Old-world charm greets you in Puerto Vallarta

puerto vallarta night churchThe Vancouver Sun

It’s tough for any tourist city to cling to its authenticity, but Puerto Vallarta, a city of 350,000 people, manages to keep its Spanish roots piquant enough for the masses.

So seductive are its charms, Canadians continue to flock to its palapa-lined beaches and whitewashed buildings lining cobble-stoned streets, stroll the bustling Malecon or dance in the discos that pulsate ’til the sun’s about to come up. Others become so smitten that they might buy a casa where they’ll retire, open an art gallery and befriend the locals.

Though the love story that kick-started the city’s popularity was an on-again-off-again affair, that’s not the case with PV’s enduring appeal to Canadians.

The love story that put Puerto Vallarta on the world’s tourist map involved Hollywood movie icons Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. As the oft-told story goes, Burton was working on John Huston’s steamy film Night of the Iguana on the edge of town in the early ‘60s. Married to other people at the time, the pair had their own torrid affair going on. Burton bought Taylor a house (now a museum, restaurant and bed and breakfast: www.casakimberley.com), and they continued to visit PV regularly.

It gave Puerto Vallarta, once a much slower paced fishing and silver mining town along Banderas Bay, the sheen and cachet that made people want to go there.

They came and they’re still coming. In 2008, according to visitpuertovallarta.com, around 56 per cent of visitors who arrived by air were first-timers, but around a quarter of visitors have been there at least three times.

Though, it’s not the kind of destination that feels the need to reinvent itself every five years to keep the tourists coming, it’s certainly not stuck in the ’60s. As its sun-seeking visitors have evolved so has the city, but not so much as to lose its “Old Mexico” flavour. PV keeps one foot firmly planted in the past architecturally and culturally and the other preserving its heritage, wildlife and rugged mountain terrain.

A number of resorts have been participating in efforts to preserve the Olive Ridley sea turtles by collecting the eggs that are deposited along the shore from July to December. (Go to vallartanature.org for participating hotels.) Guests are invited to help out in this non-commercial tour, by either collecting the eggs or releasing them back into the sea.

Getting around PV is easy on city buses, that will take you north from Nuevo Vallarta, into Old Town and beyond to Mismaloya, where Night of the Iguana was filmed. It’s also a short walk from here where you can get to Mama Lucia’s handmade tequila factory. Tours, tastings and a boutique where you can buy the family’s specialty tequilas, are open to the public every day accept Sunday.

Away from the beach, venture into the jungles of the Sierra Madre mountains for more hard-core eco-adventures like zip-lining through the trees, and trail riding on ATVs or bikes. Outfitters such as vallarta-adventures.com, one of the most popular companies, has more than a dozen sea and land day trips, plus tours into some of Mexico’s beautiful little mountain villages with colourful, sun-washed churches and bustling art, craft and food markets.

Did you know?

– Puerto Vallarta is in the Mexican state Jalisco, also where the town of Tequila is located, and where tequila was first created.

– You’re bound to see a real live iguana while visiting Puerto Vallarta (or anywhere in Mexico for that matter) so you should know a little about them: They have three eyes, two penises and do not perspire, no matter how hot it gets.

– From Dec. 1 to 12 each year, people from the city and as far away as 16 km, march in a procession carrying lit candles to The Church of our Lady of Guadelupe, the centrepiece and heart of Old town Puerto Vallarta. It’s known as the Procession of the Virgin of Guadelupe.

– Puerto Vallarta is on the same latitude as Hawaii.

– Just outside of PV is Punta Mita and the Four Seasons Pacifico golf course, which boasts the world’s only golf green located on a natural island.