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Greetings everyone!  I hope you had a great week.  This week we finish off our trip to Puerto Vallarta; next week we play "catch up" (since Vallarta I have traveled to four cities, racking up over 5,000 miles).  For now, grab your bathing suit. We’re not leaving this place without going for a dip in the warm Pacific Ocean.

If you are joining us for the first time, you can visit our archives to read about the beginning of this trip (or many others).   Last week I wrote how I quickly learned that in Vallarta (that's what the locals call it) there is no reason to worry about the food, tap water or crime.  This week we take a tour of the city, and go restaurant hopping.

We were down in Vallarta on a press trip, primarily to check out the city and its 9th annual gourmet festival.  On almost every press trip you get fed well, but this was ridiculous. There were times I seriously prayed no more waiters would magically appear from the kitchen with food on their trays – not even dessert. Imagine that!  

Well, after rubbing Buddha (my belly) to bed the first night, I woke up on time to jump on our bus and head to our first destination.  We went to the Casa  Iguana for breakfast. This hotel is close to the jungle, and has some history behind it.  In fact, the river across the street is where they filmed a scene from the 1964 movie "Night of the Iguana.” You will see later that this movie had a huge impact on the city.  

Casa Iguana is in an area call Mismaloya, 25 minutes south of downtown Vallarta.  The hotel owner provided  breakfast for everyone -- my first authentic Mexican meal.  I had chilaquiles en salsa.   Chilaquiles are tortilla chips cooked in a sauce with meats or vegetables, or scrambled with eggs.  They were pretty tasty.  After breakfast we took a tour of the hotel, which was nice but basic.  If you are on a budget, you could get a really good deal here.  The room rate is $100 a night, but I spoke to a couple checking out who said they got it for $45 (just ask if they have any specials). The couple said they spent 10 days there and really enjoyed it.  Casa Iguana Hotel;  Av. 5 de Mayo 455, Mismaloya, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, México C.P. 48394; tel.: 1-877-893-7654 (toll free).  

After breakfast we headed a few miles into the jungle. A bumpy dirt road took us to an area called Chino's Paradise.  This is a touristy place. Most people go to see the falls, which were featured in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie "Predator.”  You can still see the helicopter they used in the parking lot, but the falls are way cooler.  

We drove back to downtown Vallarta and were dropped off in the heart of the city. We were greeted by these adorable girls selling Chiclets. It was there that we met Juan, our tour guide.  He was from the Puerto Vallarta Convention Visitors Bureau, so he knew what he was talking about.  
 
We began the tour by walking down the Malecon (most people call it “the boardwalk,” which is kind of funny because there are no boards).  We looked at the many cool sculptures (including sand sculptures ) that line this seaside promenade.  Juan said the sculpture of the boy on the seahorse has come to represent Puerto Vallarta.  I can't remember why...sorry!  However, I do know the most popular sculpture is the ladder with two kids on it, and their mother in front calling for them.  It turns out the sculpture is called "Ladder to Heaven," and was created by Sergio Bustamante.  On the ladder we found not only the two sculpted kids, but plenty of tourists climbing for a photo op.  Our next stop was the municipal building (city hall) on the main square.  Go upstairs and check out the large Manuel Lepe mural above the stairwell -- it's Mexican folk art at its finest.

Next we walked outside into the square and listened to live music, after which Juan told us some facts.  He said that 400,000 people live in Vallarta, while over three million tourists visit a year.  Americans are first, representing 65% of all visitors.  Juan also told us a story about a legendary man named   Juan Diego, who is one of the main persons responsible for Mexico being 85% Catholic.  

We took just a few steps toward the street the Church is on, before going in Juan told us to stand there and watch the locals walking or driving.  It was amazing: almost everyone passing by gave the Our Father, Son and Holy Spirit sign.  The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is absolutely beautiful.  Its famous for the crown on top, held in place by angels (a replica of the crown worn by Empress Carlota during her brief time in Mexico as Emperor Maximilian's wife).  It took 33 years to build the church (1918 to 1951).  On the steps you will find women selling religious mementos.  Services (in English) are held Sundays at 10am. Hours are Monday through Saturday (7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.), Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Walking around gets hot, so bring bottled water and sunscreen.  Most streets are cobblestone which gives the city so much personality and history but also makes it hard to walk in anything but sneakers.  So make sure you have comfortable shoes on.  Juan gave us some more history on Puerto Vallarta, which was quite interesting.  In the 1500s Vallarta was first explored by Spanish conquistadors from the coast.  Then around 1851 it was settled by farmers, fishermen, miners and mango and banana plantation owners. Originally the city was named Puerto las Penas, which meant Port of Rocks.  In 1918 the named was officially changed to Puerto Vallarta, in honor of governor Ignacio L. Vallarta.  

The city really became popular in 1963.  That's when John Huston brought movie stars Ava Gardner and Richard Burton there to film the Tennessee Williams tale “Night of the Iguana.:   Burton did not bring his wife; instead he arrived with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Taylor. That turned into quite a scandal, because she was also married to someone else at the time.  Paparazzi flocked in from around the world. When they weren't shooting photos of the famous couple they photographed the beauty of Puerto Vallarta, sending countless pictures back to their hometown papers. 

Juan took us by Richard’s and Elizabeth's villas, a few blocks from the church in an area known as Gringo Gulch.  Many Americans have homes there. We even saw cars with U.S. license plates (must've been a long drive!).  When you see the pink arched bridge,  you have arrived at Richard Burton's and Elizabeth Taylor's villas.  The bridge connected their houses. (Because they were married to other people they couldn't live together, but at night when they wanted a little nooky this bridge was often used).  That's according to my boy Juan, so don't kill (or sue) the messenger.  FYI: You can tour these homes for $8, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Casa Kimberley at Calle Zaragoza 445; tel.: 322/222-1336.

Juan left us there, so we just walked around town on our own.  We checked a few shops, and made a pit stop in a  pharmacy (there is one on almost every block) .  What's great about Mexican pharmacies is you don't need a prescription, so almost everything is over the counter and a lot cheaper than in the U.S.  (An asthma inhaler costs $21 here, compared to $60 in the U.S.).  The hot item in our group was a cream that supposedly takes away the sting from bites from bugs and jelly fishes. It cost only $1.   

We walked by a restaurant across from the promenade, and I snapped a picture of this cool gigantic statue.  Then we stopped at Las Palmas for drinks, chips and salsa.  They tasted the same as U.S. chips and salsa but something about being in Mexico made them better.  Sitting in this restaurant, I saw the marketing skills of the locals.  Check out this crazy idea:  These guys were cruising the coast with a giant poster on a boat -- good idea, right? -- except these turkeys had an annoying siren blaring so everyone would look and check out their sign.  It obviously worked but good thing they weren't allowed to cruise by our hotel.

We hopped back in the bus, and drove to the Marina district near the airport.  This city is getting Americanized, because we passed a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club on the way.   We arrived at one of Vallarta's nicest boutique hotels: the Quinta Real.  This place was very elegant, with extra-large rooms, an on-site spa and a gorgeous pool. I would love to stay there sometime.  We had a late lunch there, which was so good and so filling.  It was called a “light snack,” but there was nothing light about it; it was a full-on meal (this was just my appetizer).  High-season rates average $250. It's on the golf course at Pelicanos 311. Quinta Real Puerto Vallarta; tel.: 322/221-0800.

We went back to our hotel for 30 minutes to get ready for dinner.   AmberAirplane had just arrived from L.A.  She came a day late, because she was attending the VH1 Big Awards.  Amber arrived just in time for dinner.  Just what I needed: more food!  We went to another of the finest restaurants in town, Kaiser Maximilian.  We sat at the chef’s table, and were joined by both the guest chef -- Thorsten Probost from Austria --and the local chef, Manuel Nicolas Hernández.  As you probably guessed I wasn't even hungry after eating that late lunch, but I couldn't waste food so I took a deep breath and... secretly slid it on to Amber Airplane’s plate.  Just kidding -- I only did that with the seafood plates.  Every course they brought a different wine.  After the waiters poured the glass a representative from Napa valley gave us a short explantion about why this particular wine was chosen for this dish.  If you go to Vallarta, make sure you eat there too. Kaiser Maximilian, Olas Altas #38 - B Zona Romántica.  Open for dinner daily from 6 -11 p.m.; closed Sundays. Tel.: 011 52 (322) 223-0760.

Next morning it was time for more food:   breakfast.  I couldn't eat much, so I just sipped my guava juice.  This was different than you get in Hawaii; it was 100 percent pure and thick. I passed on the scrambled eggs with salmon, and just ate my good looking and tasty fruit plate.  After breakfast we went into town to tour some  art galleries but because Amber Airplane missed the tour from Juan, this Juan (me) gave her a private tour of her own.  What do you think Amber Airplane liked the best?  Of course, the pink bridge.  

Guess what time it was now?  That's right: lunch time.  Are you serious?!  We went back to the Marina district for a quick tour of the Las Palmas Beach Resort, then had a meal similar to what Governor Vallarta probably ate.  There were dishes upon dishes. BTW: The bread was also very good in Vallarta.  If you go to this hotel, check out the bridges in the lobby. They are too cool.  You might want to bring your suit and energy too, so you can take part in the Mexican aqua-aerobic classes  they offer daily in the pool.  

I thought we were safe for a few hours because the shopping tour was later in the day, but NO! I saw this guy approaching us on the beach.  He was selling clothes and jewelry. I was like, “Are you kidding me? I can't even go to the beach here with Amber Airplane.  If I leave her alone for a second she’ll buy everything.” (Just kidding, Amber Airplane!) Shopping was indeed the next stop on this tour and we went to a bunch of stores.  I’m not even going to get into it.  You can sign up for Amber Airplane’s newsletter and she will tell you all about it in a couple weeks.  However, I will give you one quick tip: Don't buy silver on the street. According to our good buddy Juan, it’s usually fake.  Las Palmas Beach Resort, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Blvd.; tel.: 52 (322) 226 12 20.

While I waited for Amber Airplane and the others to come out of the shop, I bought a coconut from this man.  Unfortunately, it didn't taste too good.  I’m not sure if it was his fault, or that I was just so full from lunch.  However, I couldn't pass up a fresh-cut coconut for $1.  

You can't go to Mexico and not have tequila, can you?  I don't drink, so our next stop wasn't my favorite until I found out they also had tacos.  BTW:  There are tours of tequila (agave) fields in the town of Tequilla. It's a 35-minute flight aboard a private 16-passenger plane.  Luckily, we didn't do that tour.  Instead we went somewhere a little closer, which just happened to be the best place in Vallarta for tequila tasting.   This scene is home to the largest collection of tequilas in the area; they have over 250 types. It cost $25 to sample three different types of the finest tequila (one bottle was $250).  You also get some of the tastiest pork tacos ever.  Next time I am in Vallarta I will go back for some pork tacos (You can also get shrimp or fish tacos). They cost just $4, which includes rice and beans.  La Casa de Tequila, Morelos 589, Puerto Vallarta; tel.: + 52 322 220 00.

The tacos were so good, I had seconds.  But I should've listened when Amber Airplane told me not to eat them, because two hours later we were at the Marriott down in the Marina for dinner.  This hotel is huge, and we dined outside.  All the dinners on this trip were unbelievable but this was my favorite.  Guest chef Dennis Gavagan and local chef Fred Ruiz cooked Southwestern food to perfection. They made spinach salad,  crab cakes, and lobster tacos for starters. Then came guava sorbet on a sheet of ice over green chartreuse (just to clean the palate).  Next was our main entree: honey chipotle grilled chicken breast cilanatro marinated. It was served with poblano mashed potatoes, wild mushroom, flauta polenta, fire roasted corn salsa and cilantro oil.  Also on the dish was filet angus grilled served with a poblano creamy sauce, caramelized onions, shoestring sweet potatoes, Yukon mashed potatoes, and red snapper with avocado and pistachio crusted served with black bean sauce. Dessert (warm chocolate Ibarra brownie and Key lime natilla) was amazing.  NOW do you believe me when I said we were fed like kings?  After dinner everyone’s eyes bulged out of their heads, and the manager said, "How about I take you to our private tequilla cellar?”  We were like, “Are you SERIOUS?”  Those guys know how to dine!  Casa Magna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort, Paseo de la Marina No. 5 Marina Vallarta, C.P. 48354; tel: 52-322-2260000.

We stumbled to the bus. Almost everyone fell asleep for the 30-minute ride back to the hotel, after which we crawled to our rooms and passed out. In the morning I lay in bed comatose. The alarm blared, but I couldn't move.  Finally I found the energy to shut it off, put my suit on and grabbed the breakfast coupons.  We headed to the buffet at our hotel. I know: How could we eat?  But it was my last day down there, I wanted to try our hotel’s buffet -- and besides, I can't pass up free food.  I ate really light. Mostly I drank my colorful juices (papaya, melon, orange) and stared at my chilaquiles.

Amber Airplane and I had three hours before we had to go to the airport, so we took a walk along the soft sandy beach, then headed onto the rocks to check out the surroundings from afar.  The views were amazing, and the water was even better.  The temperature was perfect -- probably 80 degrees, and it felt like a bath.  I swam, floated and played in the surf for an hour.  How I miss Vallarta!     

We took a taxi to the airport and arrived two hours before our flight.  There were only two people in front of us (kudos to Aeromexico for making the lines so smooth).  The airport is nice, especially upstairs.  They have some shops, but buy your souvenirs before you get to the airport. I bought my dad a shot glass (he has a collection), and they charged me a whopping $6.  I could’ve gotten it for $3 in town.   I also bought a $2 candy bar, but instead of the usual ones I tried Kranky K.  Chocolate covered corn flakes... pretty darn good.  We took a shuttle bus to the plane, walked up the stairs and flew home.  The three-hour flight had some light chop but nothing to too bad.   We were on a MD-80 -- not my favorite plane -- but this one was really smooth and looked brand new.  We had a tasty chicken meal prepared by Thierry Blouet from Cafe des Artistes.  If you fly Aeromexico to Mexico you don't have to bring food, because on every route from the U.S. they serve a meal, no matter how short the flight. Of course, after this trip the last thing I need is food!

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READER AIR-eMAIL
  • I know how you feel about Mexico. I just got back from Manzanillo yesterday. The people at Karmina Palace were 1st class! Love the all-inclusive. And all of the locals were so friendly. You can't help but want to speak their beautiful language! Adios mi amigo! Demer M. - Eugene, OR
  • Loved the link to amfm2go.  I know there are other sites out there with this information, but have never used them.  I have already printed out several states for the upcoming holiday travel trips.  You have a great site, I look forward to it every week.   Bob B - Manager Market Analysis
  • Johnny:  One of my coworkers was not too impressed with "Airplane" as a response to "Things that Bounce that Start With an A." Here are his suggestions, although I'm not too thrilled with #2:   1. Astronauts (in space)  2. Animals  3. Automobiles  4. Asteroids   Thanks for the valuable information about Puerto Vallarta.   Sincerely, Dale from Long Island, NY
  • Just a comment on the drinking water in Puerto Vallarta. A few years ago they opened a water treatment plant, as good as any here in the U.S. I don't know how complete the coverage area is, but the drinking water in Puerto Vallarta is safer than the vast majority of Mexican cities. Children are not nearly as careful as adults are (they wouldn't remove the ice cubes), now the odd's of them getting sick from the water in PV are slim. Smart money is being spent by the PV government.  Richard Laakso


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