By Phyllis Rauch

The First Visit


puerto-vallarta-mexRemembering Puerto Vallarta as I first came to know it forty years ago, I feel as though I am looking down the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Few places that I’ve known well have grown and changed so drastically in such a relatively short time.

Arriving in Guadalajara in 1967, I was offered my first opportunity to visit the sleepy, hidden fishing village that had recently risen from centuries of obscurity thanks to the filming there of The Night of the Iguana in 1964.

The movie, based on a Tennessee Williams play, featured Richard Burton as a defrocked Episcopalian priest who leads a bus-load of Baptist churchwomen along the Mexican coast. The buildings created for the set were to be left behind, overlooking Mismaloya beach.

Given that first chance to visit the newly famous little village, I actually reneged. The only way to get there then was in a small airplane. No way was anyone squeezing me into one of those sardine cans in the sky.

Less than a year later, though, my husband Georg and I were living in Guadalajara where we met artist Manuel Lepe, already famous for his charming, angel-filled representations of his native Pacific village. Manuel with his wife Marcela owned and ran the only gallery in Vallarta. Georg was offered a show there, so we faced the daunting challenge of transporting an entire exhibit to a town which still didn’t have a highway connection.

We didn’t have four-wheel drive, a van or even a station wagon, but our beloved Plymouth Fury carried the paintings and us over a grueling dirt road all the way from the city. Of course there were no bridges, so our trusty Fury also forded the rivers, with one of us sometimes outside of the car, keeping watch for major holes or obstacles. I’m glad I can no longer recall how long the trip took, but it seemed that our rough track led through endless forests of thick green trees and vines, unbroken by towns or gas stations.

Grubby, weary, we arrived to this unprepossessing location in the middle of a Mexican jungle. As Georg and I unpacked the paintings and started hanging them, enthusiastic art lovers began strolling through the funky gallery that was located near Los Muertos beach. The air was redolent with marijuana and a 33-inch record of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band serenaded us with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Soon happy (stoned?) tourists were reserving and making down payments on Georg’s paintings. By the time the official cocktail party opened, at least half of the exhibit was already sold. That was the beginning of a long and pleasant gallery relationship.

The Burtons weren’t the only famous couple to pass through early Puerto Vallarta, but more about them is to come in a future article. Harry Belafonte was a guest, though, at one of the early cocktail openings and he fell in love with the crazy musical table that Georg had built and brought along on top of our car to enliven the party. Thanks to a small hidden motor, the table played bongo drums, clanked silverware, and screeched a string accompaniment. Mr. Belafonte insisted on buying the table, and I’d love to think it is making music for him still, wherever he may be.

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