Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Puerto Vallarta Part 4: Away from the beach

Steeples of Puerto Vallarta's Parish church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. For this part of my Puerto Vallarta series, I decided to pull my focus away from the beach and show some of the interesting areas that can be found a bit inland. As churches go in Mexico, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is not old. Construction began in 1921 under the direction of parish priest Francisco Ayala, who built on the foundations of a chapel which was already dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Construction was interrupted by the 3-year Cristero War (1926-1929) between the Revolutionary Government and Catholics upset with the government's attempt to separate church and state by unraveling the Church's pervasive control over much of Mexico's public life. The elaborate and very unusual crown on the top of the main steeple is said to be modeled after the tiara worn by Empress Carlota, the wife of Emperor Maximillian. He was the usurper installed by the French over Mexico in the 1860s. The original steeple crown was destroyed in an earthquake in 1995. Its replacement, made of fibre glass, has not held up well and is quite controversial. I thought the church and its steeple are still quite handsome and are the centerpiece of El Centro.

The homes of "Gringo Gulch". This area was named after the foreigners who built homes in a deep ravine leading back into the mountains away from the beach. Many of the Gringos arrived in the 1950s and 60s when Puerto Vallarta was a small fishing town. The houses are generally Mexican-style with red-tile roofs and include some of the more expensive homes in town. They are moulded into the hillside along narrow cobblestone streets and bedecked with vivid bougainvillea and other flowering plants. This area is definitely worth a stroll.

One of the many attractive byways of Gringo Gulch. Narrow alleys open onto cobblestone pathways, and charming stairways lead up to riotously colored gardens. You never know what delightful surprise you will encounter as you wander through the area.

Casa Kimberley, relic of a famous international romance. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton famously fell in love in Puerto Vallarta in 1964 while filming John Huston's Night of the Iguana. Burton purchased Casa Kimberley in Gringo Gulch as a 34th birthday gift for Taylor during their affair. Taylor held onto the romantic hideaway for many years, until long after her second divorce from Burton. However, after he died, she could never bring herself to stay in it again.

The famous Burton-Taylor "love bridge." Casa Kimberley, on the right, is now under reconstruction. The bridge leads to a guest-house on the left side of the street that the couple purchased after they were married. They built a bridge across the street for easy communication, particularly when Burton was occasionally banished to the guest-house during his tempestuous relationship with Taylor. For a while after Taylor sold Casa Kimberly, the new owner ran it as a B&B with a museum dedicated to the Burton-Taylor romance. Now, a bank apparently owns the property and reportedly is building condos there. So much for romantic traditions. The chipped oval sign with its graceful script "Casa Kimberly" above a small heart is one of the few reminders of the great romance that occurred here. At least the bridge is still intact, but for how long?

The Cuale River used to be the end of the line for Puerto Vallarta. The Rio Cuale, one of seven rivers that empty into Bahia de Banderas, used to be the southern boundary of Puerto Vallarta. Then, some local businessmen decided to build a restaurant further south on the beach. In time, two swinging pedestrian bridges and two solid bridges (one of which can be seen in the upper right of the photo) were built to connect the growing "Romantic Zone" with El Centro north of the river. This became particularly important when the beautifully quiet stream would occasionally turn into a raging torrent. The land along the left bank of the river seen above is actually the south shore of Isla Cuala, a long island occupying the center of the river. The island contains several restaurants, a pre-hispanic museum, an open market for artisans, and several other attractions.

Hotels and condos dot the steep hillside above the Zona Romantica. The photo above, taken from Gringo Gulch, shows how the steep hills cascade down almost to the water's edge. The terrain proved ideal for developers who wanted to build structures that would have dramatic views of Puerto Vallarta and Bahia Banderas. The beach edging the Romantic Zone possesses the rather chilling name Playa de los Muertos (Beach of the Dead). There are a couple of legends about this. One holds that after a battle between indigenous people and gold smugglers, the beach was covered with the dead. Another is that the area was once a burial ground for the pre-hispanic people. Today, it is just a beautiful beach, lined with hotels and restaurants. For a map of the Romantic Zone, click here.

Well trained branches of a plant outside Oscar's Bar and Grill. Oscar's sits near the tip of Isla Cuale, where the two channels of the river join just before they pass under the Malecon footbridge and into the Pacific. What attracted my photographer's eye was the unusual way that the branches of this plant have been trained to grow together into a pattern that resembles a fisherman's net.

Statue of film director John Huston (1906-1987). This statue is located in the middle of Isla Cuale. Huston was a director with a long list of famous films to his credit. Many of them were classics, including The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, and The Man Who Would Be King. If any man could be said to have "made" Puerto Vallarta, it was Huston. After he visited the area and fell in love with it, he persuaded his studio to allow him to film Night of the Iguana here. Until that point, the town was little more than a sleepy fishing village with one road, no international airport, and spotty electricity. In addition to the film itself, the famous Burton-Taylor romance attracted swarms of paparrazi who produced voluminous publicity about the Puerto Vallarta area. Tourists began flocking in and the resort-developer gold rush was on.

Statue of a sea turtle on Isla Cuale. Giant sea turtles regularly visit the shores around Puerto Vallarta to lay their eggs in the sand. For hundreds of years they were hunted both for their eggs and for their meat, but eventually they became endangered. Now Mexico has one of the most advanced protection programs in the world. Puerto Vallarta's program, begun in 1993, has very shrewdly taken advantage of eco-tourism to solicit support from both tourists and local businesses. As part of the program, tourists can attend the release of newly-hatched baby turtles. Each tourist is given his own hatchling and allowed to release it on the sand so it can race to the water's edge for its first swim in the ocean. Mexico's programs have been extremely important to the survival of sea turtles because 6 of the 7 species in the world nest along its beaches.

Local artisans set up booths along the walkway that runs the length of Isla Cuale. Unlike most of the local stores, you can bargain in the artisans' area. Clothing, jewelry, nick-nacks, and souvenirs of all kinds are available. In addition to Isla Cuale, there are many other places where you might want to shop.

Señor Frog's is a landmark in Puerto Vallarta, as it is in many resort areas. Señor Frog's bar is a major attraction for those interested in Puerto Vallarta's nightlife. As a non-drinker, I didn't avail myself of the opportunity, but I liked the sign. According to those who have gone, you can pay $30 (USD) upfront to cover all your drinks for the evening. When you walk in the door, they give you a "yard" (tall cup) to drink out of all night, which you can then keep as a souvenir when you leave. Bottoms up!

Massive old tree shades a bench in front of a local public building. The fellow here may have had a hard night at Señor Frog's, or he may just be waiting for a bus. Either way, this old tree provides some welcome shade.

Tourists just off one of the recently-docked cruise ships? This was one of the more unusual benches I found in Puerto Vallarta. These cheerful-looking fellows seemed ready for a chat, but we were hungry for lunch and moved off down the street before they could engage us.

This completes Part 4 of my series of Puerto Vallarta. Next week I will wrap it up with a visit to the outstanding Vallarta Botanical Garden which has some of the most beautiful and unusual plants I have seen, as well as a great swimming hole. I hope you have enjoyed this little jaunt away from the bustling beach area of PV. If you would like to leave a comment you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. That is too bad about Casa Kimberley. I visited it in 2004, when it was still a B&B and museum, and was given a wonderful tour by Don Gallery, who dated Elizabeth Taylor as a young man and whose involvement with the history of Hollywood is a rich one. He was born out-of-wedlock to the silent film star Barbara La Marr (1896-1926), whose glamorous and busy life (she was married five times!) was cut short by heroin addiction and illness at 29. When La Marr died, her baby boy Marvin was adopted by her best friend, actress Zasu Pitts, and husband Tom Gallery, who renamed the child Don Gallery. Mr. Gallery is extremely charming, and since I demonstrated an interest in and knowledge of the silent film era, which I don't think he encounters often, he pulled out his scrapbooks for me. He has been a fixture in Puerto Vallarta for years and has known everyone who was anyone in the classic American film industry; he mentioned his friendships with Danny and Anjelica Huston. Mr. Gallery would be nearing 90 now, and as far as I know he is still alive; at least, I have not heard anything to the contrary.

  2. Jim & Carol, great! I was there on my honey moon 25years ago. It seems like nothing changes down there. It looks as beautiful as when we were there. I thing we should return. Thanks

  3. Hi Jim!
    Who would have thought so long ago that your little blog would become the go-to travel information spot!!! It's just a wealth of real and honest, precise and interesting reporting. Your photos are amazing! I can't for the life of me get into Puerto Vallarta Parts 1 and 2. Would you tell me the trick please? Thanksgiving Dinner in PV this year. YES! Happy Thanksgiving to you! I'm still a HUGE fan of yours Jim! Keep it up! Shelley

  4. Wow what a great blog, i really enjoyed reading this, good luck in your work. Fishing Charters


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