02/26/2013 07:06 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Rosita Lights 65 Candles In Puerto Vallarta

In the lobby of the Hotel Rosita in Puerto Vallarta there's a mural of what this Mexican beach resort looked like when the hotel was built in 1948. There wasn't much there, mainly a church, some homes scattered on hillsides above the village, the 12-room Rosita, and a short cobblestone walkway from the hotel to an arcaded plaza.


Puerto Vallarta in 1948.

According to local chronista (historian) Manuel Encarnacion, about 7,000 people lived around the city in the late '40s, mostly fishing families. "The town," he said, "stretched out for about 12 blocks, looking much like it did when the whole world saw it in John Huston's 1963 film, "Night of the Iguana."

It turned out to be much more than a movie. Besides featuring a cast of superstars, among them Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, the filming was spiced by an off-screen romance between Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who'd followed him to Mexico. When word of this got out -- both were married to other people at the time -- the scandal made headlines around the globe.

Soon, hundreds of reporters were on the scene, straining to catch a glimpse of the couple cavorting between their secluded villas in an area of town known as "Gringo Gulch." Between snippets of Dick and Liz, the media sweetened its coverage with shots of the city's sundrenched beaches and the old-world charm of its cobbled lanes and colonial architecture.

Puerto Vallarta got millions of dollars worth of free publicity, and it hasn't been the same since.

As more and more tourists began showing up at "PV" (as the locals call it), developers began building posh hotels around the city and along the beaches edging its immense, crescent-shaped bay. Early entrants in the '60s were the Posada Vallarta (now part of Dreams Resorts) and the Camino Real (now part of the Krystal chain), recalls Encarnacion.


The Now-Amber and Secrets hotels (shown above) are among hundreds of properties lining Banderas Bay.

Fast-forward to today, and PV is one of Mexico's most-visited resorts, its beaches lined by some 300 high-rise hotels and boutique inns all told offering close to 23,000 rooms. It's now home to more than a quarter of a million people.

And what had been "a short cobblestone walkway" from the Rosita in 1948 is now PV's crown jewel: a mile-long beachfront promenade called the Malecon. Spruced up over the Iast few years at a cost of millions of dollars, the Malecon is packed with wall-to-wall art galleries, upscale jewelry and leather shops, tony restaurants, outdoor cafes and quirky bars.


Tourist checks out native Huichol artwork on the Malecon.

Visitors wandering around the shops are treated to dozens of whimsical artworks peppering the beach side of the promenade. Gracing the sands are everything from Star Wars "Wookiee" characters to statues of giant seahorses, mermaids, jumbo-sized seashells, dancing dolphins and surrealistic high-backed chairs with sea critters sitting in them. Some of the works are by famous Mexican artists Sergio Bustamante, Alejandro Colunga and PV's own Manuel Lepe.


Venerable Hotel Rosita is a PV landmark.

Right at the main entrance to the Malecon is the 112-room Rosita, now the oldest resort hotel in PV. Named after builder Salvador Gonzalez' wife, the hotel was enlarged a few times over the years, but it stayed on its original site.

"Little did (the builder) know that the Rosita would some day have such a wonderful location," said Marcelo Alcaraz, the hotel's general manager.

Images by Bob Schulman

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