PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — I was recently invited to visit Puerto Vallarta with some other writers to see an important sailing regatta and visit a wine show, two subjects of great interest to me.
I owned too many sailboats, including one I lived on in Antigua before moving to Napa Valley. I also was once a contributing editor to Sail magazine.
Of course, I also write about wine all the time.
But let’s be honest: The big draw was Puerto Vallarta itself. I hadn’t been there in almost 30 years, but I remember it as a slightly sleepy fishing town, smaller than Napa and made famous when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hung out there when he was making John Huston’s “Night of the Iguana.”
They didn’t have to ask me twice.
An ideal location
The airport in Puerto Vallarta is close to town. We stayed in the Westin, a luxury resort on the beach across from Marina Vallarta, a 500-slip marina surrounded by hotels, condos and a boardwalk with a variety of shops, galleries and restaurants.
It’s close to Puerto Vallarta’s busy cruise port — we saw giant cruise ships arrive and depart daily, always blowing their horns to make sure we noticed.
The Westin has two large pools, a beach bar and a beach restaurant amid palm trees and other symbols of the tropics.
My room was on the ninth floor, with great views and a covered balcony. The first thing I did when I arrived was to turn off the air conditioning, which wasn’t needed.
Joining the group
There we met the other writers, four guys from New York, another from San Francisco and an American woman who lived in Oaxaca; she was married to a Mexican man. We also met our tour guide, also from New York though his family was from Colombia.
That night, we enjoyed a luxury meal at the Westin’s outdoor restaurant, though, like most of our other meals, it didn’t reflect much of the local cuisine.
We had numerous margaritas during the week, each one more exotic than the last. Coming from Napa, I also noted little emphasis on wine, although the Chilean wine was good and reasonable.
The next morning, we had breakfast at the sumptuous buffet at the Westin, where I had to shoo a small bird off my table. The buffet had plenty of local foods, but also pancakes and bagels for those who’d like home transported to the exotic lands they visit.
Most of the writers departed for a swim with dolphins and sea lions, but I have mixed feelings about that, so I opted to explore the neighborhood. The others loved the dolphin experience.
We didn’t have time to try other adventure sports, but the area is famous for scuba diving, parasailing, mountain climbing, zip lines, sailing and horseback riding.
We had lunch in the attractive Velas Vallarta nearby, though the buffet in Andrea was what you’d find in any resort anywhere.
I asked our host about this, and he explained that this was a luxury tour — many of the guests wrote for upscale publications — and we were getting luxury food.
It turns out there are also street food tours; I broke away from the schedule to try some later.
The Vallarta Wine Fest
We attended the Vallarta Wine Fest, which was three long tables, each with a dozen wines from Spain, Italy or Chile, with a few excellent wines from Baja California’s Guadalupe Valley. These were accompanied by Costco serving appetizers, talks about wine and food demonstrations.
A school fundraiser in Napa would blow it away, but admittedly, Mexico hasn’t developed much of a wine culture.
That evening was a delight as we traveled to a hillside restaurant, Vista Grill, for cocktails overlooking the bay, and I realized how the area had changed in 30 years.
The city now has a population of almost a quarter of a million, and high-rise hotels ring the bay north of Puerto Vallarta in Nayarit state (Puerto Vallarta is in Jalisco).
A real Puerto Vallarta experience
Dinner was a highlight of the trip. It was at La Palapa (a palapa is an open-sided building with a thatched roof). It was right on the water near the newly renovated Los Muertos Pier, which boasts a large sculpture like a sail.
La Palapa has been there so long that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were married to other people then, hung out in the restaurant. It displays old photographs of the area that show the dramatic change — but the restaurant remains.
The food was excellent,and plenty was authentically Puerto Vallartan, mostly seafood like the tortilla soup and grilled dorado (mahi-mahi) I enjoyed.
Watching a sailboat race
The next day was the race day. The regatta was part of the important Mexican Ocean Racing Circuit, also called MEXORC Copa Corum, and it coincided with Mexico’s Fleet Week and the San Diego to Puerto Vallarta Yacht Race with 25 highly competitive boats.
The local races involved many other boats competing during the week in many classes.
We boarded a large spectator boat to head out to watch the races, traveling up to large Bandera Bay in front of the large resorts along the Riviera Nayarit.
Most of the guests were Mexican journalists and their families, all very friendly.
We enjoyed traditional margaritas (tequila comes from Jalisco) and local Pacifico beer (Corona is for tourists!) and little food, so everyone was happy.
We did have a mountain of excellent guacamole and the local ceviche, which is made of ground fish, not the chunks we are used to.
They also served pico de gallo (rooster’s beak), which isn’t what we call pico de gallo here, which they call salsa Mexicana. It’s pieces of jicama, cucumber and other fruits and vegetables sprinkled with lime juice and ground chili.
While waiting for the races to begin — there’s always a lot of waiting in sailboat races — our boat cut the anchor line of one of the marker buoys. The captain wasn’t very popular with the race committee that had to reset the mark.
Finally, the race began. These were traditional sailboats, not super-fast multihulls like those in the recent America’s Cup, but in spite of jokes about how boring a sailboat race is, it was exciting to see the crews jostle for space around the markers and pop their chutes (spinnakers), a glorious sight with the bright colors, some Mexican flags.
As we were returning, we got a distress call, and headed back to rescue a small inflatable boat that had run out of gas. The cute girls in bikinis seemed to enjoy being rescued as much as crewmembers did.
That night we had drinks with the racers, then dinner at Porto Bello, an Italian-Mexican restaurant with a menu that would be familiar in Omaha.
Seeing more of town
Rising on the steep cliff is what will be Mantamar resort. The developers are gutting and renovating an old apartment building and adding parking and other amenities. It will offer shared ownership, ideal for people who like to spend some time in Puerto Vallarta each year.
Friday night we had dinner at Café des Artistes, a renowned multilevel French-Mexican-ish restaurant with trees and plants growing in the upper stories open to the sky (it rains mostly during the summer!). Much of the food was innovative, combining French techniques with local ingredients as is popular here.
Saturday was another day to watch the races, but most of us elected to tour the town. It’s very inviting, clean and filled with shops and restaurants ranging from tacky T-shirts and tacos to fine jewelry and gourmet food.
We watched local children practicing their dancing, the impressive cathedral and of course walked along the Malecon, the walkway along the sea. It was shaded by palm trees, with sculpture, especially of seahorses, the town symbol, and dolphins.
There’s a pleasant walkway on Cuale Island in the river in the center of the city, and I grabbed lunch there — a local beer, aquachile of scallop (spicy ceviche), a seafood taco and a Pacifico.
The older parts of the city are lovely and perfect for exploring. Cars are discouraged; the city has an excellent and cheap bus service, but taxis are cheap, too.
That night, we had cocktails and appetizers at La Leche, a restaurant decorated in white inside with milk jugs lining the walls. We met the interesting owner and I must admit I would have loved to dine there, but we joined the racing crowd for a festive banquet.
Along with the speeches and awards, we saw demonstrations by local folk dancers, an amazing site. We sometimes get dancers here from that region; they’re worth watching.
A friendly place to visit
Would-be tourists to Mexico sometimes worry about safety, but from all I can tell, Puerto Vallarta hasn’t been infected with the problems that have affected some parts of Mexico. It gets lively at night, but not dangerous.
In fact, I’ve rarely been to a place where the people seemed so friendly and welcoming. Instead of resenting tourists, they seem to appreciate that we’re visiting them and helping them make a living.
If I were planning a visit on my own, I’d find a nice small hotel downtown where I could walk to everything, and eat seafood for my whole visit. It would be an enchanting and affordable vacation, but I know that many people do like the luxury and convenience of resorts, and Puerto Vallarta has plenty of those, too.