History of Puerto Vallarta
view of Puerto Vallarta

The years up through the 16th century comprise a rather gray area of Puerto Vallarta's history. All signs point to the existence of indigenous cultures along the coast long before its "discovery" by Europeans, yet little evidence remains of these early civilizations.

The starting point for Puerto Vallarta's history is essentially in the 1500's, when the area with its sweeping bay was discovered by Spaniards. The bay - soon named the Bahía de las Banderas (Bay of Flags) - served as a refuge for sailors during rough weather, but also harbored pirates waiting to prey upon passing Spanish galleons loaded with supplies and treasures.

However, despite frequent presence off its shores, the land remained overwhelmingly undeveloped until the mid-19th century, when - in 1851 - Don Guadalupe Sánchez Torres and his family came and made their home by the mouth of the Río (River) Cuale. Farmers and fisherfolk soon followed, and a small port village named Las Peñas was established just north of the river. Thriving on agriculture and fishing, the village expanded and in 1918, the settlement was renamed Vallarta after former Jalisco governor Ignacio Luis Vallarta.

Tourism, which is Puerto Vallarta's main industry today, didn't begin its reign until the 1950's. Mexicana Airlines, which had been shut out from the tourist destination Acapulco, launched a major promotional campaign and initiated the very first flights to Puerto Vallarta, at that point still a relatively unknown port village. Planes landed on a dirt strip located in what is now the bustling city center.

When director John Huston chose one of Puerto Vallarta's sun-soaked beaches as a filming site for The Night of the Iguana, the town also became the site for one of the most glamorous affairs in Hollywood history. Elizabeth Taylor flew down to be with lover Richard Burton, who was starring in the film along with Ava Gardner. The paparazzi, always interested in a scandalous story, followed and thrust Puerto Vallarta into the international spotlight practically overnight. Learn more: Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor.

The exposure sparked a major expansion of Puerto Vallarta as tourists, drawn to the location's Hollywood history and word-of-mouth reputation for stunning natural beauty, began booking trips. Now home to approximately 150,000 residents, the stylish city is fueled by its booming tourism industry, welcoming about 1.5 million visitors each year.

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