On the Mexican Pacific coast, surrounded by green mountains, emerald waters of the Banderas Bay, lying alongside golden beaches, is a beautiful and magical place: Puerto Vallarta. Both scene and set for a famous love story/scandal between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the most famous couple of the XXth Century, and a worldwide event that pushed the town – kicking and screaming – along a path that would morph it into a world-class tourist destination.
“So what?” Some may say, or maybe more current “Who was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton?” I actually was included among the latter, but after visiting the town, reviewing old photos of the area, watching “The Night of the Iguana” and reading quite a few books on the subject, I must say I am quite shocked seeing how much Puerto Vallarta actually seems to be trying to forget its past, or at the very least, neglecting this part of it.
Another way to pose the question might be: why is Puerto Vallarta a famous tourist destination today? There are a few important and concurrent reasons, but among them, three names stand out: John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton.
In 1963, a famous love story culminated when John Huston arrived in the small fisherman harbour to film his 25th movie and Burton and Taylor, plus many other stars arrived there too.
John Huston was at the time already a very famous American director, with many successful movies. Among his movies at that point was: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, and many more, with Oscars and other recognitions and awards.
John Marcellus Huston (August 5, 1906 – August 28, 1987))
Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), a USA/English actress, was at the top of her long career, the highest-paid actress at the time for her lead role in Cleopatra, where she also met and started an affair with Richard Burton (1925-1984) a Welsh actor, starting off in theater, who played Mark Anthony in that movie.
Both were married (with other people) at the time and their scandalous romance – that the Vatican condemned as “erotic vagrancy” – received an incredible amount of attention from the tabloid press, and could be considered the starting point of the modern-day stalking of artists and the morbid public fascination and obsession with famous people’s personal lives.
Dick and Liz were unable to travel anywhere without being hounded and attacked by mobs of fans, press, and others. They were pioneers inaugurating a Beatle-like adoration with stalking fans and “paparazzi” (a word that comes from the Italian for annoying insects).
Huston worked non-stop on “The Night of the Iguana”, a stage play by famous American author Tennessee Williams, while Elizabeth and Richard enjoyed their romance and time in Vallarta.
The Night of the Iguana Poster 1964
The location for “The Night of the Iguana” was Mismaloya. It was proposed to Huston in 1962 by Guillermo Wulff (the person that added the cupola to local house design), a Mexico City civil engineer that traveled regularly to Puerto Vallarta since the 1950s with the first scheduled flights.
John Huston had found that the most effective way to get the best out of his actors, was to place them in a challenging location, far from their own daily routines (Hollywood) and under duress. What better way to “simulate” a run-down third-class posada in Mexico than to build it right there in the middle of the Mexican jungle!
Mismaloya Beach, The Night of the Iguana set on the hill
He finally decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” on a set that he requested be built on the southwest end of Mismaloya Beach on a hill/peninsula with a spectacular view of the bay, the beach, the Pacific Ocean and Los Arcos de Mismaloya.
Los Arcos de Mismaloya (The Mismaloya Arches), Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico
Setting things up in Mismaloya was quite a challenge, not only was it remote, there were no roads there from Puerto Vallarta up the coast, it was only accessible by boat. It was also right in the middle of the jungle, something certainly very far from what the team would consider “civilized”, no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing… lots of green though, bugs and other colourful creatures.
The Night of the Iguana movie set at Mismaloya, Puerto Vallarta
Enormous efforts were made to prepare the area for the filming.
Elizabeth and Richard had started off their stay in town at Hotel Oceano by the Malecon (it appears in the movie as “Hotel Ambos Mundos”), but after a close encounter with a cockroach (and Richard threatening to leave with Liz), they were offered Huston’s Puerto Vallarta villa (Casa Kimberley – which they later purchased) and would take a speedboat early each morning to Mismaloya to continue work on the movie.
Hotel Oceano / Ambos Mundos, The Night of the Iguana 1963
John Huston had already lived in Mexico for many years, even had a position riding as an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry, and would return time and again during his life. He even bought a house in Puerto Vallarta and in his later years lived in isolated Las Caletas, where he wrote his autobiography, An Open Book. (This is, for some unknown reason, not mentioned in his Wikipedia entry).
Ava Gardner & Mismaloya Beach in the background (The Night of the Iguana)
The shooting of “The Night of the Iguana” started in 1963, besides Burton, the main roles were played by actresses Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon. Mexican talent was also included with actor/director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
Thanks to the Taylor and Burton romance (Le Scandale as Burton called it) and their shared love of the town, PV started to appear in the media (when the actors and director got along well and no scandals around the movie itself arose) and became a well-known place, it’s also mentioned and shown a lot during the movie itself.
Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor – El Dorado Restaurant, Los Muertos Beach, Puerto Vallarta
Mexican authorities and locals frowned upon the affair, considering the Catholic population (even more so in the 1960s), Liz’s presence must not have been very popular and maybe an underlying reason why Vallarta still isn’t too open on the subject or at least don’t publicize it so much.
Ava Gardner, Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor (Puerto Vallarta)
During the filming of the movie, Richard Burton purchased Casa Kimberley, a nine-bedroom villa, for £37,000, for Elizabeth Taylor, on Zaragoza Street as her 32nd birthday present, a few months before they married. As a gift to himself, and to ensure he would always have somewhere quiet to sit and read (his second-greatest passion), he purchased the house across the street and built a bridge between them. I believe the man in the blue shirt is Guillermo Wulff.
Casa Kimberley Lover’s Arch Construction, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
What’s left of the houses can be found by climbing some steep cobblestone side streets, in what is known as Gringo Gulch and you can easily spot them by the “pink” bridge communicating both sides of the street and a crumbling plaque with the house’s name.
Casa Kimberley, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
Liz Taylor lived in Casa Kimberley with her personal rooms on the top floor; Richard Burton lived in the house across the street and built the bridge (Lover’s Arch) linking over to his lover’s home, so he wouldn’t have to cross the street to get there. It is said to be inspired by “The Bridge of Sighs” that you’ll find the Italian city of Venice, but upon review, we can see it actually resembles “Ponte della Paglia”, not the former.
Burton-Taylor Bridge (Lover’s Arch) Casa Kimberley, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
Considering their famous fights, which they very much enjoyed (as can be seen in a 60 Minutes interview linked at the end of the article), the bridge was also called the “Reconciliation Bridge”.
Lover’s Bridge (Lover’s Arch) – Casa Kimberly y Calle Zaragoza 2018
Their love ended in marriage, Richard and Elizabeth got married in Montreal, Canada on March 15, 1964. They divorced after 10 years, remarried on October 10, 1975, but divorced a little under a year later.
Burton not only lived here, but he also participated in many charitable events and contributed with donations and public appearances for the budding tourist city, and just like many others before him & after, was absolutely enchanted with the place.
Suzy Hunt and Richard Burton in 1982
Richard Burton returned to Puerto Vallarta with his new wife, Susan Hunt (ex-wife of the famous F1 driver James Hunt) in 1977, he purchased a hacienda for her as a Valentine Day’s gift, a few blocks from Casa Kimberley, on Miramar Street, the home is now the beautiful Hacienda San Angel.
The Night of the Iguana Restaurant Sign (April, 2012) Mismaloya Puerto Vallarta
I tried to visit the set of The Night of the Iguana in April & May 2012, half a mile past Mismaloya going south, and the place is closed (still is in 2021). There is no access and the people there said it was being remodelled. The old sign falling apart by the side of the road (was the one inviting you to visit The Night of the Iguana Restaurant) made it perfectly clear that the place is being neglected, who knows what they have in mind, hopefully, something nice and appropriate.
The Sets of The Night of the Iguana Restaurant, the late 1990s
Coming from the seaside it’s the same thing, access is blocked, the iron and concrete pier where Huston and the actors used to arrive at by sea to get to the set, is falling apart, as is the iguana on the pole that marked the location.
The Night of the Iguana Set 2006 by D. Loucks Photography
Some real iguanas greeted me along the way, but there’s certainly no sign of its past glories, nor is there any sign that it’s a place Puerto Vallarta has on its mind. It’s an awful shame and really a disgrace.
The Night of the Iguana from the Mismaloya side – No Trespassing (2012)
In Puerto Vallarta, Casa Kimberley (Kimberley House) is being completely remodelled (May 2012 – actually the place was plastered with “clausurado” signs – government closure), so who knows what it’s all about. One thing is sure if any ghosts wandered within the villa, it’s long since moved to some nicer property somewhere in the Gringo Gulch. [December 1, 2015 it opened up again as a Boutique Hotel called Casa Kimberly and sports a restaurant called “The Iguana Restaurant”].
Tile sign outside Richard Burton’s house in Gingo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
The house owned by Burton across the street is also being “remodelled”, little is left other than the bridge that is also quite neglected, the little pink paint still left peeling off in large chunks, the crumbling “Casa Kimberley” sign and some tiles mentioning the house of the stars barely hanging on.
Sign outside Casa Kimberley, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta (May 18th, 2012)
Nostalgia is “in”, old movies are reappearing, remakes ( a recent one with Lindsey Lohan as Taylor… you can imagine the results…), remasters, director cuts, old-fashion styles recycled, I am sure the love story between Taylor and Burton, the incredible and unique scandal, the films by Huston and so on, could easily be made interesting for newer generations too. There is really no need to forget one of the important reasons WHY Puerto Vallarta is on people’s minds nowadays. They were THE couple of the XXth century, reviled, loathed and admired all at once, so it’s important to not forget them.
If you visit the Cuale River Island you’ll find a sculpture that honours John Huston, the director, it was requested by Humberto Esparza, owner of Le Bistro restaurant, a friend of the director, and was sculpted by artist Carlos Ramírez, with Huston on a director seat. So there are some signs here and there.
John Huston sculpture Isla Río Cuale, Puerto Vallarta
Anyway, this long story is a review of how and why Puerto Vallarta gained so much attention as a tourist destination, Huston, Taylor, and Burton, played a significant role in getting the press and tourists down to this remote bucolic village, but the town really did the rest by itself with help from famous locals like Francisco Medina Ascencio.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta seen from El Panorama
Many people find Puerto Vallarta magical, that it shares the mysteries that are the foundation of the Mexican soul, attracting both artists and intellectuals from around the world, just as it did by itself during the 1950s. This attraction, this love, that people end up feeling for Puerto Vallarta is perfectly symbolized in the love story between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, something Puerto Vallarta should always be thankful for. It should be, for sure, a valid and important reason why the city must make it an unforgettable part of its present and future history and legacy.
Author: M. A. Gallardo
On the trail of the Iguana (The Original Movie Promo)
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