There's nothing like a movie for jump-starting a destination. It helps if the film is good, but as the record shows, this is not strictly necessary. When, in 1979, Dino De Laurentiis made Hurricane in Bora-Bora, there was no hotel to lodge the cast and crew, so he built one, drawing the attention of the world's travel agents to the French Polynesian island. A similar fate had befallen tiny, insignificant Ibiza following the release 10 years earlier of More, in which actors nobody ever heard from again overdosed to a Pink Floyd sound track on heroin supplied by a pusher who may or may not have been a former Nazi.
You don't have to have gone to film school, or hospitality school for that matter, to know that director John Huston ignited a frenzy when he chose Puerto Vallarta as the setting of 1964's Night of the Iguana, starring Ava Gardner and Richard Burton. Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were gearing up for their first marriage, and when she flew to PV to keep him company between takes, the media went berserk. Any hopes the place had of remaining a little-nothing fishing village on the Pacific coast of Mexico with uncorrupted views of humpback whales disporting themselves in the second-largest bay in the Americas were dashed. To show how much he loved her but also to put a roof over their Virginia Woolf–style binge drinking and wrestling matches, Burton bought Taylor a house in the district now called Gringo Gulch. The name tells you everything you need to know about the Anglo incursion they triggered. Rejecting the town as too public, Huston retired to a hideaway he constructed from scratch on Caletas Cove, south of PV on the Bay of Banderas, which can be reached only by water. He found the area so artless, so languidly seductive, he lived there the rest of his life.
Four decades and change after Iguana, pockets of the qualities that captivated Huston may still be found, with sleuthing. One place I learned not to look is along the beach road leading from the airport, where grim tower hotels are thrown up hugger-mugger opposite stadium-size supermarkets. Just when you thought you'd heard the last of Philippe Starck, he pops up on a billboard, trying hard not to look like he's laughing at you for thinking of buying one of his gimcrack condos. (To be fair, Michael Graves, who has more of a reputation to protect, makes the same pitch.) Seen for the first time through a taxi window at night, downtown PV's "legendary" malecón, or promenade, has a vaguely threatening, honky-tonk atmosphere. Bars serve micheladas by the liter. The idle pour into tequila-factory shops. Jewelry stores offer "big families big discounts."
Things looked a lot better—gentler, prettier, gauzier—the next morning from the terrace of my suite at Hacienda San Angel, the Bay of Banderas glimpsed through the lacy ribs of the wrought-iron crown of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. Woozily romantic, with multiple pools and bougainvillea-draped courtyards on multiple levels, the hotel is only a couple of blocks behind the malecón but feels like it's on another planet. Vendors negotiate the sidewalks balancing enormous trays of fresh empanadas on their heads. A whistle-blow announces to housewives the passage of a man carrying a primitive hand-operated knife sharpener. Tamales are sold from a closet storefront that, on close inspection, is revealed to also be where the tamale-seller actually lives. Vallartans beat the heat in ad hoc living rooms on suites of plastic furniture arranged on the cobblestones. Old-school restaurants play to their grassroots constituencies with thick tuna carpaccio under floods of caper-basil–lime juice emulsion (8 Tostados), and grouper filet with candied nuggets of fried garlic (Hector's Sunset).
The scruffy charm extends across the Cuale River to the Zona Romántica, the neighborhood that earned PV its reputation for being maybe the gayest town in Mexico, and a Key West for the postmillennial oughts. Same-sex couples hold hands freely in the zone, not nothing in a socially moderate (to put a gloss on it), largely Catholic country where homosexuality is not part of the public discourse. (The cross-dressing muxes are an exception.) The 40-room Blue Chairs, which bills itself as the largest gay and lesbian beachfront resort in the world, features gay bingo, gay cruises, gay après–gay cruise parties, gay horseback riding, gay karaoke, and gay whale-watching. Also big with the boys are Marisma, the culty taco stand famous for its smoked marlin, and Encuentros, a stylish and "straight-friendly," if you please, martini-and-pizza lounge.