During the first part of the 1800s, at the mouth of the Cuale River—then inhabited primarily by crocodiles—there were practically no human dwellers. Between the rugged sierra, the ocean and the powerful Ameca river, this beautiful piece of Mexican geography remained isolated from the rest of the world. The hubs of economic activity were up in the mountains, in the towns of Cuale, San Sebastián and Mascota, where silver mines abounded but where salt, an essential element for processing the metal, was not to be found.

In 1851 Guadalupe Sánchez, a boatman from Cihuatlán who used to bring salt from San Blas or the Marías islands to Los Muertos beach, became weary of waiting for the muleteers to come and pick up the load. Sometimes it would take them days to reach this solitary spot. As he was still a young man of 19 and had just married, Guadalupe saw it fit to establish himself in this beautiful place he would call Las Peñas. This, in a few words, could very well be the story of the founding of what we now know as Puerto Vallarta.

1914 – 1935
The discovery of a lesser kind of silver in the United States brought down the price of the metal and old prosperity became affliction. The miners from the mountain townships left their recently acquired trade to go back to agriculture. But now they chose the fertile valley of the Ameca River, so rich it produced three corn harvests per year. The area was not only self-sufficient, it yielded enough surplus to be sold in other markets of the country. As there were no roads out of Las Peñas, the produce was sent on boats by way of Manzanillo and Mazatlán. In 1918, through the efforts of its population, Las Peñas was granted the title of municipality as well as a new name: Puerto Vallarta.

It was in these days that the rush for “green gold” (the unripe bananas grown and exported to the USA by the Montgomery Fruit Company) brought economic well-being to the neighboring community of Ixtapa until 1935. By then the enforcement of land ownership laws promoted through the Revolution entailed the repossessing of 26,000 hectares of American citizen Joseph Montgomery’s. This would end the intensive agricultural phase of old Puerto Vallarta.

1935 – 1949
From the land, Vallartans turned their eyes toward the ocean, where they found a new source of wealth in sharks. From the waters of B
anderas Bay, their fins ended up on the tables of Chinese restaurants in New York. Also, during the Second World War, shark liver oil was given as a nutritional supplement to American soldiers. A new horde of immigrants benefited from this trade—especially fishing cooperative La Rosita—until world peace was declared in the mid-’40s.

It was during this decade, precisely 1942, when what could very well be the first formal promotion of Vallarta abroad appeared as an ad in “Modern Mexico,” a magazine published in New York. The text in the sixth-of-a-page ad offered a flight from Guadalajara to a “primitive place of hunting and fishing” and is signed by the Fierro brothers, founders of the first airline service in the community.

1950 – 1959
On the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding, Vallarta celebrated in earnest. The marriage of Doña Margarita Mantecón, from a well-established Vallartan family, to a counselor of Mexican president Miguel Alemán’s ensured the splendor of the festivities. From who-knows-where, three ships arrived in the bay to salute the town with 21 firings of the cannon. In addition, three planes landed at
Los Muertos, packed with reporters and cameramen. Anybody who went to the movies during those days saw for the first time on the screen the landscape and the faces of Puerto Vallarta. It is possible that, sitting among those moviegoers, Fernando Freddy Romero, charmed by what he saw, decided to come to paradise, arriving the year of the centennial. Against the opinion of most well-to-do Vallartans, whose architectural taste leaned toward modern designs and construction materials, Freddy defended and finally imposed the “Vallarta style”.

With white-washed adobe facades, pitched roofs covered in red tiles, decorative wrought-iron grids and stone walls, Freddy’s houses seemed to look back toward the past to recapture the atmosphere of a typical Mexican village forsaken by progress. Sitting at the Océano hotel bar—favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike—Freddy would draw his houses on paper napkins. On the building site, he would actually paint on the ground the perimeter of the different rooms and mark their function with big letters—a “k” for the kitchen, a “b” for the bedroom. Following this technique he built such homes as Caracol, Casa de la “O”, Los Arcos, Las Campanas (the first bungalows in PV) and John Huston’s getaway in Caletas, among other buildings still standing. But, what was the attraction of this godforsaken town, where basic human comforts such as electrical power were lacking, that seduced intellectuals and artists from the United States and Mexico? It was probably the same as today – its beauty and its people.

On November 11, 1954, Mexicana de Aviación airline inaugurated its Guadalajara-Puerto Vallarta flight. Aeronaves de México (Aeroméxico) had enjoyed the monopoly of the route to Acapulco, but Mexicana found in Puerto Vallarta a destination to compete with the famous bay in Guerrero. Visitors started coming in from other Mexican towns and from abroad. Among them, Guillermo Wulff—a Mexico City engineer—and famous movie director John Huston, who wrote, “When I first came here, almost 30 years ago, Vallarta was a fishing village of some 2000 souls. There was only one road to the outside world—and it was impassable during the rainy season. I arrived in a small plane, and we had to buzz the cattle off a field outside town before setting down.”