Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta
, ,

Puerto Vallarta and the Mexican Iguana Affair

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta

IF ever a movie transformed a town, The Night of the Iguana turned Puerto Vallarta from an anonymous 001igunafishing hamlet to a city that has outgrown its geographical boundaries.

Puerto Vallarta (pronounced Porto Vayarta) on Mexico’s west coast is a magnet for tourists and a regular stop for luxury liners sailing the Mexican Riviera.

In the 1960s it was a tiny fishing village sitting on sandy beaches at the foot of surrounding mountains.

John Huston’s 1964 film starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr changed all that.

It not only put the town on the map as an idyllic, sun-blessed paradise, but Burton’s torrid affair with Elizabeth Taylor made international headlines and was a magnet for the paparazzi.

Puerto Vallarta was to change forever. These days it is a town grown prosperous on tourism income. The American influence is noticeable in everything, from KFC and McDonald’s through to Subway and Hooters, and locals speak English and accept US dollars, but this is still a Mexican city.

Visitors by cruise ship are offered a range of shore tours, such as scuba diving, swimming with dolphins, four-wheel-drive tours and other adventures. To get a taste of the town, simply take a city tour that walks you through some of the more interesting parts of town.

This includes the boardwalk along the shoreline, where evocative permanent metal sculptures are matched by intricate sand sculptures done by street artists in the hope of a tip from impressed passersby.

A walk through the old part of the town reveals cobbled streets, churches such as the 1893 neo-classic Our Lady of Guadaloupe topped by an impressive concrete crown, and fabulous shops such as Mundo de Azulejos, which has intricate tiles ranging from small plates to ornate barbecues.

The barrier of the mountains to the rear means there are only three main streets running parallel to the shoreline, and these are now regularly jammed with traffic as the city has outgrown itself.

Puerto Vallarta sits on a 110km-wide bay, one of the largest in Mexico and, to get a sense of what it was once like, head a few kilometres out of town to Mismaloya (“place of fishing and hunting”).

This village has its share of low-key luxury villas but retains a small-town atmosphere. Beachside cafes sell Mexican meals at cheap prices and the terracotta shingles on the well-spaced haciendas conjure up images of Zorro.

If visiting by cruise ship, like us aboard the very comfortable Carnival Pride, after your tour spend a few hours just wandering the old part of Puerto Vallarta.

There is plenty of discount shopping, especially for jewellery (major cruise lines will recommend certain shops), and great beachside bars to sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.

You can even have your photo taken with a sleepy iguana – there is no shortage of hucksters with them, charging $1 a photo.

As we wandered back towards our cruise ship a salesman suddenly popped out of his souvenir shop and eagerly pressed a flyer into my hand.

“Are you from the ship? What time do you leave – 10pm? Good, you will have plenty of time.” As he rabbited on I looked at the flyer – it was for a bullfight that evening, featuring four celebrity matadors.

“The bullring is just near your cruise ship; I can book tickets for you here and now so you don’t have to queue,” he said. “You can see it all and get back to your ship in plenty of time.”

Maybe we could have seen it and still made it back before our ship sailed that night.

But the thought of men slaughtering confused bulls with swords had limited appeal, even if the bullring was near the local Wal-Mart and I didn’t have to queue.

We made our excuses and moved on. I’d rather remember Puerto Vallarta as a place of amazing beachside sculptures, sleepy iguanas, holy churches and Zorro.