Thursday, June 20, 2013

Puerto Vallarta sweats through the dog days of summer

It's a ghost town until at least September, as "desperate" local merchants struggle to hang on

P.V.'s usually bustling tourist strip, Olas Altas, was all but deserted Monday morning, June 17.

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco -
This once obscure fishing village by the sea, catapulted into world fame 49 years ago by an American director who decided to lug Panavision rigs into largely uncharted terrain, is not a place to summer.

With all the comfort of a health club steam room, the difference is that here you pay much more for it, even in the off season. Finding a beer for less than 30-35 pesos requires determined reconnaissance, while the same product can easily be had for half of that on any Guadalajara street corner. Breakfast with tip will set you back 120 pesos or more ($10.00), which makes Denny's Grand Slam look like a bargain. Of course, there are beaches to admire while sipping coffee . . . decidedly empty beaches.

There's no reason to believe that legendary screenwriter John Huston had any interest in jump starting the local economy when he brought his crew here in 1964 to film Tennessee Williams' Broadway hit, Night of the Iguana. But that was the inevitable result. Welsh superstar Richard Burton came to town, supported by the already well known Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Burton even flew in his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Taylor, during the weeks of remote filming - perhaps to rehearse their lines for the enormously successful Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, released two years later in 1966 (a production which foreshadowed their stormy two marriages with prescient accuracy).

Within a few years, hotels and restaurants sprung up like dandelions on a spring day, an international airport was built and travel agents began telling clients about Mexico's enchanting new Pacific resort.

But as Mexicans are so fond of saying, todo eso era en aquel entonces . . . all that was "way back in the day." Since then, sleepy little Puerto Vallarta has had to wake up in a hurry. And it has not been an entirely pleasant experience.

This town's own run on Broadway has been a long one, to be sure - 40 years or more. But as MGR reported in January, difficult times have arrived in Vallarta. Sputtering economies in northern latitudes are partially to blame, and scenes which conjure up memories of old episodes of Combat! have not helped any. The drug war is present here too, as in every other corner of Mexico, having made its first grand entrance on the local stage last October - with much fanfare. Puerto Vallarta: tensions linger after brazen narco attack.

In any case, this town continues to struggle. Summer is the off season, true, but that has had very little impact on the other side of Mexico, in Cancún, which continues to receive international visitors all year long, despite embarrassing security challenges (Cancún under first "Red Alert" in its history, while authorities focus on local Los Zetas-Gulf Cartel links). Vallarta has local competition, too, an hour up the coast in the Riviera Nayarit, an increasingly popular alternative to this overbuilt city.

The 2012-13 high season, which officially ended May 1, was worse than all previous ones according to most merchants, who report that Canadian arrivals continued to outstrip American ones. Yet the construction of new condominium buildings continues apace, even while so many older units are for sale. Drug money has to be laundered somewhere, a cynical local resident told MGR this week.

Vallarta's sea front malecón is a study in emptiness. The boardwalk is jam-packed with every kind of business imaginable, from Cuban cigars to luxury jewelry to watering holes and restaurants spaced a few feet apart. They're deserted this time of year, hurting not only the establishments themselves but taxi drivers who normally deliver hungry and thirsty clientele. Only Mexico's chain convenience store Oxxo - you never have to walk more than a few blocks to find one - does a steady trade peddling coffee, cool drinks and sun tan lotion to those few tourists there are. Corporate profits are just fine.

Over at Vallarta's maritime terminal, a few local artisans are waiting for the packed cruise ships which won't arrive again until September. Meanwhile, their expenses continue unabated, because they must pay the city for the spaces they rent. A trade union which represents the struggling merchants, who depend almost exclusively on clients arriving by sea, said this week the artisans are in a "desperate situation," noting that only 20% of them still have their doors open. The rest are on the street looking for some kind, any kind, of substitute work to tide them over and help them make ends meet. The artisans asked P.V. city fathers for a rent reduction or abatement, but were turned down peremptorily.

It promises to be a long hot summer in the town made famous by John Huston and Richard Burton. Vallartans are well accustomed to the summer steam and quiet cash registers. But the unstated question on many minds is whether the aquel entonces - the good old days - are going to return. Not far to the south, they know sometimes the answer is no (A bankrupt Acapulco can't meet its payroll).

Aug. 21 - Poor tourism prognosis concerns Puerto Vallarta official
Aug. 21 - Sluggish Mexican economy worries foreign investment experts
June 12 - 59% of Mexicans remain trapped in underclass
Apr. 9 - Yucatán tourism remained flat in first quarter of 2013
Feb. 6 - International press bombards Acapulco: "a death zone"
Feb. 1 - Yucatán safety continues to be subject of hot debate

No huevos revueltos were being dished up at this restaurant.
There are cars to rent, but few want them.
Plenty of waterfront real estate is available for sand castle building . . . but not many architects.
Almost every proprietor brags of two-for-one Happy Hours . . . the problem is finding customers.
Empty chairs and awnings are easy to claim, and
the welcome signs are still up everywhere . . .

. . . but the beach crowd was sparse, even on a scorching mid-summer's afternoon.
A small pizza and one beer will set you back about $12 US at this joint, with a "recommended tip" of 15-20% - even though the owner was the waiter on duty. Maybe that's why it was empty at 10:00 p.m.
Taxis are usually thick on the steep hills leading to foreign-owned condos. But not this time of year.
Apartments and condos are tidy, but nobody's at home. They're all up north, where you can breathe.
P.V.'s trademark cobblestones are empty of all but an occasional service vehicle or police patrol.

But Puerto Vallarta views remain magnificently pristine, made more so by the absence of tourists.

© MGRR 2013. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission. All images are property of MGR.

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