Legendary Mexico

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico -- It seems as if all the trashy old paperback novels end up here, abandoned in cafes and hotels by vacationers whose tans have long since faded. Waves pound Los Muertos beach. At bars on the Malecon, Puerto Vallarta’s beloved oceanfront promenade, lost souls drink margaritas in the morning. Boys carry iguanas on their arms, telling tourists they taste like chicken. And if you listen -- and imagine -- you may hear Elizabeth Taylor shrieking at Richard Burton in their house on the hill above town.

All things considered, you’d think Puerto Vallarta would be washed up by now, 40 years after Burton came here with his famous paramour to shoot John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana.” It’s hardly the quiet, sunstruck Mexican village on wide Banderas Bay that Liz and Dick fell in love with. You’ll find a Wal-Mart, Hooters and several McDonald’s restaurants; too much traffic on the narrow cobblestone streets; perpetual noise, bare skin and cornrows on people they don’t flatter; and authentic Mexican trinkets made in Malaysia.

Besides, other ritzy new resort areas -- Cabo, Ixtapa, Huatulco -- have arrived on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and hotel development in Puerto Vallarta has moved out of town, all the way to the reclusive Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, about 60 miles north. On the south side of Banderas Bay, past the point where Mexican Highway 200 leaves the ocean, several small, luxurious eco-resorts such as Verana have opened. These don’t have much to do with Puerto Vallarta because they can be reached only by boat.

As if the indignities of age and the war in Iraq weren’t enough, the city was hit by Hurricane Kenna in October. It swept away sand on already eroded downtown beaches, tore up the Malecon and destroyed Los Arcos, the triple-arched sculpture that was the city’s symbol.

In the months since the hurricane, though, the town launched a project to lengthen the Malecon, which includes a new pedestrian bridge over the Cuale, the river that separates the northern and southern sections of town. Los Arcos has been rebuilt, as has another Malecon sculpture, “In Search of Reason,” by Guadalajara artist Sergio Bustamante. This striking bronze creation consists of a tall ladder with two ghostly figures on it and another watching from below. The hurricane spirited away the biggest figure. But it was salvaged when some boys who found it on the beach came to town trying to sell it as scrap metal.

That’s pure Puerto Vallarta, a good-tempered, prosperous city of about 250,000 midway between Mazatlan and Manzanilla, which is not and, I hope, never will be Mexican gold coast scrap metal. Not for me the out-of-town resorts and secluded inns. When I say I love Puerto Vallarta, I mean the city proper. With its ripe smells and collarless dogs, martinis and art galleries, it’s the happiest blending of Mexican and gringo culture I know.

When I went there last month, the city was packed with tourists, many of them Mexican families on Easter vacation. Over the years, many foreigners have settled in, staying for the high season from November to May, then flitting back to Northern California or New England.

Having been here before and knowing I wanted to spend my time in the city, not the high-rise hotel zones, I found it easy to choose a place to stay: the Hotel Molino de Agua. It was a mango orchard on the south bank of the Rio Cuale in the early 19th century when the city got its start. Now it’s a slightly faded, family-owned enclave surrounded by high wrought-iron fences, with a monkey cage, monster banyan trees, two swimming pools, a restaurant, cottages and two- and three-story motel buildings close to the ocean.

My room on the top floor of one of those had two double beds, an air conditioner, a bathroom with ants and a big terrace overlooking Los Muertos beach. I especially liked the hotel’s location, which made it easy to explore downtown on foot.

The Molino de Agua is one of the least exclusive resorts on Banderas Bay. For about $5, outsiders can spend the day at the hotel. I did laps in the morning before the guests arrived and liked hearing kids frolicking in the pool when I returned for siesta in the late afternoon.

A proper party

I arrived on Palm Sunday, checked in to the hotel and went to see whether the town was as I recalled it.

In the Plaza de Armas, just off the Malecon, a 12-piece mariachi band was entertaining passersby with a splendid cacophony of brass. Under primavera trees that had erupted in yellow blossoms, young couples occupied benches; a sole norteamericano couple was fox-trotting.

Then scores of pigeons took flight, wheeling in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe church, with its beautiful bell tower, topped by a wrought-iron crown held aloft by angels. I bought two intricately woven palm fronds from a street vendor and went inside, where Mass was being celebrated. The organ groaned and mold clung to the church’s yellow barrel-vaulted ceiling.

“Party Vallarty,” as the town is sometimes called, has lately attracted a young North American crowd that comes to booze and bake. But on Palm Sunday, that wasn’t the kind of party in progress on the Malecon. Couples were promenading sedately past the sculptures and Belle Epoque street lamps. Mexican families walked together holding hands, the children straining to run down to the beach, where a man was putting the last touches on a sand sculpture of Christ crucified. Twice, people noticed my palm fronds and commented favorably on the fact that I’d been to church.

Some things had changed and some had stayed the same since my visit five years ago, as I discovered the next morning, walking the beach. Los Muertos, which must have been a glory in the days of Dick and Liz, was littered and rockier than I remembered, good for people-watching and sunset cocktails in waterfront restaurants such as Daiquiri Dick’s but an uninviting place to swim. On the pier, I checked the water taxi schedule, planning to spend a day at one of the more pleasing outlying beaches that can’t be reached by road, such as Yelapa near the southern tip of Banderas Bay.

Past the pier and a handful of high-rise hotels favored by gay travelers, a rocky headland separates Los Muertos beach from harder-to-reach coves and a chain of resorts to the south. There, a steep, crumbling staircase leads up to Amapas Street, which winds past dreamy houses with gated entrances. From the cracked, uneven sidewalks, I saw evidence of the loveliness inside: Mexican tiles, splashing fountains, chaises shaded by jacarandas.

Heading north, Amapas slithers back down the hill and emerges in the heart of the southern section of town, where shops, restaurants and off-the-beach budget hotels cluster. That’s where I usually found breakfast: eggs, tortillas and fresh-squeezed orange juice at Mexican places, or coffee and a muffin in cafes, with all the cappuccinos and lattes of Starbucks and, often, Internet connections. Every day I saw the same expatriate faces, including that of a retired doctor from Oklahoma City who told me he was “taking loafing to a new level.”

Loafing is the most appealing way of passing time in Puerto Vallarta, though many of the tourist activities available at resorts can be booked in town. As I wandered the streets one day, a tout with a touch of the poet called after me, “Hey, senora. Horseback ride? Cruise? Trip to the moon? Anything.”

Instead I drove into the hills above town for a 2 1/2-hour treatment at Terra Noble Art and Healing Center. It’s a New Age health spa built in a primitive, jury-rigged style of adobe, thatch, wood and rock, with a sweeping view of Banderas Bay.

Having been to more luxurious spas, I wasn’t expecting much. But the $135 package (which would have cost three times more in the U.S.) was truly memorable, starting with a salt and oil scrub, followed by a massage and facial. I kept making little purring sounds and must have lost consciousness, because when my senses returned I thought I was in my hotel room.

Mostly, though, I ate and shopped. It looked as if all the tchotchkes of Mexico -- the straw hats and bags, huaraches, woven belts, beaded bracelets, carved saints -- had landed in stalls near the Malecon, on the little island at the mouth of Rio Cuale and in the municipal market. But since my last visit, more stylish places had opened, including a string of home decor, apparel and jewelry stores on Basilio Badillo Street.

A block up from them, I found Mundo de Azulejos, a cement-floored factory and store packed with reasonably priced Mexican tile and pottery. When my senses returned this time, I was the proud possessor of a hand-painted ceramic sink I have no use for but did manage to get home in one piece.

Dining out at fun, noisy places such as Tex-Mex Pipi’s on Guadalupe Sanchez Street and Brasil on Venustiano Carranza, the home of all-you-can-eat barbecue brought to the table on skewers, has ever been a pleasure. In the last year or so, several chic, upscale restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in Beverly Hills have opened here. There’s Bianco, all white and minimalist, overlooking Rio Cuale on Insurgentes Street, where I had fig salad and roasted duck in caramelized cherry sauce, accompanied by a glass of Chilean Merlot.

Better still was the stylish nouvelle Mexican cuisine at Xi Tomates, just off the Malecon. Fried mushrooms stuffed with corn and shrimp were my starter. They were followed by red snapper in sweet onion and heart of palm sauce and, for dessert, delicious Mexican wedding cake made of ice cream.

Where the stars fell

Food, shopping and mariachi music aren’t enough to win me, though. What a place needs to take hold in my heart is a story. Inescapably here, it’s the torrid tale of Liz and Dick.

Each was already married when they fell in love during filming of “Cleopatra” and, afterward, came here so Burton could play the soused defrocked priest in the movie version of Tennessee Williams’ play “The Night of the Iguana.” Divorces followed for both, then marriage to each other and a brief halcyon period under the Mexican sun. That’s how I like to remember them.

Their house, Casa Kimberly, on a hill above town in a section known as Gringo Gulch, is now a bed-and-breakfast and museum on seven levels with nine bedrooms and 109 steps. It’s best to go there after seeing “The Night of the Iguana” so the vintage posters for the movie that hang there -- captioned “One man, three women, one night” -- make sense. Besides Burton, the movie starred nymphet Sue Lyon, a past-prime but still steamy Ava Gardner and prim Deborah Kerr, who is said to have remarked that she was the only person on the set not having an affair.

Tours are conducted by proprietor Maurie Mintzer, who says the previous owner bought the house from Taylor in 1990. It’s said that when Taylor left, she took only two pictures, leaving the bric-a-brac of her life with Burton virtually intact: the daybed where she played cards with her children; Burton’s bar, which looks more like an altar; a few pieces of crockery she failed to break in rows with him; the arched pink bridge connecting Casa Kimberly with the house across the street, where Liz locked Dick in with a cook and a nurse to get him to dry out, Mintzer says.

There are other places around Puerto Vallarta that embellish the story, such as Mismaloya beach south of town, where most of “The Night of the Iguana” was filmed. A movie theater near the Hotel Molino de Agua is called the Sala Elizabeth Taylor, and on Rio Cuale Island there’s a statue of John Huston. The village of Yelapa, where I went by water taxi for an afternoon at the beach, surely looks the way Puerto Vallarta did when Dick and Liz stumbled onto it. And the proprietors of the Hotel los Cuatro Vientos, near Casa Kimberly, claim that the couple frequented El Nido, the rooftop bar.

I went there on my first visit to Puerto Vallarta and returned last month, liking to think of myself as an habitue. The drinks come in big glasses, and the view over the church, the Malecon and Banderas Bay is superb.

Somewhere at Verana and the Four Seasons, people were breezing through trashy novels and admiring the same sunset. But I couldn’t see Dick and Liz there. I could see them only in Puerto Vallarta.