It's all very true. Puerto Vallarta is quiet, sedate and a good place to rest and soak up sunshine.
But this is true, too: The town is a good jumping-off place for many things to see and do. You can dangle your feet in a waterfall, take a horseback ride through small villages or even hunt a duck, if that's your thing.
Side trips from this beautiful coastal town offer a view of Puerto Vallarta you won't get to see lying by the pool in one of the modern hotels. And, besides sun, there's a lot of culture and history here.
There's a three-hour visit to the city, beaches, coves and homes of Puerta Vallarta; an eight-hour adventure aboard a catamaran along the jungles, mountain slopes and banana plantations in the surrounding area; an all-day air tour to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, to see how blown glass, pottery and Mexican handicrafts are made; a day on a yacht cruising through picturesque bays, swimming, snorkeling, exploring, hiking and sunbathing; deep-sea fishing for sailfish, dorado and tuna; three hours at a Mexican ranch with a barbecue, cowsboys, mini-bullfights, cockfights and folk dances. There are 12 tours to choose from, all with an exciting sparkle to capture your sense of adventure.
Alas, unless you've planned on a three-week vacation, you'll have to close your eyes and let your finger decide which trip you'll embark on for your first visit. I opened a guide book and my finger landed on the Shemballa" Quimixto Waterfall Cruise. At $22 per person, it was described as:
"An incomparable cruise to a quaint fishing village with a South Seas setting . . . Quimixto. You will said leisurely along Vallarta's incredible south shore, passing 'Los Arcos' grottoes, Boa de Tomatlan, Mismaloya and picturesque fishing villages . . . disembarking by native canoe in primitive and unspoiled Quimixto . . . and hike up -- if you like action -- through lush tropical jungle for a refreshing swim at a spectacular waterfall along with cool beers and refreshments there. Open bar with gin, rum, tequila, vodka and beer is included along with a superb lunch on board."
The brochure description didn't do it justice.
Riccardo and I arrived at the marina, "La Marina," at 9 a.m. and, with nine other passengers, boarded the catamaran that would be our home for the next eight hours. The captain was adorned with an appropriate hat and the guide was ready with Cokes, coffee and early-morning beers for the passengers.
We sailed past a coastline dotted with hotels, all clean and new with ocean views; past Plaza de Sol, the "ugliest but most popular beach in Puerta Vallarta," so described because it is said that pirates once shed a lot of blood on the sands. We motored past natural arches and grottos and waving natives.
And when we arrived at Mismaloya Beach, the captain cut the engines to a slow purr so we could get a good look at the shells of houses that peeked out of the mountain foliage -- a silent, standing tribute to Hollywood. p
Yes, this was where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton seriously started their love affair while he was on the set of "The Night of the Iguana." And yes, on every boat trip the set of the film is pointed out to visitors.
"The Hollywood studio said was could do whatever we wanted to with the empty buildings," our guide said in pure Spanish that only Riccardo could understand, "But the people are afraid to touch it, so it just sits there." He ended his speech and the engines picked up speed. Blissfully, there's not a lot of hubbub about Puerto Vallarta's claim to celluloid fame. It's merely one attraction on the way to something better.
We reached Quimixto, a small fishing town untouched by commercial hands, three hours after we cast off and were greeted by a native rowing a battered canoe with one hand and scooping water out of the hull with the other.
"Uh! Oh! No! No way am I getting on that thing!" one middle-aged passenger remarked.
"Ah, I think it's okay," her husband said, trying to pacify her and maybe himself.
Another beer and we were all in the canoe, laughing at the welcoming committee of hogs and burros that were wading near the shore.
"Hey, get a picture of me with these two," one of guys said to his companion as he struggled to keep the wet, slippery hogs in his grasp for the shot.
Clay and tree bark one-room huts decorated the mountainside, and thatched roofs adorned the beach. Animals shared the paths the natives followed and children played with handmade toys. The village can only be reached by boat and the only means of transportation in the village, besides feet, is burro.
Which brings me to the next leg of our journey -- a 30-minute hike up the mountain, through thick jungle, across tiny streams to our ultimate goal, a spectacular waterfall.
I was one of the fortunate (fortunate?) two to have a burro carry me up the narrow path. Granted, the burro knew exactly where he was going, every crack, every steep incline, yet, at time, he seemed to veer a little too close to the edge for my taste or galloped (yes galloped) a little too quickly through the streams.
When we reached our destination it was with pleasure that I announced to my hiking companions that I felt it only fair for one of them to have the advantage of the burro on the way back. But the sight of the waterfall was worth the 30 minutes with Senor Burro. We ran like children to put our feet in the icy water and feel the sprinkle of the fall on our faces while the guide and Riccardo, both more adventurous than the rest, showered in the waterfall and entertained us by using the rocks in its path as a slide.
"They must be crazy!" our nervous passenger screamed. "They'll kill themselves."
We splashed and waded for two hours before hiking back to the shore. After lunch aboard the boat -- a feast of fresh fish, bread and macaroni salad -- we sailed leisurely back to the pier, tanned and deliciously tired.
For the next four days we relaxed, basking in the sun by our pool, occasionally considering the possibility of parasailing, scuba diving, fishing, snorkeling or swimming. It all seemed so old hat after "Shamballa." But, then again, the "Bora Bora" cruise sounded interesting and the "Sombrero" cruise to Yelapa sounded like fun.
Ah, well, maybe next year.