A Taste of Old Vallarta and Chez Elena History

Carlos Cortes - The Press-Enterprise
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July 30, 2017


The Bay of Banderas, forming Puerto Vallarta’s coastline in Mexico, is met south of the city by the Sierra Madre Mountains, in this June 2000 photo. Los Arcos, a group of small rock islands, are seen in the distance, much as they were in the background scenes from the movie, ‘Night of the Iguana,’ which propelled interest in the area as a tourist destination. (AP Photo/John Lumpkin)

Tía Elena, my father’s sister, was a family legend. Dad and his other four siblings had carved out lives in the United States after their family fled here in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution.

Riverside author, educator and poet Carlos Cortes at his aunt's former restaurant and bar, Chez Elena. (Courtesy Carlos Cortes)

But Elena returned to Mexico, ultimately settling down in the tiny fishing village of Puerto Vallarta, where in 1954 she opened a small hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant named Chez Elena.

Family stories abounded. Elena’s unpredictability. Her ragged relationship with her brothers. Her tendency to drop in unannounced. (Once, after virtually a decade without communication, Elena flew unannounced into the Kansas City, Mo., airport to change planes, called my father at work, and imperiously ordered him to drop everything and come right down to see her for a few minutes. He didn’t.)

Then came “The Night of the Iguana,” John Huston’s 1964 film version of Tennessee Williams’ intriguing play, filmed in Puerto Vallarta. Articles appeared about the non-stop partying of the cast and crew.  Among their favorite haunts was a little hangout named Chez Elena, with its charming, bawdy owner, Elena Cortés. My Tía Elena!

I didn’t meet Elena until her final years when, during her periodic medical visits to San Diego, she would regale me with stories of the celebrities who frequented her restaurant (while also chastising her ungrateful brothers). However, I didn’t reach Puerto Vallarta until March of this year, the last stop of a four-week roundtrip cruise between San Diego and Lima, Peru. As I told my wife, Laurel, my primary goal in Puerto Vallarta was to visit Chez Elena.

It wasn’t easy. Nestled in the hills of Old Puerto Vallarta, far from the gleaming condos now obliterating most of the village’s former charm, the hotel demanded a steep hike up narrow streets and uneven sidewalks. Our quest was made even more challenging because our map had misplaced the restaurant, forcing us to rely on local residents to patiently describe the winding route that we would have to take.

Finally, around 11 a.m., on a tiny cobbled side street, it emerged: Hotel Los Cuatro Vientos, featuring Chez Elena.  A cordial young lady, working at the rough table that served as the hotel desk, made us feel right at home. The restaurant did not open until 6 p.m. (our ship was to leave at 5), but we were welcome to go up and see the terrace bar and restaurant.

We did, climbing the steep stairs of the funky colonial-style inn until we reached our goal. The view, especially of Old Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay, was fabulous, alone worth our effort. We could imagine loquacious Elena holding forth, dousing the Iguana cast and crew with margaritas and entertaining them with rousing stories of old Mexico. Mission accomplished!

The hotel advertising card proclaimed her cult eminence. “Elena Cortés built this historical landmark in 1954 . . . Chez Elena became a meeting place for such well know personages as Peter O’Toole, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Anthony Quinn and Robert Shaw.”

After we got back to our ship and I began writing my daily cruise journal, I felt the pang of a family moment that never occurred.  Because of their estrangement, I had no opportunity to see Elena and Dad together. How wonderful it would have been to listen to the two of them exchanging stories and even trading barbs in the open air of Chez Elena!

Read the original at The Press-Enterprise.

Gloria bought the hotel and restaurant Chez Elena/Los Quatro Vientos and retained the name in 1980! She has retained it in its original charming colonial Mexican style to this day. One major addition is her rooftop bar, El Nido, which offers those same spectacular views of our beautiful city Puerto Vallarta. At her grand opening on November 1st, 1980, she was fortunate to have the famous director of the movie "Night of the Iguana".....which made Vallarta famous all over the world....in attendance.

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