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The History of Puerto Vallarta


Puerto Vallarta is a magical place with its lush jungle and mountains that wrap protectively around the city, the azure ocean, the blue sky that is the backdrop for its spectacular sunsets. Puerto Vallarta’s breathtaking beauty can be found in every direction you look. It is no wonder that it has evolved into the bustling tourist destination it is today. But it wasn’t always like that.   

In the 1500s, when the Spanish arrived, indigenous people called the Aztatlan were living in the Ameca River Valley region (now known as Nuevo Vallarta). Spaniards named the area Bahía de Banderas, which means Bay of Flags, as a reference to the indigenous population who carried colorful flags into battle. 

While sailors, explorers, and pirates stopped in Banderas Bay to rest during long sea voyages between the 1500s and 1800s, the area wasn’t officially founded until the mid-1800s.   

In the early 1800s, the Puerto Vallarta we know today looked a lot different and was only a small fishing village without paved roads or electricity. At that time, in the state of Jalisco, Mascota was the second largest city with several mines extracting silver. The Vallarta area, known back then as Las Peñas de Santa María de Guadalupe, became a small port and base camp where supplies, such as salt needed to refine silver, were delivered by sea and then transported to Mascota and other mining towns by donkey. The salt and other supplies were loaded on donkeys and carried up the mountains to the mines.    

While there are conflicting accounts of the official founding of Las Peñas de Santa María de Guadalupe, it is widely accepted that Don Guadalupe Sánchez Torres founded the area in 1851. Its name was later shortened to Puerto Las Peñas. With the settling of his family and the arrival of other families, the town slowly grew. The families starting to settle either brought salt or became farmers or ranchers.   

In 1859, the Union en Cuale Mining Company purchased land from Los Arcos to the Pitillal River to support its operations in the Sierras.  By the 1860s, Puerto Las Peñas became a self-sustaining village with the combination of the Union en Cuale’s operations and the new families settling in the area.  

More people started to arrive in 1885 when the port of Las Peñas was opened to national maritime traffic. In 1918, Las Peñas was elevated to the status of a municipality and its name was changed to Puerto Vallarta after Lic. Ignacio L. Vallarta, the former governor of the state of Jalisco.   

At that time, the Union en Cuale Mining company still owned the majority of the land between Los Arcos and the Pitillal River, which meant that residents couldn’t develop the area the way they wanted to. In 1921, Puerto Vallarta’s citizens petitioned the government and requested land and mineral rights according to post-revolution constitutional law. They were given 36 square miles of land and an ejido (a farming cooperative) was created. The ejido land status effectively stunted Puerto Vallarta’s growth until the 1970s, when the laws changed again, because ejido land could not be sold, subdivided or leased.  

By the 1950s, Puerto Vallarta was a village with a population of 2,000 people. It was quaint, with cobblestone streets and buildings with tiled roofs. There were few cars and wooden carts drawn by donkeys carried people, food and supplies around the streets of downtown. 

Small fishing boats pulled up to the beaches to unload the day’s catch and barefoot fishermen could be seen walking through the town square with a dozen fish hanging from a wooden pole. Women washed clothes in the river and carried jugs of water on their heads through town. People walked along the small concrete boardwalk, but the Malecon as we know it today, did not exist. The historic lighthouse on the Malecon still stands in the same spot today.   

However, it was in early 1960s when two men would emerge on the scene and transform Puerto Vallarta from the sleepy fishing village it once was into the major tourist destination it is today. These two men were Guillermo Wulff, an engineer from Mexico City, and John Huston, an American film director.  

Huston was looking for a place to film the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana and Guillermo urged him to go to Mismaloya, where he had obtained from the government a 90-year contract to build there. Huston took his advice and in 1963 the film production set up shop on Mismaloya beach and a hotel was built as the set for the movie. Once the set was built, the movie stars started arriving. Among them were Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyon.  

It was also during this time that Richard Burton brought his then mistress, Elizabeth Taylor, to the location set, which caused quite a stir among Hollywood and attracted widespread attention in the media, since Taylor and Burton were at the time married, to other people. Burton bought Casa Kimberly for Taylor, which is located in Puerto Vallarta’s Gringo Gulch neighborhood and they used to walk across the Puente del Amor (Bridge of Love) built to connect their two houses in order to secretly meet away from the spying lenses of the Paparazzi. 

Puerto Vallarta received a huge amount of international publicity during the filming of Huston’s movie, which resulted in increased tourism. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican government started funding infrastructures such as roads, highways and an international airport to support Puerto Vallarta’s development into an international tourist destination.  

In 1968, the year of its 50th anniversary as a municipality, Puerto Vallarta was elevated from municipality status to a full-fledged city. In 2018, the city celebrated its 50th anniversary as a city. 

Today, Puerto Vallarta has over 200,000 residents, and is the second largest metropolitan area in the state of Jalisco, after Guadalajara.