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The Birth of a Tourist Destination

Published Apr 1, 2009 - (Updated Aug 20, 2012)

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Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009 issue.

A Short History of Puerto Vallarta

The history of Banderas Bay, one of the largest bays in the world, and that of Puerto Vallarta go hand in hand. Some of the historic events that marked the birth of this beautiful tourist destination are reviewed below.

The Bay’s Early Days

The bay that shelters the extensive Valle de Banderas is delimited to the north by Punta de Mita and to the south by Cabo Corrientes, while the Ameca river marks the border between the state of Jalisco to the south and Nayarit to the north. In the 16th century, the islands at the north of the bay were known as the Islands of Tintoque; today, they are called The Marietas. According to writings from 1584, these islands were witness to human sacrifices and devil worship.

The indigenous people of the region were called “Ciutla” or “Xiutla,” meaning “a place where grass grows.” According to archaeological studies by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the pre-Hispanic objects found in Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa were made from 380 and 220 B.C., the majority coming from the Azatlan culture.

When the Spaniards came to conquer the valley under the command of Francisco Cortés de Buenaventura, nephew of Hernan Cortez, there were more than 20,000 natives waiting for them, armed with bows, truncheons, darts and spears decorated with feathers of assorted colors. Hence, the Spaniards named the area “Valle de Banderas,” which translates to “Valley of Flags”. Over the course of the years, the Spaniards made stops at the beaches of the bay for provisions of water, firewood and food they needed during their long crossings.

During the first half of the 19th century, English smugglers began to arrive to sell their merchandise to the local inhabitants. Whalers also came, in search of the humpback whales that appear in the bay during certain times of the year, which is why some logbooks refer to it as Humpback Bay.

The Founding of Las Peñas

The official version of the founding of Las Peñas, now Puerto Vallarta, relates that early on the morning of December 12, 1851, Guadalupe Sanchez arrived with his wife, Ambrosia, who was barely 15 years old, her mother, brothers and some friends to start a new life in this area. As it was the day dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, they decided to name the place Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe (The Rocks of Holy Maria of Guadalupe).

In time, the area began to grow, with new families arriving primarily from Cuale, Mascota and San Sebastian. The economy also become more diversified. Some of the new arrivals were farmers, some were stockbreeders and the rest harvested coconut oil that was sent to Guadalajara.

Due to the area’s growth, on December 16, 1869, representatives of the state of Jalisco prepared a document requesting that the government allow the port to be used for commercial traffic. This was the first official document in which the name Las Peñas was mentioned, and thanks to this petition, the port was opened to commercial traffic in 1885.

Historic Events

In 1893 the inhabitants of Las Peñas suffered a severe smallpox epidemic that left many homes in mourning. In 1911 a storm produced a waterspout that left almost 100 people homeless. In 1922 an epidemic of yellow fever caused 150 deaths. In addition, in 1910 the Mexican revolution led to a decrease in mining activity in the mountains, causing many families to migrate to the port in search of work.

Some good news did come on May 31, 1918, when Las Peñas was decreed a municipality under the name “Puerto Vallarta,” in memory of the illustrious Governor of Jalisco Ignacio L. Vallarta. The first mayor of Puerto Vallarta was chosen unanimously: the popular Jesus Langarica, a native of Talpa de Allende who had lived in the port for 15 years.

With agriculture the main source of income in the region, Puerto Vallarta enjoyed a period of prosperity when the Montgomery Fruit Company was established in Ixtapa in 1925. This company, dedicated to the export of bananas, brought the area prefabricated housing, a school, a hospital, an electric plant and a railroad connecting Ixtapa with Boca de Tomates.

Tourism Discovers Puerto Vallarta

In the 1930s, a few national and foreign tourists began to come each year to spend a few tranquil days enjoying the area’s natural beauty. Soon, these tourists began to recommend the destination to their friends, and tourism increased somewhat.

Nevertheless, the first formal steps of Puerto Vallarta as a tourist destination were taken in 1951, when the celebration of its centennial brought it national attention. At that time, the three or four existing hotels were not luxurious, but they were comfortable and clean, with personalized attention. This was the era in which the magic began, when the bay’s sparkling water, green mountains, spectacular sunsets and starlit nights bewitched an ever-increasing number of visitors.


With information from "Puerto Vallarta el Paraiso Escondido"by Carlos Munguia


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