History & Hospitality

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

Posted 1/15/2004 9:37 PM [Original Article>>]

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — Up at Casa Kimberley, the vacation hideaway where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton drank and cavorted and fought and drank some more, life is good.

The famously fractious couple abandoned the villa ages ago, of course. But the curious still come, ushered in at $8 a head by the current owners who encourage them to make like Liz and Dick, posing for photos on the patio or relaxing in Liz's violet-hued bedroom.

There's a grandmotherly sort from Canada in there now. Egged on by others in her tour group, she reclines on the flowered bedspread, her tight gray curls tilted back, one knee bent coquettishly, one new white Ked arched and pointed.

"Nice, eh?" she asks, as the cameras click.

It's been 40 years since the release of The Night of the Iguana, the movie that put this then-remote Pacific coast fishing village of 12,500 souls on the map. Director John Huston had staked out a location south of town on a rocky outcropping accessible only by boat. Burton, the star of the movie, arrived with Taylor in tow (both were married to other people at the time). Co-stars Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon (the nymphet of Lolita fame) also were in residence. So were hundreds of paparazzi hoping to record the star-studded fireworks.

But in the end, the image that endured was that of this coconut-palm-fringed setting on sweeping Banderas Bay where the rugged Sierra Madre tumble to the brink of the Pacific Ocean. And today, that vision remains, albeit in altered form.

After the filming, the Taylor-Burtons stayed on. (He had bought her Casa Kimberley for $57,000 as a 32nd birthday gift.) Other glitterati followed. And by the late '60s, Puerto Vallarta was taking off as a tourist hot spot.

Naturally, a lot has changed since then. Wildfire growth has spread north. First in the 1980s with the construction of a marina, now the locale for sprawling brand-name resorts. Then to Nuevo Vallarta, a separate community farther up the bay. And finally, to Punta Mita at the northern tip, 35 miles from downtown, where luxury homes and a Four Seasons resort have taken root.

Despite the development, Puerto Vallarta's historic heart remains pure. Or as pure as a beach town with a population of 250,000 and an annual visitor count of 5 million can be. And that heart is the key to its longevity. Newer Mexican resort developments such as Cancun, Los Cabos, and Ixtapa may be more fashionable or more popular, but they're the creations of government planners and land speculators. Puerto Vallarta evolved.

"What Puerto Vallarta has is history," says hotelier and tourist bureau president Gabriel Igartua. "It was a quaint village before it was a tourist destination."

At its traditional core is a pleasant plaza where kids chase pigeons and shoeshine stands do a brisk business. At one end, the oceanfront walkway (newly refurbished after 2002's Hurricane Kenna), attracts sandcastle artists, jugglers, and musicians. On the other, the crowned tower of Our Lady of Guadalupe church rises like a beacon. Narrow, cobblestone streets snake up into the hills where red-tiled rooftops peek from a lush tangle of tropical foliage.

This is Old Vallarta, where a lively dining and arts scene (with 22 commercial galleries at last count) has developed. Here, you can listen to jazz at a riverside restaurant, attend a Pilates class or order Dom Perignon by the $50 glass. A short stroll to the south side of the Rio Cuale, which bisects the old town, leads to what's known as the Romantic Zone. It houses an eclectic mix of establishments that cater to both local needs and tourist tastes.

Regular and special events give visitors an opportunity to mix with the community. In high season, twice-monthly after-hours art gallery tours attract a local crowd. Twice-weekly tours of private homes raise money for charity. A culinary festival each November draws acclaimed chefs. And this year it will overlap with the first Puerto Vallarta Film Festival of the Americas, Nov. 6-14.

"Vallarta isn't contrived. It's a living town," says the city's cultural director, Maria Jose Zorrilla. "We do live on tourism, but we produce our own art."

Old Vallarta's charms

The old town is better regarded for its art, history, and scenery than the quality of its beaches. Still, the cognoscenti gravitate to Old Vallarta. Decades-long regulars convene for bridge and backgammon at their usual spots under thatched umbrellas on Los Muertos Beach. Among them is Jack Rolfs, a retired ad executive from San Francisco and one of a large American contingent of part-time residents. He discovered the place in 1957 back when a horse-drawn cart ferried sunbathers from the sole hotel to this beach.

These days, upscale restaurants set out linen-clad tables for candlelight dinners on the sand. Nelly Barquet is eating lunch under the soaring thatched roof of one of them, El Dorado, which she opened in 1960. The restaurant scene has become increasingly sophisticated, she says.

"There were no (schooled) chefs here 43 years ago. Now I can't count them all," she says. "If you don't have a chef, you're kaput."

Barquet is the matriarch of one of the First Families of Vallarta's resort era. She arrived in 1957, "when there were about 15 tourists." It was her former husband, the late Guillermo Wulff, who led Huston to Mismaloya, where much of The Night of the Iguana was shot. He also built the hotel and other buildings that served as the set.

No other film made here has created the buzz that Iguana did. But a group of organizers hopes to keep the memory alive with the film festival, which invokes the names of Huston, Burton, Taylor, and others associated with the movie.

Robert Roessel, president of the fledgling event, is driving south along the winding coast road that leads to the film location, narrating as he goes. He weaves past the walled villas of Conchas Chinas, Vallarta's old-money neighborhood. "That's Mrs. Fields' — of the cookies — house. And they shot For Love or Money over there," he says.

He passes the turnoff to the film site of Predator, where a giant roadside sign features a ripped, machine-gun-wielding future governor of California. And finally, Roessel arrives at the rocky cliffs of Mismaloya, where a namesake restaurant of the movie that would forever change the tiny fishing village occupies the former set. Other than cement skeletons, however, little else from the original set remains. No matter, he says.

"The whole story behind The Night of the Iguana is the torrid love affair (between Taylor and Burton) and the fact that it created this sensation," he says. "Puerto Vallarta has lost some of that. We're trying to get it back, to create a stir."

Banking on movie nostalgia

Back at Casa Kimberley, an arriving group is greeted by the sight of a blown-up photo of Taylor resplendent in a Cleopatra headdress. Inside, it's a Taylor-Burton love fest with movie posters, Passion perfume ads and old magazine covers displayed throughout. The tourists listen attentively as Maurice Mintzer holds forth on Burton's prodigious drinking, on the couple's quest for privacy, on their bickering.

His wife, Toy Holstein Mintzer, bought the place from Taylor in 1990, which included the house across the street and is linked by a pink aerial "love bridge." She says after Burton's death in 1984, the actress never returned. Left behind were furniture, books, clothing, cosmetics, even letters. The next year Mintzer opened the six-bar, nine-bedroom, 12-bathroom house to overnight guests. The public tours commenced a year later.

Sometimes the visitors stay late into the night, drinking on the terrace at the Richard Burton bar adorned with 16 hand-painted saints. Sometimes they make outrageous requests, such as the one from the woman who asked Mintzer to snap her photo sitting on Liz's toilet.

"I will never do that again," he declares. "There is class. And there is no class."

His wife recently put the house up for sale. The couple is in their 70s. There are too many stairs. Maybe even too many visitors.

As the tourists file back over the pink love bridge and down into the narrow street to their waiting van, they can hear Mintzer's booming voice starting the next tour. "When the house sold, it was the end of an era ... " he is saying.

More on The Night of the Iguana.

Last modified on Friday, 05 June 2020 00:09