The history of Puerto Vallarta is a rather unique one when compared to other resort beach towns in Mexico. Due to its geographical location where a river meets a bay, Puerto Vallarta was a successful trading village long before the arrival of the movie stars.
Part III of this guide to Puerto Vallarta covers the history of Puerto Vallarta, so that you can better understand this wonderful city.
The only evidence from prehispanic Puerto Vallarta comes to us from archeology. Digs have unearthed evidence that suggests the area has been continuously inhabited since 580 B.C.E.
A name has been put to the people who lived in the region from 900 C.E. to 1200 C.E.—the Aztlan civilization. They seem to have settled in the region that now engulfs parts of the states of Jalisco, Michoacan, and Nayarit.
Spanish documents from conquistadors and missionaries tell of skirmishes between the native inhabitants and the colonial settlers. In 1524, Hernan Cortes led his forces against an army of indigenous warriors numbering in the tens of thousands. The Spaniards triumphed over the native army, thus taking control over much of the Ameca Valley which encompasses Puerto Vallarta today.
The Spaniards renamed the bay Bahia de Banderas after the colorful flags the natives had fought under.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, sailing logs depict the Bahia de Banderas as a coastal center for trade. It’s ideal location and temperate natural harbor made it a heavily contested bay, and documents from the era hold accounts of pirates struggling against the efforts of the government under the viceroy of Mexico.
During the 19th Century, Puerto Vallarta was known under two names: El Carrizal and Las Peñas. It was the nearby town of Mascota that dominated the region as the second-largest city in Jalisco after Guadalajara. As Mascota grew, the surrounding regions grew with it.
Mining villages in la Sierra provided a steady flow of wealth, and Puerto Vallarta soon established itself as a service port for the riches extracted from these mines. Smuggling operations were also prolific in Puerto Vallarta in an effort to evade taxes on the valuable minerals.
However, most notably, the Sierra towns sought to vacation in Puerto Vallarta. It seems that as early as the 1800s, vacation goers basked in the idyllic setting of the beachside port. The earliest settlers seemed to be villagers from these mining communities who had decided to leave their lives in the mountains to reside in Puerto Vallarta.
The official founding of Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe (which would come to be known as Puerto Vallarta) was on December 12, 1851. The seaside town was inhabited by smugglers, foragers, pearl divers, and fishermen. Within the next thirty years, the town would grow to house 800 residents in 250 homes.
It wasn’t until 1918 that the city was renamed after the state governor Ignacio Vallarta. It was at this time that the region was also granted status as a municipality of Mexico. Before this time, an American named Alfred Geist owned much of Puerto Vallarta, and only sold large lots at exorbitant prices. Once the municipality was established, the citizens of the region petitioned the government for land reform under the provisions of the new constitution.
By 1921, land grants known as ejidos were divided into plots of land for farming. This would stunt the growth of Puerto Vallarta until the 1960s.
During the Cristero War, the city was taken and retaken twice, prompting the Mexican government to establish a garrison in the city near the mouth of the Cuale River. These garrisons were responsible for planting the palm trees that now permeate Puerto Vallarta, in an effort to curb the erosion of the beaches during heavy rains.
At this time, the mines in the Sierra dried up and many of the miners resettled in Puerto Vallarta, thus the village experienced a large population boom. In 1932, electrical infrastructure was built, and plumbing systems were installed.
In the 1950s, Puerto Vallarta began to attract a substantial American population. Known as Gringo Gulch, the areas in the hills above the Centro were inhabited by writers and artists that had come to indulge in the lifestyle Puerto Vallarta has to offer.
In 1964, John Huston filmed the movie The Night of the Iguana starring Elizabeth Taylor. This put Puerto Vallarta on the map, and the actress’ enchantment with the city helped to draw tourists to the region.
This prompted the Mexican government to reevaluate the ejido status of the property in Puerto Vallarta. In 1973, portions of land were available for purchase as private property, which reinvigorated the population boom.
Also, the Mexican government invested heavily in infrastructure in hopes of making Puerto Vallarta an attractive destination for American and Canadian tourists. One of the major projects was the construction of an international airport in the city.
The increase in population allowed for Puerto Vallarta to be granted official status as a Mexican city, and then Mexican President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz even met with American President Richard Nixon in 1970.
As the population grew, resort hotel development took off with massive construction projects that have come to shape the city into what it is today. Though there was a stark disparity between the conditions of the resort hotels and the neighborhoods where locals lived, many Mexicans still flocked to the area in search of work.
The economic boom experienced in Puerto Vallarta has lasted until this day. Tourists and expats still inhabit the region, leaving a mark on the culture of the city. In 1993, federal Agrarian Laws were amended to allow for more foreign investment in the region, and since then, condominiums have sprouted to accommodate the influx of tourists, expats, and locals alike.
Overall, Puerto Vallarta has captured the imagination of people across the planet, helping to firmly establish it as one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico, if not the world.
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For several years, Rafael has been crafting articles to help expats and nomads in their journey abroad. He takes great pride in meticulously researching the ins-and-outs of bureaucratic processes in different countries around the world. A digital nomad for almost a decade, Rafael also enjoys exploring cultural phenomena in his articles to better help expats and nomads assimilate. If you have any questions or issues with the content of an article, he’s the one to contact for further information.