Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton (El Dorado Restaurant, Puerto Vallarta)
Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in Puerto Vallarta 1963 during “The Night of the Iguana”
Today and the so-called famous couples (say Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at their peak) don’t compare in any way to the fame and power that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton wielded in the 1960s. At one point in their relationship, they earned more money than any other couple in the world and had an income that rivalled small countries.
Only one similar couple today might give an idea of how they were considered in their time and that is Barack and Michelle Obama, anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here goes the story…
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
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 Marcellus Huston (August 5, 1906 – August 28, 1987)
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.
Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor DBE (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011)
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. Elizabeth tagged along with Richard, many say, to make sure he didn’t get distracted with Ava, also well-known for fooling around.
Richard Burton born Richard Walter Jenkins Jr. (November 10, 1925 – August 5, 1984)
Richard Burton (1925-1984) was a Welsh actor, starting off his illustrious career in theater. A man with a honeyed baritone voice, Burton established himself as a formidable Shakespearean actor in the 1950s and gave a memorable performance of Hamlet in 1964. His performance was acclaimed by critics. One of them, Kenneth Tynan, called him “the natural successor to Olivier” (Lawrence Kerr Olivier). He starred as Mark Anthony in “Cleopatra”.
Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton between shots on the Iguana set (1963)
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).
The Location (Mismaloya)
The Night of the Iguana movie set at Mismaloya, Puerto Vallarta
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 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.
The Night of the Iguana Poster 1964
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!
Los Arcos de Mismaloya (The Mismaloya Arches), Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico
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.
Mismaloya Beach, The Night of the Iguana set on the hill
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.
Enormous efforts were made to prepare the area for the filming.
Hotel Oceano / Ambos Mundos, The Night of the Iguana 1963
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.
Puerto Vallarta in 1963 at the time of The Night of the Iguana’s shooting
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).
Shooting The Night of the Iguana (1963)
Ava Gardner with 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)
Taylor & Burton stay in Puerto Vallarta (Huston too)
Casa Kimberley Lover’s Arch Construction, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
During the filming of the movie, Richard Burton purchased Casa Kimberley (now known as Elizabeth Taylor’s house), a nine-bedroom villa, for £37,000, for Elizabeth Taylor, on Zaragoza Street as her 32nd birthday present, a few months before they married in Canada.
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 had a bridge built between them. I believe the man in the blue shirt in the photo above is Guillermo Wulff who was in charge of the construction.
Casa Kimberley, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
The updated version 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 (more recently painted white) communicating both sides of the street and a crumbling plaque with the house’s name (Casa Kimberley).
Burton-Taylor Bridge (Lover’s Arch) 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.
Lover’s Bridge (Lover’s Arch) – Casa Kimberly y Calle Zaragoza 2018
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”.
Richard and Elizabeth married in Montreal (March 15, 1964)
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.
Legacy of The Night of the Iguana
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)
Casa Kimberly (ex-Casa Kimberley)
Tile sign outside Richard Burton’s house in Gingo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta
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”].
Sign outside Casa Kimberley, Gringo Gulch, Puerto Vallarta (May 18th, 2012)
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.
The Night of the Iguana Today
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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Frequently Asked Questions
Ava Gardner and Richard Burton starred in the movie “The Night of the Iguana” (1964) that was directed by the famous John Huston.
However, when Elizabeth Taylor traveled with Richard Burton (both being married to other people at the time) the “Iguana” saga attracted paparazzi, made international headlines, and transformed Puerto Vallarta the area into a world-famous tourist destination.
So, no, Elizabeth Taylor was not part of the movie but was part of the reason why there was so much publicity surrounding the movie at the time.