By Bill Scheller
Photos by the author
The yellow Lab had just taken another headlong dive into the surf.
He was after a plastic bottle, filled with just enough sand to give it sufficient heft for a toss. The bottle bobbed alluringly on an incoming wave, and seconds later the Lab had it in his maw as he paddled happily to shore. “Throw it again,” his dog eyes pleaded, to anyone within eyeshot.
We were watching this, my wife Kay and I, from beach chairs belonging to one of the dozen or more little restaurants that line the shore just south of the Malecon in Puerta Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and as we admired the dog’s tenacity and agility in the surf, we also marveled at the allowability of it all. At any beach back home, the bottle would be litter, the Lab would be canis non grata … and we certainly wouldn’t be eating a passing vendor’s skewered shrimp and mahi mahi, and tostadas heaped with ceviche, while drinking the restaurant’s Pacifica lagers and taking up his sandy patch of real estate. In short, we would be in the Republic of Rules. But not here.
Kay was spending the two-month core of the brutish Vermont winter of 2014 in PV, as the expats call it, and I had put aside my skis – they’re useless anyway at twenty below — to join her for a couple of weeks. I hadn’t known what to expect of the place; I couldn’t have told you which coast it was on, how many people live there, or whether it was a tourist haunt like Acapulco or a workaday city that just happened to be on the water. But it was getting rave email reviews from the person in my household who wasn’t raking snow off the roof at Forty-five North Latitude.
My plane landed at close to midnight, and the cab ride into the city didn’t raise my expectations. The main drag leading downtown took me past a Walmart, past a big indoor mall called the Galerias Vallarta, and past big beachfront hotels, featureless slabs with the American franchise names that draw honeymooners and college spring-breakers. This stretch, I later learned, is aptly called the Hotel Zone. I was headed, along streets that soon devolved from asphalt to cobblestones, to the Zona Romantica.
The Zona Romantica (there’s proof that PV has a chamber of commerce with a branding committee) is the old city center, the heart of a one-time fishing village that has grown into a community of more than 300,000. Here is where you get the clearest sense of the topography that made this a fine place for a village or a city: at this farthest-inland recess of the great Bay of Banderas, the Sierra Madre mountains descend almost to the water, leaving just enough space among their lower foothills for those cobblestone streets and their improbable blend of tourism and quotidian local affairs. Nowhere was this mix more evident that in a tiny courtyard at the top of a public stairway we climbed, in lieu of circuitous sidewalks, nearly every day: on one side was the gate to Kay’s condo, on the other the home of a family who set out tables for their evening meals, with hanging laundry as a backdrop. The first time I reached the top of the stairs, I thought that perhaps I had accidentally stumbled onto someone’s piazza.
The Malecon is the mile-long promenade along the waterfront, arching at midway onto a bridge across the mouth of the Rio Cuale, a little river that flows gently down from the foothills and barely trickles into the bay. It pools here into a pleasant swimming spot for city kids, whose mothers watch them from a sandbar in the shade of the bridge. Nearby, closer to the bay, the same span shelters the oyster sellers’ table, where you can sit and slurp the local catch (the same oysters are hawked along the beach all day by the city’s ubiquitous white-clad vendors, although the shrimp and mahi mahi seemed a safer bet than shellfish carted about with only fast-melting ice to keep them cool).
Pedestrian vendors, by the way, are an everyday fact of life in PV, peddling everything from the locally crafted (we bought a lovely hand-woven tablecloth for 300 pesos, roughly $25) to the Chinoiserie of everywhere, such as hats with sports team logos. Many of those logos belonged to Canadian hockey teams, and no wonder – PV is overwhelmingly popular with Albertans and British Columbians, who can get there on direct flights. (I flew from Montreal, and spent seven hours in Mexico City. I now know that airport by heart.) We were there during the Winter Olympics, and when Canada won gold in both men’s’ and women’s’ hockey, there was palpable good cheer along the Malecon … as if being in PV instead of Edmonton in February wasn’t already cause for good cheer.
If Puerta Vallarta strikes a chord of recognition among Americans as anything other than a winter getaway, it will likely be remembered as the place where John Huston shot his 1964 film “The Night of the Iguana,” starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Huston had known PV since the early 1950s, when it was a far smaller, sleepily provincial town, and it was the success of ‘Iguana” that was largely responsible for its arrival on the tourist map. The great director himself kept a place for years in Las Caletas, fifteen miles south of PV, and is remembered throughout the area. Within a space of days, any visitor will likely be told about various places where Huston lived, where he drank, where he filmed … and, in one small park in the Zona Romantica, there’s the man himself, cast in bronze, seated, in a thoughtful mood, above a plaque inscribed in Spanish and English with lines from his eulogy for his friend Humphrey Bogart. The quote is apparently intended as equally applicable to Huston himself.
Not far from the Huston statue, Kay and I were shown a small hillside house occupied during the filming of “Iguana” by Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t in the cast, but settled in PV to be near Burton in the first flush of their long, tumultuous romance. The house directly overlooks a quaint, almost alleylike street popularly known as “Gringo Gulch,” because of its popularity with an early wave of expats.
Strolls through places like Gringo Gulch became part of a pleasantly languorous routine for me and Kay, a routine that ran to walks in the morning, the beach in the afternoon, and a soak in the pool at the condo as the sun inched toward the bay. In the evenings, the big question was which of PV’s more than 600 restaurants we would amble off to. Saturdays brought a slight variation, as it’s the day when two farmers’ markets are held – one indoors, and the other, larger one outdoors in a downtown plaza. Both are heavily patronized by tourists and expats, although the indoor market mostly featured American and Canadian vendors as well. Setting up a stall to sell chicken liver pate or big slabs of coconut layer cake was a retirement model that had never crossed my mind, but maybe the beach gets boring when you’re in town longer than we were. Or maybe some ladies with a knack in the kitchen got left a portfolio full of Enron stock.
I almost got on a bus one Wednesday evening and headed out towards the Hotel Zone for a vastly different diversion, at PV’s plaza de toros. Yes, the bullfights. Our travel guides had billed these as a weekly event, held at five o’clock in a small bull ring right on the main drag between the big hotels and downtown. I had just read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and thought it would be interesting to see if the local talent was up to his standards, inasmuch as I could fathom them, but I changed my mind as Wednesday approached. I had, after all, seen the corrida at one of its great shrines in Ronda, Andalusia, and I couldn’t imagine the spectacle here quite measuring up. And when I passed the bullring on the bus and saw that it was right near the Walmart parking lot, well …
I would have been disappointed if I had gone, and it wouldn’t have because the toreros were sub-Hemingway. After I got home, Kay emailed to tell me that the plaza de toros had been closed for some time, as the proprietor wasn’t making any money. A sign, she said, hung on the gate of the forlorn little building: “Meat for Sale.” Not for some time, I hope.
The big departure from our routine was a day trip we signed up for with a German expat named Reinhard Dressler. Kay had met Reinhard when she took a walking tour of PV, for which the city had engaged him as a guide, and he’d told her that he ran day-long snorkeling trips on his own. We met him at a downtown bus stop and rode south along Banderas Bay to a little harbor where we met up with four Minnesotans, who made up the remainder of the tour group. Boarding a panga, one of the ubiquitous open, outboard-motored boats that ply the bay, we headed off to Los Arcos, a beachless hump of an island that roses just offshore (it’s named for natural arches eroded by the surf) and serves as the locus for a bird refuge. We suited up in masks, snorkels, and flippers as Reinhard pointed out blue-footed boobies perched among crevices in the sheer face of the island, and dove into clear water about thirty feet deep to be instantly surrounded by bright schools of clownfish.
Back on board, we headed farther down the coast to a beach where the waves were ideal for a vigorous, pounding session of bodysurfing, then took off further south still to picnic on a stretch of sand where a few patrons from a rustic cottage resort and a threesome of shamelessly mendicant dogs were the only other visitors. Along the way to the picnic beach, we stopped at a narrow cove for a swim, and a hike – more of a clamber, in wet flip-flops, no less – along a precarious trail that hung above the cove. When we reached an opening in the cliffside brush, Reinhard gave us an option. “You can continue along the trail to where it comes down to the water and the boat will pick you up, or you can jump in here and swim to the boat.” Kay and I opted for the jump, from about fifteen feet up – hardly a Butch Cassidy plunge, but high enough. Reinhard had jumped in first. We tossed him our flip-flops and dove, never touching bottom. The boat was about twenty feet away, and Reinhard, lean, brown, and sixty-nine years old, had already sprung up on board.
On the other side of the cove from where we made our jump, a thatch-roofed, open-sided building – a big cantilevered cabana – hung over the water. There was a little pier below, and a narrow stairway up through the rocks to the entrance. This was the Ocean Grill, accessible only by boat. We learned that they offer three seatings a day – at eleven, one, and three – five days a week, and we made a reservation s soon as we got back to town. When our day arrived, we caught a bus to the little harbor village of Boca de Tomatlon, where the restaurant’s launch picked us up for the ten-minute ride. Over red snapper and big, meaty octopus tentacles we looked out over the cove and the bay beyond, off past Los Arcos, and all the way to the city. Closer at hand, there was the rock from which we had dived, looking less daunting now that we weren’t poised on its slippery lip. Nothing more athletically challenging than a pierside ladder would take us to our boat back to Boca, so we each had another Pacifico and ordered dessert.
It was a perfect lunch, on a perfect afternoon. The only thing missing was a dog catching bottles, but we knew where to find that.