- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — I am in the sky flitting between trees on a zip wire suspended horizontally, wearing rope climber’s gear above a churning river and jungle greenery far below.

If I move my legs or turn my head to look at the ground 200 feet down, I risk throwing my body off course and slowing the momentum that is propelling me across the chasm at 35 mph.

Looking down is not a good thing.

If my momentum is arrested, nothing electrical or mechanical is available to help me reach the metal platform on a far-distant tree. I must then take my sweat-soaked palms off the short handlebar — a steering system of sorts attached to the wire — and, reversing position, pull myself manually to safety while trying to keep my legs together for balance.

At some point, the distance between the ground and wire is about equal to the height of the Golden Gate Bridge from road surface to sea.

Careening Tarzan-like through the Sierra Madre may not be everyone’s idea of a vacation thrill, but the sport, or experience, has taken off in a big way in Latin climes. I have come this afternoon with a group of travel writers to experience the Canopy Tours de Los Veranos on Mexico’s west coast just outside Puerto Vallarta. The business, which is not likely to become a Disneyland feature, was opened last year by American entrepreneur Jeff Coates, who previously raised reindeer in Colorado for use in Hollywood movies.

Well, maybe on a fantasy level there is some Disney quality about the trip. Therapists also might recommend it as a way of helping patients overcome their fear of heights. After all, you pay for the pleasure, if you wish to call it that, even if your heart beats faster than usual throughout. The side benefits are a number of botany tips garnered along the way, including a view of the so-called cancer-prevention plant and the so-called laxative tree. All in all, there’s a diverse panoply in this canopy in a true ecological preserve.

Further, the sensation will make a tourist forever grateful for the less adventurous but immensely satisfying treats to be had elsewhere on Mexico’s terra firma. Nothing stops the Mexicans when they want to entertain you, be it as a sensation seeker or a simple beachcomber.

Both can find a home in spirited “PV,” the locals’ affectionate nickname for the place. Anti-American prejudice, if it exists, is considered impolite these days when more tourists than ever are deserting the Mediterranean for the delights of Mexico. Hospitality here took a new turn with the advent of the war in Iraq. A number of Puerto Vallarta resorts and hotels are offering special rates and packages for members of the U.S. military and presumably any coalition military members during the remainder of the year.

Sons of the fishermen who once hawked fresh fish on sticks through PV’s streets have become computer programmers, but at least some traditions are being observed. Downtown retains much low-key village charm in defiance of suburban sprawl on the outskirts, where Wal-Mart has taken root.

The bay on which Puerto Vallarta sits is a wonder — the seventh-largest in the world, a vast sweep of blue-gray tones bordered by mountains. The malecon, or boardwalk along the sea, is a kaleidoscopic delight at night with its round of jugglers, entertainers, families strolling arm in arm.

Conveniences generally are in good repair. The Marriott hotel where our group stayed is a vast open-air terra-cotta palace several miles from the center and boasts that its water, and ice, are “filtered, purified, and chlorinated” to reassure all who might doubt. At least one airline is betting on the allure of old (i.e. charm) and new (i.e. efficiency). During the peak winter season, Northwest has a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport via Memphis, Tenn. The connection is easy and well-timed.

Artists’ studios tucked away back on the hilly streets are available for visiting through such reliable guides as the Galleria Pacifico, whose owner, Gary Thompson, formerly of Bellingham, Wash., conducts a walk-around the first Tuesday of every month. No art museums exist yet, but some 20 art galleries are in operation, and artists abound.

One of these is cosmopolitan, civic-minded sculptor Ramiz Barquet, who at 83 still produces bronze works for sale. A Mexican citizen born of Lebanese immigrant parents, he trained in Montreal and is best-known locally for the outsized works that line the seafront, especially the two poignant, slightly surrealistic figures called “Nostalgia.”The sculpture is a memento to the site where Mr. Barquet proposed to the woman who is now his wife. They had renewed an acquaintance begun four decades earlier, during which time the pair had married others, and only found one another by accident when he was in his mid-70s.

Boutiques aplenty satisfy the needs of shop-aholics and savvy consumers. They include Ava, a delightful shoe and jewelry store that sells one-of-a-kind espadrilles made in France of special decorative fabric. An artful crafts center, Alfareria Tlquepaque, sells beadwork by the region’s Huichol Indians. Artisans frequently ply their crafts outside hotel courtyards by the sea at night.

The growth of the city is impressive considering that slightly more than 30 years ago, the only access was by sea or by a small airplane. The weekend I visited, our hotel was the chosen site for a convention of Corona beer distributors worldwide. The bar didn’t lack quality tequila brands and drinks, either. PV is in the state of Jalisco, home to tequila, which is made from the agave plant.

The city has acquired a reputation for its culinary offerings as well. One of the most memorable desserts in my life was prepared by the Marriott chef and consisted of a combination of guava fruit and nuts in a corn leaf, served with a dash of tequila.

Granted, prices can be high even by American standards, but a person can have a full evening of buffet and folk-dance entertainment in the Playa los Arcos Hotel that I saw advertised for $13 one Saturday.

An especially invigorating leisurely pursuit is sitting with a margarita or daiquiri at Daiquiri Dick’s on the beach where executive chef Rafael Nazario can entertain you with his global adventures. Author of a bilingual cookbook titled “Sand in Your Shoes,” he has cooked to rave notices from Hollywood to Japan. Evenings, you might catch him playing piano at Cafe des Artistes, an extravagantly landscaped hillside restaurant of note.

Food lovers take note: The ninth Puerto Vallarta Gourmet Festival will be held Nov. 13 through 23. Details are spelled out at www.festivalgourmet.com.

Sand-huggers venturing out for a meal will enjoy the city’s oldest beach-side restaurant, called the Palapa, named for the magnificent palm-frond umbrellas overhead. Patrons literally can dine out barefoot on sumptuous food within feet of Banderas Bay. A smaller but no less revered bistro is the Xitomates, taken from the word for tomato in Aztec.

More modern in feel is the upstart Cafe Bianco, as sleek as a South Beach, Miami, hot spot, with a balcony room over the river that divides Puerto Vallarta in two. The recherche might prefer Kaiser Maximilian, named for the former Austrian duke who was emperor of Mexico under Napoleon III until he was executed for embracing social reform.

When stomachs are full, the spirit kicks in. The spiritually inclined will appreciate Terra Noble Art & Healing Center a creatively landscaped complex that overlooks the bay from a ridge of the lower Sierra Madre just outside town. Begun 10 years ago by Mexican-born Jorge Rubio, the retreat is a day spa offering 17 body treatments and courses in Mayan clay sculpture. The energetic Mr. Rubio, who calls himself a “lifestyle designer,” plans to have guest quarters available in simple rounded adobes on the property by the end of the year. Look for the car carved out of clay at the entrance and then take in the imaginatively recycled materials that warranted him notice in the pages of Architectural Digest.

It’s probably inevitable that visitors wonder about celebrity sightings ever since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had their tryst in the 1960s during the filming of “Night of the Iguana.” By choosing this relatively unknown territory, John Huston put Puerto Vallarta on the map. He liked it so much that he stayed on long afterward. A statue in his memory can be found in a town square.

The house where Elizabeth Taylor stayed, now called Casa Kimberley, has become a sort of bed-and-breakfast establishment, and the bridge connecting their residences is fully visible. The Burton house opposite is rumored to be on the market for $500,000. Peter O’Toole was around for a time as well. More recently, “Predator” with Arnold Schwarzenegger was shot in nearby jungle.

Film buffs are free to invent their own cinematic sortie; I saw no advertised tours along those lines. Doubtless residents are tired of the fuss and, apart from its advantage to real estate agents, would rather visitors appreciate the lure of their natural environs.

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