abstract: A man I know just returned from Puerto Vallarta. He had gone there on a week-long trip arranged by his country club. They golfed for three days on courses planned by world famous designers. The rest of the time they stayed in the resort which like the golf courses is on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta. He said most of these Americans avoided going to town for fear of getting sick from the water as well as other, new plights of a Mexican environment. Paradoxically, it is an American who gets credit for putting Puerto Vallarta “on the map” as a tourist destination that now gets well over three million visitors a year. Before Motion Picture Director John Huston chose it as the location for his 1964 movie The Night of the Iguana, Puerto Vallarta was a small fishing village of no significance to the rest of the world. I went to find about that village so quickly lost and what has become of it since. [photo essay]
At Pipis their signature guacamole, prepared with some fanfare at our table, was free. The high price of the margarita more than made up for the difference but it was one of the best and put you in the right mood for Puerto Vallarta. This restaurant is a tourist favorite. It proudly tells you that it was “The Original,” and established in 1986 . By Puerto Vallarta standards that makes it old enough to be an institution. The kitsch about it included colorful piñatas and paper banners stretched across the street outside . The establishment’s motto, “Don’t drink the water, drink the margaritas,” was painted on its wall, right above a papier-mâché piñata .
The people of Puerto Vallarta claimed that they were still as friendly as ever. Our waiter, Alfonso, became momentarily my new best friend . After serving our fajita, he took down a framed picture hanging on Pipis’ wall and brought it to show me. It was a black and white photograph. It was dated April 27, 1960. The scene was “the street right in front of this restaurant,” Alfonso said. The street in the picture was empty except for a stray dog in the forefront and a few men further back . Alfonso pointed to the man in the middle. “That is my father, Jose Manuel.” He said: “At that time, he was the sole police officer of Puerto Vallarta.”
Puerto Vallarta has come a long way. It now even maintains a special bi-lingual Tourist Police force. Just before I arrived, however, the president of Mexico’s Business Coordination Council, a major industrial association, declared that Mexico ranked “133 out of 142 countries in trustworthiness in police services.” This announcement was made at the meeting of the World Economic Forum on Latin America held at Puerto Vallarta’s brand new International Convention Center. To protect the attending heads of states, ministers and businessmen from over seventy countries, the Forum imported its own police force from Switzerland. Of course, their efforts were “coordinated with the Department of Public Safety, the Army and the (Mexico) President’s General Staff.” This was obviously a big operation. The event was important enough to bring the candidates of both major parties in the forthcoming Mexican Presidential election to town.
For Puerto Vallarta, the important result was that despite all the talk of drug wars, safety was successfully assured. That is the message that Puerto Vallarta was eager to send to all prospective visitors. It hopes to attract as many as four million of them this year. To that end, it has built an impressive infrastructure. It now boasts 20,748 hotel rooms, 10,700 of which are in 4 or 5 star properties. It has expanded its airport’s capacity to receive three million passengers a year; its port is able to simultaneously accommodate three full-size cruise ships. The airport now has a dedicated satellite terminal catering exclusively to flights from the U.S. and Canada. There are direct flights to many cities in those key markets. Puerto Vallarta has built nine world-class golf courses all within short distances of the airport and its luxury hotels. All those hotels have their own water purification equipment and most restaurants use purified water. In fact, to combat the fear of “Montezuma’s revenge,” Puerto Vallarta publicizes the fact that even its city water has been awarded a certification of purity for the twentieth year in a row.
All of the above is critical because over half of Puerto Vallarta’s workforce now earn their livelihood from employment in the tourist industry; and the next biggest employed group is in construction. Agriculture has become by far the smaller source of employment. The main products are tropical fruit such as mango, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe and banana. I found a good sampling of them on the back of the fruit truck parked in the middle of the town next to Malecon . “That order of the sources of employment is, in a way, a metaphor for where Puerto Vallarta is at,” an expat (expatriate) who was standing nearby told me. He had been living in Puerto Vallarta for forty years. Puerto Vallarta had changed. More change was inevitable. The challenge was how to keep the old charm of this place: “its pueblito spirit,” as the expat put it.
Puerto Vallarta has prided itself in being different from the “Planned Tourist Resorts”, such as Cancun, Los Cabos and Xtapa. It has spent large sums of money to ensure that its original Mexican “small town” flavor is not lost in its Old Town and the South Side. The north is a different story. “All those luxury hotels and international conferences have been creating traffic, delays and blockades. There the pueblito feeling has faded quite a bit.” Like that truck that helped bring the farmers’ products to the market, the expat said, development has helped, but “Puerto Vallarta must carefully balance the benefits of its new status with the drawbacks.”
Malecon is the bay-front boulevard where Puerto Vallarta stages its carnival of street hawkers pushing cheap local souvenirs (shawls, blankets, hats, and earrings), mariachi bands plucking guitars and violins, mimes, an open air art gallery of painters, and food prepared on the sandy beach. The fiesta ambiance at the Mexican Riviera, which is this shore of the forty-two mile long Banderas Bay, is made possible by the balmy weather. Puerto Vallarta has 300 sunny days per year, and an average temperature of 82 degrees. The Banderas Bay coast which here fronts the green tall Sierra Madre is dramatically picturesque. The mountains protect it from the hurricanes of the Pacific Ocean. The palm trees of the Malecon, however, need protection against the dearth of sufficient rain. I heard the locals complain that they were drying because the city did not always water them adequately.
The watering holes on the other side of the Malecon did a brisk business . The old classic Senior Frog bar and restaurant had now branched out to other parts of town . When I crossed Malecon’s new pedestrian bridge over the Cuale River, I began to see more funky bars and restaurants, especially at the Muertos Beach which catered to local families.
On the opposite side, I had seen the shiny high rises of the new hotels lining up the Banderas shore . There on the Malecon were painted boats  commemorating it as a “point of embarkation”  to various destinations on the Bay. These were temporary exhibits. So were the ephemeral sand sculptures on the beach. I talked to Josse  who had sculpted what he called Movemiento (Movement) . He pointed to another of his huge work a few steps away. “That is Taj Mahal,” he said . It had a vaguely “oriental” architecture.
The Malecon sculpture that is widely associated with Puerto Vallarta, as its “calling card,” is the bronze Caballeo del Mar (Boy on a Seahorse) . By Rafel Zamarripa, it was the first to be erected on this beach, in 1976. A more iconic symbol of Puerto Vallarta is the crown that sits on the top of its Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe -ironically modeled after the crown worn by Carlota, the mistress of the 1860s Emperor Maximilian. First installed in 1963, it has not been durable. The earthquake of 1995 destroyed it completely. The current crown is a temporary replacement made of fiberglass.
The Church  dominates the Main Plaza which is the heart of downtown. The design of the Plaza follows the traditional Spanish plan for all of Latin America based on the Leyes de Indias (The Laws of the Indies) by King Phillip II’s proclamation in 1573 which established “the rule to locate the symbols of political and religious powers facing a central square.” The Puerto Vallarta Plaza, however, deviated from this rule in one major respect: there is no municipal palace facing the church. The felicitous result is that this Plaza is one of the few main squares in Mexico with a full ocean view.
The reason for the deviation was explained by a sign  in Puerto Vallarta’s Main Plaza as the “commercial character of the village” that became Puerto Vallarta. This land was owned by the Camarena brothers who were also the owners of the Union en Cuale mining company. In 1851 they commissioned Jose Guadalupe Sanchez Torres to distribute properties to new inhabitants, who mostly worked for the company, to build their homes. For accomplishing this task Sanchez has been called the founder of Puerto Vallarta.
The name Sanchez gave to this village was Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. By 1918 it evolved into a town, and received a new name: Puerto Vallarta, to honor Lic. Ignacio Luis Vallarta , who had been the governor of the state (Jalisco) and later, concurrently served as Mexico’s Foreign Minister and President of its Supreme Court (1877-1882). It was his statue that now stood in the Main Plaza .
The Plaza is a pleasant place with small plots of flowers around a band stand which is in the middle and benches for residents and tourists alike. On this day the Plaza was quiet. A shoe shine man sat in one corner hoping for customers. Three middle-aged American women visiting from the Midwest rested on a bench at the other corner of the Plaza. I visited the tourist office nearby. “You should have been here last week which was Easter,” a friendly clerk told me.
In Mexico Easter holidays are a combination of Semana Santa (Holy Week: Palm Sunday to Easter Saturday) and Semana de Pascua (Easter Week: Resurrection Sunday through the following Saturday). “In Puerto Vallarta we celebrate Easter in an elaborate way, especially in this Plaza,” the clerk said. “There is a passion play depicting all the events from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. In the procession toward the Crucifixion, the Christ is beaten by the ‘Priests,’ as he carries the heavy cross, helped by another person.”
When I stepped out of the tourist office, I crossed paths with a Mexican woman and her young daughter. They crossed themselves as we faced the big Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the hill.
According to the 2011 census, Puerto Vallarta had a population of 255,725. Although the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado discovered this area in 1521 , it was then “forgotten” for over 300 years . Sanchez was the first to establish a settlement here in 1851. He came with a boat as a tradesman selling salt to the Camarenas’ mining company for use in the smelting process of silver and gold mined in the Sierra Madre Mountains. First putting up a shed of logs and palm roof as shelter in what is now Playa Los Muertos, Sanchez soon brought his family to a more solid housing at the mouth of the Cuale River. This location was approximately under the bridge on the Malecon  where I was now standing, at the tip of what has since become Cuale Island . In the next fifty four years other families settled close-by, together making up the village of Las Penas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. The name La Penas was after the huge crags near the sea limit in this part of the Banderas Bay.
Before the Spaniards the people who lived closest to this region were the “coca tribes (Cuyutecos).” When Francisco Cortes de San Buenaventura in 1520 “confronted” them in a valley, these local tribes came armed with “arches, truncheons and spears,” each man bearing “a color feather flag in hand.” Thus the Bay received its name, after the Valley of the Flags (Valle de Banderas) .
I learned these historical details in the Naval History Museum (Museo historico Naval) in Malecon on the other side of the bridge over the Cuale Island . The Museum, in a building that used to be a naval hospital, is run by the Mexican Navy which maintains a base in Puerto Vallarta. The Museum’s few artifacts and pictures are described in Spanish signs, but the Navy officer in charge gave me a book in English which translated the descriptions. Accordingly, it was Captain Nuno Beltran de Guzman  who conquered this area which was then named New Galicia  by the Queen of Spain in 1531. “With the conquests the long lasting cultures of this area disappeared almost in their entirety either by death of the individuals who sustained them or by Spanish prohibition of observing certain customs,” the book said. “But yet many manifestations of these continue to survive .”
Almost opposite of the Naval History Museum, at the entrance to Cuale Island there was the Archaeological Museum to provide a glimpse into those pre-Columbian cultures of the Puerto Vallarta area. In this Museo del Cuale  also had only a few artifacts. The visitors were instead, instructed by big written posters with maps and pictures. Furthermore, the Museum was not so much about Puerto Vallarta as about the much bigger area called West Mexico, which in a map was defined as covering the territory between the states of Sonora in the north and Guerrero in the south and going inland from the ocean quite far in some places . The first people who lived here (from 5000 to 2000 B.C.) were nomadic. They were hunter-gatherers as indicated by what they have left behind: “projectile points, scrapers, percussion tools and grounding stones .” Sedentary life existed at least from 2400 to 2000 B.C., as suggested by vestiges of pottery. There are also signs of tombs carved from bedrock which were family crypts.
The ceramics found with red, cream and black geometric motifs applied in strict symmetry are from the Chupicuaro people, who lived in 400 B.C. to 200 A.D. . They had a farming economy with ample fishing and hunting opportunities.
The shaft-tombs that have been discovered in West Mexico date to 300-600. They indicate highly developed funerary rituals attesting to a major cult honoring the ancestors in that period. The Archaeological Museum displayed some artifacts from the offerings for the benefit of the deceased found in the chambers of these tombs. There were masks of fantastic beings, two-headed human and animals, and aspects of fertility cult in women figurines with accentuated sexual features. There were representations of shamans but not deities. The abundance of musical instruments meant they were used in religious rituals and in dances . The culture that gave us the shaft tombs developed in the highlands and middle ranges .
Metal was probably used in West Mexico as early as 650 A.D. Its use became widespread during the Azatatlan tradition (800-1200). They used mostly gold, silver and copper. A later culture that was prominent for its use of metal was the Purepechas (1300-1521). They used it both for personal adornments and for practical purposes. In some places they made ‘axe money” which were too thin for practical use; instead they were currency in trade .
The Azatatlan culture was especially significant in areas near Puerto Vallarta. It is characterized by its polychrome ceramics with many symbolic motifs: “hearts, feather tassels, semi-precious stones usually green, solar rays, and sacrificial knifes. There were also presentations of animals, deities and human beings .”
Abundant petroglyphs in West Mexico dating from 900 to 1500 have been the source of our understanding of the cultures of that period. These are rock art on boulders or cliffs made by “percussion tools, flaking off the rock surface to leave designs in relief.” The motifs in them are mostly “the spiral and other geometric shapes; animal and human beings were less common.” Some of these motifs “have been interpreted as elements of water and fertility cult; others mark sacred spots in local mythologies; some were used as solstice and equinox markers or as part of ancient computing system. .”
In the pre-Columbian times, the most common garment for women was a wrap-around and for men a small loincloth or pubic cover. Ornaments were more common among men than women. “More than just decorative, they were markers of status or ethnic identity or marital status.” These included necklaces, anklets, bracelets, nose ornaments. Materials used were shells, bones, ceramics, obsidian, and jade. Men also used “body paints and tattoos and ornamental scaring .”
The Archeological Museum divided he history of Puerto Vallarta into the following periods: “600-1529 Precolumbian age; 1528-1800 Colonial Age; 1801-1917 Miner Age; 1918-1960 Agricultural Age; 1961-Today: Touristic Age.” As an example of “the main products of Puerto Vallarta in its agricultural age,” a Museum sign singled out tobacco. “Indigenous people used it for medicinal and religious ceremonies purposes .”
That evening I looked for traces of the pre-Columbian culture in the art galleries of Puerto Vallarta. Every Wednesday there is a self-guided Art Walk in Puerto Vallarta with many of the galleries hosting special exhibits. Puerto Vallarta’s first art gallery, Uno, was founded in 1971. Since then the number of galleries and art houses in this town has grown greatly. There are two main gallery districts, one in the area around the Main Plaza, and the other south of the Cuale Island in the Romantic Zone (so called because of its cobbled streets and red brick rooftops which are partly covered with bougainvilleas of many colors). I looked into several galleries in this area. They represented painters, sculptors, photographers and potters, some of whom were local and some international. I saw traditional Mexican silverware, glasswork, and pottery works.
I was especially interested in Mexican folk art. In one gallery, an artist told me that some 3,000 years ago, the Olmec culture crafted distinctive pottery and stone carving in Mexico. Other major civilizations such as Maya and Aztec produced artifacts from clay which have influenced the folk artists of today.
In another art house on Badillo Street I found a collection of Wixarika handicrafts. The owner explained that these were made by the Huichol people, who were the direct descendants of the Aztecs, and still lived in isolated villages nestled in the Sierra Madre near Puerto Vallarta. These handicrafts were colorful yarn paintings and beaded designs. They depicted fantastic images based on such local animals as deer, snakes, wolves, scorpions, iguanas, and frogs. “These images are supernatural; they are reflections of visions the artists experienced during religious ceremonies,” the gallery owner said .
In still another gallery I was attracted to a reproduction of the Colima Dancing Dogs. As the knowledgeable gallery owner, Alex, explained to me, showing catalogues and pictures, these hollow ceramic joined-dogs are the oldest canine figures found in North America. They were made in the period from the time before Christ until several centuries later. The dog ceramics were put in the shaft tombs next to the deceased so as to guide his soul into the journey through the Underworld to the Upper World. “You see, our dogs performed the function that cats were to provide for the Egyptian Pharaohs in their tombs,” Alex said. I bought the replica of one of these Colima joined-dogs ceramics for myself, just as insurance .
Alex told me that the Colima dogs, also known as the “Mexican hairless,” had a dual function: they were also eaten as food by the ancient people of this area. That practice having been abandoned, the stray dogs of Puerto Vallarta are now in demand for adoption by the tourists, according to the town’s English language publication. On the other hand, in another page of the same publication, Julian Gonzales Cruz, “a passionate chef specialized in Mexican Food,” lamented the loss of many flavor and scents that had made the Mexican cuisine unique. Among the important lost ingredients, he complained, were “escamoles (ant eggs compared to caviar with a sweeter flavor), chitacanas (water ants), grasshoppers, and maguey worm.” Instead, he wrote “we have Mexican dishes that are more out of comic strip than our traditional kitchen.”
The chef’s main readers, the expats of Puerto Vallarta, were in part to blame for this. Basilio Badillo, the main street of their district, has been nicknamed “Coffee Shop Street,” because of its unusual number of such eateries. To be sure, one can still find not only vendors of diced fruit  on the sidewalks of the district (Old Town or Viejo Vallarta) but also taco stands serving street-food . Those old food counters, however, are increasingly being prettied up as modern cafes . To the long list of restaurants serving international cuisines (French, Italian, Japanese, Austrian, Thai, Argentine, and Brazilian), when I visited Puerto Vallarta an Israeli Deli had just added the Mediterranean cuisine with its falafel and hummus.
There were other services offered to foreigners in Puerto Vallarta. North Americans have been coming here to buy cheaper medicine and the Farmacia posted a list of its best selling medicine at the entrance; a new item, Latisse, was just added in long-hand to the printed list . In the Spanish Experience Center, you could take cooking classes as well as learn Spanish. The Rivera Molino Plaza displayed the signs  for the Fit Club, a.k.a. Gym and Wellness Center , and Timothy, which was a prominent real estate broker company in Puerto Vallarta. Another single sign on a wall elsewhere in the Old Town advertised both “Alexpa Massage Clinic” and “Real Estate Info” together . Right next to yet another Massage parlor was the Laundry Mat .
Old Town was in the midst of transition. Torn alleys and narrow streets were under reconstruction  with commensurately small equipment and local labor, promising a revival. This hope was marked by proud display of colorful Viejo Vallarta banners on the lamp poles  as well as new color-coded maps of the district at its gates . Old-style housing with dark rooms flush with the street level still existed , but across the street one could see refurbished apartments on the upper floors with for sale and for rent signs .
The foreign crowd attracted to the Old Town were North Americans, as many from Canada as from the U.S., evidenced by the easy acceptance of the currencies from both those countries and by the intended readership of the district’s English language publications. The prices at the modest Yasmin Hotel on Basilio Badillo ($50 a night) spoke to the modest budget of the guests frequenting the Old Town. The sign at the P&P Boutique displaying the rainbow flag  publicized the tolerance for diverse groups. A customer coming out of this store guided us to a bakery next door that had the “most addictive” profiteroles, he said. I also talked to a man working on his laptop at a street level store that served as the make-shift library for the expats here. He guided me to a folder that had the printout of book reviews the members of the library had written for the benefit of the other readers in “the community,” as he put it.
One expat has been credited with setting in motion the process that transformed Puerto Vallarta from an obscure community of a few thousand to a major international resort. John Huston did this by selecting the beach of a fishing village, Mismaloya, south of Puerto Vallarta as the location for a film he was going to direct, The Night of the Iguana. This pivotal role by that movie prompted me to I watch it again now, as I wrote this report on the changes of Puerto Vallarta. My “archeology of the art” proved fruitful. The Night of the Iguana was an agent of change that, in fact, had now become also a means to appreciate the change in Puerto Vallarta: as it recorded the past it allowed comparison with the present.
Huston had been approached to direct the movie by its producer, Ray Stark who believed that the Tennessee Williams play as performed on the stage had lacked the drama of an appropriate location. “It would make a wonderful picture, especially in Mexico,” Stark thought. He went to Huston as he considered him “of course, the guru of Mexico.” John Huston had been famous for directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, one of the first Hollywood movies to be filmed almost entirely on location outside the United States. He had chosen as the location for many scenes of that movie the state of Durango with its range of Sierra Madre Occidental.
Huston had first come to Puerto Vallarta as early as 1950 when it was “a fishing village of some two thousand souls,” as he later said. So it was not unusual for him to choose Puerto Vallarta as the location for The Night of the Iguana. Tennessee Williams “had set his play in Acapulco,” according to the movie’s star Ava Gardner, but when the playwright arrived in Puerto Vallarta, he exclaimed approvingly: “This is precisely what I meant. This is Acapulco 20 years ago.”
The Night of the Iguana is a “melodramatic play about an odd group of beleaguered individuals struggling with their frailties at an isolated, second-rate hotel on the tropical coast.” Huston chose his actors for their “kinship to the role.” For this movie he could not have chosen leading actors better suited for their parts. He “decided on Richard Burton, a man whose own tormented life and exaggerated living paralleled that of Shannon’s (Tennessee Williams’ main character): the virile but sensitive male stereotype, destroying himself through the indulgence of liquor and women.” Ava Gardner agreed to play the role of Maxine, of the bawdy widowed innkeeper, because she said, she could not resist Huston’s “line of talk that could charm cows in from the pasture or ducks off the pond.” For Charlotte, the teenage “sexpot whose relentless pursuit of Shannon precipitates his night of undoing,” Huston picked Sue Lyons, the 17 year-old fresh from playing the title role in the movie, Lolita. Finally as the spinster-artist Hanna with a sense of kindness that aggravates an already jealous Maxine, Huston tapped the refined Debra Kerr.
Location was crucial for a picture, Huston has explained, because it “envelops it in an atmosphere.” In the case of The Night of the Iguana, what was enveloped during its filming in 1963 in the remote Puerto Vallarta was a combustible mix of four high-powered superstars to which was added the mega-celebrity of Elizabeth Taylor. She was here in pursuit of a sensational relationship with Burton, scandalous not simply because each was still married to another espouse. She was a hypochondriac, he was an alcoholic, and they boozed, loved, and battled. No wonder then that hundreds of media and paparazzi from around the world suddenly descended on the obscure Puerto Vallarta. As Houston later said, “The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities being there. They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks.” However, the production of the film went “smooth as silk,” Huston continued. “When there weren’t any (fireworks), they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I’m afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing.”
John Huston eventually moved to Puerto Vallarta permanently. In a letter from 1980, he wrote: “For the better part of the last five years I have been living in Puerto Vallarta….. I am now living in Las Caletas…. Las Caletas is my third home.” Now as then Las Caletas is accessible only by boat. A tour company takes visitors on a catamaran to Las Caletas for dinner and concert presentation.
Puerto Vallarta commemorates John Huston in what is called Plaza John Huston on the Cuale Island. It is a small circle at the far end of the Island away from the beach. Not many tourists visit it. On the day I was there none other was there. In the middle of this Plaza is a bronze statue of Huston, sitting in his director’s chair. The inscription under the statue is odd in that it simply quotes from Huston’s eulogy for Humphrey Bogart, concluding with: “There will never be another like him.” Bogart was, of course, an actor Huston cast in many of his famed movies, the only vaguely relevant to this location being The Treasures of Sierra Madre. The inscription was provided by Le Bistro, a Hollywood-style restaurant around the corner from the Plaza .
There is another plaque nearby, commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Night of the Iguana. This features Huston and three of the stars from the movie, curiously omitting Sue Lyon. Instead, it covers the producer Ray Stark’s contributions, not just to The Night of the Iguana, but also to another movie he produced, the 1989 Revenge -now almost forgotten. The plaque, however, quotes a notable testimony from Stark to John Huston’s contribution to the “discovery” of Puerto Vallarta in our age: “There was a feeling here – soulful, innocent, romantic – that time and the outside world doesn’t seem to diminish. John Huston sensed it instinctively .”
More tourists are taken to see “Elizabeth Taylor’s House,” in this area that used to be called the Gringo Gulch. This was Casa Kimberley which Richard Burton bought for Taylor in 1963. It became the stage for their amorous liaison, connected to Burton’s own residence by a bridge which the tour companies now call the “bridge o’ love” . After divorcing Burton in 1976, Elizabeth Taylor never returned to Puerto Vallarta. Her house is now owned by an American family that rents the rooms as a bed and breakfast hotel. Burton, however, did return to Puerto Vallarta later, with his third wife, Susan Hunt, and gave her another villa, Casa Bursus. This is now part of Hacienda San Angel, one of the four top, Especial, hotels in Puerto Vallarta.
Like Richard Burton, the rest of the cast and John Huston stayed in Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana. The main setting for the movie, however, was south of the town near the beach in Mismaloya, a village some 12 kilometers away by road. That was a narrow and winding dirt road, as the movies shows, which the characters on the bus took to the cheap “Costa Verde Hotel” in Mismaloya. In fact, however, the cast traveled by boat from Puerto Vallarta to Mismaloya every day, with Elizabeth Taylor often accompanying them.
I decided to go to Mismaloya by bus. The road was now paved but still narrow and winding and no less dangerous in the fog of this morning fifty years later. Our bus driver evidently found the foggy scenery so interesting that he took pictures on every curve as he drove, using his cell phone. This product of the new technology has made the Mexican telecommunication tycoon, Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in the world. In the movies, the Mexicans one saw from the bus are the poor boys selling iguanas on the side of the road to be consumed as food, and the women washing their clothes in the river under the bridge where the Richard Burton character, himself conflicted and complex, pauses to comment on their contrasting simple, “innocent” way of life.
My bus was a local commuting one where I saw the back of Mexican women passengers, with their hair immaculately combed, and their babies well-clothed . The destination was marked by paint on the window of the bus, as was a request in Spanish to “please put the trash in the waste basket .” When we got close to Mismaloya two young women on the bus who were on their way to jobs in the restaurants of its new resorts began changing their shoes and putting on additional makeup.
The resort that now occupied the Mismaloya beach and the cove was Barcelo La Jolla de Mismaloya, built by the Spanish international chain of 180 luxury hotels, the Barcelo Group. Earlier the resort had maintained The Night of the Iguana’s old sets as tourist attractions. The site of the Costa Verde Hotel was on the hill at one end of the cove. I took the path on the edge of the water toward that hill. I found that the property was now fenced up with a sign featuring the menacing face of a dog and a warning in English: “Danger Do Not Enter .” I was alone here except for a sad and angry looking man who was laying in a crevice of the hill on the side of the path. Neither of us said a word. I continued and through overgrown bushes and trees I now saw the shell of the abandoned old structure that had once been the Costa Verde Hotel. At the end of the path where steps led up the hill was yet another sign on the fence, this one in Spanish, saying “No Trespass, Private Property .” On the other side of the path a pole had been erected that displayed the sculpture of an iguana tied with a rope at its very tip .
In the movies the Mexican beach boys bring an iguana which they had caught in these woods into the hotel and tie it to a rope. That night the character played by Richard Burton, a man of the cloth who had long struggled against the temptations of flesh and alcohol, finally has a nervous breakdown. He was at the end of his rope, like that iguana that kept pulling on his rope but could not cut loose. Burton, however, comes down and jumps into the water from this very point where I was now standing, carrying out his suicidal threat to “swim to China.” The beach boys save him and tie him with ropes in a hammock.
From this point, the view of that water looking toward Puerto Vallarta was as mesmerizing as I saw in the movie, the only difference was that now you could see the outlines of the new high-rises of Puerto Vallarta through the landmark Rocks (Los Arcos) where tourists go to see the fish . The contrast in the views of nearby of Mismaloya beach and cove, now and then, was much more dramatic. Where there was nothing at the time the movie was made, now were the huge Barcelo resort and the condos and houses which filled up the landscape of the surrounding hills . Even the few huts which made up the little community of the local Mexicans at the time of the film had now been replaced by new two and three story buildings, albeit poorly constructed and jammed together. There were also many more thatched cafes  run by the locals on the beach serving local guests .
In the movie The Night of the Iguana Mexicans provide only the background; they are drawn as though by broad strokes in the tropical haze. The American characters’ loquaciousness is dramatically juxtaposed with the near muteness of the Mexican characters in that film. Only a few Mexican figures are articulated with some specificity. There are two “cabana” boys who are sex- servants of Maxine: always half- naked, playing the maracas and dancing. Once the movie gives one of them a line to utter. It is in Spanish and when translated by his master comes across as mocking the Burton character. In another scene the contemptuous treatment of the Gringos is more blatant. The bartender at the beach refuses to serve one more drink to the already drunk teenage character played by Sue Lyon. Her sexual cavorting with the cabana boys had intrigued, then shocked, and finally embarrassed the Mexican customers in the bar. The outraged bartender tells her, in English: “Go home. Take your dollars with you. I don’t want your dollars!” That is the only other time a Mexican speaks in The Night of the Iguana
On my last day at Mismaloya, I laid on the beach at the cordoned-off area reserved for Barcelo’s guests. The beach vendors offered their usual fares from behind a blue rope. Occasionally, however, one vendor breached this boundary. When this was repeated several times, a guest protested that his peace and quiet was not respected. He told the vendor “Go behind that line!” The reaction by the vendor was vehement: “Why Amigo? This is my country! It is not yours.” Indeed! Most of the other guests at the Barcelo I saw this time were not foreigners but affluent Mexicans on their Easter vacation.