Puerto Vallarta: Where Beachy Chic Meets Colonial Charm
Hacienda San Angel
Had it not been for the torrid affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during director John Huston's The Night of the Iguana filming, the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Vallarta could have remained low profile – but for just a bit longer. The 1964 flick riddled with behind-the-scenes scandal merely expedited the inevitable.
Despite recent infrastructure upgrades and enhancements to its iconic Malecon promenade, the Pacific Coast town still oozes that authentic colonial charm that initially hooked Huston.
Maneuvering along cobblestone streets from a different era, our city tour takes in The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, shops filled with sterling silver and traditional Huichol beaded art, and white stucco homes accented by terracotta roofs and wrought iron balconies draped in colorful bougainvillea.
Among these in the legendary Gringo Gulch neighborhood is Hacienda San Angel. Burton purchased its main villas as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife in 1977. Planners can spice up their agenda with cooking classes for 10, courtyard receptions for 70 and 90-capacity rooftop dinners embellished by nightly fireworks.
During a progressive dinner along the sculpture-lined Malecon, I'm convinced the Voladores de Papantla – aerial performers from Mexico's Papantla region – are toppling and twirling from a 50-foot pole exclusively for our amusement. Come to find out, it's a daily ritual.
"Besides our first class tourism infrastructure, Puerto Vallarta is a very peaceful town that feels like the heart of Mexico," says Norma Furlong, president of dmc Tukari.
"What you find here that's missing elsewhere is a beach destination in a colonial setting that's rich with history," says Guillermo Ohem, Puerto Vallarta Convention & Visitors Bureau's managing director. "Planners have access to a huge program of festivities and activities like gallery walks and gourmet safaris featuring celebrated chefs that have made us the country's number two gastro scene behind Mexico City."
Ohem adds that Puerto Vallarta International Convention Center's (ICC) opening reflects the destination's MICE commitment. After inspecting that green 161,500-sf facility, we join ICC director Patricia Farias to release 100 chartreuse iguanas and 2-foot crocodiles into their new domain at El Salado Estuary.
"This is one of the only urban wetlands in the world encrusted in the middle of a city," says Farias. "It's very impressive that ICC maintains it completely."
In 2010, UNESCO honored Mexican cuisine with Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. And that makes for some tasty group grazing.
We tap into Chef Thierry Biouet's octopus carpaccio and roasted sea bass in the rooftop garden at the 120-capacity Café des Artistes. Then we sip and sup it up at a pairing dinner in CasaMagna Marriott's 12-capacity La Cava, where resident tequila sommelier Audrey Formissano presents the lowdown on the oft-misunderstood libation born right here in Jalisco State.
Aside from dazzling diners at CasaMagna's La Estancia, Chef Fred Ruiz lets guests roll up their sleeves for interactive cooking classes relying on fresh spices and herbs plucked from resort gardens.
I roll into The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta, to join Executive Chef Dagoberto Arriza for a 20-capacity culinary class showcasing its Super Foods Program. The beauty of cooking with this former pastry artist is how he folds sweets like chocolate and vanilla bean into just about everything – including sinful sauce we drizzle onto perfectly pan seared salmon.
Companies like Vallarta Food Tours and Vallarta Eats literally take it to the cobblestone streets. "A real wow factor for our tours is how people open their eyes to wonderful food and those preparing it," says the former's co-founder, Lindsay Prime. Three hours and eight feedings later, we've maxed out on mole poblano, fresh shrimp ceviche and birria (goat) tacos made with tortillas hot off the press.
Venturing Vallarta Style
A 24-mile extension of mountains, rivers, coastline and beaches, Puerto Vallarta is one of the most significant biodiversity areas in Latin America. So naturally, eco-activity options run amok.
"Here you have pristine beach venues only accessible by boat and others on a mountain 20 minutes from downtown," says Furlong. "Or you can hike through a jungle for lunch in a hillside palapa overlooking Banderas Bay."
We ogle Olive Ridley hatchlings that are part of CasaMagna Marriott's Sea Turtle Rescue Program. Resembling Oreo cookies sans the filling, these endangered critters are liberated into the surf at sunset between June and December.
The go-to source for recreation, Vallarta Adventures' newest "Extreme" thriller thrusts adrenaline junkies into sensory overload with rappels, Tarzan swings, 50-ft crazy ladder, hanging bridges, twisting hillside waterslide and Mexico's longest and fastest zipline – a 4,000-ft doozy that maxes out at 60-mph.
Focused on milder action, we head to Vallarta Botanical Gardens for a VIP tour and short hike to Rio Los Horcones. It's an explosion of orchids, anthuriums, agave and flowering trees that demand frequent photo stops along jungle pathways. Then it's refueling at the venue's Hacienda de Oro Restaurant, where our handmade tortillas are prepped in an authentic Mexican country kitchen.
Upping PV's hotel inventory to 20,784 rooms is a trio of new Hotel Zone resorts near ICC. And that's especially good news for planners since each couples all-inclusive ease with contemporary function sites.
We stay at the chic 271-suite Secrets Vallarta Bay that's adjacent to its sister AMResort property, 327-suite Now Amber. Secrets caters to the adults-only market, while Now Amber is geared toward families. Together, they're a dream fit for incentives.
"What makes these resorts so unique is the fact that they're next to each other, and share a variety of restaurants and space without taking the exclusivity away from Secrets," says Ana Santos, Groups & Convention Sales Manager.
Even an unexpected downpour couldn't put a damper on our Mexican Independence Day fiesta. Rather than holding it on Secrets' beachfront lawn, the festive soiree transformed the 450-capacity Grand Ballroom into 6,930 sf of folk dancing and mariachi heaven.
Hilton tapped Puerto Vallarta to enter Mexico's all-inclusive market with the 259-room Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort. At its hip beachfront O West Lounge, 100 can munch on tapas and sushi while sipping handcrafted martinis on a deck with private pool. The adjacent dining room seats 64 for dinners. There's also a 600-capacity ballroom for more formal affairs.
"With 10,410 sf of meeting and event space, our resort is a great destination for business travelers," says Dave Horton, Global Head, Hilton Hotels & Resorts. "By considering an all-inclusive resort, planners can more carefully manage budgets because there will be very few out-of-pocket expenses."
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