Snapshot of Puerto Vallarta


Puerto Vallarta sits at the center point of C-shaped Banderas Bay. Spurs from the Sierra Cacoma run down to the sea, forming a landscape of numerous valleys. This highly fractured mountain range is just one of many within the Sierra Madre—which runs from the Rockies to South America. Sierra Cacoma sits at the juncture of several major systems that head south toward Oaxaca State. Forming a distinct but related system is the volcanic or transversal volcanic axis that runs east to west across the country—and the globe. Comprising part of the so-called Ring of Fire, this transverse chain includes some of the world's most active volcanoes. Volcán de Fuego, southeast of Puerto Vallarta in Colima State, and the giant Popocateptl, near the Gulf of Mexico, are active. Visible from PV are the more intimate Sierra Vallejo and the Sierra Cuale ranges, to the north and south, respectively.

Heading down to the sea from these highlands are a number of important rivers, including the Ameca and the Mascota, which join forces not far from the coast at a place called Las Juntas (The Joining). Now mostly dry, the Ameca forms the boundary between Jalisco and Nayarit states. The Cuale River empties into the ocean at Puerto Vallarta, dividing the city center in two. In addition to boasting many rivers, the area is blessed with seasonal and permanent streams and springs.

Banderas Bay, or Bahía de Banderas, is Mexico's largest bay, at 42 km (26 miles) tip to tip. The northern point, Punta Mita, is in Nayarit State. Towns at the southern extreme of the bay, at Cabo Corrientes (Cape Currents)—named for the frequently strong currents off its shore—are accessible only by boat or dirt roads. The mountains backing the Costalegre are part of the Sierra Madre Occidental range. The hilly region of eroded plains has two main river systems: the San Nicolás and Cuitzmala.

Several hundred miles east of Banderas Bay, Guadalajara—capital of Jalisco State—occupies the west end of 5,400-foot Atemajac Valley, which is surrounded by mountains. Just south of Guadalajara, Lake Chapala is Mexico's largest natural lake.


The western flanks of the Sierra Madre and foothills leading down to the sea have tropical deciduous forest. At the higher levels are expanses of pine-oak forest. Many species of pines thrive in these woods, mixed in with encinos and robles, two different categories of oak. Walnut trees and oyamel, a type of fir, are the mainstays of the lower arroyos, or river basins.

Along the coast magnificent huanacaxtle, also called parota (in English, monkey pod or elephant ear tree), mingle with equally huge and impressive mango as well as kapok, cedar, tropical almond, tamarind, flamboyant, and willow. The brazilwood tree is resistant to insects and, therefore, ideal for making furniture. Matapalo, or strangler fig, are common in this landscape. As its name hints, these fast-growing trees embrace others in a death grip; once the matapalo is established, the host tree eventually dies.

Colima palms, known locally as guaycoyul, produce small round nuts smashed for oil or sometimes fed to domestic animals. Mango, avocado, citrus, and guava are found in the wild. Imported trees and bushes often seen surrounding homes and small farms include Indian laurel, bamboo, and bougainvillea.

The coastal fringe north of San Blas is surprisingly characterized by savannas. Guinea grass makes fine animal fodder for horses and cows. Lanky coconut trees line roads and beaches. Watery coconut "milk" is a refreshing drink, and the meat of the coconut, although high in saturated fat, can be eaten or used in many types of candy. Another drink, agua de tuba, is made from the heart of the palm; the trunk is used in certain types of construction. Mangroves in saltwater estuaries provide an ecosystem for crabs, crustaceans, and birds.

South of Banderas Bay, thorn forest predominates along the coastal strip, backed by tropical deciduous forest. Leguminous trees like the tabachin, with its bright orange flowers, have long, dangling seedpods used by indigenous people as rattles. Other prominent area residents are the acacias, hardy trees with fluffy puffballs of light yellow blooms. The dry forest is home to more than 1,100 species of cacti. The nopal, or prickly pear cactus, abounds; local people remove the spines and grill the cactus pads or use them in healthful salads. The fruit of the prickly pear, called tuna, is used to make a refreshing drink, agua de tuna.


Hunting, deforestation, and the encroachment of humans have diminished many once-abundant species. In the mountains far from humankind, endangered margay, jaguar, and ocelot hunt their prey, which includes spider monkeys, deer, and peccaries. More commonly seen are skunks, raccoons, rabbits, and coyote. The coatimundi is an endearing little animal that lives in family groups, often near streambeds. Inquisitive and alert, they resemble tall, slender prairie dogs. Along with the tanklike, slow-moving armadillo, the sandy-brown coatimundi is among the animals you're most likely to spot without venturing too deep within the forest. Local people call the coatimundi both tejón and pisote and often keep them as pets.

Poisonous snakes include the Mexican rattlesnake and the fer-de-lance. Locals call the latter cuatro narices (four noses) because it appears to have four nostrils. It's also called nauyaca; the bite of this viper can be deadly. There are more than a dozen species of coral snakes with bands of black, yellow, and red in different patterns. False corals imitate this color scheme to fool their predators, but unless you're an expert, it's best to err on the side of caution.

The most famous of the migratory marine species is the humpback whale, here called ballena jorobada, or "hunchback" whale. These leviathans grow to 51 feet and weigh 40 to 50 tons; they travel in pods, feeding on krill and tiny fish. In a given year the females in area waters may be either mating or giving birth. During their annual migration of thousands of miles from the Bering Sea, the hardy creatures may lose some 10,000 pounds, or approximately 10% of their body weight. Hunted nearly to extinction in the 1900s, humpbacks remain an endangered species.

A few Bryde whales make their way to Banderas Bay and other protected waters near the end of the humpback season, as do some killer whales (orca) and false killer whales. Bottlenose, spinner, and pantropic spotted dolphins are present pretty much year-round. These acrobats love to bow surf just under the water's surface and to leap into the air. Another spectacular leaper is the velvety-black manta ray, which can grow to 30 feet wide. Shy but lovely spotted eagle rays hover close to the ocean floor, where they feed on crustaceans and mollusks. Nutrient-rich Pacific waters provide sustenance for a wide range of other sea creatures. Among the most eye-catching are the graceful king angelfish, iridescent bumphead parrotfish, striped Indo-Pacific sergeants and Moorish idols, and the funny-looking guinea fowl puffer and its close relative, the equally unusual black-blotched porcupine fish.

The varied landscape of Nayarit and Jalisco states provides a tapestry of habitats for some 350 species of birds. In the mangroves, standouts are the great blue heron, mangrove cuckoo, and vireo. Ocean and shorebirds include red-billed tropic birds as well as various species of heron, egret, gulls, brown and blue-footed boobies, and frigate birds. Military macaws patrol the thorn forests, and songbirds of all stripes live in the pine-oak forests. About 40% of the birds in the Costalegre region are migratory. Among the residents are the yellow-headed parrot and the Mexican wood nymph, both threatened species.

Environmental Issues

The biggest threat to the region is deforestation of the tropical dry forest. Slash-and-burn techniques are used to prepare virgin forest for agriculture and pasturing of animals. This practice is counterproductive, as the thin soil fails to produce after the mulch-producing trees and shrubs have been stripped.

The tropical dry forests (also called tropical thorn forest) are now being deforested due to the increasing tourism and human population. Controlled ecotourism offers a potential solution, although failed projects in the area have significantly altered or drained salt marshes and mangrove swamps.

The dry forest is an extremely important ecosystem. It represents one of the richest in Mexico and also one with the highest level of endemism (plant and animal species found nowhere else). Several species of hardwood trees, including the Pacific coast mahogany and Mexican kingwood, are being over-harvested for use in the building trade. The former is endangered and the latter, threatened.

South of Puerto Vallarta in the Costalegre are two adjacent forest reserves that together form the 32,617-acre Chamela–Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve. Co-owned and managed by nonprofit agencies, private companies, and Mexico's National University, UNAM, the reserve protects nine major vegetation types, including the tropical dry forest, tropical deciduous forest, and semi-deciduous forest. A riparian environment is associated with the north bank of the Cuixmala River. Within the reserve there are approximately 72 species considered at risk for extinction, including the American crocodile and several species of sea turtle.

Hojonay Biosphere Reserve was established by the Hojonay nonprofit organization to preserve the jaguar of the Sierra de Vallejo range and its habitat. The 157,060-acre reserve is in the foothills and mountains behind La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and San Francisco, in Nayarit State.

There are no tours or casual access to either of the reserves, which serve as buffers against development and a refuge for wildlife.

The People

The population of Puerto Vallarta is overwhelmingly of mestizo (mixed Native American and white/European) descent. According to the 2010 census, fewer than 1% of Jalisco residents speak an indigenous language. Compare that to nearby states: Michoacán with 3.6%; Guerrero with about 14%; and Oaxaca, where more than 33% of the inhabitants converse in a native language. Those indigenous people who do live in Jalisco State are small groups of Purépecha (also called Tarascans), in the south. The Purépecha were among the very few groups not conquered by the Aztec nation that controlled much of Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Although not large in number, the indigenous groups most associated with Nayarit and Jalisco states are the Cora and their relatives, the Huichol. Isolated in mountain and valley hamlets and individual rancherías (tiny farms) deep in the Sierra Madre, both have, to a large extent, maintained their own customs and culture. According to the CDI (Comisión Nacional Para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, or National Commission for the Development of Native Peoples), there are about 24,390 Cora in Durango, Zacatecas, and Nayarit states, and some 43,929 Huichol, mainly in Nayarit, Jalisco, and Durango. Nearly 70% of the culturally related groups speak their native language.

No matter their background, you'll notice nearly all locals have a contagiously cheery outlook on life. There's an explanation for that: In 1947 a group of prominent vallartenses was returning along twisty mountain roads from an excursion to Mexico City. When the driver lost control and the open-sided bus plunged toward the abyss, death seemed certain. But a large rock halted the bus's progress, and Los Favorecidos (The Lucky Ones), as they came to be known, returned to Puerto Vallarta virtually unharmed. Their untrammeled gestures of thanks to the town's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, set the precedent for this animated religious procession. Today, all Puerto Vallartans consider themselves to be Los Favorecidos, and thus universally blessed—hence, the story goes, their optimism. For those of us fortunate enough to visit, taking home a bit of that spiritual magnetism can be the best souvenir.

The Magic of Mexico

To say that Mexico is a magical place means more than saying it's a place of great natural beauty and fabulous experiences. Cities like Catemaco, in Veracruz, have a reputation for their brujos and brujas (male and female witches, respectively) and herbal healers (curanderos/curanderas). But Mexicans use these services even in modern Mexico City and Guadalajara and in tourist towns like Puerto Vallarta. Some might resort to using a curandera to reverse mal de ojo, the evil eye, thought to be responsible for a range of unpleasant symptoms, circumstances, disease, or even death.

A limpia, or cleansing, is the traditional cure for the evil eye. The healer usually passes a raw chicken or turkey egg over the sufferer to draw out the bad spirit. Green plants, like basil, or branches from certain trees can also be used, drawing the greenery over the head, front, and back to decontaminate the victim. Prayer is an essential ingredient.

Some cures are of a more practical nature. Mexican herbalists, like their colleagues around the world, use tree bark, nuts, berries, roots, and leaves to treat everything from dandruff to cancer. Epazote, or wormseed, is a distinctly flavored plant whose leaves are used in cooking. As its English name implies, its medicinal task is to treat parasites.

Most folk wisdom seems to draw from both fact and, if not fiction, at least superstition. Breezes and winds are thought to produce a host of negative reactions: from colds and cramps to far more drastic ailments like paralysis. Some people prefer sweating in a car or bus to rolling down the window and being hit by the wind, especially since mixing hot and cold is something else to be avoided. Even worldly athletes may refuse a cold drink after a hot run. Sudden shock is thought by some to cause lasting problems.

Although it doesn't take a leap of faith to believe that herbal remedies cure disease and Grandma's advice was right on, some of the stuff sold in shops is a bit "harder to swallow." It's difficult to imagine, for example, that the sky-blue potion in a pint-size bottle will bring you good luck, or the lilac-color one can stop people from gossiping about you. Those that double as floor polish seem especially suspect.

Whether magic and prophecy are real or imagined, they sometimes have concrete results. Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived on the east coast of Mexico in 1519, which correlated to the year "One Reed" on the Aztec calendar. A few centuries prior to Cortés's arrival, the benevolent god-king Quetzalcoatl had, according to legend, departed the same coast on a raft of snakes, vowing to return in the year One Reed to reclaim his throne.

News of Cortés—a metal-wearing god-man accompanied by strange creatures (horses and dogs) and carrying lightning (cannons and firearms)—traveled quickly to the Aztec capital. Emperor Moctezuma was nervous about Quetzalcoatl's return and his reaction to the culture of war and sacrifice the Aztecs had created. In his desire to placate the returning god, Moctezuma ignored the advice of trusted counselors and opened the door for the destruction of the Aztec empire.

La Vida Loca

Living the good life in Mexico—specifically in and around Banderas Bay—seems to get easier year by year. Americans and Canadians are by far the biggest groups of expats. In addition to those who have relocated to make Mexico their home, many more foreigners have part-time retirement or vacation homes here. A two-bedroom property in a gated community by the sea begins at around $230,000. You could get more modest digs for less; at the upper end of the spectrum, the sky's the limit.

The sheer number of foreigners living in Puerto Vallarta facilitates adventures that were much more taxing a decade or two ago, like building a home or finding an English-speaking real estate agent or lawyer. Contractors and shopkeepers are used to dealing with gringos; most speak good to excellent English. The town is rich with English-language publications and opportunities for foreigners to meet up for events or volunteer work.

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