Aztatlán culture (900-1200 AD) which existed in what are the present-day States of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Michoacán.

Stern and rugged, a conquistador stares out of the past. A visit to the Naval Historical Museum on the Malecon provides a newcomer with an interesting perspective on Puerto Vallarta's past. The museum is located on the Malecon next to the Los Arcos Amphitheatre. Opened in 2006, the museum is one of only four in the country dedicated to Mexico's naval history. The site was originally the office of the naval commander of Puerto Vallarta and later functioned as a naval hospital. The crisply dressed young sailors who run the museum are extremely polite and helpful. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area, their primary interest was the wonderful Bahia de Banderas, the crescent-shaped bay overlooked by present-day Puerto Vallarta. They were seeking safe harbors along the coast that could protect treasure ships from storms and pirates. In 1524, Hernán Cortés himself arrived in the nearby Ameca valley to lead the fight against an army of as many as 20,000 indigenous warriors who were resisting the Spanish incursion. The colorful flags, or banderas, carried by the local warriors gave the bay its name. Population around Bahia de Banderas remained small for centuries, and the local fishing village was called El Carrizal or Las Peñas. The village which became Puerta Vallarta was not called that until well into the 19th Century.

Scale model of a colonial Spanish fort. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Spain was the preeminent military power in the Europe and the New World. The model above represents a state-of-the-art fort for its time. It was surrounded by an outer wall that was backed by a deep moat. If an attacker managed to breach the outer wall and cross the watery moat, he would then be confronted by high stone walls protected by 5 bastions surmounted by cannon. These guns could fire not only forward, but were sited so that they could sweep attachers off the walls in either direction from each bastion. The garrison troop and their supplies were contained in rooms within the inner walls, facing out into the central courtyard. Piracy necessitated such formidable defenses. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English pirates such as Sir Francis Drake regularly attacked the Manila Galleons and Spanish towns and ports in the New World. They stole the treasure, sacked and burned the towns, and massacred the populations. Drake returned regularly to England, turning over a share of his treasure to Elizabeth. In return, the English Queen mildly rebuked him but took no other action. Ultimately, this policy resulted in an attempt by Spain's Phillip II to conquer England with a great fleet called the Armada. His failure started the long and glorious history of England's Navy, while the Spanish power began to decline. Pirates from various nations continued to plague the Spanish well into the 18th Century.

Spanish ship San Pedro was the one which opened the treasure route to the Philippines. The Philippine Islands were discovered by Europeans in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan stopped there for supplies on what turned out to be the first circumnavigation of the earth. Although Magellan was killed in a battle with Philippine natives, his Spanish crew finished the voyage. In 1565, the Spanish King decided to send Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to conquer the Philippines. The Spanish viewed the Philippines as a strategic point for collecting the riches of the orient, which could then be shipped to New Spain (modern Mexico).  Mule trains hauled the treasure overland to Mexico City and then to Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast, where the final journey to Spain and the European market began. Manila, with its excellent harbor, was the collection point. From this, the famous treasure ships called the Manila Galleons gained their name. It was an immensely profitable venture and helped maintain Spanish power for centuries. The San Pedro, seen above, was one of Legazpi's ships, sailed by a captain named Andrés de Urdaneta. This intrepid captain found a better route back to New Spain, although at the cost of the lives of most of his crew who died of hunger and disease along the way. The tiny San Pedro did not carry nearly the supplies required for this exploratory venture, nor did it have the capacity to bring back the quantity of treasure that quickly began accumulating in Manila.

Manila Galleons were large, very seaworthy, and heavily armed. The tiny and humble San Pedro was followed by centuries of great ships that carried the wealth of the orient to Spain, financing a great Empire. What were these treasures? They included spices, porcelain, ivory, lacquerware, and silk. All were purchased using silver from New Spain's prolific mines in Guanajuato and Zacatecas. The galleons followed the route pioneered by Urdaneta's San Pedro, taking advantage of the prevailing winds to sail from Manila to the California coast of North America. They then followed the coast down to New Spain and ultimately to Acapulco, the only port with the royal charter to receive their goods. Along the way, they needed natural harbors for stopping points to bring on water, food, and to make repairs. Such harbors could also protect against the violent Pacific storms, as well as pirate attacks. Bahia de Banderas provided one of these safe harbors. Not all Spaniards were pleased with the Acapulco monopoly on Manila treasure. In later years, Bahia de Banderas also served as a smugglers' refuge to off-load goods which were then secretly transported up the Ameca Valley through Mascota in the coastal mountains and on to Guadalajara. Partially as a result of the smuggler's trade, Mascota--now a sleepy mountain village--at one point rivaled Guadalajara in size.

Malecon footbridge spans lovely Rio Cuale. This quiet river is one of 7 that empty into Bahia de Banderas. The river divides the Romantic Zone from Viejo Vallarta (Old Vallarta). Just beyond the bridge is a sail-like structure that provides shade for one of the many view points. In the far distance stand the recently-built hotel and condominium complexes that dominate the northern part of Puerto Vallarta.

One of the Malecon's many beach-side bars. The Malecon is lined with similar bars and restaurants. Some are attached to hotels and some, like this one, are stand-alone enterprises. Many of the bars and restaurants provide live entertainment late into the evening. Accordingly, a stroll along the Malecon at any time of day is entertaining, even if one chooses not to stop for a drink or meal.

Tourist police are easily recognizable by their brilliant white uniforms. In order to support the tourist trade, Mexican cities across the nation have created Policía Turistica (Tourist Police). Although they cooperate with the municipal police, they are a separate force created specifically to keep an eye on the safety and security of the tourists who provide the backbone (and ribcage and mostly every other bone) of Puerto Vallarta's economy. The existence of several different police forces can be confusing to foreigners. There are Federal, State, Municipal, Transit, and Tourist police forces, among others. All wear different uniforms and answer to different police bureaucracies.

What would a beach be without a "knick-knack" shop? Hand-painted plates, embroidered clothing, woven hats, jewelry and who knows what are sold in this palm-frond structure called a palapa. Cast even a casual glance in their direction and the proprietor will appear in a flash offering special deals. Even though the mark-up is huge, the prices are still fairly modest to those who may have a spare corner in their luggage for such items.

Typical condo along the Malecon in Viejo Vallarta. I thought the modest dimensions of this condo were appealing, although the price is probably stratospheric, given its location. The condos and apartments in the southern part of Puerto Vallarta are more human-scale than what you find in the more recently-built northern area.

A room with a view. Even though I don't care for dwellings of such dimensions, these stacks of balconies appealed to my photographic sensibilities. There are a number of tall structures like this on the south end of Bahia de Banderas, but I didn't feel they overwhelmed the rest of the community.

Coconut palms along the Malecon provided welcome shade from the mid-day sun. Although these trees are decorative, many areas of the Mexican Pacific Coast are devoted to growing them commercially. The coconut palm, or cocos nucifera, is an amazing plant. Nearly every part of the plant provides something useful. The oil is used in cosmetics and soaps. The meat is a popular treat in various forms. The milk from the coconut is used in curries and other dishes. The sap can be distilled into an alcoholic drink. The fibre is made into rope, mats, and brushes. Builders use the trunk of the tree, and the coconut shells are utilized by craftsmen. Finally, the fronds are made into roofs like that of the knick-knack palapa seen earlier.

Restaurant of our hotel, the Tropicana. The Tropicana is an older hotel in the Zona Romantica. The food and service here were good and not too expensive for a beachside eatery. Rooms in the hotel were clean, quiet, and ours faced onto the ocean. For more information on Hotel Tropicana, click here.

Los Arcos Amphitheatre is toward the south end of the Malecon. In front of Los Arcos (the arches) is a seating area where concerts and other planned or impromptu performances occur on a regular basis. Here I am alone, except for the man in the background washing down the paving stones. This photo was taken during an early morning stroll along the Malecon. Later, the beachside walkway comes alive with strollers, joggers, vendors, musicians, jugglers and any number of other folks out to enjoy the view and the ocean air. The Naval History Museum faces this amphitheatre.

Rocky beach stretches away under the seawall looking toward Los Arcos. Not all of the beaches at Puerto Vallarta are smooth sand. For a considerable distance the sea has washed up smoothly rounded stones. In a later post I will show how local artists have used these stones to create interesting, if very temporary, art.

Viewpoint extends out, perpendicular to the Malecon. When the tide is up, the base of this viewpoint is awash and it becomes a sort of pier. You can get a wonderful view in both directions down the beach, as well as out to sea and back toward the coastal mountains that tower over Bahia de Banderas.

Sunset over the Bahia de Banderas. We had a spectacular view from our balcony at the Tropicana, one of the reasons Carole wanted this particular hotel. Evening strollers wander along the beach as the last of the light fades over the Pacific. A beautiful end to another gorgeous day in Puerto Vallarta.

I hope you enjoyed the first part of my series on Puerto Vallarta. In my next posting, I will show some of the wonderful art that is displayed along the Malecon, some of it created the very day we came by. If you would like to comment on my blog, you can either use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I have been to Puerto Vallarta twice, and I stayed in the same part of town that you did. I really enjoyed my experiences there. It is a very welcoming city, and it felt to me like a safe one, too.

    I hope you got to see Casa Kimberley, the home that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor. It is very close to the downtown area.

  2. I wish we had known you and Carole were coming to Vallarta - we live just 10 miles north in Bucerias. It would have been nice to meet you both! We also love the Hotel Tropicana and had a romantic stay there last spring for our anniversary. Hope you return soon and make it a few miles north this time. Bucerias is a lovely and charming place.
    Best regards - Karen Knapp

  3. Hi Jim
    Just spotted your blog and am enjoying your photos and articles.
    Sara and I are planning a return trip to PV this summer.
    I am the author of Bus Across Mexico, the top selling Kindle guidebook on Mexico bus travel. The guide, with route maps of the major bus companies, and plenty of info on how to use the bus system, is also in paperback.
    Best wishes
    Robert Berryhilll

  4. I found the trick to get to the older posts Jim.
    Thanks and thank you for writing this blog for all of us to enjoy.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim