In 1992, a friend who was a travel agent met my husband and me for happy hour in an after work tavern in downtown Kansas City. Knowing that we were unencumbered by kids (yet) and loved to travel, she told us about a killer deal on a four day getaway to a Mexican beach destination we had never heard of and couldn’t pronounce. The charter packages from the Mid-West at that time were priced under $300.00 for round trip air and several hotel days, unbelievable by today’s standards. We said “what the heck,” booked for the next week and off we went. By the end of our long weekend we had begun a lifelong love affair with Puerto Vallarta.
Today of course the development around Puerto Vallarta has exploded. Right now on TV in my frozen mid-western January there is an ad in heavy rotation for another new, gorgeous and seductive all-inclusive in Riveria Nayarit, which wasn’t even known by its own travel nickname 20 years ago. It lures chilly North Americans weary of brown landscapes and layers of warm clothes to the strips of mega-resorts north and south of Puerto Vallarta. Gratefully, however, that hasn’t affected our beloved downtown and Rio Cuale neighborhoods, other than providing impetus and funding for the shiny new airport. For those, who, like us, have been coming long before the big Boeings, the heart of Puerto Vallarta will always be the narrow streets and cobblestones, the noisy markets and storefronts, the restaurants that don’t have to work to be authentic, all found in Old Town.
We love Viejo (Old) Vallarta because it is just that. It was here before the tourists, and although it has made room for them, it hasn’t forgotten that people who live here need markets and laundromats, beauty salons and hardware stores. (I love the word ferreteria -it conjures up images much more fun than brackets and nails.) The streets are cobbled because not many had cars, and still don’t, the sidewalks high to allow water to run back to the ocean when the unpredictability of nature reminds us it is still wild (all things done when tourists aren’t looking.) Sure, there’s the 2X1 Bucket of Beer all day specials here too, but next to the bakery with unreal crepes and the chicken on a stick roasterie. The fishermen on the beach in Old Town aren’t picturesque – they’re bringing home dinner.
Old Town has taken on a forced moniker the travel agents like – the Zona Romantica. Yes it is romantic in an old-world way, but that is an accident based on its age. Dressing it up as a destination does it the disservice of ignoring the essential day-to-dayness of it. It’s not romantic to cut up fish, or to make huaraches, or to sweep doorways, but it makes this neighborhood unique. Walking the streets in the mornings before the Hotel Zone has slept it off is like looking at the familiar through distorted glass – you know what they are doing, but it looks brand new.
To experience Viejo Vallarta you don’t have to walk far. Head out from Playa de los Muertos toward the mountains and you will go past the peluquería where the ladies getting their nails done gossip just like anywhere, or the numerous street taco stands that seem to materialize with mouthwatering aromas just when you are hungry and then disappear at siesta time. Dodging the drips from balconies being hosed down overhead, and beating the taxis across the street, wander down Lazaro Cardenas to the Emiliano Zapata Mercado to really get out of your food comfort zone.
Walk far enough and you will be in the neighborhoods of Las Canoas or El Remance, even farther from the glam of the Hotel Zone. Or walk nowhere, and just enjoy the Town. It is the part of Puerto Vallarta that keeps us entranced, year after year; the same as it was in 1992, or 1952, and will be regardless of how many new resorts crowd the northern shores.
Molly Williams is a semi-retired history teacher, a part-time lawyer, an optimistic writer, a contented wife, a forever mom, and a joyous and open-eyed traveler.