Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Puerto Vallarta

Today, the so-called famous couples, say Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston at their peak, are a joke compared to the fame and power that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton wielded in the 1960’s. At one point in their relationship, they earned more money than any other couple in the world, with an income that rivaled small countries.

Only one current couple today could 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, Elizabeth Taylor on the way to Mismaloya, 1963
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (1963) on their way to Mismaloya

On the Mexican Pacific coast, surrounded by green mountains, the emerald waters of the Banderas Bay, lying beside the beach, is a beautiful and magical place: Puerto Vallarta, the scene and set for a famous love story/scandal between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the most famous couple of the XX Century, and an event that pushed this town, kicking and screaming, along a path that would make it into a world-class tourist destination.

“So what?” Some may say, or maybe, “Who was Liz Taylor and Richard Burton?” I actually may be included among those that initially thought that way, but after visiting the town, reviewing old photos of the area and watching “The Night of the Iguana” and reading a bit on the subject, I must say I am quite shocked by seeing how much Puerto Vallarta actually seems to be trying to forget its past, or at the very least, neglecting it.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

Another way to pose the question might be: why is Puerto Vallarta a famous tourist destination today? Among the main reasons are three names: John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton.

During 1963, a famous love story culminated when John Huston arrived in the small fisherman harbor to film his 25th movie and Burton and Taylor, plus many other stars arrived too.

John Huston was at the time already a very famous American director, with successful movies. Among his movies at that point were: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, and much more, many Oscars and other recognitions and awards.

John Huston

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 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, which the Vatican condemned as “erotic vagrancy”, received an incredible amount of attention from the tabloid press, and could be considered the starting point of modern-day stalking of artists and the public fascination and obsession with their personal lives.

Both Dick and Liz were unable to travel anywhere without being hounded and virtually attacked by mobs of fans, press, and others. They were the ones that inaugurated the Beatle-like adoration with stalking fans and “paparazzi” ( a word that comes from the Italian for annoying insects, I would prefer leech-arazzi…).

Huston worked non-stop on “The Night of the Iguana”, a stage play was written by famous American author Tennessee Williams, while Elizabeth and Richard enjoyed their romance and time in Vallarta.

The Night of the Iguana Poster
The Night of the Iguana Poster

The location for “The Night of the Iguana” at Mismaloya 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 had traveled regularly to Vallarta since the 1950’s with the first scheduled flights.

John Huston thought the most efficient method to get the best out of the 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 in the Mexican jungle!

Mismaloya today, arches of the set can be seen on the hill
Mismaloya today, arches of the set can be seen on the hill

He finally decided to film “The Night of the Iguana” on a set that he built on the southern side 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
Los Arcos de Mismaloya

Mismaloya was quite the challenge, not only was it remote, there were no roads to get there, it was only accessible by boat, plus located in the middle of the jungle, something certainly very far from what the team would consider “civilized”, no electricity, no fresh running water, no nothing…

The movie set at Mismaloya
The movie set at Mismaloya

Enormous efforts were made to prepare the area for the filming. Elizabeth and Richard had started off at Hotel Oceano by the Malecon (below 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 in the morning to Mismaloya to continue the shooting and work.

From "The Night of the Iguana" by John Huston
From “The Night of the Iguana” by John Huston

John Huston had lived in Mexico for many years, had a position riding as an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry, and returned 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.

You can see Mismaloya in the background, Ava in the foreground (from "The Night of the Iguana".
You can see Mismaloya in the background, Ava in the foreground with her cabaña boys (from “The Night of the Iguana”).

I visited the set of The Night of the Iguana in April 2012, half a mile past Mismaloya going south, and the place is closed. There is no access and the people there said it was being remodeled. The old sign falling apart by the side of the road made it perfectly clear that the place is being neglected, who knows what they have in mind, hopefully, something nice and appropriate.

The Night of the Iguana sign by the highway
The Night of the Iguana sign by the highway

Coming from the seaside it’s the same thing, access is blocked, the iron and concrete pier 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 Movie Set 2006
The Night of the Iguana Set 2006 by D. Loucks Photography
(click to enlarge)

Some real iguanas greeted me along the way, but there’s certainly no sign at all of past glories, nor is there any sign that it’s a place Vallarta honors or values. It’s an awful shame and a real disgrace.

The Night of the Iguana, no trespassing
The Night of the Iguana, no trespassing

In Puerto Vallarta, Casa Kimberley (Kimberley House) is being completely remodeled (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.

Decoration tiles on Richard Burton's ex-house
Decoration tiles on Richard Burton’s ex-house

The house owned by Burton across the street is also being “remodeled”, 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.

Casa Kimberley sign
Casa Kimberley sign

Nostalgia is “in”, you can see old movies reappearing, remakes ( a recent one with Lohan as Taylor… you can imagine the results…), remasters, directors 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 no need to forget WHY Vallarta is on the map today. Brangelina are a joke compared to what Dick and Liz did to the world, they were THE couple of the XX century, reviled, loathed and admired all at once.

If you visit the Cuale River Island you’ll find a sculpture that honors 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.

John Huston sculpture on Isla Río Cuale
John Huston sculpture on Isla Río Cuale

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 during the filming of the Iguana
Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor at El Dorado, Los Muertos Beach

Mexican authorities and locals frowned upon the affair, considering the Catholic population (even more so in the 1960’s), Liz’s presence must not have been very popular and may be an underlying reason why Vallarta still isn’t too open on the subject or at least don’t publicize it so much.

Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Ava Gardner
Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Ava Gardner

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’s 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.

Casa Kimberley & bridge

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.

Burton Taylor bridge

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.

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”.

Lovers' Arch
Lovers’ Arch

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, 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.

Susan Hunt and Richard Burton 1982
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.

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 such as Francisco Medina Ascencio.

Downtown Puerto Vallarta 2012Downtown Puerto Vallarta

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 1950’s. 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, and an indelible reason why the city must make it an important part of its present and future.

Author: M. A. Gallardo

ON THE TRAIL OF THE IGUANA – Vintage behind-the-scenes documentary filmed in Puerto Vallarta

On the trail of the Iguana (The (Original Movie Promo).


More on the subject: