Puerto Vallarta is Mexico’s second biggest ‘Spring Break’ destination after Cancun (“Spring Break” being the annual “go to Mexico and get drunk legally” party for American college kids). Try asking a Mexican living in the state of Jalisco (North-ish/East Mexico) what they think of Puerto Vallarta and you’re likely to get the response: “It used to be such a beautiful place before the Americans found it”, ask a lot of ‘travelers’ what they think and they’re likely say it’s “too touristy”. Personally I found it an interesting place to visit. Being English, and therefore being outside of the Mexican/American relationship makes it a place that’s worth experiencing just to get a better picture of some aspects of their neighbourliness.
I visited Puerto Vallarta after spending five weeks in Guadalajara (which is Mexico’s second city, located in Jalisco), during this time I had felt a certain level of hostility towards me due to the fact that I was perceived as being a ‘Gringa’- I know this was the case because of the amount of “Hey Gringa”s that were yelled at me on a daily basis whilst walking down the street. At first I wasn’t sure whether ‘Gringa’, the female version of ‘Gringo’, was the name given to any Caucasian, or whether it was a term intended solely for Americans. I was told by some Mexican friends that it is in fact only intended for Americans- so in affect, the hostility I sometimes felt directed towards me was tied in with the fact that I was thought to be American, or as good/bad as! The name apparently dates back to the Mexican-American War (1846) when the American troops invaded and captured Mexico City. The American soldiers wore green uniforms, and the Mexicans would chant “green go”, “green go”, hence ‘Grin-go’; so it is, in its very etymology, a hostile word. The stereotype of the young ‘Spring Breaker’: hedonistic, rich, wasteful…sinful even, seems to cause some resentment.
It’s not difficult to see why the Jaliscan locals would be somewhat peeved at what is happening in Vallarta, as the Lonely Planet explains (Mexico 2002, page 471): “Formally a quaint seaside village, Puerto Vallarta has been transformed into a world famous resort city”- the locals preferred the place pre-transformation. Whilst on the coach on the way into the resort it was easy to see how rapid an extension is going on there. Billboards for new ‘luxury’ developments go on for miles and Americans overrun the place, especially at night. For someone whose only knowledge of ‘Spring Break’ is what she’s witnessed on MTV’s The Grind (a show that consisted of Americans, dancing, and bikinis), it’s quite revealing to see it all in the flesh…and boy is there flesh to be seen! On our first night my friends and I went to Carlos O’Brien’s where we were witness to a “Wet T-shirt” competition – without the t-shirts! (One contestant was Mexican- the other five were American). During our weekend we also partied the nights away at Zoo and the very classily named Bar 69. These three bars are the biggest and most popular along the main sea front and they’re all much the same: Two-for-One cocktails and alcohol fuelled dancing to Beyonce and Britney Spears. It really is big American fun, in Mexico, minus the Mexicans. I presume that the same goes on in Vallarta as in Guadalajara: indigenous, or darker skinned Mexicans have trouble getting in to the good clubs, whereas white people, especially white girls get in for free.
While in Puerto Vallarta we stayed in a Mexican friend’s family flat. It’s right in the center of town, prime location, when we arrived there was no electricity and a fine layer of dust over everything- no one from his family has been there in two years- demonstrating just how popular Vallarta is among the Mexicans who knew and loved the place until around four years ago when the place really began to change. Of course there are Mexicans who stand to make a lot of money from the rapid expansion of the resort Those who cottoned on early have prime sites in the main streets selling exclusive boat trips and real estate, these people must be raking it in. Then there are the ‘party people’ the Carlos O’Brien’s or C.O.B. crowd. As I’ve mentioned Carlos O’Brien’s is a bar, it’s a chain-bar, there are other C.O.B.’s in other resorts such as Cancun, and there are also C.O.B. shops. I traveled all around Mexico and in most places I saw Mexicans young and old in the Mexican/Irish-American C.O.B. merchandise. It’s as though dressing yourself (and your children) in C.O.B. wear makes you an officially cool, so not every Mexican rejects this fusion of Mexico and America-some literally wear it on their chests. Money talks in Vallarta, the more money you have, the best bits of the beach you live on…pebbles or sand?!?- Well that depends upon the mighty Dollar, err, I mean Peso! In my opinion, the original old centre of Vallarta is still a very pretty place with it’s square and the view looking past the distinctive church up the hill. What must be hard for the locals who knew Vallarta when it consisted of only this central area surrounded by thick jungle, “a little gem of a place”, the “prettiest along coast”, when even the sandiest beaches were accessible to anyone who managed to find them.
I’m happy I didn’t leave Puerto Vallarta out of my travels. My visit there not only made a great weekend of going out with my friends, it also helped shed some light on the seemingly complex relationship Mexicans have with their northern neighbours.