A brief history of the early days of Puerto Vallarta


A brief history of the early days of Puerto Vallarta

By: Profr. Juan Manuel Gómez Encarnación, chronicler of the city

Modern Puerto Vallarta is proving itself to be an important tourist destination and so much more in Mexico, and as it reaches its first 100 Years of life, its future is looking as bright as its past.

Puerto Vallarta was founded in 1851 under the name of “Las Peñas”, referring to the rocks now known as Los Arcos near Mismaloya. The flourishing mining towns of the sierra required a port to send and receive supplies, and Bahía de Banderas fit the bill.

The location of Puerto Las Peñas positioned it perfectly to take advantage of the abundance of natural resources in the region, and commerce flourished while the population grew during its first sixty years of life. Settlers from the surrounding mining towns throughout the region, including San Sebastián, Mascota and Talpa de Allende, traveled to the new port for the huge variety of goods coming into the bay from overseas. After making their purchases, the travelers loaded up their groceries, tools, machinery, clothing, furniture, wines, and luxury items on the backs of mules for the slow trek back to the mining centers and cities in the mountains.

Salt, a vital ingredient in the mining process, landed here from Las Islas Marias and other production points, and from here it, too, went uphill. Where miners took salt uphill to the mines, they returned to the playa with loads of gold and silver to be shipped from Los Muertos Beach and other points adjacent to Puerto Las Peñas. At that time the economy also revolved around the commercialization of regional resources: precious woods and dyes, coquito oil, chilte, hides of wild animals and cattle, pearls, shark and lizard skins. Clearly, commerce flourished during the Puerto Vallarta’s development.

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With the armed conflicts in early twentieth century, many people migrated from the mountains to the coast in search of safety and work. Agri-production haciendas were beginning to settle in the region and the workforce associated with them were thriving. Agriculture flourished. In fact, it formed the foundation of the economy until the seventies. Large amounts of corn, beans, and tobacco were shipped to the port of Manzanillo to be transported by rail to the national market. Tobacco was such a vital crop that agencies representing the national cigar companies were established in Las Peñas-Puerto Vallarta. As early as 1910, the National Population Census made mention of the celebrated quality and quantity of tobacco produced in “the Peñitas Valley”.

Though it had existed on the map as a ranch or village belonging to the municipality of Talpa de Allende 1886, Las Peñas clearly distinguished itself as an important community in its own right in the early twentieth century, and on May 31, 1918 the Municipality of Puerto Vallarta was officially created. Now elevated to being a true city, Puerto Vallarta could claim her name, one she shares with the acclaimed jurist and former governor of Jalisco, Don Ignacio Luis Vallarta.

Important historical milestones since the creation of the municipality of Puerto Vallarta on May 31, 1918:

Important historical milestones


The Mercantile Society Montgomery & Co., a North American company specializing in growing and exports bananas, establishes itself in present-day Ixtapa, bringing with it jobs and good wages and driving an economic bonanza that greatly influenced the culture and society of Vallarta at the time. The company withdrew operations in the mid-thirties, but left a lasting influence on the growth and development of the region by establishing Ixtapa as a modern colony with piped drinking water, drainage, prefabricated wooden houses brought from the United States, electricity, telephone and even a tennis court.


The Ejido de Puerto Vallarta was born, making it the first in the municipality with the other 14 ejidos of the municipality to follow throughout the twentieth century. This model of social ownership of land emanating from the Constitution of 1917 and established throughout the national territory, benefiting millions of peasants through the creation of schools, pantheons, urban layout, etc.

1939 – 1945

During World War II, fishing and other exploitation (shark liver oil and lizard skins,) in the bay flourished due to the sudden global demand for raw materials. The local economy also enjoyed an influx of revenue from the export of coconut oil.


During this era, the government instituted the “March to the Sea”, allowing for the creation of the Commission of Coastal Planning and launched Puerto Vallarta’s tourism career. The Mascota-Puerto Vallarta dirt road was completed in 1956, and work on the airport began that same year. In 1958 a thermoelectric plant was built to provide 24-hour energy to Puerto Vallarta and surrounding towns.


The airport was officially inaugurated in 1962. During the administration of Francisco Medina Ascencio (1965-1971) progress was made in the creation of infrastructure including the Compostela-Puerto Vallarta paved road, the Ameca river bridge, connection to the Electricity System of the West, construction of the Maritime Terminal, expansion and internationalization of the airport, paved road to Barra de Navidad, and redesign of the center of Puerto Vallarta. In 1968 the promotion of the town to the political classification of City and the creation of the Transfer Trusteeship of Puerto Vallarta-Bahía de Banderas Domain securing more than five thousand hectares for the region and allowing urban development to explode. Within this six-year term, tourism as a new model of economic development was launched encouraging great tourist companies to flock to the city, including the first modern hotel, Posada Vallarta, which opened its doors in 1964, and the first chain hotel, Camino Real, in 1969. Since then the urban, demographic and economic growth of the municipality has continued to increase exponentially.


The film “The Night of the Iguana” was filmed, drawing the eyes of the world to the small Mexican town of 7,500 inhabitants, and forever linking Puerto Vallarta with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and John Huston, at the time the biggest names in Hollywood.

1990’s – Now

Higher education in Vallarta arrived with the establishment of the ARKOS University Studies Center in 1990, the University of the Valley of Atemajac (UNIVA) in 1991, and the University Center of the Coast, part of the University of Guadalajara, in Ixtapa in 1994. The real estate trade was also booming in the region during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, but by 2008 the local (and global) economy was affected by the burst of the real estate bubble in the United States, as well as the proliferation of the influenza virus AH1N1, and the violence unleashed by the so-called “war on drugs”. Since 2013, the local economy has managed to almost completely recover thanks to the improvement of the global economy, the tourism programs and policies implemented by the federal government, and the determined businessmen of the region.

Modern Puerto Vallarta is proving itself to be an important tourist destination and so much more in Mexico, and as it reaches its first 100 Years of life, its future is looking as bright as its past.

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