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Home > Fast Facts > Puerto Vallarta History

History of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

During the first part of the 19th century, at the mouth of the Cuale River - at that moment in time, inhabited mostly 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.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish

View of the Capilla Guadalupe without it's Crown

Interesting photos:
Historical Vallarta Photos
Vallarta past versus present (comparisons)

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 the metal processing, wasn't found, we'll return to that further on.

Today, visitors to Puerto Vallarta can enjoy a breathtaking view from any of the hills that surround the city.

Puerto Vallarta is located on the Pacific Coast on one of the largest bays in the world (member of "The Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club" [visit their website].

Banderas Bay measures 42 kilometers from north to south. The northernmost limit of the bay is at Punta Mita which is the end of the Sierra de Vallejo mountains and, to the south, the bay ends in Cabo Corrientes, part of the foothills of the Sierra del Cuale range.

Malecon in the 1950's

Malecón boardwalk in the 50's
Puerto Vallarta

The bay has been known since the XVI Century when Spanish soldiers, during the expeditions to Lower California (or island of pearls, as they called it), landed on the bay’s beaches in order to supply their ships with water, firewood and fresh food. There are many chronicles from that time that mention the beauty of the coastline, the fertility of the land and the safe harbors that the bay offered ships.

During the XVI Century, safe harbors all along the Pacific Coast were a vital necessity so that ships returning from the Philippines would have a place to find refuge in case of attack by pirates.These harbors were also necessary during the long journeys, to and from the Orient so that ships could be repaired if necessary and crews could take on provisions.

One of the first to propose a settlement on Banderas Bay was Captain Pedro de Unamuno after the trip he made in 1587 from the Philippines. Famous navigators like Sebastian Vizcaino, Lopez de Vicuna and Gonzalo de Francia more than once landed on these beaches and also proposed the establishment of a colony, but their petitions never received any attention.

Main Plaza view from the hills

Main Plaza view from the hills

It is known that a shipyard was built on the bay in 1644 (probably where Mismaloya is located today) and two ships were built for Bernardo Bernal de Pinadero that would be used in the colonization of Lower California.

In document and in ships logs dating from the XVIII Centuries, constant references are made to whaling ships and fishing boast that harbored in the bay. At the time, Banderas Bay was also known as Humpback Bay (Bahia de los Jorobados) because of the number of humpback whales that were seen in the bay.

In the XIX Century, the site that is today Puerto Vallarta was used for the loading and unloading of supplies and materials for the mining companies that worked the mines in Cuale and San Sebastian. At that time the site was known as Las Peñas.

An early procession in honor of Virgin of Guadalupe

An early procession in honor of Virgin of Guadalupe

In 1851, Don Guadalupe Sánchez Torres, originally from Cihuatlán, Jalisco, began to make regular deliveries of salt from San Blas or the Marías Islands in his small boat since the mines required large quantities for refining the silver. Don Guadalupe and his men built a small lean-to from tree trunks and palm leaves so that they would have a place to rest that was out of the sun while the sale was being loaded onto donkeys for transport to the mines. Towards the end of 1851, Don Guadalupe decided to bring his family to Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe because he arrived early in the morning hours of December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With the arrival of new families, the village grew bit by bit and its economy began to change. While some families brought in salt, others began to devote themselves to agriculture or cattle raising.

In 1880, Las Peñas had a population of 1,500 inhabitants. New families from Cuale and San Sebastian came to settle in the port. Five years later, on July 14, 1885, the port was opened to national maritime traffic and officially given the name of Las Peñas. On the 23rd of July, a Maritime Customs Office was established. The following year on October 31, 1886 the town was given official political and judicial standing when decree No. 210 was passed by the State Congress. During the last decade of the XIX Century and the first of XX Century, Las Peñas gradually progressed thanks to the combined efforts of the people and the enthusiasm of Don Guadalupe.

Building-top view of Juárez and the Cathedral

Building-top view of Juárez and the Cathedral

The discovery of silver in United States of America 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. They chose the fertile Ameca valley, so rich that it produced three corn harvests a year. In March 1914, the first post office was opened and in September of the same year a telegraph was installed.

On May 31, 1918, by Congressional decree No. 1889, Las Peñas was granted the title of municipality as well as a new name: Puerto Vallarta, in memory of the illustrious lawyer and Governor of Jalisco, Don Ignacio L. Vallarta.

In 1925 when the Montgomery Fruit Company purchased about 70,000 acres in near-by Ixtapa, Vallarta began to boom due to the surplus of jobs available on the newly-opened banana plantations. They also built a railway to transport the bananas from Ixtapa to El Salado estuary where they were loaded onto ships to carry them to the United States. This operation ended in 1935 when the Montgomery Fruit Company had to leave Mexico because of the new agrarian law that had just come into effect. Other products were raised in the area such as corn, beans, tobacco and small coconuts used for their oil, were shipped to the interior to be used in the national market.

Night-time view of the Malecón boardwalk 1950's

Night-time view of the Malecón boardwalk 1950's

In about 1930, a few national and foreign tourist began to come o Puerto Vallarta, returning year after year, to spend their vacation enjoying the tranquility and great natural beauty of the port. Slowly word began to spread and each year more tourists came.

In these years a new source of wealth was found in sharks. From the waters of Banderas Bay, the fins ended up on the tables of New York's Chinese restaurants. During the II WW, shark liver oil was given as a nutritional supplement to the soldiers

In 1951, hundred years after it's foundation, Puerto Vallarta celebrates in earnest. The marriage of Doña Margarita Mantecón, from a well-established Vallartan family, to a counselor of Mexican president Miguel Alemán ensured the splendor of the festivities. From who-knows-where, three ships arrived in the bay to salute the town with a 21-gun salute. In addition three planes landed in Los Muertos, packed with reporters and cameramen. A relic of the True Cross was brought to Vallarta as well on this occasion.

City view from the "El Cerro"

City view from the "El Cerro"

On November 11, 1954, Mexicana de Aviación airline inaugurated its flight Guadalajara - Puerto Vallarta. Aeronaves de México (Aeroméxico) had enjoyed a monopoly on 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 thirty years ago, Vallarta was a fishing village of some 2000 souls. There was 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. (Huston, 1980. An Open Book)

Reinforced by intense advertising campains, Mexicana launched the Puerto Vallarta - Mazatlán - Los Angeles route in 1962. Thanks to its affiliation with Pan American Airlines, Mexicana's promotion was seen in its offices all over the world.

The Malecón and Hotel Paraíso.

The Malecón and Hotel Paraíso.

Guillermo Wulff's arrival - coincidentially as a guest in Mexicana's first flight to 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.

In Los Angeles I met a Puerto Vallarta architect and entrepreneur named Guillermo Wulff [...] I was thinking about locations for Iguana, and Guillermo urged me to go to Mismaloya. [...] and although Mismaloya was Indian land, Wulff said he had a lease on it and could build anything he wanted there. (Huston, 1980. An Open Book)

With its wide beach and tropical forest as background for the only set (the old hotel) expressly built for the movie, 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 the only access. It was the year 1963.

Calle Juárez, 1957

Calle Juárez, 1957

For the first time, Puerto Vallarta received simultaneously big Hollywood stars, national celebrities and USA 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 the time with Burton, whom she was deeply in love with. Charmed by Puerto Vallarta's magic, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor purchased the house they had initially rented, Casa Kimberley, and became the center of a fairly large group, that, according to those close to them, certainly enjoyed themselves. Richard also purchased the villa on the other side of the street and Guillermo Wulff built the famous bridge that connected them. John Huston later built his house in the small cove of Las Caletas where he lived until very short before 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".

Puerto Vallarta International Airport without Terminal 2

Puerto Vallarta International Airport without Terminal 2

In the face of the growing demands of tourism, the need for an adecuate 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. His efforts and needs reached the Mexican President and thus, Puerto Vallarta ascended to the category of city on May 31st, 1968, and was granted funds to build a bridge over the Ameca river, the coastal highway from Barra Navidad to Puerto Vallarta, the Compostela - Las Varas - Puerto Vallarta road and the international Puerto Vallarta airport named after the president: Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

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 harbor in Jalisco was built at El Salado. One of Medina Ascencio's great achievements was getting the presidents of USA and Mexico to meet in the recently appointed city. He knew this would give more international exposure to the city. Out of all this promotional activity, the President gave Air France the concession for a flight Paris - Montreal - Guadalajara - Puerto Vallarta, thus attracting European tourism.

Marina Vallarta

Marina Vallarta

In 1970, the President signed a decree declaring "residential and tourist development on the lands surrounding Banderas Bay in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco as well as existing communities" of public convenience. Motivated by this, the president expropriated 1026 hectares, which in 1973, would finally be regulated through the founding of the "Puerto Vallarta Trust". The city chronicler, don Carlos Munguía Fregoso, considers these two steps as instrumental in the development of Puerto Vallarta, paving the way for new and significant investments. It was only after 1973 that the construction of big hotels began.

Two years after the opening of the Sheraton Buganvilias 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 specially good," says don Carlos. With their budget suddenly doubled, foreign visitors filled the restaurants and stood in long lines in front of the shops that could hardly keep up with their clients' demands. The key to this blissful boom was keeping the 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 its employees and executives. Downtown Puerto Vallarta wasn't large enough to house this expansion and nobody wanted to see tall buildings obstructing the view of the bay or destroying the city's typical Mexican-village atmosphere.

Marina Vallarta, view of the lighthouse

Marina Vallarta, view of the lighthouse

With great timing, the Martínez Güitrón brothers from Guadalajara started building Marina Vallarta. Impeccably planned, the development would eventually include a school, condominiums, residential site, a shopping mall and large hotel properties. Work on the Marina proper, with its 450 boat slips, was started in 1986 and by 1990 the Marina was in full swing. The project was basically finished by 1993, ahead of schedule.

The first years of the nineties were hard for Puerto Vallarta. Even though the national tourism grew, international travelers dropped off. In 1993 the destination was fifth in Mexican vacationers' list of beach resorts, after Cancun, Acapulco, Mazatlan 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 two-percent tax on hotel room occupation. Fortunately, Puerto Vallarta decided to use 100% of these funds in promoting the destination at national and international level. The joint efforts of the fund, hotels and restaurants, free agents, tour operators and guardians of the environment turned things around and Puerto Vallarta began the process of earning a position among world-class beach destinations.

Puerto Vallarta has become a resort town by accident.

Puerto Vallarta has become a resort town by accident.

In contrast with Cancun, Ixtapa or Huatulco - government planned resort destinations - Puerto Vallarta is somewhat of an accidental resort town.

Nobody set out to put Puerto Vallarta on the tourist map, at least not in the early years. But today the primitive charms of yore have been substituted with million-dollar investments and fierce competition. The globe is shrinking, and traveling to places once inaccesible due to distances, is now common practice.

Even though Puerto Vallarta is today measured up against Bali, New Zealand or Ibiza, it still holds its own. The natural beauty of Banderas Bay, with its deep waters (eitehr warm or cool, depending on the season), immensely rich biodiversity. Lagoons and wetland birds can be watched year round, while right in the bay, whales and dolphins frolic. There's fish to be made into ceviche or grilled on a stick; billfish worthy of international tournaments and colorful fish to be admired diving below the bay's surface. In the foothills, the tropical forest welcomes hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. Crossing the streams and cooling down in the pools formed by their waterfalls, explorers learn to tell fig trees from parotas and amapas. On the beaches at night, sea turtles lay their eggs during the summer months. Banderas Bay is definitely a marvel and a strong attractive for tourism.

Vallarta's lush jungle

Vallarta's lush jungle

These assets have earned Banderas Bay membership within the Club des Baies plus Belles de Monde (The World's most Beautiful Bays Club, [visit the page of the bay], whose main objective is the promotion of exceptional, world-renowned bays. People have little by little noticed the pricelessness of their surrounding paradise and have undertaken efforts to preserve it intact.

One of these efforts is the regional sewage system and treatment plant that have been installed in the last years. This state-of-the-art plant, biologically treats sewage waste so it can be released again as clean water without fear of pollution.

Tall and elegant, palm trees never bend too much in Puerto Vallarta. Although winds may blow, they never reach the fury of hurricane force. The geographical situation of the bay protects it from the storms that cause such devastation in other tropical destinations. All in all, our climate has to be among the best in the world, especially during the winter, when the days are sunny and the nights are cool.

In the downtown area, overhead wires are being cabled underground, to the delight of photographers and strollers, that now will be able to enjoy Puerto Vallarta's architecture where white walls are interrupted only by flowerpots blooming with bougainvillea, geranium, hibiscus, copa de oro and splendid ferns. The city streets have always been paved in cobbled stones, but now, these river rocks have been set in concrete to create a much smoother and durable surface.

Fortunately water is abundant in Puerto Vallarta. And now, thanks to a new radial well in the Ameca river, our source will soon double, enabling the destination to continue its growth without water concerns.

Things have changed since the first airplane landed here in 1931. Today Puerto Vallarta hotels range from small, economical inns to magnificent luxury hotels. Important national and international airline companies provide services that connect Vallarta to the principal cities of the U.S. and europe. Luxury cruise ships dock here on a daily basis and a good highway connects the town to Tepic, Guadalajara and the rest of the country.

Puerto Vallarta offers a multitude of things to do and places to see, but there are also some great two-day or weekend trips nearby available. These getaways are for those who frequent Puerto Vallarta Mexico or perhaps live here full-time and are looking for something new. You can travel by car, bus, ship or by airplane, and the accommodations can range from small countryside inns to luxurious villas long the coast - something for all budgets.

All around PV, just minutes from downtown, there are easily reached areas of great natural beauty, ideal for a day’s outing or a picnic. Some even have there own hotels where it is possible for a visitor to "get away from it all" for a few days. Some of the favorite spots are Bucerías, Mismaloya, Quimixto and Yelapa, most of these only reachable by boat.

South Coastal Zone

South Coastal Zone

The Puerto Vallarta real estate market continues to expand, not only in terms of value but also in the size of territory. Real estate agents now realize they have to be knowledgeable with what is happening in real estate with properties as far south Boca de Tomatlán, and as far norht as San Pancho. It no longer is just Puerto Vallarta Mexico. For some time now we have referred to this area as Costa Vallarta.

For shopping and strolling, downtown Vallarta can't be beat. It has what must be the best boardwalk (Malecón) in all Mexico, lined with restaurants, nightclubs, and fine shops. There is also an open-air market with artists. In this area is where you'll find many of Vallarta's landmarks such as the Church of Guadalupe, the sculpture of the boy on the seahorse and the open-air theater of Los Arcos. Right through the center of Puerto Vallarta Mexico runs the Cuale River. In the middle of the river is Isla Rio Cuale, a picturesque island with shops and restaurants scattered throughout. This is a great place to take a break from busy day of shopping and sightseeing.

The area between Marina Vallarta and downtown Vallarta is where you can find most of the hotels and three shopping malls with over 100 shops offering everything from traditional souvenirs to fashionable boutiques and modern grocery stores as well restaurants and coffee shops.

Marina Vallarta is Mexico's most sophisticated marina and one of the most popular. It includes an 18-hole golf course, a 450-slip marina, a waterpark, several 5-star & Grand Tourism hotels. Along the marina boardwalk are numerous shops, boutiques, galleries, cafes, and restaurants.

South of Puerto Vallarta are some of the most prestigious residential areas, featuring homes with spectacular architecture nestled in the jungle, with fabulous views of the Puerto Vallarta and the bay. This is where the Sierra Madre mountains meet the shores of Banderas Bay, creating an environment of beautiful beaches with a rich jungle backdrop.

Come and rest in Pto. Vallarta

Come and rest in Pto. Vallarta

The Federal Government, in conjunction with the state governments of Jalisco and Nayarit as well as some private enterprises, have begun an important program for the development of tourism in the entire Banderas Bay area.

Puerto Vallarta is the ideal place for anyone who likes water sports. Here one can skindive, waterski, go deep-sea fishing, windsurfing or even try the exciting parasailing.

One of the most important annual events in PV is the International Sailfish Tournament held during the first week of November. Ardent fishermen from all over Mexico and U.S. participate. Vallarta is also the site of important conventions and business meetings.

Today, Puerto Vallarta occupies an important position among the rest of the world’s international tourist resorts.

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More info:

Puerto Vallarta Guide

What to do in Vallarta

John Huston

The Night of the Iguana

Historical Photos

Vallarta Past and Now

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