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The once and future city:
Old Town Puerto Vallarta

Anne Z. Cooke From The Denver Post

It doesn't take much to find old Puerto Vallarta, the little fishing village that was, all you have to do is hop into a taxi and get out at the Rio Cuale Bridge, the entrance to 'Viejo Vallarta', or Old Town.

It doesn't take much to find old Puerto Vallarta, the little fishing village that was, all you have to do is hop into a taxi in "new" Puerto Vallarta - that international mecca of tequila-colored sand, bronze street sculpture, chi-chi restaurants and beach resorts - and get out at the Rio Cuale Bridge, the entrance to Old Town.


The village I know starts at the "Huaracheria," a cobbler's shop on the south side of the bridge. Here, in a cramped, dark ground-floor space, Octavio Hernandez and his father cut and stitch "huaraches," traditional sandals made of woven leather cowhide and soled with used rubber tires.

"Buenos dias," Octavio called, beckoning us into the dim interior. The store, lit by a couple of bare light bulbs, has an open front, the better to solicit customers. "Take a look," he said, knowing we were Americans. He moved a fat roll of tanned leather aside to let us pass. "We've got sport shoes for man, for woman, for los ninos. Any style or size, we can make them."

Huaraches, stiff, coarse and nearly indestructible, have been the Mexican working man's choice for footwear since the first Model T blew an inner tube south of the border. But Hernandez's sandals have long since outgrown their humble beginnings - as has Puerto Vallarta.

For 40 years or more, this seacoast town on mighty Banderas Bay (45 miles across, from tip to tip) has been growing, adding a buckle here, a tassel there. Stitch by stitch, it's morphed from a sleepy fishing village, to a Hollywood hideaway, honeymoon destination, artists' colony and cruise ship party town.

Today PV is a big city, with suburbs spreading north, south and up the Sierra Madre mountains. Many residents are natives. But many others - an international assortment of expatriate Americans, Canadians and Europeans - came as tourists, stayed to work and never left, bewitched by tropical breezes and a vibrant lifestyle.

In their eyes, Puerto Vallarta is a model for the future, a city whose ancient history, multiethnic culture, bilingual style and North American energy and investments promise much-deserved prosperity.

Walking through Old Town, you'd never suspect that the city has 350,000 people. The Los Muertos Beach neighborhood is as sun-kissed and as slow-paced as any rural village. The sun filters through the palms, kids splash in the bay, vendors hawk their wares on cobblestone streets, the scent of roast pork and tortillas linger and pink and red bougainvillea climb over walled haciendas.

Inside the Huaracheria, Octavio's young helper, Jose, sat at a cobbler's bench tapping nails into what looked like a form. In the back, Octavio's father, stooped and lean, sorted finished men's sandals into crude wooden cubbyholes. Huaraches go into one bin, polished dress sandals into another and a sport model with metal buckles into a third.

Sitting on a box next to the sewing machine, I picked out two pair and tried them on. One was light and lacy, with woven toes and the hint of a heel, the other looked good for traveling, a clunky sandal with sturdy straps and a broad heel.

"Buy them both," said my husband, Steve. He was tired of waiting. "At $13 each you can't afford not to." The new leather creaked with every step, like an old saddle, and stretched a bit with wear, according to Hernandez.

Then, with shoes in a bag, it was off to Los Muertos Beach a jumble of beach condominiums, vacation homes, craft stores, corner markets, budget hotels and service stores. It's where Puerto Vallarta began. The narrow sidewalks were crowded as locals mingled with visitors. An old lady wrapped in a black shawl carried groceries past a man lugging a television set. On the corner, a vendor cracked open coconuts; another sliced pineapples and bananas. The sun caught rows of gleaming silver necklaces in the window of the "joyeria," the jewelry store.

A village inside a village clusters around the Plaza Lazaro Cardenas, a traditional "zocalo" with a paved promenade, diagonal paths and landscaped gardens. On the west side, Mary and Julie Longfield, from Seattle, bought silver earrings from Roberto Diaz, who sells silver jewelry out of a palm-thatched sidewalk stall.

We're wary of street silver - it's easy to be fooled by "alpaca," a gleaming amalgam of common metals, mostly nickel. (Unless you like it and the price is right.) But Roberto sells the real thing, Mary insisted, sterling silver labeled 925.

"I've been buying from him for years," she said. "He can find - or make - anything you want." Roberto rummaged through a box full of clear plastic bags, searching for a replacement for Julie's lost earring, one of a pair she'd bought last year. "See," she cried, as he plucked out a fat silver ball, a perfect match.

The Longfields, sisters and "best friends," vacation here for a month each January. They sun on the beach, eat fish tacos, read best sellers, and take extended shopping trips to inland towns. Over time they've found the best street vendors, authentic food and the most reliable taxi drivers.

Once again the sisters are staying at the Hotel Encino, a nondescript hotel they picked "for the price," but have grown accustomed to. On a corner near the Rio Cuale bridge, the four-story Encino, taller than it is wide, has a tiny lobby, a shaded central courtyard, a claustrophobic elevator barely big enough for four and a small rooftop swimming pool. There's no restaurant, so they buy fruit and eat most meals out.

But the price is right. Double rooms with bath, just big enough for one queen or two twin beds, are 480 pesos per night for three or more nights (about $48 per night) or 6,000 pesos per month (about $600). Couples who want to share can reserve a two-bedroom unit. (Prices may vary, depending upon the exchange rate.)

We've got our own favorite hotels, however. The Playa Los Arcos, on Los Muertos Beach, is an older hotel run by a local family, with first-class hospitality. There's nothing fancy about the rooms, but the central location is terrific. Double rooms start at $80 per night.

The Hotel Molino De Agua, built in 1941 on five wooded acres, is also on the beach. The Molino's 60 cabins and rooms are simple but attractive with private baths. The restaurant, illuminated at night with strings of white lights, is under the trees, a romantic spot just made for a wedding party. Cabins are 920 pesos per night (about $90). Doubles start at 1,090 pesos ($100).

Strolling through the neighborhood, wedding dresses in the window of Novias Lyllian shop caught my eye. A closer look revealed one or two that resembled gowns I'd seen in Brides magazine. And what a find. Silk, with lace, a veil and a train, the nicest costs 3,900 pesos, (about $355 dollars), a bargain if ever there was one. Add round-trip airfare for you, your fiance, six friends and rooms at the Hotel Molino De Agua, and you'll have enough left for a month in Mexico. In Old Town PV, of course.

Courtesy of The Denver Post: www.denverpost.com


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