Success saves Puerto Vallarta

Fourteen miles from Puerto Vallarta is a dreamy little tree house of a place called Chico's Paradise. It's a thatched, breezy restaurant perched above the confluence of two streams that gush between giant boulders. When the service is slow, as it was the other day because the kitchen had run out of gas, you can climb down among the rocks, strip to your swimsuit, and catch a half-hour of unthreatening Mexican midwinter rays.

Chico Perez, mustachioed and plumpish, is the owner. Senor Perez lives next door in a palapam he designed -- a conical, open-air Mexican hut. I wonder if it occurs to him as he drops off to sleep in his rope-suspended bed above the swirling waters that his own life has perfectly paralleled the modern rise of Puerto Vallarta.

Chico Perez is a Mexican Frank Merriwell. Twenty years ago he was a janitor at a beachfront restaurant in Puerto Vallarta. Today, six months since opening Chico's Paradise, he is already musing about putting in a few tourist palapasm among the rocks. Nothing fancy, no phones or electric lights, he promises. Nor will he install electricity in his restaurant. That way he can continue to close up at sundown, not have to serve dinner, and save the evenings for himself.

Puerto Vallarta has boomed in an even briefer period, but it too has tried to stay in touch with reality. I can hardly believe these figures, but a well-versed guide named Armando told me the population has jumped from 4,000 to 85,000 since 1962. For that turnabout and every other leap into modern times you can credit -- or blame, if you wish -- the 1963 arrival of a Hollywood crew that filmed the Tennessee Williams novel "The Night of the Iguana."

John Huston was the director, and he has a house here. Richard Burton had a starring role. Elizabeth Taylor came to visit him, and although they have long split up, they each have houses, hardly a block apart, on Gringo Gulch. The couple had the Midas touch in those days, and suddenly the sleepy fishing port halfway down the Pacific coast awakened to the tread of tourists.

The wonder of Puerto Vallarta is that in the transition it has not lost its beauty and charm. Its innocence, maybe. In the main square, splashed with roses and the bright yellow allamanda blossoms, Armando nodded at the little bandstand and said:

"Every Sunday at 5 o'clock a band plays for the people of this romantic town. Once we had a custom for the boys to walk around the square one way and the girls to walk the other way, and as they passed very close, a boy would throw a flower to the senorita he liked, and if she picked up the flower and put it in her ear that meant she liked him, too. This stopped when the tourists came. But it is still done in a smaller town, Pilillal, very near here.

There are two statues in the square, one, a robed figure of Vallarta himself, an educator and governor of the state of Jalisco some 70 years ago, the other of former President Augusto Diaz Ordaz, who came here 10 years ago to throw the switch on the town's new electrical system. Mr. Diaz Ordaz also gave his name to the handsome, curving waterfront boulevard, planted with the orange-blossomed African tulip tree, palms, and rubber tree plants.

Day and night, Calle Diaz Ordaz is alive with the shuffling of tourists -- mostly Americans, but many Mexicans as well -- who shop for cotton dresses and slacks, silver jewelry, and pottery and who eat in the buzzing, airy restaurants like Las Palomas, Casablanca, and Carlos O'Brian's. I didn't try it, but the sunny second-floor terrace of the Oceano Hotel looked like the ideal spot for breakfast. From the table one gazes down on the statue of a boy on a seahorse, the historic symbol of Puerto Vallarta, and out to the blue Pacific, where a redstriped parachute trailing a speedboat, today's symbol of of the town, floats above the water.

The cobbled streets climb steeply from the waterfront. Armando led me to a stunning overlook that revealed no despoiling billboards or obtrusive high-rises , only tiled white houses with clusters of flaming bougainvillea. "There is a law that now the town must stay rustic," he said. He waved toward at tall, white cube far down the coast and continued: "Only last year the people went to the governor and said no more building like the Holiday Inn. They call it the White Elephant."

An enduring symbol is the women who wash clothes in the Cuale River, at the center of town. "The secret to their very white laundry is the coconut-oil soap they use," Armando said. Just above this colorful tableau of peasant Mexico loom the expensive, landscaped houses of Gringo Gulch. The Burton, Taylor, and Huston houses are as much a part of the town tour as the statues, the shops, and the Church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, which the Indians built almost a century ago without the help of trained architects.

There are hotel rooms in town for as little for as little as $11 a night (the 22-room Chulavista, for example), but the larger, more comfortable, and of course more expensive hotels are scattered along the sandy Banderas Bay, which stretches almost 25 miles in either direction from town. My own slice of paradise was Room 221 and the surrounding acreage of the just-opened Fiesta Americana. It has 280 rooms, and all look out to sea.The sienna exterior gives the hotel a settled, lived-in look despite its tender age.

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