Seven Nights of the Iguana

In 1964, Puerto Vallarta was a sleepy little beach town of about 20,000 people. That’s when John Huston decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” there, and the ensuing media frenzy over the affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put PV on the map in the eyes of U.S. tourists. Partly in response to that, the Mexican government gave a green light to an international airport, and PV hasn’t stopped growing.

Puerto Vallarta zocalo

In 2007, Laurel and I decided to visit Puerto Vallarta and liked what we saw. By now, it had grown to over 200,000 and was a full-fledged city. We found a restaurant called La Palapa right on the beach and went in for lunch. The long wall on the beach side is completely open, and you have a lovely view of the ocean. They almost didn’t take us because they were setting up the place for a wedding: Flowered platform on the sand, rows of linen-covered tables, a classical guitarist playing in the corner. But they offered us a booth in the back and we sat down and ordered drinks and lunch. After a while, with all this happening I couldn’t resist, and I asked Laurel, “When we get married, where do you want to have the wedding?”

She was surprised at the way I proposed, but there it was, and eventually we decided that the LA area made more sense for most people, even though Mexico and Hawaii both seemed romantic. This year, after more than ten years later, we decided it’d be fun to have a sort of anniversary down there.

Green Heron at Estero de El Salado

The town definitely keeps growing. It’s up to about 275,000 now, and a lot of the growth is good growth. There are many new high quality restaurants and hotels, and the state of Jalisco government is doing admirable things in preserving the quality of the natural surroundings. We spent a morning taking a boat tour through a mangrove estuary and were pleased with our guide, Flor, and our driver, Luis. It’s called Estero de El Salado, and it’s a very large nature preserve right in the city.

But there is growing poverty, as well. The magnetism of the place attracts a lot of people from other parts of Mexico and Central America looking for jobs, and its rapid growth has caused pollution in Banderas Bay, the large bay where the city is located. In fact, the people at the estuary have established a breeding program for the local crocodiles, which are dwindling because of the growth and are a major part of the ecology of the bay.

Sunset at La Palapa

On the evening we arrived, we went back to La Palapa, and, true to form, they were setting up another wedding. Folks see pictures of weddings on the beach and flock to lots of beachy spots in PV. And La Palapa, with its excellent food and location, is a major draw. We stayed over dinner long enough to see the ceremony, and I was tempted to approach the bride and groom afterward and tell them how the romance of La Palapa worked for us. In July, we’ll be nine years married.

Monday morning, we took the bus back down to next door to La Palapa. Today we were meeting our guide for a boat ride across Banderas Bay to Yelapa, a cove on the southernmost corner of the bay, for snorkeling, sightseeing and lunch on the beach. By the way, the buses in PV, while some of them are rattletraps, perform punctually every 15 minutes for only 15 pesos a couple. Less than a dollar for the two of us. Travis, our guide with Jet’s Boat Tours, met us on the pier, and we climbed down and boarded a nice, covered panga for the trip over.

Los Arcos

The bay was calm, and we passed by many palatial homes on the way to Los Arcos, a collection of tall rocks jutting from the bay. The rocks are home to the massive numbers of Brown Pelicans that patrol the shores of the bay, as well as a Snowy Egret rookery, where their chicks were visible in nests. We were also lucky enough to see three Blue-footed Boobies, an uncommon bird that lives in scattered spots along the Pacific coast.

Before we reached Yelapa, we stopped in a small cove, and Laurel went snorkeling. She said she saw plenty of fish, but the water was green, and the visibility not great. Travis told us that the bay tends to be a little murky this time of year. One major problem with murky water is not being able to see sharks that might be lurking nearby, but he assured us there are no sharks in the bay, because the dolphin keep them out.

Yelapa

We cruised into Yelapa and saw a broad stretch of beautiful sandy beach with restaurants and a few shops at the top. We waded in, and three employees from Tino’s Oasis, the restaurant we were heading to, helped us out of the water. We took a table at the front of the place, looking right onto the beach and ordered two Pacificos. Laurel had lobster, and I had a whole red snapper which fit perfectly on my plate. The service and the food were excellent, and we discovered why everyone raves about Yelapa.

By the way, we met Travis and the boat on a pier called Los Muertos, which means “the dead” in Spanish. Curious about the grisly name, we asked and were told that in days past, pirates used the beach to bury their dead. Ignoring the negative sounding name, there’s a very good brewery a few blocks from the pier. It may be called Los Muertos, but its brews are alive and kicking.

While still in San Diego, we read plenty of 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor about a birding guide named Gerardo Hernandez and had booked two mornings with him. Per the schedule, he showed up punctually at our hotel Tuesday morning at six o’clock. Today, he was driving us an hour north to a dry riverbed in what he called a dry tropical forest. Gerardo has been guiding birders in PV for more than 35 years, speaks fluent English, and knows the area’s birds incredibly well.

Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

When we got to the dirt road where we would start, he rolled down the window and slowed the car to a crawl. We heard a bird sing in the trees nearby, even though it was still only faintly light. Gerardo mimicked the bird perfectly and waited to see if it would repeat the call. It turns out that he knows just about every song of the birds in the region. We got out of the car, got our binoculars and packs on and walked to the riverbed, which was completely sand, and spent the next four hours walking on a beach in the middle of a dry forest under the gaze of grazing cattle, some of them Brahmas, all of them with horns, but completely indifferent to us. He told us that in a month, the rains will come, and the river will be totally filled with water, and this hike will be impossible until next year.

 

 

In El Tuito with Gerardi

On Thursday, he took us south to the small town of El Tuito, which he told us began in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish first came to Mexico. On this hike, we were up at about 2,000 feet on a dirt road in a jaguar preserve. There was no danger, as jaguars are very endangered as well as very shy. We saw many different birds, plus a few of the same. Altogether, Gerardo’s outings brought us more than 50 species, many of which are life birds. (For you bird geeks, here’s a link Puerto Vallarta 5-2018 to the complete list, along with others Laurel and I saw on our own.)

 

If you’re curious why I named this piece “Seven Nights of the Iguana,” I’ll explain by telling you that we stayed at a luxurious resort hotel called the Mayan Palace.

One of PV’s iguanas

The grounds are covered with trees and gardens, and a canal runs through the property and empties into the bay. Anyplace you have green in Puerto Vallarta, you have iguanas. They munch on the grass and eat leaves from all kinds of plants, and they are plentiful at the Mayan Palace, so we saw them every day lying on the walkways or climbing up into the trees. Ergo, seven days and nights of iguanas.

Earlier, I mentioned that the growth in PV has resulted in some high quality new restaurants. One of them is called Tintoque, and it’s just a few blocks from our hotel at the end of the marina shops and restaurants. We had dinner there one evening and were quite impressed. Besides single dishes, the chef prepares either a six- or eight-course dinner that’s fantastic. And the design on the plates is as elegant as the taste of the food, so Laurel had to take a few pictures. You can make reservations through Open Table, and we both highly recommend it.

Three of our fabulous courses at Tintoque

If you’re into craft beer, as we are, you’ll find another new place downtown on the Malecon. La Cerveceria Union has a beautiful view of the bay, a large list of craft beer and wonderful seafood, including oysters on the half shell and grilled octopus.

Misty morning view from our hotel room

Gaining two hours on our flight back to San Diego, it was strange that we left Puerto Vallarta at 4:15 and arrived in San Diego at 4:45, a nice, quick flight after a too quick week in a gorgeous place. PV, we’ll be back.

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