Variety adds spice to life in Puerto Vallarta

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers veered far from her usual island course to take in the sights, sounds and scents of Puerto Vallarta on a recent trip. Here is her report:

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico -- Mix art, music and restaurants with sun, shops, attractions and culture.

It's a recipe for a memorable fun vacation, and Puerto Vallarta serves it up well.

What's not to like about this place where the green foothills of Sierra Madre del Sur meet the blue Bahia de las Banderas, where the river Rio Cuale divides the city and where the steamy "Night of the Iguana" movie that put Puerto Vallarta on the map in 1964 is still the best-selling video in town?

PV, as it's often called, is a one-stop (nonstop if you choose) vacation destination that offers more choices for activities than there are brands of tequila in Mexico.

Many visitors, especially first-timers and those on package tours, stay in Marina Vallarta, dominated by high-rise chain hotels, upscale condominium developments, a marina and yacht club, golf courses and elaborate complexes of pools, fountains, swim-up bars and restaurants.

It's a resort city within a city, a bit north of the center of town.

During my explorations, I met several visitors who stayed there.

Parasailers lift off from Puerto Vallarta's beaches and soar over the Bahia de las Banderas, having paid $25 for a 15-minute ride. Although most seemed content with their lodgings, some complained that the shuttle rides to city center took a long time due to traffic congestion.

Agents should strongly recommend to clients that they leave the cocoon of the marina area and venture forth into Puerto Vallarta proper.

Plaza de Armas is Puerto Vallarta's hub. The square has a bandstand in the middle, the crown-topped Church of Our Lady of Guadelupe a block behind it and the wide walkway known as the Malecon fronting the plaza on the sea side.

That's great fun for a while, but PV has so much more than souvenir stalls, mercados (markets) and fast food outlets with familiar logos.

It's a 15-minute walk from the cathedral to Viejo Vallarta (the Old Town), whose whitewashed stucco walls and red-tiled roofs characterize old-style Mexico.

This area is loaded with unpretentious hotels, cobblestoned streets, braying donkeys, family-run restaurants, beachfront condos with bougainvillea-adorned terraces and coffee shops serving cafe con leche (coffee with hot milk) and e-mail and Internet access for $2 to $3 an hour.

Street names are displayed on old Mexican tiles on the sides of buildings, stray dogs claim their places in the sun and schoolkids in uniforms crowd the sidewalks in early morning and at the 2 p.m. dismissal hour.

No matter where tourists go, PV always is a show. Here are my recommendations for some not-to-miss spots:

  • Mundo de Azulejos. If Mexican tiles and pottery are a turn-on, this store is a huge high.
  • It is wall-to-wall with handmade and handpainted tiles, sinks, plates, planters, murals and house signs in the Talavera design found only in Mexico.

    The store ships items to the U.S. at a reasonable price and in reasonable time.

  • Playa de los Muertos. Don't let the English translation of this beach name deter a visit. It means "beach of the dead," a reference to some long-ago battle.
  • It is anything but dead.

    In fact, tourists who are torn between sunning and shopping can do both from the comfort of a lounge chair while sipping a margarita or cerveza (beer).

    Vendors selling everything from pareos and pies to barbecued fish-on-a-stick (the PV equivalent of a Coney Island hot dog) and folk art roam the beach all day long.

    Bargaining is not only expected -- it's also part of the fun, as are parasailing, banana- boat rides, fishing charters, Jet Skis and whale watching.

    A good spot to park mind and body is Eldorado Beach Club & Restaurant, which charges $4 a day for a lounge chair, table and a palapa (thatched umbrella).

    This includes a chit for a free (and very potent) margarita.

  • Casa Kimberly overlooks the river in a hillside area of PV dubbed "Gringo Gulch."
  • Elizabeth Taylor lived here while carrying on a torrid affair with Richard Burton. Burton was in Puerto Vallarta in 1964 filming Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana" with Ava Gardner.

    Burton rented the house right across the cobblestoned street from Taylor and connected both houses via a pink arched bridge.

    Today the house is a mini-museum and bed and breakfast whose rooms contain everything Taylor left in the house when she sold it in the 1980s.

  • Museo del Cuale. This tiny museum on Isla Rio Cuale (the island in the middle of the river) is well worth a visit for its pre-Columbian ceramics.
  • Dancing and drinking are PV's main forms of nighttime entertainment.
  • Stroll down the Malecon in the evening for music, romantic bars and rowdy revelry.

    Tequila's Mexican Cafe on the Malecon offers live mariachi bands at night.

    For romance, atmosphere and a high tab, Le Bistro Jazz Cafe on Isla Cuale is a top pick.

  • Best chicken sandwich in town is at Chile's in Viejo Vallarta, and the best market for mangoes, English magazines and Mexican bread is Gutierrez Rizo in the center of town.
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