I don't normally go to the sun-and-fun places, so friends were surprised when I announced that I was going to Puerto Vallarta. Now, I don't knock the large hotels where one can enjoy closeted luxury amid restaurants and lounges and pools with swim-up bars. It's just not something that I do. I assumed that one could enjoy Puerto Vallarta without the luxury, and I decided to prove it.I knew that I was going to like Puerto Vallarta even before the plane landed. On the approach, the Mexicana stewardess asked passengers to sit down and fasten their seat belts. A half dozen passengers ignored the announcement and continued to fumble with their luggage in the overhead bins. Just before touchdown, the stewardess hurriedly announced: "If something happens, the insurance is not gonna pay!"
My impression that this was going to be a fun place was verified upon reaching the town and being accosted by a pretty young woman at a sidewalk stall who wanted to interest me in tours. She fairly bubbled with enthusiasm. "Tell me, are you over 62 years of age?" Assuming that I was about to miss a special discount of some sort, I told her that, alas, I was not.
She hardly blinked. "Good, you qualify for our special rate!" Then she confided: "Let me tell you, today is the very best time to go on this tour because the cruise ships are coming in soon." She looked at her watch. "Oh, it is too late today. But don t worry. The next best time to take this tour is tomorrow, and that really is a better day."
I didn't sign up for her tour, but thanked her and left with a smile and a light step.
My wife and I stayed first at Los Cuatro Vientos, a pretty, sixteen-room colonial- style inn on the hillside above the town. The view of the town and the sunset from the rooftop bar are worth the stay. The inn's restaurant, Chez Elena, is one of the best in town. There is a small, refreshing swimming pool. No television and no telephones. Continental breakfast is served among the flowers in the courtyard. If you need infor mation about P.V., as seasoned gringos call the town, ask Tom at breakfast. I never did get his last name. He is an American who spends most of the year in Puerto Vallarta and Los Cuatro Vientos. The rate for all this, including Tom, was $30 for a double room. Recommended. It is a ten-minute walk down the hill to town. Take a taxi back if you don't relish the climb.
Warning: the church bell down the hill sounds each quarter hour, but not throughout the day, and apparently not consistently. On the other hand, I like church bells, and perhaps I stopped noticing it. You'll also get wake up calls from assorted roosters and donkeys up the hill. Otherwise, it is one of the quietest quarters of the town.
We moved next to El Molino de Agua, on the south bank of the Rio Cuale. The Molino is closer to the town center, and no hills to climb. Our cabaña was half of a pleasant duplex cottage, set in lush gardens amidst palms and mango trees that menaced passersby as they dropped their fruit. During our stay, we were never without fresh, ripe mangos. A stalk of bananas hung at the open-air front desk. There are two swimming pools and bars and beach frontage. The price was $30. Ask for a cabaña off the street. The rates went down the day we arrived, just after Easter. Air conditioned. No telephones or television. Recommended.
The city's permanent covered market is just a five-minute walk from the Molino. Prices are reasonable, and you are expected to bargain. You'd better bargain because the opening price is often five times the expected price. For lunch or dinner, try La Fuente del Puente, across the street from the market. It's the one with the sculpture of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton--really!--in front. The mariachis are good, but don't sit too close.
My favorite restaurant for lunch is the Vallarta Cuale, located at the ocean end of the Isla del Rio Cuale, in the middle of the river. The dining area is open, with tables arranged under a palapa, a palm-thatched roof. After a few hours of intense shopping or sightseeing, it is relaxing to sit and enjoy the cool breeze and watch the parasailing off the beach. Try the Sopa de Azteca, a delicious taco-based soup. The restaurant is quiet and usually not crowded. Prices are moderate and the service is good. For breakfast, we liked the upstairs at Casablanca on the beach front. The decor is Casablanca, the movie. The music is American.
If you like to make eating an adventure, and eating is one of the most popular diversions in Puerto Vallarta, don't miss Chico's Paradise. I was told by the clerk at the Molino that we could take a "combi," a Volkswagen passenger van, to Boca de Tomatlán, south of town, then walk from there to Chico's. The walk would take about ten minutes, he said.
We set out. The price for the 20 km. ride to Boca de Tomatlan was about 35 cents each. All passengers but the two of us got off at Mismaloya, the luxury hotel. We had visited the hotel's beach the previous day. It has one of the nicest beaches in the region, and the shady, open-air restaurants on the beach serve cool drinks and tasty lunches.
On the drive toward Boca, the combi driver asked what we were going to do there. When he learned that we were going to Chico's Paradise, he assured us that we should not walk from Boca. It was all uphill, too far, etc., etc. He volunteered that he would take us for $5.00. Con job, we decided. When we arrived at Boca and saw the sign: "Chico's Paradise 5 km." and the steep hill just beyond the sign, I motioned the driver to carry on. By the time we arrived, I was thanking him for his generosity.
The trip was well worth the price. We lunched under an airy palapa on a gravel floor, listening to a good trio. The open-air restaurant overlooks the tumbling Tomatlan River. After lunch, we watched swimmers slide down smooth watershoots into pools below. Take your bathing suit. We forgot ours.
We hitched a ride back to town with a couple whom we had met in the restaurant. They had rented a Volkswagen "Thing," a jeep-like vehicle, for the drive to Chico's. Jeeps and cars can be rented for $10 up per day. Highly recommended.
Another form of transportation that my wife insisted on trying was the local bus. The buses are probably not as old as they look. They just seem old because of hard usage and the jolting from cobblestone streets of Puerto Vallarta. We took the bus to Pitillal, a village northeast of Puerto Vallarta. A guitarist serenaded passengers, after which his little daughter accepted donations. At Pitillal, we visited the new church and browsed at shops and the small market. It was an interesting look at a village that is not on the tourist circuit.
Puerto Vallarta is compact, and you can walk just about anywhere you want to go. That is, if you are staying in the town and not at a beach front hotel north or south of town. If you must take a taxi, and they are plentiful and inexpensive, be sure to agree on a price before boarding.
Begin your visit with a stop at the tourist bureau at the corner of Libertad and Morelos on the plaza. There is usually a small booth set up just outside the office. Pick up maps, a guide book called "Vallarta Inside," and the "Vallarta Gourmet" booklet which includes a number of free drink coupons. Public toilets are in the adjacent city hall. There is a convenient bank money exchange window just across the plaza.
The nice people in the little hole-in-the-wall stalls that you'll see all along the main streets are not official tourist agents. You'll know them by their folksy greetings: "Do you have your tourist map of all the sights?" "Out for a stroll this morning?" "Had your breakfast yet?" "How ya' doin'?" They are pleasant, but sometimes very tenacious. They want to send you to their hotels or condominiums or book tours for you. You can even get a free breakfast--if you are willing to listen to a sales pitch for a new development.
The church on the plaza is worth a visit. Stop at Bing's just down the street for ice cream. Indians in costume often dance in the plaza. Watch parasailing on the beach, or go up yourself for $30. The beach front promenade is popular in the evening. We found Puerto Vallarta perfectly safe in the evening, by the way. Perhaps the dozens of policemen riding in the beds of open pickups, with their conspicuous pistols, shotguns, rifles and automatic weapons, had something to do with that.
There are Mexican government tourist offices in many American cities. Check your telephone directory or ask a travel agent for the address of the nearest office. Be aware that prices fluctuate with the season, inflation, and the exchange rate.
I came away with warm feelings for Puerto Vallartans. An optician straightened my glasses (I had sat on them), and a repairman in an electrical shop filed down a plug prong that was too wide. Neither would accept any payment. Is that any way to treat a tourist?
Hotels: Los Cuatro Vientos, Matamoros 520, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, tel. 322-20161. Hotel Molino de Agua, P.O. Box 54, Ignacio L. Vallarta 130, Puerto Vallarta, Jal. 48380, tel. 322-21957/21907, fax 322-26056. The author will be happy to respond to email.