Romancing Old Puerto Vallarta

Hotel Rosita and the magic of the Malecon

By Laura Ranieri

A brief cab ride from the sterile, manicured beaches of the big resorts, lies the pulsing, beating heart of Old Puerto Vallarta. Snug up against the Pacific on Banderas Bay is where you’ll find it. Here, the waves crash the rocks, and the pelicans smash into the frothy tide divebombing fish.  The old city runs north to south along the Malecon – a winding cobblestone promenade between the churning sea and bright cheery shops, ramshackle cafes, galleries, tequila tasting rooms and fish restaurants resounding with the sounds of the mariachi. The ‘cameraros’ at Restaurant El Malecon, known for its fresh seafood, fish and fabulous prices, might beckon you down to a  table right on the beach – where you can sip giant daiquiris with your toes in the sand and watch the frigate birds up close. They did for us one afternoon – and we enjoyed the freshest shrimp fajitas I have ever tasted.   

Los Muertos Beach along the Malecon

Puerto Vallarta has had a romantic and stormy past, certainly. The idyllic retreat of Hollywood lovers Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in the  late 50s…the exclusive hideaway of director John Huston. In 2003, a massive storm wiped out much of the boulevard – it was after this that the Malecon received its cobbles and became the delightful all-pedestrian way it is today. 

My recommendation if Puerto Vallarta is your destination? Forgo the fancy resorts and stay right in the old town, where you can explore this charming Malecon.

Hotel Rosita – a traditional Mexican hotel

Hotel Rosita, claims to be old Puerto Vallarta’s oldest ‘working’ hotel. (Did some hotels just not work?)

It resides at the northern end of the Malecon, marking the beginning of the old town.  This is a great place to stay if you want an unpretentious experience and great access to the best of the old town. From its humble 1948 origins as an 8 room hostel-like hotel, Rosita has grown significantly and offers everything from small but clean street-side “barracks”… to spacious ocean-front rooms with glorious wrap around balconies. Our first night was at the former, and we were kept awake all night with blaring horns, street Saxophone players and late-night revelers from Senor Frogs. In a strange way though, it was loud but still charming – and we could walk right out onto the balcony and survey the vibrant scene.  For a small price ($30 US a night) we upgraded to a fabulous large and quiet more modern room (#423 if you want to know), where the only sound was the pounding ocean –  practically crashing into our cozy bed. Heaven.

“Rosita is warm, homey…a real authentic Mexican hotel” says hotel manager Cezar Zapada. “The same travellers have come here for 50 years, and many staff have worked here 20 years,” It makes sense and  Francois and I succumbed to its charm too. The graceful, arched lobby with its rich, worn leather chairs.  The friendly lady grilling fresh corn tortillas at breakfast. The genuine and well-meaning staff. And a peaceful, laid-back vibe. Even the large distilled water bottles on each floor to keep guests bottles full is such a nice touch I have not seen.  Cezar told us the secret to the hotel’s continued success after 70 years: The Gonzales family. The Gonzales’s have owned it from the beginning and the hotel is now in its third generation, ensuring the distinct and traditional character of hotel Rosita has been kept “in the family”.

If you are looking for gyms, shopping emporiums and saunas, look elsewhere. But with a nice little pool, the sea at your balcony, tasty breakfasts and the very best access to the Malecon of any hotel I saw, it is easy to see why Hotel Rosita is a popular choice.

Five  romantic things to do in Old Puerto Vallarta

  1. Take a daybreak jog by the sea

Early morning, old Vallarta is a runners’ paradise – right outside the door of Hotel Rosita. Take a meandering jog by the sea on the cobbles that twist past the modern sculptures, Mexicans on bicycles – past the naval history museum and over the bridge to El Muertos beach… It is a busy place even early morning with locals (and snowbirds) parading along with canines of all shapes and sizes: tiny chihuahas in cute costumes, mastiffs, boxers, huskies, mongrels, three-legged rescues – and even an exotic afghan hound. The Malecon is certainly a very mutt-friendly promenade.  

  • Listen to Cuban band at “Hemmingway”s favourite hideout

If you grow tired of tacos and fajitas, drop into La Bodeguita del Medio for a taste of Old Havana. This replica of an original 1940s Havana meeting place for artists, has wonderful music, a forbidden, counterculture vibe, dark, graffitied walls, gentle cigar aromas wofting from downstairs… and delicious mojitos, including a favourite of the writer Hemmingway, a passionate patron of the original in Havana. On the drizzly late afternoon when we arrived, we grabbed a sea-view seat upstairs and enjoyed strawberry mojitos along with some piquant Cuban pork and sweet shrimp dishes listening to a lively quartet play Tito Puente (one of my faves)…until the sun set in blazing red and deep yellow over the bay.

  • Watch the birdlife on Los Muertos

At the south end of the Malecon, across the little bridge you will find Los Muertos Beach. Deadmen’s Beach,” named for legendary pirate raids on the nearby village is a gorgeous strip of beach lined with very enticing beach cafes and colourful vendors… but also an area you can just plunk yourself on the soft brown sand and watch the seabirds. We relaxed and surveyed the fishermen would come down and clean their freshly caught fish in the tide, likely for the lunch meal at the restaurant steps away… A frenzy of birds circled in the air –brown pelicans, seagulls, terns –   then we noticed one unfortunate frigate bird whose beak was entangled with a net and sharp hook. The kindly fishermen managed to catch the flailing bird and gently set it free (see picture).

Fisherman free an entangled frigate bird
Jose Ramiz Barquet’s beautiful statue “Nostalgia”
  • Visit galleries – and take the free Malecon sculpture tour

Framed by spectacular views of Banderas bay, 45 bronze sculptures, some striking and soaring, others just strange, decorate the Malecon, positioned about every 100 yards. Each one is unique – and the work of a different Mexican artist. Some were built 40 years ago– and others just a few years back. A highlight of our visit was taking a free sculpture tour offered by Galleria Pacifica every Tuesday morning at  930am and Thursday afternoon at 6. It began just beside our Hotel Rosita with The Millennium, a striking work by Matthew Lidice to commemorate the turn of the century in 2001 – and our striving through power, knowledge and reaching for freedom in troubled times. One of my favourites was the sculpture of two lovers called “Nostalgia”, inspired by the artist’s (Jose Ramiz Barquet) own love story. Another favourite of mine was “the subtle stone eater” by Jonás Gutiérrez, who as a boy had come back to a stretch of rocky beach one day to find all the stones gone – and perhaps was presenting an explanation.  As part of the tour Kevin Simpson, of Colectika and Peyote People art galleries, also explains the many Huichol symbols etched into the Malecón’s pavement. The tour ends at the lovely Galleria Pacifico, just one of the inspiring art spaces you can discover in the old town. <Click here> to go to the facebook page for the sculpture tour.

Me in Galleria Pacifico, after the sculpture tour
  • Enjoy Eclectic Flavourful Dining

Dine on the sand at La Palapa  – or high up in the hills at Casa Isabel

Eating fresh flavourful food is certainly one of the highlights of Old Puerto Vallarta. Not the same experience you will get at a resort. The variety is intoxicating – and we even enjoyed one dinner at La Dolce Vita – one of the loveliest Italian meals I have had (surpassing my Rome and Sicily trip past year. For sheer romance and dramatic setting you cant beat Casa Isabela set high in the hills overlooking the bay. And if you want to try a local Mexican food favourite a few blocks up from the promenade, check our Pipis – a bright “snowbird” favourite with wandering mariachis, gi-normous daiquiris and fresh guacamole on the house prepared at your table.

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