Puerto Vallarta's History
Published Sep 9, 2005 - (Updated Jun 21, 2012)
During the first part of the 1800s, at the mouth of the Cuale River—then inhabited primarily by crocodiles—there were practically no human dwellers. Between the rugged sierra, the ocean and the powerful Ameca river, this beautiful piece of Mexican geography remained isolated from the rest of the world. The hubs of economic activity were up in the mountains, in the towns of Cuale, San Sebastián and Mascota, where silver mines abounded but where salt, an essential element for processing the metal, was not to be found.
In 1851 Guadalupe Sánchez, a boatman from Cihuatlán who used to bring salt from San Blas or the Marías islands to Los Muertos beach, became weary of waiting for the muleteers to come and pick up the load. Sometimes it would take them days to reach this solitary spot. As he was still a young man of 19 and had just married, Guadalupe saw it fit to establish himself in this beautiful place he would call Las Peñas. This, in a few words, could very well be the story of the founding of what we now know as Puerto Vallarta.
1914 - 1935
The discovery of a lesser kind of silver in the United States brought down the price of the metal and old prosperity became affliction. The miners from the mountain townships left their recently acquired trade to go back to agriculture. But now they chose the fertile valley of the Ameca River, so rich it produced three corn harvests per year. The area was not only self-sufficient, it yielded enough surplus to be sold in other markets of the country. As there were no roads out of Las Peñas, the produce was sent on boats by way of Manzanillo and Mazatlán. In 1918, through the efforts of its population, Las Peñas was granted the title of municipality as well as a new name: Puerto Vallarta.
It was in these days that the rush for “green gold” (the unripe bananas grown and exported to the USA by the Montgomery Fruit Company) brought economic well-being to the neighboring community of Ixtapa until 1935. By then the enforcement of land ownership laws promoted through the Revolution entailed the repossessing of 26,000 hectares of American citizen Joseph Montgomery’s. This would end the intensive agricultural phase of old Puerto Vallarta.
1935 - 1949
From the land, Vallartans turned their eyes toward the ocean, where they found a new source of wealth in sharks. From the waters of Banderas Bay, their fins ended up on the tables of Chinese restaurants in New York. Also, during the Second World War, shark liver oil was given as a nutritional supplement to American soldiers. A new horde of immigrants benefited from this trade—especially fishing cooperative La Rosita—until world peace was declared in the mid-'40s.
It was during this decade, precisely 1942, when what could very well be the first formal promotion of Vallarta abroad appeared as an ad in "Modern Mexico," a magazine published in New York. The text in the sixth-of-a-page ad offered a flight from Guadalajara to a “primitive place of hunting and fishing” and is signed by the Fierro brothers, founders of the first airline service in the community.
1950 - 1959
On the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding, Vallarta celebrated in earnest. The marriage of Doña Margarita Mantecón, from a well-established Vallartan family, to a counselor of Mexican president Miguel Alemán’s ensured the splendor of the festivities. From who-knows-where, three ships arrived in the bay to salute the town with 21 firings of the cannon. In addition, three planes landed at Los Muertos, packed with reporters and cameramen. Anybody who went to the movies during those days saw for the first time on the screen the landscape and the faces of Puerto Vallarta. It is possible that, sitting among those moviegoers, Fernando Freddy Romero, charmed by what he saw, decided to come to paradise, arriving the year of the centennial. Against the opinion of most well-to-do Vallartans, whose architectural taste leaned toward modern designs and construction materials, Freddy defended and finally imposed the “Vallarta style”.
With white-washed adobe facades, pitched roofs covered in red tiles, decorative wrought-iron grids and stone walls, Freddy’s houses seemed to look back toward the past to recapture the atmosphere of a typical Mexican village forsaken by progress. Sitting at the Océano hotel bar—favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike—Freddy would draw his houses on paper napkins. On the building site, he would actually paint on the ground the perimeter of the different rooms and mark their function with big letters—a “k” for the kitchen, a “b” for the bedroom. Following this technique he built such homes as Caracol, Casa de la “O”, Los Arcos, Las Campanas (the first bungalows in PV) and John Huston’s getaway in Caletas, among other buildings still standing. But, what was the attraction of this godforsaken town, where basic human comforts such as electrical power were lacking, that seduced intellectuals and artists from the United States and Mexico? It was probably the same as today – its beauty and its people.
On November 11, 1954, Mexicana de Aviación airline inaugurated its Guadalajara-Puerto Vallarta flight. Aeronaves de México (Aeroméxico) had enjoyed the monopoly of the route to Acapulco, but Mexicana found in Puerto Vallarta a destination to compete with the famous bay in Guerrero. Visitors started coming in from other Mexican towns and from abroad. Among them, Guillermo Wulff—a Mexico City engineer—and famous movie director John Huston, who wrote, "When I first came here, almost 30 years ago, Vallarta was a fishing village of some 2000 souls. There was only one road to the outside world—and it was impassable during the rainy season. I arrived in a small plane, and we had to buzz the cattle off a field outside town before setting down."
1960 - 1969
Reinforced by intense advertising campaigns, Mexicana launched the Puerto Vallarta-Mazatlán-Los Angeles route in 1962. Because of its affiliation with Pan American Airlines, Mexicana’s promotion of Puerto Vallarta was seen in its offices worldwide. In those days, though, in addition to their cameras and bathing suits, vacationers needed to bring a spirit of adventure and an excellent sense of humor. Not only did cows continue trespassing on airport grounds (then located where the private airport stands, next to the international air terminal Gustavo Díaz Ordaz), but, lacking a paved access to town, they were forced to cross the Pitillal river in a canoe during the rainy season. In addition, as there were only a few taxis, donkeys were used to carry the luggage. Three years later, in 1965, Aeronaves de México opened its office in Puerto Vallarta.
Guillermo Wulff’s arrival—coincidentally as a guest on Mexicana’s first flight to Puerto Vallarta—marks the beginning of the second phase in the material construction of the town. It was he who introduced the cupola as an architectural element in several homes he built between Gringo Gulch and Mismaloya, where he obtained a very timely 90-year lease on the land that would be used for the set of "Night of the Iguana."
With its wide beach and the tropical forest as background for the only set expressly built for the movie (the old hotel) the site was perfect, and a few months later it was ready for the first call for “action.” Filming was not exactly a picnic, though. Gabriel Figueroa, the great Mexican photographer, had a specially hard time getting and installing lighting equipment and power plants in the jungle with the ocean as only access. It was the year 1963.
For the first time, Puerto Vallarta received simultaneously big Hollywood stars, national celebrities and American intellectuals. Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, Sue Lyon and Richard Burton led the cast that also included Emilio El Indio Fernández. Tennessee Williams, author of "The Night of the Iguana," visited the set frequently and always in the company of Gigi, his beloved poodle, who, according to John Huston, often suffered from sunstroke. On the other hand, Liz Taylor, sometimes accompanied by her two children, spent most of the time with Burton. Charmed by Vallarta’s magic, Richard and Elizabeth purchased a house, Casa Kimberley, and became the center of a sized group that, according to those close to them, certainly enjoyed themselves. John Huston built his house in the small cove of Caletas where he lived until his death.
This extraordinary gathering of celebrities, captive in an out-of-the-way spot, was too tempting for the international press that soon began arriving in hordes. In addition to the gossip about the famous stars, the media showed the primeval beauty of the place. From that moment on, Puerto Vallarta ceased to be “a secret hide-away waiting to be discovered.” In the face of the growing demands of tourism, the need for an adequate response from authorities and investors became urgent, and the governor of Jalisco from 1965-1971, Francisco Medina Ascencio, was there to promote the change. Through his efforts, Puerto Vallarta was outfitted with the infrastructure required of an urban development and a modern tourist destination.
Convinced of his vision, Medina Ascencio was able to transfer his confidence in the future of Puerto Vallarta to the then-president of Mexico, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who decided to take the gamble, "If the governor of Jalisco and I fail in our plans to make of Vallarta a model destination and an example of perseverance and vision, I will be reminded of my dear mother and he of his own. But we will start tomorrow, hear me well, tomorrow!"
Thus, Puerto Vallarta ascended to the category of city on May 31, 1968, and was granted the financial resources to build the bridge over the Ameca river, the highway from Barra de Navidad to Puerto Vallarta, the Compostela-Las Varas-Puerto Vallarta road and the international airport. During Medina Ascencio’s government, the Camino Real hotel and the Banco Nacional de México (Banamex) branch were built. Thanks to his influence, the city soon enjoyed electric power and telephone service. In addition, the first port in Jalisco was built at El Salado. One of Medina Ascencio’s great achievements was getting the presidents of the United States and Mexico to meet in the recently appointed city. Governor Medina Ascencio was aware that the Nixon-Díaz Ordaz interview would propagate the name of “Jalisco’s strongbox” worldwide. Out of all this promotional activity, the president gave Air France the concession for a Paris-Montreal-Guadalajara-Puerto Vallarta flight, attracting European tourism.
1970 - 1979
In November 1970, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz signed a decree whereby the “residential and tourist development on the lands surrounding Banderas Bay in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco as well as in the existing communities” was declared of public convenience. Towards this goal, the president expropriated 1,026 hectares, which would be regulated through the founding of the Puerto Vallarta Trust by President Luis Echeverría Álvarez in 1973. According to don Carlos Munguía Fregoso, the city chronicler, these two step were instrumental in the building of Puerto Vallarta, as they paved the way for new and significant investments. “Although there were some more modest accommodations, like Jack Cawood’s Playa de Oro and the Playa Las Glorias hotels, up to 1970 there were only two luxury hotels in the city, the Posada Vallarta that opened in 1964, and the Camino Real of 1970.” It was only after 1973 that the construction of large hotels began. At the same time, according to don Carlos, due to the immigration of construction workers and their families, irregular settlements started spreading like a cancer to become one of Puerto Vallarta’s worst liabilities.
Two years after the opening of the Sheraton Bunganvilias hotel in 1980, at the end of President José López Portillo’s term, the Mexican peso was devalued. Yet one man’s trash is another man’s gold, goes the proverb, and while the rest of the country suffered, Puerto Vallarta enjoyed a period of prosperity, some say as yet unsurpassed. “The year 1983 was especially good,” says don Carlos. With their budget suddenly doubled, foreign visitors filled the restaurants and stood in long lines in front of shops that could hardly keep up with client demand. The key to this blissful boom was keeping prices in pesos.
Between 1980 and 1990, Puerto Vallarta’s population nearly doubled, from 57,000 to 112,000 citizens. By 1985 the flux of tourism and immigrants demanded, on one hand, the building of new hotels and, on the other, the development of residential options for employees and executives. Downtown Puerto Vallarta wasn’t large enough to house this construction, and nobody wanted to see tall buildings obstructing the view of the bay and destroying the city’s typical Mexican-village atmosphere. With great timing, the Martínez Güitrón brothers from Guadalajara started building Marina Vallarta. Impeccably planned, the development would eventually include a school, condominiums, residential sites, a shopping mall and large hotel properties. Work on the marina proper, with its 450 boat slips, started in 1986 and by 1990 the marina was in full swing. The project was basically finished by 1993, ahead of schedule.
1990 - 1999
The first years of the '90s were hard for Puerto Vallarta. Even though national tourism grew, international travelers dropped off. In 1993 the destination was fifth in Mexican vacationers’ list of favorite beach resorts, following Cancún, Acapulco, Mazatlán and Veracruz. It was crucial to put an end to this decline. On May 31, 1996, the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Fund was created. This institution has since been in charge of handling the funds raised through a 2% tax on hotel room occupation. Fortunately, Puerto Vallarta decided to use all of these funds to promote the destination at national and international levels. The efforts of the trust, of individual hotels and restaurants, free agents, gallery owners, tour operators and guardians of the environment created the miracle needed and Puerto Vallarta began the process of earning a position among world-class beach destinations.