by Michael J. Shapiro | December 01, 2008

puerto vallartaPuerto Vallarta has thoroughly transformed itself since John Huston's 1964 film, The Night of the Iguana, first turned this former fishing village into a tourist getaway. Now a major cruise destination on Mexico's Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta is home to an international airport, an expanded hotel zone and a marina.

But even as the city grows, the area's geography serves as a reminder of the hideaway the resort once was. The Bay of Banderas is home to quiet beaches, with the surrounding jungle and Sierra Madre mountains helping to preserve large swaths of the region's natural beauty.

The malecón, a tourist boardwalk, stretches along Vallarta's downtown toward the modern resorts of the hotel and marina zones to the north. But south of the Río Cuale, which runs through the center of the city, glimpses of the old village remain. Here taco stands, restaurants and smaller hotels line cobblestone streets, creating a uniquely Mexican backdrop.

The city's Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport completed an expansion this spring. A new US$20 million terminal was opened, serving mainly international flights. The terminal now can handle an additional 800,000 passengers per year -- a 141 percent increase in capacity. A new baggage claim system and improved immigration facilities further ease the arrival process for international attendees.

A renovated cruise port now can accommodate three large cruise ships simultaneously. The port administration also has begun construction on a new terminal and has added more docking areas for smaller tour boats. Vallarta's popularity as a cruise destination continues to grow: At press time the city was on course for a 15 percent cruise passenger increase in 2008 over last year.

Convention center
A US$43 million convention center is under construction on 42 acres near Vallarta's major hotels and just off the highway that connects the town with the airport. The 105,000-square-foot venue was slated to debut last year, but construction continues with no confirmed opening date. Plans call for a 54,000-square-foot main exhibit hall, divisible into eight rooms, as well as a theater, a cultural center and a 250,000-square-foot plaza in front of the building. Parking for 670 cars will be available, along with a bus lot for 50 coaches.

Hotel update
The Westin Resort & Spa, Puerto Vallarta is in the midst of a US$5 million makeover of all 280 of its guest rooms, to be completed by early 2009. This month the hotel also will unveil major renovations to its 16,000-square-foot convention center.

The CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta is wrapping up a US$10.7 million renovation, covering all 433 guest rooms, banquet facilities and La Estancia restaurant.

The 337-room Dreams Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa recently updated all 81 junior suites and remodeled three of its restaurants.

Verana, a rustic but exclusive eight-unit resort in the town of Yelapa, opened the Verana Day Spa in November. Spa packages include water taxi service from Puerto Vallarta to Yelapa, a 30- to 45- minute trip. Verana also can be booked for retreats and can host groups of 12 to 16.

In the region
Puerto Vallarta is in the state of Jalisco, but with its airport and excellent restaurant and shopping scene, it also is a hub for points farther north, in the state of Nayarit. Recently dubbed the "Riviera Nayarit" by the government, the coastline north of Vallarta includes many fine beaches, from the megaresorts of Nuevo Vallarta to smaller beach towns such as Punta Mita and San Francisco.