Little is known about the area prior to the 19th century, but archaeological finds have shown that there was continuous human habitation from 580 B.C. Further, evidence has shown that the area belonged to the Aztatlán culture which dominated Jalisco, Nayarit and Michoacán from approx. 900-1200 A.D.
Documents of Spanish missionaries and conquistadors chronicle skirmishes between the Spanish colonizers and the local peoples. For example, in 1524 there was a large battle between Hernán Cortés and an army of 10,000 to 20,000 Indians resulted in Cortés taking control of much of the Ameca valley. The valley was then named Banderas, meaning "flags", after the colorful weapons carried by the natives.
The area also appears on maps and in sailing logs as a bay of refuge for the Manila Galleon trade as well as for other coastal seafarers. It figures in some accounts of pirate operations and smuggling. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Banderas Valley and its beaches served as supply points for ships seeking refuge in the bay. Also, customs operations at San Blas, Nayarit were evaded by using the area as a smuggling point for goods to be sent to Sierra towns near Mascota. Towns located in the high plateaus of the Sierra developed as agricultural centers to support the growing silver mining operations in the towns of Cuale, San Sebastián and Mascota. Whalers also came to the area in the first half of the 19th century in search of the humpback whales that appear in the bay during certain times of the year, which is why some logbooks refer to it as Humpback Bay.
As Mascota grew during the 18th century, so did Puerto Vallarta, transforming itself from a small fishing and pearl-diving village into a small port serving the Sierra towns, because it was a more convenient route to the Sierra towns than the main port at San Blas. Residents of the Sierra towns also started vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, and by the mid 19th century, the town already had its regularly returning population of vacationers.
In 1851, Guadalupe Sánchez, a boatman from Cihuatlán who used to bring salt from San Blas or the Marías islands to Los Muertos beach, became weary of always waiting for the muleteers to pick up the load in San Blas, so he decided to establish himself in Puerto Vallarta, which at that time he called Las Peñas. However, with the date on the purchase of his property being in 1859, and with the already ongoing activities of fisherman, pearl divers, smugglers and foragers in the area, it is impossible to date the first permanent settlement in the area.
1859 was an important turning point for Las Peñas, when the Union en Cuale mining company took possession of land extending from Los Arcos to the Pitillal River and also extending into the Sierra for miles. The Union en Cuale company was owned in part by the Camarena brothers of Guadalajara who had developed a small trade in oil palm in Las Peñas. The government sold this land to the company to provide for shipping, fishing and agricultural support for the growing mining operations in the Sierra.
The 1860’s saw Las Peñas develop into a self-sustaining village as the mouth of the Cuale River area was exploited to support the operations of the Union en Cuale company. By 1885, the village comprised about 250 homes and about 1000 residents. Some hard times fell over the next few decades: in 1893 the inhabitants of Las Peñas suffered a severe smallpox epidemic that left many homes in mourning; in 1911 a storm produced a waterspout that left almost 100 people homeless; in 1922 an epidemic of yellow fever caused 150 deaths.
Construction continued at a brisk pace during the early 1920s, with the blessing of "La Eucaristía," the main church bell. However, the Cristero War (an armed conflict in Mexico between church and state) brought construction to a sudden stop in 1926. When this war ended in 1929, church bells rang in Mexico for the first time in almost three years.
Construction on the dome began in 1930, and finally in the 1940’s the entire building was finished, except for the two towers. A Hammond organ was installed on December 12, 1951, a special day in Mexico’s history since 1531, when the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared before a man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The main tower was finished in 1952.
The original, concrete church crown was installed in 1963, and is said to be a replica of a crown worn by Carlota, mistress of the Emperor Maximilian in the 1860s. Finally, under padre Ramírez’s supervision, the façade and lateral towers were completed in 1987, resulting, for the most part, in the church as we know it today.
The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered a true expression of popular art, combining several architectural styles: the main building is considered to be neoclassic, the crown reminiscent of baroque Austrian temples, the lateral towers are more Renaissance. With construction having spanned decades, under the direction of the different parish priests, tradesmen and artisans simply did their best to integrate their craft’s traditional methods with the conservative visual and religious values of the Vallartenses of that period.
The main alter is sunrise side, which is the proper orientation in a liturgical sense. Inside the church, in the chapel called the Capilla de los Desamparados (or Chapel for the Forsaken), lie the remains of Father Francisco Ayala and Father Rafael Parra, who initiated and concluded the construction of the church, respectively.
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s venerated image was captured in an oil replica painted by Guadalajara artist Ignacio Ramirez in 1945. The resemblance between it and the original was so striking that Father Rafael Parra carried the painting to Mexico City to request that it come in contact with Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s original tilma, or cloak.
Damage to the crown caused by erosion and weather led to its restoration in 1981, but then in October, 1995, the crown was completely destroyed by a 7.5 Richter-scale earthquake. In recognition of the crown’s importance as universally recognized symbol of Puerto Vallarta, members of the public and private sectors agreed to commission a temporary replacement made of fiberglass, supported, as was the original, by a squadron of stone angels. Unfortunately, the building material was not strong enough to withstand its own weight, so the crown’s sections deformed, altering its original profile and volume. Fundraising efforts in the city went towards restoration of the crown, and in summer of 2009 a large donation was made that allowed for the conclusion of this work.
In 1918, through the efforts of its population, Las Peñas was granted the title of municipality as well as a new name: Puerto Vallarta, named for the then governor of the state Ignacio Luis Vallarta.
During the Cristero War, the municipality was taken over by Cristero forces twice, once in 1927 and again in 1928. After its second recapture, the national government stationed a small garrison near the mouth of the Cuale River. During the heavy rains of October, 1928, in an effort to control beach erosion, the garrison planted many of the palms that now line the beaches near the mouth of the Cuale River.
Also around this time, for a decade the Montgomery Fruit Company operated in the area, exporting unripe bananas to the USA. This important source of employment brought economic well-being to the neighboring community of Ixtapa, along with prefabricated housing, a school, a hospital, an electric plant, and a railroad connecting Ixtapa with Boca de Tomates. However, in 1935, the enforcement of land ownership laws led to the repossessing of 26,000 hectares of land from the company. With this ended the intensive agricultural phase of old Puerto Vallarta, although corn, beans, tobacco and small coconuts used for their oil were still shipped to the interior to be used in the national market. From there, Vallartans found a new source of wealth in sharks. Shark fins from the waters of Banderas Bay were being served at the tables of Chinese restaurants in New York. Also, during the Second World War, shark liver oil was given as a nutritional supplement to American soldiers.
On the oceanfront in Centro, where Paseo Díaz Ordaz meets Morelos Street, is one of Vallarta’s first beacons, referred to in Spanish as a "baliza". Very distinct with its black and white horizontal bands, this square pyramidal tower of about 40 feet is often called a lighthouse, although it is actually just a beacon. The structure was inaugurated on August 15, 1932. Its contrasting stripes served as a beacon during the day, and its diopter oil lamp did the same during the night. 633 feet east from this beacon, high on the hill of Matamoros Street, is a second beacon. Incoming ships were able to determine their nautical position by the way the two beacons lined up. Both beacons were retired in 1970.
The one-hundredth anniversary in 1951 of Vallarta’s founding merited a huge celebration, marked by an important marriage, the arrival of three ships in the bay with canons firing to salute the town, and the arrival of three planes at Los Muertos Beach packed with reporters and cameramen. This media attention really put Vallarta on the map, and many for the first time ever saw the beautiful landscape and faces of Puerto Vallarta. In this way, many Americans were drawn to Puerto Vallarta in the 1950’s, especially writers and artists in search of a retreat from the politics of the day. The city also attracted Mexican artists and writers who were willing to trade the comforts of life in the larger cities for its scenic and rustic charms.
One of the first prominent people to arrive was Fernando Freddy Romero. Contrary to the affluent Vallartans’ architectural taste, which leaned toward modern designs and construction materials, Freddy defended and finally imposed the "Vallarta style". Recapturing the atmosphere of a typical Mexican village, Freddy’s houses featured white-washed adobe facades, pitched red-tiled roofs, decorative wrought-iron grids, and stone walls. Some of the homes he built are still standing today, primarily in the famed Gringo Gulch neighborhood, and after the filming of Night of the Iguana, he built director John Huston’s jungle hideaway in Las Caletas just south of Vallarta.
In 1956 the Mascota mule trail was replaced by a packed dirt road. 24-hour electrical generation arrived in 1958. A new airport arrived in 1962 connecting Puerto Vallarta with Los Angeles via Mazatlán, and the Mexican Aviation Company began offering package trips. Infrastructure remained minimal though, and vacationers had to come equipped with a spirit of adventure and a sense of humor. Not only did cows trespass on airport grounds, making landings tedious business, but without a paved road to town, visitors had to cross the Pitillal River in a canoe during the rainy season. With only a few taxis around, donkeys were used to carry the luggage.
In 1963 John Huston filmed The Night of the Iguana in Mismaloya, just south of Puerto Vallarta. Only the main characters had rented elegant villas in town, and since there was no road to Mismaloya at that time, they met at Los Muertos Beach every morning where speed boats awaited to take them to the set.
The extraordinary gathering of big Hollywood stars, national celebrities and intellectuals, captive in an out-of-the-way spot, brought the international press en mass. During the filming, the US media gave extensive coverage to Elizabeth Taylor’s extramarital affair with Richard Burton (Burton even bought a house for Taylor in Gringo Gulch, called Casa Kimberley), as well as covering the frequent fighting between Huston and the film’s four stars (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Sue Lyon and Deborah Kerr). All of this publicity, plus the showcasing of the primitive beauty of the town, helped put Puerto Vallarta on the map for US tourists.
Growing tourism brought growing demands for infrastructure, and the governor of Jalisco from 1965-1971, Francisco Medina Ascencio, was a proponent of the change. Through his efforts, and with the support of then President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Puerto Vallarta was outfitted with the infrastructure required of an urban development and a modern tourist destination. Puerto Vallarta ascended to the category of city on May 31, 1968, and was granted the financial resources to build the bridge over the Ameca River, the highway from Barra de Navidad to Puerto Vallarta, the Compostela-Las Varas-Puerto Vallarta road (resulting in a big Mexican tourist boom, and the international airport, which bears the then-president’s name and opened in 1970. The city soon enjoyed electric power and telephone service as well.
Also significant was the 1970 visit of US President Richard Nixon who met with Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz in Puerto Vallarta for treaty negotiations. The visit showcased Puerto Vallarta’s recently developed international airport and resort infrastructure, and thus contributed to the growing visibility of the city as a resort destination internationally.
In the early 1970’s, the federal government was able to resolve decades-old property disputes over the status of ejido land that had been appropriated from the Union en Cuale mining company. This paved the way for the transition to private ownership, so that the sale of the land would yield revenue to develop the city’s infrastructure, and the investors would continue to develop the city into a world class resort destination. Prior to 1970 there were only two luxury hotels in the city; it was only after 1973 that the construction of large hotels began.
In 1982, the Mexican peso was devalued, and riding the coattails of the city’s growing renown and infrastructure, Puerto Vallarta enjoyed a period of prosperity with the influx of foreign visitors whose travel budgets now went twice as far.
Between 1980 and 1990, Puerto Vallarta’s population nearly doubled, from 57,000 to 112,000 citizens, fueling further development. As the downtown area wasn’t large enough to house this construction, developers from Guadalajara started building Marina Vallarta in 1986 and by 1990 the marina was in full swing.
With the 1993 amendment to the federal Agrarian Law, more secure foreign tenure of former ejido land was enabled. This led to a boom in the development of private residences, mostly condominiums, and a new phase of Puerto Vallarta’s expansion began, centered more on accommodating retirees, snow-birds, frequent visitors and investors. In 1996, the Puerto Vallarta Tourism Fund was created. This institution has since been in charge of handling the funds raised through a 2% tax on hotel room occupation. Fortunately, Puerto Vallarta decided to use all of these funds to promote the destination at national and international levels, and Puerto Vallarta began the process of earning the position it has today among world-class beach destinations.
The architecture of the neighborhood’s villas and houses is colonial in style, typically white with tiled roofs and covered with buganvilia. Mexico City engineer Guillermo Wulff and architect Fernando "Freddy" Romero greatly influenced the direction the area’s architecture took.
They contributed to a distinctive home design known as Vallarta-style architecture, which features whitewashed adobe facades, pitched roofs with red clay tiles, stone walls, and decorative wrought-iron. They also introduced the cupola (dome-shaped structure crowning the roof)) to the area’s architecture. Many of the homes they built are still there today. Some of the ones designed by Romero are Casa Caracol (four houses away from the famed house of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Casa Kimberley), Casa Catalina, Las Campañas (now part of Hacienda San Angel), Villa Bursus (also now part of Hacienda San Angel, previously bought by Richard Burton for his then wife Susan in 1977), Casa Tabachin (one of the first homes in Gringo Gulch, built in 1957, which John Huston rented while filming in 1963), and Casa Maria, also in Gringo Gulch.
Rivera Cuale upholds the tradition of Vallarta-style architecture, and, located at the southeast corner of Gringo Gulch appears to be an extension of the neighborhood. Simply cross the footbridge over the brook where it meets the river and veer to the left to walk along the lush ravine of the Cuale River on the winding, historic cobblestone streets of Gringo Gulch.
The most famous of the villas in Gringo Gulch, Casa Kimberley, is at Calle Zaragoza 446. When Richard Burton was in Vallarta in 1963 starring in John Huston’s movie Night of the Iguana, the already-married Burton was having an affair with the already-married Elizabeth Taylor, who came to Vallarta to be with him. Burton bought Casa Kimberley for Taylor as a gift for her 32nd birthday. After the couple got married, they bought the house across the street. They renovated it and built a swimming pool in their home. They also built a passageway above the street connecting the two houses. This pink bridge is now called the "love bridge". The story goes that Taylor used to send Burton a-packing to his own home across the way via this bridge after they’d had a row, and it is also the place where they would meet to reconcile, hence another of the bridge’s monikers: "the bridge of reconciliation".
Those were the days of wine and roses when a torrid love affair between one of the world’s most beautiful women, and a charismatic Welshman set the town on fire. This is where they lived, loved, battled and boozed, and caroused with the likes of Peter O’Toole, Roddy McDowell, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and John Huston. The paparazzi attention won by these larger-than-life celebrities and their antics was largely instrumental in putting Puerto Vallarta on the map.
After an American family bought Casa Kimberley from Taylor in the 1990’s, the family converted it into a bed-and-breakfast, keeping its original appearance, with many of the stars’ personal effects that Taylor had abandoned out on display. The owners also offered tours of the home.
In 2008, Casa Kimberley and Burton’s house on the other side of the love bridge were bought by the owner of the neighboring Hacienda San Angel, an exquisite, colonial-style boutique hotel. The two homes and grounds are being fully renovated, and 12 remodeled luxury suites are expected to be complete in late 2010, including an "Elizabeth Taylor Suite".