NEW YORK DAILY NEWS 04/01/2016 12:13 PM ET
Tourism’s the bread and butter in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and locals never stop reminding you they know it.
But I wasn’t here for its loose libations, nonstop nightlife, or broad beaches. I’d heard Puerto Vallarta — a destination on Mexico’s Pacific coast that I’d considered about as hip as a rerun of “The Love Boat” — was getting an injection of cool from a few bold creatives.
Cutting-edge is not Puerto Vallarta’s brand. Visitors crave what they know here, which accounts for an astonishing 98% repeat visitor rate. No one seems eager to mess with the formula. One hotel boasts about Liz Taylor’s stay half a century ago; a local restaurant touts its rave reviews from director John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”). He died in 1987.
“People who’ve been in Puerto Vallarta a long time don’t want anything to change,” said Canadian expat Kevin Simpson, owner of “ancestral contemporary” galleries Galeria Colektiva (Guadalupe Sánchez 852) and Peyote People (Juarez 222, peyotepeople.com). Simpson reps artists like Luis Castro Hernandez, who injects loopy cartoon elements into classic indigenous motifs. “You have to adapt and evolve. Even native art can get stagnant,” he says.
With his words in mind, I sought to see if Puerto Vallarta might finally be casting off the leisure suit. The answer’s yes — sort of.
I met envelope-pushers like George Moskilla, the Mexico City-born tattoo artist who founded Arte160 (Av. Morellos 64), a just-opened loft gallery where Roy Camacho’s graffiti-inspired abstracts hang next to Moskilla’s own haunting skull paintings. “This city’s amazing, and a lot of talented people live here,” said Moskilla, whose tiny tattoo studio still occupies an alcove here.
Nearby, I found a gallery whose walls showcased a provocative survey of Latin American video art. Two-year-old Oficina de Proyectos Culturales (598 Juarez, oficinacultural.org) “is very different from other cultural spaces and galleries in Puerto Vallarta,” founder Oscar Moran Guillen told me. “Puerto Vallarta had never had a gallery showing this level of work, since it has never had a proper exhibition space for contemporary art.” The gallery, and its contents, look more downtown L.A. or Wynwood, Miami than beach-town.
The needle’s also moving, slowly, on the food scene. Dinner at Restaurante Maia (Pulpito 120, maiarestaurante.com) introduced me to European-trained Hugo Ahumada, Vallarta’s most-watched new chef, whose highly personal takes on traditional Mexican dishes spin gold from hyper-local ingredients. Along with deconstructed tacos, quinoa-lentil “ceviche,” and a knockout Mexican cheese plate, there’s a phenomenal version of jericaya, a traditional flan-based dessert, in left-field flavors like mole and panna cotta.
“As Puerto Vallarta gets more and more touristy, pizza and wings are pushing out Mexican food,” said Ahumada, who greets diners himself. “I’m trying to share what really makes this place special.”
Blinding heat is also coming from La Leche (Blvd. Francisco Medina Ascencio Km 2.5, lalecherestaurant.com), a restaurant that doesn’t even bother with a menu.
Chef-owner Nacho Cadena scours local markets for provisions before returning to his mad-scientist kitchen to concoct the day’s offerings. A typical roster on the dining-room blackboard might include beef carpaccio, chicken chile, pear salad, with chocolate cake and popcorn ice cream for dessert.
But the big reveal for me — a first-time visitor — was how enchanted I became with the old-school Puerto Vallarta I expected to mock.
Dinner at La Palapa (Av. Pulpito 105-3, lapalapapv.com), for example, sounded hokey. The restaurant’s been around since 1959. Servers boast about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s ancient visits, and beet salad and coconut shrimp headline the menu. But eating at an oceanside table, waves lapping feet away under soft moonlight while a guitarist strummed nearby, felt magical.
And try as I might, I couldn’t resist Puerto Vallarta’s most touristy attraction — the Malecon, the throbbing five-mile boardwalk that slithers through the heart of town. It’s tacky, tatty, and in-your-face. But it’s also open, boisterous, and loose, and a riotously colorful human parade that rivals the busiest Manhattan boulevards.
Locals and Mexican tourists happily mixed with gringos like me, whether they were picking up souvenir mugs at the ubiquitous Senor Frog’s (senorfrogs.com), buying spicy grilled shrimp on a stick at tiny, beachfront La Maquina (Av. Francisco I Madero 4), or climbing the sailboat-inspired lookout at Los Muertos pier, with its 360-degree beach and ocean views. Clubs like Sky Mandala (Calle Morellos 663) pulsated as nighttime crowds watched bikini-clad dancers gyrate in windows.
In a first for me, I even stayed at one of Puerto Vallarta’s all-inclusive resorts. And I loved it. Villa Premiere (San Salvador 117, premiereonline.com.mx) wasn’t the Borscht Belt-type joint I expected. Its ocean-side restaurant served some of the best guacamole and burgers in town, the airy guestrooms boasted water views, and the martinis were potent.
The trick to appreciating Puerto Vallarta was to embrace both sides of its personality. Yes, it’s a thrill to see fresh takes on local traditions at new restaurants and galleries. But there’s also real pleasure in embracing the town’s cheerfully uncool personality. As Puerto Vallarta evolves, I kind of hope it stays that way.
If You Go...
Aeromexico operates daily connecting service from JFK airport from about $425 round trip. United offers nonstop service from Newark Liberty airport from about $435 round trip.
- While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Trattoria Michel (Olas Altas 507, michels.mx) turns out superb Italian classics, like rich tagliatelle Alfredo and sumptuous risottos.
- From the humble red awning of El Carboncito (Calle Honduras 48350) emerge Puerto Vallarta’s best tacos — celeb chef Rick Bayless swears by them, as do locals. Tacos al pastor is a must.
- Steps from Playa de los Muertos, one of Puerto Vallarta’s most desirable sunbathing spots, colorful adults-only Villa Mercedes Petit Hotel (www.hotelvillamercedes.com) also boasts Restaurante Maia as its anchor tenant. From $89.
- Olas Altas Suites (Rodolfo Gomez 158, olasaltassuites.com) offers clean, bright suites in an ideal location in Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica, a dining and nightlife hub.