By Emma Krasov, photography by Yuri Krasov.
The most popular destination on the Mexican Riviera caters to all tastes and satisfies all lifestyles. Tourists mingle with the locals on overcrowded sandy beaches of Bahia de Banderas during the day, and at dusk every able body is walking up and down the seaside promenade El Malecon decorated with whimsical sculptures by Rafael Zamarippa, Jonas Gutierrez, Alejandro Colunga и Sergio Bustamante.
In bars open through the wee hours, discothèques and sports TV seem to coexist without much contradiction. People drink, and laugh, and dance, and kiss, and the festive summery atmosphere of an ultimate vacation destination prevails even in the dead of winter (which is happening elsewhere, of course).
Walk up one of the narrow cobblestone streets framed with blossoming bougainvillea to the top of the old town, and you’ll find an authentic residential area where local families relax in modest casas with their doors open to the cooling night air.
A stunning view of the illuminated Iglesia de Guadalupe – the city’s best known landmark and trademark – is all yours if you are one of the lucky few staying at Hacienda San Angel (haciendasanangel.com). From our private terrace my silver-anniversary husband and I could watch a flaming sunset peeking through the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe openwork dome, modeled after a crown worn by the last Empress of Mexico Carlota, Emperor Maximilian’s wife. The Emperor was appointed by Napoleon III as a result of the French intervention, and after the defeat of the French troops his short rule (1864-1867) came to a tragic end and he was executed by a firing squad of President Juarez. Carlota’s attempt to prevent his execution by pleading for help with the Pope and the royal houses of Europe proved futile. She went mad, and spent the next 60 years of her life close to her native Belgium and her late father King Leopold’s I court, never returning to Mexico. I had a chance to learn about all these fascinating historic facts while browsing the web under a full moon and to the beautiful sound of the Guadalupe’s tolling bells – not exactly conducive to a good night sleep. ‘Twas a night before Sunday, and the bells were tolling more often and more insistent than any other night, calling the faithful to the morning Mass. When a pearly dawn colored the sky behind the Carlota’s crown in powder blue and peachy pink hues, I was ready for a white tablecloth breakfast of fresh fruit and freshly baked pastries – a Hacienda treat served to guests in their rooms, balconies, terraces, or common areas by request.
Hacienda San Angel is a boutique luxury resort with a theme implied by its name. Antique religious artifacts abound in the suites, hallways, intricate stairwells, and patios of the Hacienda, owned and lovingly maintained by an ex-San-Franciscan Janice Chatterton. For years, she used to come to Puerto Vallarta on vacation, falling deeper and deeper in love with the town, and getting more and more involved with the friendly and unpretentious local community. She finally acquired a property here in 1990, and not just any property, but a villa owned by Susan Burton, Richard Burton’s wife. In times of “The Night of the Iguana” filming here (1963), with the Burtons and Elizabeth Taylor and all the “Iguana” stars present, Puerto Vallarta became an instant hit with the media. The shooting of the Tennessee Williams cult classic here brought about so much celebrity happening and gossip that it made the public aware of other things, like the abundance and beauty of local nature and culture. It ultimately put the town on the map of discriminate vacationers everywhere.
Armed with the Hollywood past of the legendary villa and with her own passion for risk-taking, Chatterton embarked on a complex design and renovation journey, buying other nearby villas to eventually create a unique hotel with its own non-denominational wedding chapel, open to the ocean breeze and the most spectacular views of the Sierra Madre mountains with a white-walled town nestled in the foothills. While entering the Hacienda from a sun-drenched dusty street, you’ll find yourself in a cool shady courtyard of a Mexican Colonial castle with tiled floors, tinkling fountains, lush potted plants and angel statues coming from every imaginable art tradition and time period.
It might look like a perfect place for someone whose time has come to think about the soul, however, the Hacienda is well-loved and booked through and through for weddings and honeymoons. With the friendliest and most helpful service provided by the concierge Juanita Gutierrez Ocegueda, reservations manager Theron Tomicki, and the rest of staff, it soon becomes obvious that in this place every guest is being treated like royalty. Add to it the overall ambience that is beyond luxurious with artwork and antique furnishings in every room, lacy bed linens and hand towels (embroidered by nuns?...), little white soaps shaped as angels, and yes, a honeymoon here would be a dream and a treasured memory.
To make a one-of-a-kind experience complete, there are three blue-tiled swimming pools on the property, a sunset observation terrace, where guests can enjoy their cocktails, and a full-service gourmet restaurant with a nightly mariachi entertainment.
During our short stay at Hacienda San Angel (don’t you just love the very sound of it?), we witnessed a young and lively California couple arranging their upcoming wedding here; silver-haired ex-pats, obviously coming to an upscale dinner at their favorite hangout; newlywed and anniversary couples, and groups of vacationers, celebrating birthdays, and just having a great time. At the soul of it all, constantly present, always calm, smiling, and hospitable, is the owner, accompanied by her pets – mostly puddle-Maltese mix little white dogs – all groomed and clean, with tiny pink bows in their unruly curls.
And then I’ve learned something that made me an instant fan of this amazing woman, as if her mesmerizing hotel creation was not enough. I’ve learned that Chatterton rescues abandoned animals and tries to find them new homes. Contributing to various local charities, she is especially active with SPCA of Puerto Vallarta, recently founded through her major involvement. We counted eight rescued dogs happily prancing around the courtyard, sleeping under antique chairs, or licking ice from a water dish, and although she said some of them were for adoption, somehow it was clear that if there wouldn’t be any takers, the dogs would not be abandoned. Not on her watch.
I’d say, Hacienda San Angel is a destination all its own, but being a thriving tourist destination, Puerto Vallarta offers plentiful shopping, culinary adventures, and fun activities. We missed a whale-watching cruise with Vallarta Adventures due to its enormous popularity, but luckily we made it to the Dolphin Adventure, offered by the same company (vallarta-adventures.com).
Dolphin image by Daniel Romero, courtesy Vallarta Adventures.
Swimming with dolphins has been one of my long-standing dreams, but I didn’t expect it happening in a pool, and that life jackets were required. My slight disappointment didn’t last. After a five-minute orientation, when we made an acquaintance with Nemo and Ali, 3 and 5-year-old. grey dolphins, all children and adults in our group were laughing and having a great time. Trainer Carolina explained to us that dolphins can start training at the age of one, and learn all the basic tricks. Nemo and Ali obviously mastered the art of pleasing tourists splendidly, offering hugs and kisses, rides across the pool, and showing off their acrobatic prowess. Being kissed by dolphins is like getting a smack over the head with a pair of rubber galoshes, but it’s okay. Dolphins can express a range of positive emotions, maybe not as much toward the tourists as toward their beloved trainer who never fails to reward their efforts with a handful of silvery fish. From Vallarta Adventures it was a short distance to the Puerto Vallarta airport, and by night we were back to our rainy San Francisco. It appeared that we managed to do a lot during our weekend trip, and even get an enviable tan.