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Why we travel: The hidden Puerto Vallarta is there for the taking – PART 4

Twenty-five years of McKees in Mexico comes to an end
by Steve McKee on December 24, 2009

After the rain ended earlier in the day, the evening stroll through downtown Puerto Vallarta was especially delightful. The cobbled streets were just wet enough to reflect the different color lights from the restaurants and shops. Here was Vallarta, an old friend, looking as good as ever.

I was there alone for a four day trip to finalize the sale of my parent’s winter home – the house that I had personally designed and helped build for them over twenty years ago in a village a half hour north of PV. Between the occasional lawyer meetings there was enough time to ponder the new reality: My family was about to cease to be landed gentry in this most colorful of countries. There were sad notions, like wondering about how things might have been if the developers hadn’t filled in the waterfront in front of our house with a marina, but also satisfying and life-affirming notions, like how much I still enjoy the vitality and flavor of Vallarta.

In the centro the tall church bell tower was lit up, showing off its neo-classical details all created from the clever use of terra cotta brick and topped with the famous crown. The street-market was in full swing, and a Christmas parade was in progress on Calle Juarez with dancers and drummers and little girls dressed like the Virgin of Guadalupe on the back of slow moving pickup trucks. The church bells began to chime while the parade music pounded and the result was a wonderful mix of sound.

Then I figured out why I was enjoying all this so much: it felt as if all this life would be going on even without the tourists, as if I had dropped in on the happy energy of an interesting city on a pleasant evening. If there were tourists, they were almost all Mexicans enjoying one of their own cities. Maybe my fellow gringos were hanging out in the resorts instead.

Decades of tourism have impacted Puerto Vallarta, but thankfully it’s been mostly away from the older and most interesting parts of town. More resorts keep getting added further and further north along the bay, leaving the centro area much as it has been for many years, except for the occasional restaurant makeovers and so forth. We are okay with this.

I find it much easier to be entertained by the vitality of a city than I do by the homogeneity of a big resort. Resorts are just so slick and polished and careful to make sure all the pathways and lamps match. They’re pleasant enough, but ultimately boring. I can handle only so much sitting by a pool with a novel and a margarita. Let’s get out and explore stuff, for crying out loud!

It seems obvious that the “messy vitality” of a city is going to win out over the “obvious unity” of a resort, at least in my mind. A city is the work of generations – the best effort of a thousand different “designers” who have all managed to fit their vision into that mix of cohesiveness and variety that is a city. In PV I saw a restaurant with classic Mexican details such as arches and walls of brick and stone with wood shutters right next door to a bar that had reinvented itself into an over-scaled entertainment lair with a two story space that faced the ocean complete with a dance floor of pulsing lights and a fantastic oversized chandelier overhead.

The narrow streets were all done in river rock cobbles. Sidewalks were not uniform, with occasional random steps that kept things interesting. (This is an impossible city for wheelchairs.) The streets lead uphill into the old residential neighborhood. If you’re willing to walk and explore these areas you will surely find some architectural gems rich in funky old-world charm, like a rambling palace-of-a-house behind a big ornate iron gate, or a little brick home with an overgrown courtyard with an ocean view. It’s sort of like an Italian hill town except with palm trees and bougainvillea vines added.

December 2009 – Saving Melody’s window

Every walk into some unknown area of town always paid off with interesting discoveries that validated my choice to venture there. Even on the night that I walked back to my hotel on what I thought would be an uneventful street, I came across a quiet two block enclave of art galleries. Good art too, not like the overly picturesque paintings sold down in the main plaza. I loved seeing how the artists transformed the random spaces between buildings into successful courtyards. Walls were painted white and halogen spot lights were added on protruding galvanized pipes and the result was a wonderful art gallery, both indoors and outdoors all at once. One space had a small square pool for displaying sculptures. This gallery zone can be found at the corner of Calle Leona Vicario and Calle Guadalupe Sanchez, in case anybody is taking notes.

On my last day in Vallarta, after I had signed away ownership of the McKee family holdings to a develope’s bulldozer, I happened to walk by a house being built on a steep hillside with concrete slabs with rebar poking out at random locations and laborers toting concrete in five-gallon buckets. I watched the workers moving about and for a moment I was thirty years old again back in La Cruz giving shape to my parent’s beach house, the beginnings of the dream of a “McKee Family Compound” to be used for big family reunions and for generations of McKees not yet born. Oh, what might have been if the fates had said no to the marina that mucked up our oceanfront. But you can’t let yourself trip out on that sort of thinking too much, and I realized that I was actually cool with it all; that I’d made my peace and that I was happy to have had the adventure at all.

A Corona to mark the end of an era

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